Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Denial of Doubt: Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic

This post is a long time in the making, almost as long as the providence series, and very close to my heart. I've been exploring the question: what place does skepticism have in the Christian faith? How should faith and doubt coexist in believers? What does it mean to be, as I sometimes call myself, a "faithful skeptic"?

The denial of doubt

I think in our culture religion and skepticism are seen as opposite extremes, with skepticism strongly associated with atheism and an anti-religion agenda. In the same way, because faith and doubt are considered to be antonyms, doubt is often considered inappropriate for Christians to embrace in any capacity. In the American Christian subculture there is a "denial of doubt". Doubt is ignored or not frequently spoken of; when it is spoken of it is often simply as an aside to demonstrate that Christians aren't crazy or blind in their faith ("I still struggle with doubt"), and it is also portrayed as insignificant compared to the overwhelming weight of God's grace and glory.

I think this is especially prevalent in evangelical Christianity that so often concerns itself with "movements" or large gatherings that are all "go" and no "stop and think it over". So often, the face of Christianity I hear preached in church, see taught in classes, and even show to my Sunday School kids is all confidence, no doubt. If you dare to doubt God in the face of the clear teaching of scripture and all the amazing things He has done for you, the thinking goes, it's because in some way your heart is sinful, hardened, spiritually blind to His promises. In other words, there is something wrong with you. Your doubt is invalid. For instance, doubt that God is really "for" you--just pray and meditate on Romans 8:31 until you feel better and repent of your doubt!

So for years I shared in this denial of doubt. I brushed aside serious, unanswered questions of faith as mistaken or irrelevant and tried my best to take up the deep, strong faith of those I saw around me (does this sound like you?). When I kept failing at this, I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Finally, a year ago I came across the question of God's truthfulness, which I wrote about in my essay "The God Who Seeks Us". I couldn't ignore it, not forever; it demanded to be answered like an impossibly heavy weight on my soul, and my faith began buckling and weakening under it--but not really my faith, apparently, but the manufactured illusion of faith I'd been putting on for years. It felt like a slow process of dying. One result of struggling with this and other questions was that it taught me to embrace my doubt, confront it, and try to answer it rather than simply denying it or applying a "Bible band-aid".

Today's word: diakrino

I'll have to put those last two paragraphs in my testimony someday. The question I want to look into now is: what is doubt, and what is its value to Christians? Word study time: in the New Testament, there are a few words that translate to "doubt", "doubts", or "doubted".
  • διαλογισμος (dialogismos) is the word we get the English "dialogue" from; unsurprisingly, it means to dialog, deliberate, or carefully reason about what is true, within oneself or with someone else, and is more commonly translated simply as "thoughts".
  • δισταζω (distazo) is only used twice, in Matthew 14:31 and 28:17, and is used to refer to the disciples somehow doubting in Jesus.
  • The most common one, διακρινω (diakrino), has a variety of connotations besides "doubt" such as judging, weighing, or discerning; making a distinction or distinguishing between things; or even striving or contending.
From this, it seems that "doubt" certainly can consist in a sinful refusal to believe, particularly in the instances of distazo. (The disciples somehow doubting in the risen Jesus) But it can also mean more of an internal dialogue, weighing, questioning, or process of reasoning--in short, simply not being sure of something, or having unanswered questions. And doubting in the sense of judging or discerning is valuable, even commanded. In 1 Corinthians, Paul questions if the Corinthian church has anyone wise enough to judge disputes between them (6:5), speaks of the need to judge oneself before taking communion (11:29,31), and says that prophecies should be weighed by others (14:29). The author of Hebrews says that spiritually mature people constantly train themselves and practice in distinguishing good from evil. (5:14; the word is diakrisis) These examples are speaking of doubt that is good and necessary for the functioning of the church--the kind of shrewdness Jesus commands in Matthew 10:16. Being a Christian does not mean checking your brain or critical faculties in!

