You Can Doubt and Have Faith without Exploding

by Travis Dickinson March 27, 2019

It is not uncommon for Christians to doubt their faith. Unfortunately, we often treat our doubts like we have contracted an illness. Indeed, the prescription for doubt and the prescription for a common cold are often virtually identical. When one doubts, one is told to wait it out, treat symptoms as best as one can (usually with prayer or some form of exorcism!), and hope it goes away. This approach might work for some. But for many others, the doubts creep back in, and it often returns with friends. Sadly, many abandon their Christian faith because they cannot find a safe place to admit their doubts without being told something is wrong with them.

I’d like to suggest that faith and having doubts are compatible and that, when treated properly, our doubts have am incredible valuable for coming to a robust faith.

Doubt is not the destination

Let me just get this out of the way. Doubt is not the destination. It is not a good in itself. No one should want to stay put in a place of doubt. Doubting is a trial. But trials, James tells us, produce that special sense of endurance which leads to a mature faith. This kind of faith allows us to ask God for wisdom with unshakable confidence.[1]

What is doubt? What is faith?

Now, as a professor of philosophy, I can’t NOT define terms.

What is doubt? Doubt is feeling the force of an objection. It is not just asking a difficult question. It may start here, but we doubt when we start to feel beat up by the question. Doubts come when we start to feel the force (or the pull or the plausibility) of a question or objection we can’t easily answer.

What is faith? To have faith is to venture our trust in someone or thing. I don’t have faith in an airplane by simply believing things about the plane. I have faith in an airplane when I get onboard. It’s when I venture on an airplane’s ability to get me to my destination without falling out of the sky. The point is faith is an act of trust.

Faith and doubt are compatible

So here we go: faith and having doubts are compatible because one can get on board an airplane (i.e., express faith) even if one has some doubts about how it all works. One can be downright distraught about falling out of the sky and still entrust oneself to the airplane. Again, this is not a good place to be. I’ve traveled with people who have a fear of flying and, trust me, it is not a treat for anyone, especially the one who is distraught!

And it is no fun to doubt one’s Christian faith. But one can continue venturing one’s trust in Christ and the reality of the gospel even in the midst of serious doubts.

But don’t stay there. We have to address our doubts head on and it is here where we see the value of doubt. If I’m doubting some aspect of my faith, I should dive deep in investigating that aspect. If I’m able to see my way clear on that particular issue, my faith has become mature, at least on that issue. Not only am I no longer doubting, the next time I’m challenged on this issue, I’m ready to give a defense (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Isn’t this risky?

Isn’t this all a bit risky? Yes, yes it is. When I investigate I open myself up to the possibility of finding evidence that points away from Christian faith. But I think it is risky and even, in some ways, riskier to ignore our doubts. And here’s the good news: the Christian faith rests on a sure foundation of compelling evidence.

I’ll close with a couple of suggestions:

1. Don’t doubt alone. Working through doubts happens best in community. Ideally, you should find some thoughtful guide who is further along this journey than you. There is also a load of terrific books out there that can help guide as well.

2. Take it slow. It takes time to adequately address a question and it is easy to get overwhelmed. Take one thing at a time and don’t move on too quickly.

3. You might not get it all figured out. Do you have an answer to every question about how an airplane works? If I’m honest, I don’t know much about airplanes, but I know enough to entrust my life to them regularly. I, as a seminary professor, am happy to admit that I don’t know about a few things when it comes to my Christian faith. These things do not shake my faith precisely because there is too much I do know about the tremendous case for Christianity.

Notes

  1. ^ See James 1:2-8