Faith is one of Christianity’s cardinal virtues. St. Paul ranks it alongside hope and love as something that will survive the end of the age. Christians are taught that they are justified by faith and must learn to live by faith. Everywhere in Christianity, from the earliest times until now, faith is key.
So, if someone begins to have doubts, where does that leave them? If “Faith is the badge of covenant membership,” as the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright put it, will those who doubt be put on probation? Are they in danger of having their membership revoked?
Doubt is a very painful thing in any meaningful relationship, whether that relationship is with a spouse, an employer, or God. To doubt the love of a spouse, the commitment of an employer, or the existence of the Creator God can be excruciating. That pain is compounded when a Christian doubts God, for doubt may represent a spiritual failure or even a lack of what Wright calls “covenant membership.”
Doubt – and I have no doubt Wright would agree – does not endanger a person’s “covenant membership.” It is the nature of humans, whose knowledge is limited and whose reasoning is imperfect, to doubt. Doubts find entrance into the human mind through the flimsiest of evidence. We not only doubt spouses, bosses, and God; we even doubt ourselves.
It is, however, a mistake to deduce the absence of faith based on the presence of doubt. Humans are big enough to have room for both. Doubt is not evidence of the unreality of faith, still less of the unreality of God. It is evidence of a searching mind and, sometimes, an insecure heart.
Even C. S. Lewis, one of the church’s greatest apologists, faced doubts decades after his conversion. After his wife died, Lewis wrote: “What grounds has [her death] given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account … Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.”
The novelist Madeleine L’Engle has written of Lewis, “It is helpful indeed that C. S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed. It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own angers and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.”
Maybe doubt is not as unhealthy as many of us have thought. Maybe it is not as terrifying. But what is one to do with it—for it certainly is uncomfortable?
Some people, thinking that doubt must always originate with the devil, are so alarmed by the presence of doubt that they run for intellectual cover. Instead of thinking through the doubt, as C. S. Lewis modeled for generations of believers, they hide from it. They are so frightened by doubt that they shut the doors of their mind, which means they have shut the doubt in with them.
What people don’t understand about doubt is that it grows best in the dark. Doubt roots deeply in a closed mind. It grows strong in the absence of light. The frantic effort to shut out doubt ends up fostering its growth.
People who won’t think won’t overcome their doubt. But thinking is not enough. Action is also required. When doubts arise in any relationship, including a relationship with God, a combination of thought and action – communicating, spending time together, working together – is required. Thinking opens the curtains and lets in the light. Action sweeps out the dust.
Sometimes doubts arise in a relationship not because of what the other person has done, but because of what we have done or failed to do. When it comes to God, if we do what we know he disapproves or fail to do what we know he wants, our attitude toward him will change and doubt will be introduced. We will begin to doubt that he is truly for us. Eventually, we may doubt that he exists at all.
(First published by Gannett.)