The Fuel of Doubt
Listen in to a conversation on doubt and the Christian life between Bill Davis, PhD (professor of philosophy), Jeff Dryden, PhD (professor of biblical studies), and Evan Marbury, MDiv (resident director of Carter Hall in the spring of 2015).
Nature of Doubt
Dryden: I think there are two aspects to doubt. One is epistemic—doubt regarding knowledge. But there’s also the doubt of trust that’s a relational, kind of fiduciary doubt, and that is the one the Bible is most concerned about because it’s doubt in terms of a lack of trust.
Marbury: I feel like doubt is part of the result of the Fall. But even when we were in perfect fellowship with the Lord, the serpent in Eden was asking, “Did God really say that?” I feel like that’s the nature of doubt for everyone. One of the tools that the devil uses is just questioning what’s been plainly said. I don’t think that hearing the question itself is wrong, but you have to work through that.
Doubt as Part of the Human Experience
Dryden: One thing that’s really helpful about the Bible is that it makes doubt normative for the Christian life—not that it calls us to doubt, but it normalizes it as part of the human experience. Read the Psalms—the writers of the Psalms are believers who are distraught and distrusting and angry and feel betrayed by God, and that’s the hymnal of the Old Testament. So they’re not singing all happy-pappy songs. What a worship service does—whether anybody wants it to or not—is teach you what the Christian life looks like. In the New Testament, we read about disciples who doubt. Luke explicitly talks about them doubting in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. They’re standing before Him and they still doubt.
Davis: Yes, just before the Great Commission, in Matthew 28:16-19 it says, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, . . . ‘Go and make disciples of all nations. . . .’” He says this to people who are doubting, even as they’re looking at Him in His glorified state.
Marbury: He’s sending them into vocational ministry with their doubts.
Davis: Right. So if you think doubts somehow preclude you from the work of Christ’s mission in the world, we have Jesus’ own testimony, because He looked at people who doubted and said, “Go.”
Doubt on a College Campus
Davis: Students will regularly slip into my office when they think no one is looking and say that they’re struggling with doubts. The most important thing that I say to them is that I know exactly what they’re talking about. Even at my ripe old age and years of experience, I have doubts too and there’s nothing unusual about this. It’s OK to ask God why, when you don’t know. And it’s OK even to say, like the end of Psalm 88, darkness is my only friend. It’s even OK to reach the point when you can’t imagine an explanation.
Marbury: A lot of times there’s confusion or a lack of confidence in this time of life when these students are just beginning to think critically. And they also feel a sense of guilt because they’re questioning: Is Scripture really valid? Is God only one? And they feel guilty just for having the questions. I try to reassure them and say I think that’s very profound and important to think through those questions.
Dryden: Covenant students are kind of trapped between modern- and postmodernism. Their intellectual framework is modernist, but the framework that they actually live with is that postmodern kind of romanticism where emotions are the ultimate mark of truth.
A lot of the problems stem from the model of the Christian life they’ve been imprinted with that deals in categories of intellectual certainty and moral perfectionism. They think that those are the signs of what the Christian life looks like. They think, I won’t have doubts and I wouldn’t be sinning if I were a Christian. But then they have the doubting experience, which is natural because they’re human beings and doubt is part of life, and then they have to live in that tension.
Davis: They probably have not had modeled for them people who are open about their doubts.
Doubt & Faith
Dryden: In the New Testament, especially in the gospels, faith is always partial—it’s always in motion, it’s always under development. In the gospels, you have endless experiences of people who have different degrees of faith who come to Jesus and Jesus says the faith that they have is good and now it just needs to grow one more step. It’s always in movement, and it’s always partial. I think what that means is that some element of ambiguity and doubt is always involved in the Christian life.
Davis: Maybe in our public prayers there could be more expressions of unresolved anxiety. I’ve heard pastors pray, “We have no idea what you’re doing, Lord.” But that’s also a trusting doubt—it’s not a cynical or rebellious doubt. It’s a trust that we know who God is and we know He loves us, but we have no idea what He’s doing.
Dryden: Well, that’s what the Bible calls faith, not what the Bible calls doubt. And this is what is modeled in the Psalter: the experiences of doubt and confusion and loneliness and betrayal and turning to God with all of those things. This is why all of those bits in the Psalter are expressions of faith, not expressions of doubt. The choice to turn away from God in the context of those doubts is the sinful choice.
Davis: That’s why in Hebrews 11, we’re told about the heroes of the faith—whose lives are chock full of doubt—that “all of these died having not received the thing promised to them.” Then chapter 12 begins with, “Fix your eyes on Jesus.”
Dryden: And that is the model of faith in Hebrews 11.
Doubt & Sin
Davis: There’s a big difference between doubts that are just temptations, and doubts that are sins. And there’s nothing sinful about being tempted. Jesus was tempted. I think the Bible describes a number of different states that are translated as doubt that are simply perplexity.
