What makes Christianity hard?

There are many possible answers to this question. How you answer it reveals a great deal not only about yourself—your temperament, your station in life, your mind and heart—but also about the context in which you live. Christians in different times and places would answer quite differently.

Suppose, for example, you live in Jerusalem just a few decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. What makes Christianity hard is not belief in the divine or the great distance separating you from “Bible times.” You’re in Bible times, and everyone believes in the divine. No, what makes it hard is the suffocating heat of legal persecution and social rejection. Confessing Christ’s name likely makes your life worse in tangible ways: Your family might disown you; your master might abuse you; your friends might ridicule you. The authorities might haul you in for questioning if you strike them as a troublemaker.

Or suppose you’re a nun in a medieval convent. You’ll live your whole life here, never marrying or bearing children or having a home of your own. You are pledged to God until death. You’re what people will later call a “mystic,” though that’s a rather dry term for having visions you often experience as suffering: ecstatic glimpses of the consuming fire that is the living Lord. What makes Christianity hard? You certainly don’t wonder about the existence of God—you’ve seen God with your own eyes. Nor are fame and wealth a source of temptation; your life is hidden away from the world. But your life is not easy. Faith remains hard.

Or imagine you’re someone else, somewhere else: a priest at a rural parish in early modern England. You live in a time of religious and political upheaval. The Reformation has upended long patterns of worship and expectations of unity. Religious wars rage on the continent, but your decidedly unspectacular charge is a village of farming families. What makes Christianity hard here? That background conflict might be part of it, but far closer to home is the sheer numbing routine, the daily quotidian grind of weather, crops, weddings, pregnancies, illnesses, funerals—Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter—year in, year out; wash, rinse, repeat.

If I were to put this same question to my friends or my college students in America today, I think I know what they would say: What makes Christianity hard in our time and place is doubt.

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Doubt about God’s existence; about the resurrection of Jesus; about miracles; about angels, demons, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; about the biblical texts or the history behind them or the church that gives them to us; about the credibility of all of the above. And all that doubt perches on the precipice of a yawning chasm between “back then” and “here and now”: oppression and slavery and superstition versus liberty and human rights and science. Should we really accept unquestioningly the faith of our ancestors when—we tend to think—we are so much better than them in so many ways?

I’m not describing atheists, apostates, or “exvangelicals” here. This is how many ordinary Christians feel. Or at least, it’s the water they swim in, the intrusive thought in the back of the mind, the semi-conscious source of inertia they feel when the alarm blares on Sunday morning. American Christians face no Colosseum, but this emotional and intellectual pressure is very real. The doubts add up.

It doesn’t help that doubt is in vogue. Doubt is sexy, and not only in the wider culture. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told by a pastor or Christian professor that doubt is a sign of spiritual maturity. That faith without doubt is superficial, a mere honeymoon period. That doubt is the flip side of faith, a kind of friend to fidelity. That the presence of doubt is a sign of a healthy theological mind, and its absence—well, you can fill in the rest.

The pro-doubt crowd gets two important things entirely right. First, they want space to ask honest questions. Second, they want to remove the stigma of doubt.

They want church to be a place where doubt is not a pathology, where the experience of doubt is not a moral failure, where the doubt produced by questions, or the questions produced by doubt, are welcomed, accompanied, and explored. A church like this would be known for a culture of spiritual hospitality. Ordinary believers could say out loud what really keeps them up at night, rather than keeping it unspoken for fear of judgment or rejection.

We should all want these things. Where churches have erred, pastors should right the ship. We don’t want children and young people thinking questions are bad, much less that following Jesus means believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Where, then, do the pro-doubt folks go wrong? I see four ways.

First, pro-doubters universalize a particular experience. It’s true that doubt is not a fake problem easily solved by a little spiritual bootstrapping. But is believing in an invisible God or the virginal conception of Jesus what makes Christianity hard for everyone everywhere and always? Read enough of Christian literature in praise of doubt and that’s the impression you’ll get.

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But look through church history, like I did above, and it becomes apparent that what makes Christianity hard depends on context. Exposure to the lives and writings of fellow disciples from across the centuries, living in vastly different times, places, and cultures, puts our challenges in perspective. They are so often personal, not general; parochial, not cosmic. They are not inevitable or unalterable. Christianity is a lot bigger than the Bible Belt or the secular West.

