Doubt has a great deal of cultural cachet these days. People who have serious doubts about their faith are considered normal, healthy, and most of all, intellectually honest. A writer who expresses his or her doubt eloquently is considered a sage.
Self-assured, confident, and bold faith has been the hallmark of evangelicals, so much so that it sometimes gets out of hand (as in the word faith movement). But it appears that doubt is becoming an increasingly common experience for evangelicals: Note John Ortberg's Faith and Doubt, David Dark's The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, and Alister E. McGrath's Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith—among other offerings. Such books would not see the light of day if evangelical publishers didn't suspect that their readers weren't looking for wisdom on this matter.
Overall, this is a healthy development. To pretend that faith in Christ does not entail some rough patches is sheer hypocrisy. Some of the greatest heroes of Scripture doubted God's goodness—Abraham, Job, and Habakkuk quickly come to mind. If them, why not us?
In such a time, we are wise to note that there are also many of us who live a doubt-free faith. Doubt has never been much of a player in our lives. I had one period in seminary when I was deathly afraid that God might not exist, but the period was short lived. Before and after that, I can candidly say that I've had no doubts about my faith. I've talked to a couple of trusted friends this week—one pastor, one nationally known writer on spirituality—and their experience is the same. I suspect we're not the last three people on the planet with such faith.
So in an era when doubt is on the ascendency, what are we to make of those who live a doubt-filled faith and those who enjoy a doubt-free faith?
To be clear: the contrast I'm interested in is not between faith and certainty. For the sake of this column, I'm going to assume that faith, by its very nature, assumes uncertainty—otherwise, why would we need faith and hope? We are not given to know as God knows—with utter and complete and perfect knowledge. We are, however, given faith that God knows with utter and complete and perfect knowledge, and thus we can trust in him. Nor am I talking about that aspect of faith in which one can grow—an increasing humility and trust and obedience to God in all things.
Instead, I want to think about the doubt that would question perhaps God's existence, but especially his wisdom or goodness—a deep anxiety or concern which comes over us, not something we seem to have much control over one way or another.
This is something even devout Christians experience—thus the spate of books trying to be of some help. Still, those who wrestle with doubt are tempted—as are those who live with doubtless faith—to justify themselves and their lives.
In the worst case scenario, we justify doubt to allow us to maintain distance from God. I've had conversations with some who say they refuse to believe in Christ because to do so would require them to submit to him, and they have no interest in changing their libertine ways. They don't admit this upfront; at first they describe all the intellectual problems that prevent them from becoming a Christian. But when pressed, some have been at least honest enough to say what was really going on.
Another type of doubt—or at least the type of faith that might result from this doubt—becomes a way to justify the faith we end up with. For instance, we're told not to panic when our children or friends express doubts, because this is said to be a normal stage in the life of faith. We cannot make faith our own if we do not go through periods in which we question what we've been taught.
There is some truth here, as developmental psychologists affirm. Then again, what type of religion are we promoting when we suggest that faith is something we make or manufacture, and do so in a way that accords with our own preferences? I think of the New Testament, where Paul seems less interested in making faith his own than in receiving a faith from others, and then delivering it to others still (1 Cor. 15:1-3). Or the early Christians, who at baptism each and all affirmed the Apostles' Creed (something others had written, crafted, and handed to them). It apparently produced enough faith to give them the courage to weather fierce persecution. It's clear that "making faith one's own" is not necessary to having a faith that stands up to pressure, changes lives, and transforms the culture.
We're also told in so many words that no thinking, intelligent person can live without doubt. That is, to not doubt is to not think.
But one can hardly imagine more intelligent people than Paul, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, among many others, for whom doubt seems to have played little role in their lives and ministries. There hardly seems to be a correlation between intelligence and faith or intelligence and doubt. But, of course, intellectuals are tempted to justify their habits of mind and heart by making doubt into a virtue of sound intelligence.
It nearly goes without saying, but those of us who live a life of doubtless faith also try to justify our existence. The Bible touts the centrality of faith. We read such passages and are tempted to pat ourselves on the back for our faith. We're truly biblical Christians! We're inclined to pity those who live with doubts, wondering if they are really as committed, as Christian, as we are. And our "pastoral" attitude is sometimes, "Why don't they just snap out of it?"
Such self-justification assumes that faith is a product of will power—that our doubtless faith is a virtue we've developed. An honest self-examination suggests otherwise. How is it that I can look at some of the most horrific things in history and current events and not question the goodness of God? All the evidence seems to point to a natural conclusion, to which I am clearly not led. This is either psychological denial or a gift. And if a gift, then it is hardly something I can take credit for, nor something I can expect others to adopt as if it were something completely under their control.
To be sure, the Bible exhorts us to have faith, so faith is a good thing: "We have been justified by faith," says Paul (Rom. 5:1). But the type of faith the Bible extols—at least that aspect of faith I'm discussing here—is not full-bore inner confidence that entertains no questions or doubts. As we've noted, the Bible is full of "faithful" people who entertained all manner of doubts and questions. No, faith in the Bible is not about us, our feelings, our attitudes. It's about the one we have faith in: Jesus Christ. We are, in the end, "justified by his blood," and thus we rejoice, not in our faith, but in "God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom. 5:10-11). The Bible is not as interested in our faith as in our faith in Jesus Christ.
As noted above, this faith is a gift, pure and simple. The disciples on the road to Emmaus could not even recognize their risen Lord until God opened their eyes so that "they recognized him" (Luke 24:31). And Jesus says repeatedly that no one comes to him except the Father draws them (John 6:44).
This faith is something the doubters and the doubtless share. The doubters wouldn't be doubters if they didn't at some level believe and follow Jesus. Otherwise they would be unbelievers!
At the same time, those who have doubtless faith are not necessarily paragons of faith. I certainly am not. I'm one of those muddling Christians, who implicitly trusts God in the face of all manner of evil, and yet who daily wavers between sin and obedience, usually giving way to the former and wistfully longing for more of the latter. Nor have I been known to enjoy beatific visions.
In the end, there is only one thing that justifies our lives, whether those lives are characterized by a doubting faith or a doubtless faith. And that is the Cross. As Paul says, God justifies the ungodly—which includes Jews and Gentiles, religious and secular, sinners and Pharisees, and both the doubters and the doubtless.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale) and the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Trusting God with the Ones You Love | Few things are harder or scarier than trusting God to do what is just and right and good. (August 18, 2011)
John Stott and the Weary Evangelical | What the movement looks like at its best. (August 4, 2011)
The Most Risky Profession | Why you need to pray desperately for your pastor. (July 14, 2011)