Dryden: I’m not comfortable calling doubt temptation. Temptation for me is a negative word, but doubt to me and most doubt I see is neutral, in the same way that I would consider most emotions as neutral experiences. It’s a context that creates choices, but the doubt itself I don’t see as a temptation.
I feel like there are as many species of doubt as there are potato chips—it’s just a complex reality. But there really are places where doubt is sinful. I think there are times when doubt becomes a stance of life, a mode of operation when you hold everything at a distance, and that’s the only kind of doubt where I start to say that is sinful doubt. There are some places where doubt is neutral and some places where it’s a sign of growth.
Davis: Do you read Thomas’ doubt at the end of the book of John as a sinful kind?
Dryden: No. I don’t think you’re meant to read it as sinful. I think in the literary context he’s a model for the reader who doubts. In the gospels, part of how you know how you’re supposed to relate to characters is by watching how Jesus relates to them. And Jesus doesn’t scold Thomas, He just offers His wounds. Whereas you do have times in the gospels when Jesus pushes back very hard on people—think of the rich young ruler, the Pharisees, or even Peter. So the way that Jesus relates to Thomas is why I would say this isn’t sinful.
Doubt as a Means of Growth
Dryden: The other side of it, for me, is that doubt and confusion are often the most important incubator for spiritual growth. At L’Abri I saw that the people who were driven there through confusion are the ones who grew. Sometimes I think real growth only happens in the midst of confusion.
Marbury: I think of Ephesians where it says to grow in maturity so that you’re not tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. I feel like a healthy level of doubt and questioning is helpful. On some level, doubt can be a gift—that you don’t just take things and think they must be true but that you’re willing to think critically. I think it can lead to a very healthy place.
Davis: I think I’d want to qualify that a little. I think doubt in a community, like at L’Abri, can produce growth. When I experience doubts here I talk about them with my friends and usually what I’m finding perplexing and distressing is not what they’re finding distressing and so they talk through, not a five-step formula, but they’re able to tell me why it isn’t a crisis for them. I think the wrestling part is important—it’s in the midst of the body that you wrestle and you have to be able to do that openly.
Doubt & the Church
Dryden: I think, if we’re honest, our evangelical context privileges the folks who everything works for and who are happy in the Lord, and it disadvantages those who express doubt. That is what is modeled.
Davis: But James says some scary things. In James 1, he says, “When you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
Dryden: But here’s the issue, it’s a text that is speaking in antithetical language: no doubt/receive blessing. So who does that apply to? Nobody. This is a place where we get tripped up by bringing our black and white, moral and intellectual certainty model to the text. The problem is, we’re all out of luck if that is the truth. What James is characterizing in that passage is the person who is double minded. That’s not an antithetical category. This is one of the things the Bible does rhetorically all the time—it speaks in antithetical polarities that clarify the fact that we all live in the soup. What he’s really talking about there is the double-minded person—the person who is characterized by hedging their bets with God. That person will get nothing. We immediately jump on “it says here ‘no doubt,’” but that, by definition, excludes any and all readers. And depending on how you understand the Garden of Gethsemane, might even exclude Jesus. It’s very easy for us to take it that way, but I think that’s an imposition of our way of looking at it.
Davis: There are students and there are pastors who claim that they have no doubts. Are they deluded? Are they lying?
Dryden: I would say both, frankly. They’re deluded and lying—to themselves if not to everyone else. But the reason they are doing that is because that’s the system they have been sold and that’s the system they’re told to promote.
Davis: I suspect that it would be very healthy if there were times, fairly regularly, when people had questions, in Sunday school for instance, where the answer was not finalized. It would probably be healthier if, from time to time, people heard, “I don’t know.” It’s easily the most important thing I say in class—saying I don’t know.
Marbury: And it’s good to consider if there’s a place programmatically maybe for a sermon series on doubt, or explanations of songs that have been birthed out of a sea of doubt. It can help to see that there are other places in church history where Christians have wrestled with these questions and doubts.
Dryden: I think part of the issue is exactly what we’re talking about. Doubts are uncomfortable, and in our church setting today the greatest sin is to be impolite. We have a church that is built on the doctrine of politeness, which isn’t a doctrine we inherited from Jesus. We’re very nice people, and one of the things we can guarantee is that no one will be disturbed by a church service.
One of the characteristics of doubt is that when you’re in the middle of it there isn’t any end in sight. You’re in the middle of the ocean and there is no land—that is not a pleasant experience. We are programmed to see the Bible as about closure and the Christian life as about closure. And again, that gets modeled implicitly in a way where confusion and ambiguity and doubts are seen as things that I need to purge from my life. And so it’s being conscious of what things we’re actually modeling, implicitly, which isn’t a question that we ask nearly often enough, but especially in a church environment. Whatever happens in that hour and a half on Sunday morning imprints a model of “this is what the Christian life looks like,” and if there’s never doubt involved then that isn’t seen as part of the Christian life.
