It was nearly four years ago. My pastor asked me to fill the pulpit for him one weekend at church, and I was struggling to find a decent topic. In my Southern Baptist tradition, I’ve heard preachers and traveling evangelists say that it’s never hard for them to come up with a sermon subject. They just “dig into” what God’s been teaching them.
So that week, in preparation, I dug. I tried to figure out what it was God had been teaching me. It wasn’t long before I ran into a problem: I had nothing. God had been teaching me nothing. In fact, God had pretty much been silent for a period of months.
I’d been struggling with doubt. And not a mostly benign, does-God-really-love-me? kind of doubt, either. This was a scary, does-God-even-exist? existential crisis, brought on by the culmination of a lot of reading, biblical investigation, and thinking. You might call it “intellectual doubt.”
No one knew I’d been dealing with that stuff. I took a deep breath and decided to out myself, and I spoke that weekend about my spiritual doubt. Where it came from, how it related to my faith, and how I was learning to live with it.
That message was a painfully honest one for me, but it turned into one of the best-received speaking engagements I’ve ever experienced. Afterward, I kept hearing two things from people, over and over:
The first was that it was courageous to talk about my doubt. The second was that they were doubters, too.
That’s when I knew my next book needed to be about the topic of doubt. Fast-forward three years, and O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling released in the spring of 2010. In the months since its publication, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a variety of readers, listeners, twitter followers, and blog subscribers about spiritual doubt. What have I learned?
1. I’m not alone. There are a lot of us dealing with spiritual uncertainty. We don’t always talk about it, because in many religious subcultures doubt is a taboo topic. (One guy told me he’d sooner admit a porn addiction to his church than confess that he sometimes wondered whether God really existed.) Many of those who struggle with doubt do it in isolation — and when among church people who speak of God as easily as they talk about the weather, inner turmoil about God’s existence can be incredibly isolating.
2. The questions are real. In my more fervent days, I used to write-off doubters as lacking in faith. I figured their religious struggles were due to sin or arrogance or a traumatic life event. Certainly those things can be root causes of doubt. But I’m finding that many doubts are more intellectually based. We’re living in an unprecedented information age. We’re bombarded by new findings, new ideas, and new lenses through which to explain our world. Whether it’s biblical scholarship, church history, brain chemistry, physics, or some other topic, we’re being confronted, on a regular basis, with complex ideas that can challenge a simple faith — and some of those challenges are not easy to ignore or explain away.
3. Doubters need a safe place. Rather than struggle silently with these questions (or, worse, pretend they don’t exist), it’s healthier for doubters to doubt in community. We need a place to ask questions and receive a response of grace rather than judgment, understanding rather than the implication that we’re somehow less Christian for having questions. Jude 22 says “Be merciful to those who doubt.” We need fellow believers who will practice this toward us even if they don’t understand where our questions are coming from.
4. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Our tendency is to see faith and doubt as opposite ends of a continuum. As if every step toward doubt is a step away from faith. As if the presence of one begins to diminish the other. But I’m not convinced that’s the case. Faith NEEDS doubt. Otherwise it’s not faith but certainty. That means the possibility of doubt is essential to faith, and people who continue to follow Christ despite their uncertainty — or God’s perceived absence — may actually be exhibiting a substantial form of faith. An example? Mother Teresa, who spent much of her life in spiritual darkness. (Come Be My Light has encouraged me more than almost any other book.)
Doubt may not be an ideal destination for the believer. It’s easy to get stuck during this part of the journey, wallowing in questions. It’s easy to let them paralyze us into inactivity or push us into easy cynicism. But this doubter’s road is one many of us are still traveling, with no off-ramp in sight. We don’t need apologetics. We don’t need you to quote Bible verses at us. We don’t need your knitted brows. What we need from our fellow Christians is your compassion, your encouragement, and your presence.
Originally posted February 12, 2011