One other really important detail is found in Matthew 27:46: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is huge: while dying on the cross, Jesus expressed doubt in His father (and, according to trinitarian theology, in Himself). This doesn't mean that when we're having a rough life we should fret and worry that God has forsaken us; the crucifixion was unique in that God did forsake His Son by "[making] him who had no sin to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21), and I think this was what Jesus was dreading even more than the physical ordeal. But if Jesus was able to express His raw pain and confusion to God, we must conclude that it is acceptable for believers to do the same.

Is doubt bad?

My argument is that this "healthy doubt", consisting of continual discerning, judging, questioning, and above all, being open and honest, is distinct from the "bad doubt" that is regularly contrasted as the opposite of faith (Matthew 21:21, James 1:6, Romans 4:20, among many others). I think references like these are at the root of the faith-doubt dichotomy at work in American Christianity; simply taking from them the universal command for Christians to have faith and never doubt, and then use that to justify the denial of doubt, is a dangerous oversimplification.

To see what I mean, consider others of Jesus' ethical imperatives--to care for the poor, to avoid committing adultery in your heart, even to go and make disciples. All of these commands are good and righteous, but most Christians are smart enough to know that trying to legalistically follow them above all else goes disastrously against the whole point of God becoming flesh--because we could not obey His commands and the more we tried, the farther from God we became. If we elevate any of the commandments in importance above the first (to love God) and second (to love your neighbor), the result is unhealthy, maybe even deadly. Why, then, do we so often forget this with the command to have faith and not doubt?

The fact is, every follower of Jesus will at some point have trouble believing some of His words, whether on a purely intellectual level or on a deeper, heart level. If we simply deny or dismiss these doubts as sin to be repented of, laid at Christ's feet, and forgotten, we leave a stumbling block between us and God that keeps us from loving Him as fully as we could and should, and so we put the commandment not to doubt before the command to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. It's very hard to wholeheartedly follow God when you have very (to you) credible and real doubts that He might be a compulsive liar, or a murderer of children, or not real. In the right ordering of these commandments, we will honestly, openly ask the questions that come between us and God, allowing Him to work through them with us until they are obstacles no more. Of course doubt isn't good when pursued for its own sake, but it's worth being recognized as real and treated seriously.

Those last two paragraphs were really special because they were completely off my outline and almost seemed to write themselves. What I originally planned to do next was to try to define "bad" doubt. Is there a kind of doubt that does simply need to be repented of and cast aside? I would say yes, but I don't think "bad" doubt usually manifests itself as such, as doubt or questioning. More often we sinfully doubt in something we claim to intellectually believe without objection--such as that God "gives generously to all without finding fault". (James 1:6) Or the meaning of diakrino as hesitation or vacillation--not obeying or dragging your feet when God plainly points you toward obedience in something (see Acts 10:20). This kind of doubt is inextricably tied in with sin and is most often something we are unconscious or unaware of.

Doubt as healthy and necessary

I've been reading a challenging and fascinating book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, by David Dark, a high school English teacher, which he describes an enlightening exchange where he asked his students to define the word "agnostic". The answers he got were "Someone who doesn't want to believe" and "Someone who chooses not to believe". These are both descriptions of someone who is doubting in a sinful sense--actually refusing to believe, consciously or unconsciously resisting God's pulling at their hearts. But this is not a description of most agnostics. He goes on to argue that a better definition is "Someone who doesn't know" and that, in a sense, he and his students are all agnostics.

It's surprisingly hard for me to come up with a concise definition of "doubt", but simply admitting you don't know is a good start toward one. Doubt is not being too easily convinced or overly certain, and questioning everything to the extent you aren't convinced of it. And yet it isn't questioning for questioning's sake, which gets into the territory of "bad doubt". It is being mindful of the assumptions and guesses you are constantly making, or of all the ways you could be wrong (but don't think you are). It is recognizing the limitation of your own knowledge and judgment; in Dark's words, describing his grandfather, "he also understood that as far as he knew and as far as he could tell weren't far at all." In the language of my nebulous "Seeds and Shells" post, which I wrote at the beginning of a period of deep doubt, it is a counterbalancing force that keeps the "shell" of your actions and professions of faith from outgrowing the "seed" of your actual faith.