When a Friend Doubts
Marbury: I would encourage those with friends who are struggling with doubts to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to take offense. I feel like I see too often that people are listening in order to respond, and not listening in order to understand. They listen to someone’s doubt for a solid fifteen minutes and they have all the books and Scriptures lined up to blow it out of the water. Do you really know that person and their doubt that well, that soon? And sometimes they’re not really talking in order to get a response, they’re talking in order to be heard and be known, which is part of the heart of God.
Part of the reason students here might be quick to pounce on the doubt is because they are taking offense on behalf of God, and they’re not willing to linger at all, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death as part of reality. How do I just literally walk with a friend and not try to rescue them?
Davis: I think the two things I normally hear most clearly when I’m talking to someone who is doubting are the things that I know what to do with and the things that I find threatening because I don’t know what to do with them. I’m probably more likely to jump on those things I find threatening unless I remind myself: The most helpful thing you can do is say, “I find that threatening too. I know exactly what it’s like to have that kind of distress, precisely because I’m not sure what to do with it.”
It’s really hard though. It’s hard to admit because it’s socially risky. The person telling you about their doubts is taking a risk, and if you join and walk with them in that wrestling with hard things that’s risky too.
Dryden: I think the experience that you’re talking about is key in most people’s responses to a friend’s doubts. We feel threatened by those doubts because they resonate with our own doubts that we’re not comfortable with and we wish weren’t there, and so I’ll fix you as a way to not have to deal with my own things.
I think that Paul’s language is mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. It’s not “fix the mourner and make them rejoice.” Mourn with those who mourn. Doubt with those who doubt. It doesn’t mean that doubt in and of itself is a virtue, but it means that we should be with that person and normalize the experience of doubt. Most people just need to learn that doubt is normal and they’re not a crazy person.
Davis: And saying, “Let’s pray,” which is also counterintuitive, because you think that prayer needs to be built on a solid foundation of no doubting. But the thing to do is to pray—pour your heart out to God about the thing you’re finding difficult. It’s a trusting doubt.
Marbury: And also, don’t be scared of doubt. I have a friend who is incredibly agnostic, but I’ll invite her to anything. I invited her to my graduation at seminary and she brought her partner with her. I just tell her I’m not afraid of her doubts. I know that God is real and He wants to reveal His truth to all people and I’ll invite her to as many things as possible where she’ll be exposed to truth and if she wants to talk afterward, we can go there. But I’m not scared. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, the Bible is a lion and can defend itself.
Dryden: Doubt is a very complex reality that just has to be met in a bunch of different ways. There’s not a single formula. You can’t be formulaic and I think sometimes people have to be unsettled.
Wrestling with Doubt
Marbury: God has enough self-esteem to handle your doubts, so really dig into them. Doubt as much as you can as hard as you can and be curious about your doubts, because God can handle it. He handled Jonah and his drama, He handled David and his drama, and He handled the disciples. He can handle any level of anger, doubt, sadness that you’re wrestling with, any doubting of His existence. Don’t hold back for anyone’s expense, because it’s only going to harm you. God is faithful and that’s not to say that you lament and it’s all over—you might be wrestling for weeks, months, or years, but God is still faithful.
Davis: Yes, “as hard as you can.” You want to take steps so that it’s with your whole self and with all the intensity that you’re feeling, and you don’t hold part of it back because you think God needs help. But it needs to be directed, in trust, towards God. Because there are ways to doubt as hard as you can so that you push God away, and we’re not told that those who are blaspheming God can expect that God will break through that. It’s going to be super intense and perfectly candid, but it needs to be an honest, pouring out your heart to God, not just to your neighbor or the un-listening universe.
When we look at what steps we would suggest people do in this situation, one is that they go where we’re told faith grows, which is in the ordinary means of grace. So, rather than waiting until you’ve figured out all the answers to your questions before you throw yourself into worship or into the Word, no, go there. Read the Psalms. I find the Psalms especially helpful. There you find people, led by the Holy Spirit, expressing the full range of righteous emotions, including righteous anger.
Dryden: I would totally agree with that. It reminds me of Bonhoeffer who said it’s only the ones who believe who obey and only the ones who obey who believe, and there are lots of places where obedience is the path towards faith. And I think you’re right in talking about it in the context of community and the ordinary means of grace. The only caution that I have is that most folks in churches have been told that those normal means of grace are the tools to suppress doubts—that you use them as ways to not think about your doubts anymore. And that’s what lots of people hear when they hear, “These are the things you should do. . . .” It labels doubts as inherently bad and sinful and the means of grace are the means by which you control doubt—you fill your head with other things. We don’t have a lot of good models of actually leaving a place for my doubt and still participating in these practices—they’re seen as conflicting.
Marbury: I would agree. Too many people see doubt as a disease and not as fuel to gain more understanding.
Dryden: Doubt is normal—it’s a normal part of human experience. The Bible normalizes it. Herman Bavink says that mystery is the lifeblood of theology, but we tend to model a faith that has four square corners and answers every question. The biblical picture of Jesus in the gospels and even in the cry of dereliction on the cross is to teach us that Jesus isn’t waiting at the end of our doubts—He is the one who travels with us through our doubts, because He experienced all of the same realities and can identify with us.