Why are Christians so afraid of doubt?
“Stop doubting and believe.” Jesus said to Thomas. In James 1:6 we are warned “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”. So doubt is bad. If you doubt, there is something wrong with you. Your faith must be weak. You just need to trust and believe.
The story within many Christian communities is that life following Jesus progresses in a victorious straight line. And when the reality of our lives and world does not match up we need to at least pretend that this is case. No wonder Christians are so often accused of been hypocrites. We really struggle with honesty sometimes.
Christian author Philip Yancey observes that “The church has sometimes chastised people who admit their weakness and failure, and our society has an aversion to suffering… So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they secretly hurt and doubt.”
So what can we do about this? Well Yancey goes on to say, “When I speak to college students, I challenge them to find a single argument against God… that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk and Lamentations. … God seems rather doubt-tolerant, actually.”
If we take wider look at scripture we actually see a number of situations where some of our ‘heros of the faith’ express some rather strong doubts about God, but don’t end up falling off the wagon.
Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.’ Exodus 5:22-23
Joshua said, ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! Joshua 7:7
You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? Jeremiah 12:1
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? Psalm 10
I love the refreshing raw honesty of these verses. It shows a God who does not fear or is threatened by our doubt. But is able to use it to draw us to him. The Christian faith is not a precarious, carefully balanced stack of rocks on the beach. If you tap it or prod it the whole thing might fall down. No. It is a firm foundation and like the wise man who builds his house on the rock, it has survived thousands of years wars, debate, arguments and attacks. And still stands. Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail.
Doubt sometimes gets confused for unbelief which can be problematic. Colin Smith highlights the difference between doubt and unbelief saying. “Doubt is questioning what you believe. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe. Doubt is a struggle faced by the believer. Unbelief is a condition of the unbeliever.”
But some streams of the Christian faith find doubt more problematic than others, seeing doubt and unbelief as the same thing and sometimes adding cultural ideologies, values and norms to the ‘essentials’ of the faith. Michael Hakmin Lee observes that: “Evangelicalism, especially its more conservative or fundamentalist incarnations, commonly fosters a rigidly constructed faith, with multiple layers of what we consider essential beliefs and values. On the one hand, certitude can be comforting and reassuring in a world filled with chaos and uncertainty. However, the danger of holding something to be essential to one’s faith is that when that essential belief is called into question, the whole edifice, not just that belief, begins to destabilize. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with confidence or certainty in one’s beliefs and convictions, there is potential harm when evangelical communities and leaders place an unwarranted level of confidence in their theological constructs and impose their certitude on others.”
Evangelicals faith in certainties can make us very uncomfortable with mystery. And unfortunately many of us would rather deal with a simple wrong answer than a complex or unclear one. The reality is that doubt is a part of our day-to-day life. It is not necessarily good nor bad. It is our response to that uncertainty that determines whether it was good for us or not.
Os Guinness describes the value of doubt as follows: “The value of doubt is that it can be used to detect error…. But a sword like this will cut both ways. If doubt can be turned destructively against truth so that it is dismissed as error, doubt can also be used constructively to prosecute error disguised as truth…. Doubt, then, is a problem for both faith and knowledge. As long as the presence of doubt is detected anywhere, neither faith nor knowledge can ever be complacent. But though doubt may be normal, it should be temporary and it should always be resolved. Wisely understood, resolutely faced, it need hold no fear for the Christian. To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”