What is there to gain by embracing your doubt? Obviously the biggest thing is that intrinsic to doubt is a spirit of honest with God, others, and yourself--not pretending to believe something you don't really believe or be someone you aren't really. I can't overstate how this overwhelming honesty has transformed my faith and helped me to begin to "get" how the Gospel touches and gloriously transforms every part of life. Bringing your questions and doubts to God--who isn't afraid of them--and not just "going with the flow" of American Christianity is essential to a healthy, genuine life as a Christian (or in general). Interpersonally, it allows us to empathize with and minister to people who could come to faith or grow in their faith but for unanswered questions or doubts that they carry.

I also see acceptance of doubt as the cure to so much of the factionalistic and denominationalistic infighting among Christians. When we humbly admit that only God has all the answers, the Bible is not crystal-clear on every question we may have, and that no one has an inside connection to God, we will stop claiming Biblical authority for our own theologies and learn to tolerate other interpretations of scripture--because, as Dark says, "interpretation is all we've got". As I've developed my own theology, I've diverged from my church and many of my friends on a number of things. If I tried to find a community that believed all the same things (the "right" things) as me, I think I'd keep searching forever. But I realize that these points of divergence are differences of interpretation, not just matters of who is right and who is wrong, and even more importantly that they don't have to disrupt the unity that Jesus desires for His church (John 17:21).

The cost of denying doubt

If you still aren't convinced, let me offer one more reason, why doubt is essential for how the church ministers not only within itself but also to the world at large. Doubt as the Berean-like (Acts 17:11) ability to "filter things through scripture", to distinguish the truth from the lie from the indeterminate, is essential for us to be, as Jesus said and is so often quoted, "in the world but not of it".

Let me direct your attention to the "Christian bubble", also known as the "sacred-secular divide". For those not in the know, this is a set of (as James Hunter calls it) "parallel institutions" within the thriving (primarily evangelical) Christian subculture that parallel "secular" culture. There are Christian books, Christian radio stations, Christian diets, Christian financial strategies, Christian breath mints... Regardless of the quality of these things, they all try to claim the high ground of being officially sanctioned by God that comes with the "Christian" label. In the bubble, "Christian" becomes a stamp of approval and artifacts that bear it are uncritically (read: without doubting or questioning) accepted by believers who are rightly concerned about being set apart as holy unto God. Anything outside this bubble is viewed with great suspicion (and, in Christianese, given the "secular" label) and best avoided by discerning, godly Christians. When Christians like Rob Bell make statements that are "heretical" to the Christian bubble's defining theology, they are cast outside it and ignored by the community at large, a modern-day form of excommunication. (Not that I agree with Bell's position of universalism, I'm just using him as an example of this kind of treatment)

Now let me redefine the Christian bubble as a place where doubt, the healthy kind of doubt I have been arguing for, is treated as unnecessary, and perhaps even lumped in with sinful doubt in being viewed with suspicion. Anything inside the bubble with the "Christian" label is good, anything outside it is suspicious. There is no need to judge, weigh, or discern for yourself what is true or good because the bubble has already done it for you. Meanwhile, those who happily live their comfortable Christian lives inside the bubble smile and sip coffee (perhaps brewed with "Christian" coffee beans) during their morning devotions from mugs with feel-good Bible verses printed on them, oblivious as their ability to distinguish true teaching from false slowly atrophies from disuse, leaving them vulnerable like spiritual infants or unguarded sheep to any false teaching that manages to slip inside the bubble, like prosperity theology--the fulfillment of 2 Timothy 4:3. (Note: prosperity theology is rightly denied by the evangelical community at large, but exists in a smaller bubble of its own with similar dynamics to ours) For the sake of loving the truth and hating falsehood, of raising up followers of Christ who love Him with their whole minds, to pop the Christian bubble and authentically witness to the world, it is essential that we embrace good, healthy, (dare I say it) biblical doubt.

