Occasional doubt is a part of a healthy Christian faith

September 25, 2014

Not long ago, I had a parishioner who was suffering from a mysterious ailment that doctors didn’t quite know how to treat. Three times he had shown signs of improvement, was sent home, only to suffer a relapse and return to the hospital. It was frustrating and worrisome, to say the least.

I visited him several times during this two- or three-week period of his being in and out of the hospital. At the end of each visit, as is my custom, I held hands and prayed with him and any friends or family present.

Once, while I was preparing to pray, I had this internal dialogue with God: “Why am I bothering? You’re not going to do anything, no matter what I pray. Do you know how bad this is making you look? Do you  know how bad this makes me look?” (I’m vain and self-centered even in my prayers.) “This is why my atheist friends don’t believe in you. We pray and pray and pray and nothing happens.”

Yes, friends, yours truly has thoughts like these sometimes.

On another occasion, during a dark moment of self-doubt about my vocation, a friend of mine tried to cheer me up: “I admire you for all the sacrifices you’ve made. You gave up a successful career… money… prestige. Most people wouldn’t have the guts to do that.”

Immediately I thought—without saying out loud—”Yeah, I hope Christianity turns out to be true. Otherwise I’ve wasted my life!” I am “of all men most to be pitied,” as the Apostle rightly understood.

My point in sharing this is to say that I completely understand what Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, meant when he was asked recently if he ever doubts:

Yes I do. I mean there are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Where is God? The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘This is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

The press in Britain had a field day with this, as if the archbishop were admitting something shocking. One headline read, “Archbishop of Canterbury doubts the existence of God.”

Oh, brother! Only someone who doesn’t practice the Christian faith could imagine that Christians never doubt.

As Archbishop Cranmer puts it:

If those who bring us the news and the majority of those who consume it had any idea what the Bible says, they would see that doubt is a continually recurring theme. The Psalms are full of it:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1,2)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1,2)

But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. (Psalm:88:13-15)

Great heroes from the pages of the Bible, including King David, Elijah, Job and ‘doubting’ Thomas had desperate moments of questioning God. John the Baptist had a major crisis of faith regarding Jesus’ divinity, despite having waited his adult life to baptise him as the Messiah. Even Jesus had his moment of turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So Justin Welby is in good company. He is doing little more than being frankly honest about his relationship with God. There are things he finds wonderful about his faith and others he finds frustrating and challenging. He is not trying to pretend to be something he isn’t and most Christians will find his words resonating with their own experiences.

Glenn Peoples also says it well in this post:

As it turns out, the story could have just as easily (although not as tantalisingly – or smoothly) been called “Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has some thoughts and feelings every now and then that most normal Christians have, nothing to see here.” But there is something to see here, and it’s this: Doubt is a normal part of a committed Christian faith. Not all the time, of course, but anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mature, thoughtful Christian or else they don’t want to admit it…

Doubt can exist for a variety of reasons (usually more emotional than strictly rational), and the denial of doubt is foolishness. A faith that has never been exposed to real doubt at all must surely be weaker (or I insist, at very least much less mature) than a faith that has come out the other side of episodes of long, dark doubt that relentlessly occupies the whole mind. I have no authority over the church, but if I did I would insist that a person is only considered eligible for ministry if they have experienced that sort of doubt. You’ll need that experience when a member of your church approaches you and tells you they’re having doubts and you don’t want to respond like the idiot who says “come now, where is your faith?” How will you know how to answer the question of how to come back from soul-crushing doubt and set your eyes on what you know to be true if you’ve never had to do it? Of course it would be a mistake to automatically respond to doubt as though it were a rationally compelling factor in itself, and so to give up belief, taking the path (at that moment) of least emotional resistance. But depicting the faith as a place where serious doubt simply doesn’t happen is madness.

5 Responses to “Occasional doubt is a part of a healthy Christian faith”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I don’t know that all mature Christians necessarily have sessions of doubt. Certainly I went through doubt myself (or, more like rejection) due to theological difficulties (among other things) for an extended period (almost ten years!). Since then, I have had no doubts about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity in general, and I think a lot of other Christians have not had doubts in that sense or to that degree. My problem presently is doubt as to a specific biblical “promise” (if that is what it is), which may be the more common experience of doubting. In my case, “All things work together for good….” Presently things in my life and my immediate family’s life appear more headed in the direction of disaster (as perhaps the Psalmist was complaining of). Of course, who knows how things can “turn around,” but I can only see what I can see and deduce the “probabilities” of continuation in that downhill direction. Personally, I am not so sure that verse is a “promise” as opposed to a “probability,” and also I think even “promises” can be “conditional” (even if not explicitly stated that way). Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and then all these things shall be added unto you.” In other words, I think past and present sins can cause such “promises” or probabilities to “not apply” in specific cases. Maybe I will be proven wrong as to the one or the other! We will have to see.

    (A possible biblical example occurs to me. King David. Everything was going uphill (more or less) until Bathsheba. Then: “You will not die. But, because you have done this, and given occasion to the heathen to blaspheme, the child that is born to you will die, and the sword will never depart from your house.” As part of which outworking David is brought to the point of saying, “O Absalom, Absalom, my son, my son! Would God I had died instead of thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” So, you can see the issue of my “doubt” on this point.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Tom. I know you’re dealing with some tough stuff. If you ever want to talk, email me, and I’ll give you my number.

      I think Romans 8:28 is always true, in the sense that God is always bringing good from bad as part of his providential care. But that can’t mean that God usually (or ever?) overrides our free will to sin, for instance. And when we do, God often lets us suffer the consequences. But even the suffering of consequences can be good for those of us who “called according to his purpose.”

      I guess I’m saying that I believe that Romans 8:28 is a matter, sometimes, of God’s making the best of a bad situation. And in the end, even that bad situation will serve some purpose.

      • brentwhite Says:

        And, yes, I think the kind of doubt you are dealing with is usually the kind of doubt that all Christians occasionally face—not so much doubt about the existence of God.

        In my sermon tomorrow, I’m going to have to talk about this kind of doubt in relation to David and Goliath. For all I know, Saul and the Israelites didn’t doubt God’s existence, but they certainly doubted his power to bring victory. It takes a child, a mere teenager, to see through this inconsistency in their faith.

  2. Richard McGee Says:

    I’ve experienced doubt even though I’ve witnessed miracles by GOD, which He used to bring me to faith. I’ve written down these miracles, and I read them when I experience doubt, and the doubt is effectively removed.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I think I know what you mean. While I haven’t experienced miracles per se, I have had unmistakable encounters with Christ—spiritually—that have sustained me during times of doubt.


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