Second, pro-doubters tend to describe doubt not just as a universal challenge but as a necessary feature of mature faith. There’s a mix of selection bias and classism at work here: Doubters are typically affluent, brainy types with a college degree and a laptop job. None of this is bad; I fit the bill.

But not everyone does, and our experience of faith is not universal. Our tendency to wrestle with doubt is not an essential component of knowing God, a gauntlet that every serious Christian must run. It is simply untrue that faithful maturity is always marked by doubt. Did Moses wonder whether God is real? Did Paul second-guess his vision of the risen Lord? What about Julian of Norwich, our non-hypothetical nun? Must the simple and confident faith of so many of our spiritual elders—the proverbial grandmothers in the pews—really be “problematized” before it is worthy of our respect? The question answers itself.

Third, pro-doubters go too far in making doubt a virtue. Doubt is not a sin, but that doesn’t mean it’s desirable. God may use it for good; it may well be a crucial step in a person’s journey with Christ. But we need not valorize it or celebrate it. In short, doubt doesn’t call for either praise or blame. In most cases, it’s a thorn in the flesh.

At best, doubt is a ladder to climb. But ladders aren’t ends in themselves. We use them to get somewhere, to complete some job. Dwelling forever in perpetual doubt is like making one’s home on a ladder—technically possible but far from ideal. If someone recommended a ladder as a solution to your need of a house, you’d rightly question his judgment.

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Finally, pro-doubters mischaracterize the nature of questions. Questions are not the same as doubts. Thomas Aquinas asked thousands of questions in his short life. Augustine’s Confessions alone contains more than 700 of them. What else is a catechism but questions followed by answers? But there’s the rub. Doubt begins with a loss of trust or credibility; questions do not. My children ask me questions every day, not because they doubt me, but because they trust me.

For this reason saints and mystics adore questions, including questions that cannot be answered in this life. Questions arise from and foster our trust in God. Questions grow faith.

To distinguish questions from doubt is not to praise the former by re-stigmatizing the latter. It’s to clarify for believers that while doubt often entails questions, questions do not always (or even normally) entail doubt. That is good news for the anxious among us. Ask away, the church should say. The Lord welcomes your questions.

What, then, makes Christianity hard? Is there an answer that pertains to all of us? As a matter of fact, I believe there is.

What makes Christianity hard is faith, albeit not in the sense many of us expect. For too many Christians raised in the church, faith means mental and emotional certainty, and so the Christian life is defined as believing as hard as you can in difficult things. In this model, when a feral question nudges its nose into the tent, you’re left with only two options: Kick it out by somehow believing harder or accept that your faith is fraudulent and give it up. Having faith means I must work myself into a lather believing weird things that “modern” people in a “scientific” age find incredible. With that as the alternative, no wonder doubt looks attractive!

But faith is not this desperate maintenance of internal certainty. It is just as accurately (maybe even better) translated as faithfulness. To have faith is to keep faith, to maintain fidelity to God, to trust him and become trustworthy in turn. What is universally hard about being a Christian is being faithful to the Lord no matter one’s circumstances.

Whether one lives in times of persecution or alone in a convent, in an epoch of division and war or in an age of skepticism and affluence, in the high tide of medieval Christendom or under Islamic rule in modern Iran, the call of Christ is exactly the same. In every circumstance, Christ invites us to take up our cross and follow him to Calvary (Luke 9:23). We are called, in other words, to die.

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Sometimes our deaths are literal; sometimes they are religious; sometimes they are social or financial or familial. Sometimes they are all of these and more (Gal. 2:20). In every case, for all the superficial differences, we wear the same yoke. Christ promises us that this yoke is easy, its burden light—and it is (Matt. 11:30). But the death to self it requires is a daily crucifixion that saps the flesh of its power to hold us in its sway.

Doubt can be part of this struggle. The struggle is real, lifelong, and common to us all. The struggle, however, is not the point. The point is where we are going. The point is whom we are following. The point is that the cross is not the final destination; death is not the end (1 Cor. 15:26, 55–57). We are not doomed to wrestle and suffer and wonder forever. When we walk out of the tomb, we will leave all that behind. Like graveclothes, whatever doubts once bedeviled us will lie piled on the floor. Free of every burden, we will walk into life.

Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of four books, including The Church: A Guide to the People of God and Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry.

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