Doubting Well

Seems like I’ve been talking about doubt a lot lately. Whether it’s being asked to respond to the latest exvangelical publicly denouncing their faith on TikTok or friends asking me to intervene with a loved one who is asking difficult questions about God, doubt – and our response to it – has been on my mind a lot. It is important for me to state my two assumptions about doubt here at the very beginning of this post. 1) Doubt is not antithetical to faith, and it may actually be necessary to faith. Tim Keller put it very wisely:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

A faith that never asks questions and never struggles with doubts is a faith that is fragile and very much at risk. Just like the human body atrophies without exercise and physical struggle, a person’s faith will atrophy if not exercised with the rigor of struggling through questions. We should all take our faith seriously enough to think about it and even ask questions of it. Too often the Christians I see who struggle with their faith the most are those who grew up in an environment that was either hostile or terrified of questions. As Keller warns, their faith shatters the first time a skeptic (or life) picks up a rock and heaves it at their faith. 2) I assume that there are good ways to doubt and bad ways to doubt. If it is true that there are good ways and bad ways to play the piano or parent your children or drive a car, it stands to reason that there would also be good ways to doubt as well as bad ways to doubt. The difference between good doubt and bad doubt is found in both the doubter and in the result of the doubts. The good doubter is driven by virtue of an honest (but sometimes painful) search for the truth. On the other hand, the bad doubter tends to be overcome by his own doubts. His doubts have consumed him. They are all that he can see. Good doubt ends in truth and flourishing; bad doubt ends in disillusionment and despair. Not everyone who doubts is doubting well, so in this post I offer a list of principles for doubting well.*

  1. Name your doubts. Sometimes doubt comes in the form of a hard to define feeling or mood. I think this is what some people mean when they reference a “season of doubt.” Abstract doubts are harder to address, so I advise people to name their doubts specifically. It is also helpful to identity if a doubt is what I call a level one, level two, or level three doubt. A level one doubt is a doubt concerning a fundamental to faith such as the existence of God. A level two doubt is a doubt concerning an element of Christian doctrine which is not essential to a person’s salvation such as the age of the earth. A third order doubt might involve denominational or congregational peculiarities such as what a congregation believes about worship. Identifying these levels will help the doubter to keep things in perspective. For instance, struggling with young earth creationism versus theistic evolution is no reason to abandon God altogether. Or, having questions about what a particular church believes about women in ministry is not a good justification for abandoning the Church altogether. In one recent example, a friend of mine had a family member who watched a video “exposing” several supposed contradictions in the Bible. The video has caused this person to question whether God even exists. This is a category error. It is completely possible and reasonable to maintain conviction about the existence of God while also struggling through various biblical texts. To put it another way, a difficult text in the Bible doesn’t cancel out all of the very good reasons to believe that God exists.
  2. Identify the source of your doubts. Not every doubt is an intellectual doubt. Actually, in my experience very few doubts are purely intellectual. Many of our doubts come from our emotions or various negative experiences. Unconfessed sin or a stagnant faith are also breeding grounds for all sorts of doubts. Identifying the source of doubts is essential if the doubts are ever going to be resolved. Offering only intellectual answers to a doubt that is being fed by emotions or personal experience will be ineffective.
  3. Doubt your doubts. Good doubters continue to ask questions of their questions. They doubt their doubts, and they are skeptical of their skepticism. Too many doubters stop doubting too soon. They assume that their doubts are completely founded and justified when in fact, if they would just be a little skeptical of their own doubts, they would realize that their doubts are rather shallow and weak. Question everything including the assumptions that you are making in your questions. Related to number 2, we must be diligent about questioning the way that our emotions and experiences fuel our doubts. Emotions and personal experiences are real and immediate. As such, they shouldn’t be cast aside or ignored, but they are often very poor guides into what is true. Rather than simply accepting that they are telling us the whole truth, good doubters learn to interrogate their emotions and experiences.
  4. Honestly seek answers. I reject the assumption that mere doubting is virtuous. G.K. Chesterton said in his autobiography, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Doubting well does not result in the perpetually disturbed mind. Doubting well is an invitation to honestly seek answers. Doubting well most definitely requires more than go-it-alone self-reflection or “mindfulness.” And doubting well requires that we do more than watch a few YouTube or TikTok videos. The search for answers should take the doubter to established guides. There are few questions that haven’t been wrestled with in a good book. Additionally, surround yourself with a community of mentors and trusted peers who can, with grace and truth, help you as you struggle through doubt. Good doubters don’t walk alone.
  5. Be careful of the “weaker brother.” It is good for us to recognize that not everyone has the same readiness for every single doubt or question. Some people are more comfortable and better equipped to handle all sorts of questions and doubts. Others, particularly new believers, don’t have the same level of comfort. For this reason, it is wise to be careful about how and when you articulate your questions. This is what is especially frustrating about TikTok exvangelicals. They are preying on the unsteady faith typical of people who go to TikTok to get spiritual advice. They are wolves. If you are struggling through a question, don’t lay that struggle on the back of a younger believer (especially if it is for no other reason than to get social media attention). That isn’t virtuous. That is narcissistic. Instead, good doubters take their doubts to trusted peers and mentors.
  6. Do not demand certainty as a requirement for faith. I’ve often thought that the panicked father in Mark 9:24 is a better exemplar of doubt than “Doubting Thomas.” This is the father who was desperate for Jesus to heal his son. In response to Jesus’ appeal for faith, he exclaims “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” Such an honest expression of faith mixed with uncertainty. The truth is that if you are waiting for certainty on every question before you will believe and trust in God, then you will remain in your skepticism forever. Most every believer that I have ever known possessed a faith that limps. They have questions. They may even have some doubts. They recognize the impenetrable mysteries of God. And they believe nevertheless. This is the good doubter; the doubter who isn’t captive to skepticism and cynicism, but the doubter who trusts even in the midst of his questions and believes even in the midst of his unbelief.

*It’s probably obvious by now, but I’m dedicating myself to a specific kind of doubt in this post, the doubting of Christian faith.

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