"Blind faith" is, aside from a great Dream Theater song, believing something without questioning it, or even actively suppressing questions. The "Christian bubble" is one moderate example of this; cults are an extreme example. Again, the extent to which questions are quashed is the extent to which doubt is denied. Another way I have seen this denial manifested (even in my life) is when doubts about God are believed to cast doubt on your salvation because faith is the condition of justification--my pastor Steve often reminds us that faith in God is not simply an "intellectual assent" where the extent to which you agree with something is the degree of certainty you have that you are "saved". This kind of thinking turns faith into yet another work we do to earn our way to God--an abomination!

To keep our faith from devolving into the extremes of factionalism or blind faith, we need doubt--not doubt that rejects all conviction or paralyzes into inaction, but the aforementioned biblical doubt--but the habit of continually judging, testing, discerning, and questioning commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Doubt that realizes that only God has all the answers, not us, and in our limited and fallible quests to find them, we can't assume the truth will be as neat and tidy to us as we expect it to be. In other words, to regard our attempts to understand truth with a healthy dose of doubt. As God renews our minds into the image of Christ, we will judge all things rightly (1 Corinthians 2:15-16 ). Now we see "through a glass, darkly" and know in part, but eventually we will see God face to face and know fully. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The burden of doubt

But this also takes me to the limitations of doubt. The first is that, as that verse predicts, doubt is only temporary; one day it will become obsolete, and we will be all the more blessed for it! "When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." Doubt is only necessary now because sin keeps us from seeing perfectly. If a world with no doubt or any need for it sounds undesirable, it could be a sign that you are too attached to your doubts.

But this news is also kind of a relief to me as I've realized what a burden doubt is. The downside to embracing doubt rather than denying it is that you find it much harder to be really sure about anything. Certainty becomes a precious and scarce resource when you have to prove everything to yourself. Obviously in matters of faith you need to know where to wield doubt and where to suspend it, because faith means an absence of ironclad proofs and formulas. Striking the delicate balance between embracing the truth of Christ we've been given and not doing so blindly or overconfidently is a daily challenge. When reading the Bible, it means questioning everyone's interpretation, including your own, and separating fact from sanctified guessing. It means questioning even your own questions (this is where it gets confusing), testing whether they arise from a desire for deeper faith or just deeper knowledge.

And, in the end, doubt is not the center point of life in Christ (however much I may act like it is); it isn't even one of the fruits of the Spirit. We give our doubt too much influence if we let it get in the way of our more important job of representing Christ by our love. Whatever gifting I may have, it is given "for the common good" and "the strengthening of the church" (1 Corinthians 12:7, 14:26), not for me to become the smartest Christian ever. This means knowing when to keep silent about something I disagree with (which, for an INTJ, is often), and when to speak out. It means directing my skepticism into actions that build up instead of tear down, express love and not judgment, and make less of me and more of God. The supremacy of love is the challenge that comes with all of our gifts, but it is through this challenge that we become the heterogenous, making-disciples-everywhere people God made us to be.

Update: Besides the title of this post, "Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic" is also the new name of this blog! The old name had multiple meanings and significance for me, but "Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic" is actually an excellent description of the content of this blog as it has become over the years. Thank you for reading all of this.


  1. I read your post on doubt with great interest. What are your thoughts on cynicism? How does one discern between honest doubt and cynical denial?

  2. The line between good doubt and cynicism is one I walk every day, so it's hard for me to say for sure. I would say that "bad" cynicism can be thought of as a kind of reversal of blind faith. Blind faith is the refusal to ask, "Could I be wrong about this?"; extreme cynicism is the refusal to ask, "Is there any merit or truth to this?"

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  4. I'm just reading this, and I think you perfectly described what turns me off about many Christian circles here in Benin. I get the impression that people are totally unwilling or unable to admit that they have "low points" or struggles in their faith. People who do have a legitimate problem to talk about are often met with less-than-genuine responses, like "You need to trust God alone." or "You just need to spend more time in the word." Because of this, people are left feeling totally alone and trapped with their questions and doubts, unaware that any other "good" Christians secretly share the same questions. It's sad to see, really.
    Thanks for this well-written post :)
    (My first comment had a typo that would have been confusing, hence the delete)