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Monthly Archives: April 2017

For a while I have wanted to write a blog about doubt as it’s a matter very close to my heart. If you’re brought up in a Christian background or attend churches where doubt isn’t openly discussed and if you do have doubts – or simply questions which would challenge the mainstream view in your church- this can be a very isolating and scary experience.

This isn’t a blog isn’t intended at providing a recipe for doubt so that it will go away. Everyone responds to doubt differently so I’m not sure such a recipe exists and besides, I don’t think that all doubt is bad or wrong. The blog is more an attempt to share experiences and reflections so that Christians who do experience doubt can feel slightly less alone – and maybe provide some thoughts on how to live with those doubts.

I have grappled with doubt and questions pretty much since I became a Christian in my teenage years. Over the years that has meant real wrestling with God, with my faith and from time to time, feeling like a square peg stuck in a round hole. Sometimes it’s felt like I’m standing on the edge of the abyss, peering into a dark void of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s felt like being in a house whilst an earthquake is going on, with all the walls shaking and my favourite pictures falling off the walls, the frames smashing on the floor.

In short, it has been and can be tough. My own personal story is that I have a faith in Jesus which has evolved through the doubts and questions, rather than falling away – although there have been times where I have felt like I wasn’t really a Christian at all. There are times when I have felt like I was just going through the motions, when God felt a million miles away and when I was functionally, pretty much an atheist. I am really grateful as I feel that faith in Jesus is a gift. I listen to stories of atheists who would like to believe but simply cannot and stories of ex Christians whose doubts and questions drove them away from Jesus and the church – and find that faith is not something that is an easy thing to grasp for everyone. I don’t want to make any statements of faith or doctrinal belief as for me, the biggest statement of my faith is my life in relation to Jesus and the choices I make – which cannot really be contained in a blog. I think you need to get to know a person I think to understand what their faith in Jesus really means, beyond a list of beliefs.

The topic of doubt is so big that rather than bore everyone and give myself a headache I’m going to try and deal with it in installments. I think the first thing to do is to get some clarity of what we are talking about here. Doubt when it comes to Christianity and God is a very big and broad term – imagine it as a huge blanket, a groundsheet if you will, which is used to cover a whole myriad of states of the heart and mind when it comes to God. In order to try and make sense of things a bit I have lumped doubt into three categories – intellectual doubt, emotional doubt and doctrinal doubt.

Once I’ve explored these different types of doubt I’ll finish with looking at how we as the church might respond to the doubters amongst us – and what that might look like in the context of seeking to love them and love God. I’ll share some useful books and resources I have come across along the way too.

Intellectual doubt

Does God exist? Is the Bible reliable? Was Jesus who he said he was? Did the resurrection really happen? Why does God not act in the way he did in Biblical times?

Have these questions ever crossed your mind? I think intellectual doubts and questions like this are a fairly natural result of growing up in a society that encourages critical thinking and rational thought. At school I remember doing history exams where I had to look at different sources of evidence and decide how reliable they were. In science I had to make hypotheses and then use evidence to prove or disprove them. In English literature we analysed books and speculated about the different points the authors could be making. To be honest, for a naturally curious person who thinks a lot, it would have been more surprising if I hadn’t started applying the critical mind that my education gave me, to my faith.

It seems to me that intellectual doubts lead in different directions and bring out different reactions. For some people, their doubt causes them to lose their faith completely (have a look at Jonathan Edward’s story).  It would seem to me that if questioning their faith isn’t something a person has been brought up to do (or if they had, only to a point), the whole process can then cause a person’s faith take a large hit, or even crumble. I’ve heard it described as the house of cards effect – if you remove one card from a house of cards, the whole thing falls down. If you take the same approach to faith in Jesus, having a faith like a house of cards, it won’t be possible to adjust any of your beliefs without risking all of them falling to pieces. It’s an all or nothing situation.

If you have the time I would really encourage you to read this five part blog by Vanessa James (an ex Christian). Vanessa was brought up in a strongly conservative evangelical Christian culture and went through what she called a, “Christian detox” deconstructing her faith through critical analysis. Mike McHargue would be another example, being an elder in a Baptist church whilst secretly journeying towards atheism, participating in online atheist forums and doing reams of research.

There are others though who have had intellectual doubts and rather than it destroy their faith, it has simply caused it to evolve and change. Rachel Held Evans explored her doubts and found it meant saying goodbye the way she had approached faith in her teenage years and early twenties. What emerged was a new type of faith which she actually felt was more reasonable and which she owned for herself, albeit not a faith with the iron clad certainty that she had grown up with. She chronicles her journey in her book, “Evolving in Monkey Town.

Intellectual doubt works both ways of course. Probably the most famous intellectual doubter from an atheistic point of view is CS Lewis who after questioning his atheism, became a theist and eventually became a Christian. There’s an interesting conversation here between Vanessa James and an American academic, Holly Ordway who was raised in a non-religious household and converted to Christianity – and then Catholicism when she was an adult.

Mike and Vanessa’s stories are worth checking out as their journey into atheism is only part of their story, but the thing that ties them and Rachel together is that the process of deconstruction (and potentially reconstruction) was a deeply emotional one. Being brought up in Christian cultures where deep questioning was not encouraged, being people for whom God was precious and the idea of losing him was like losing a dear friend, the process of questioning was full of emotion. Whether that be fear of losing everything, a sense of freedom in realising they certain things that had weighed them down weren’t (in their opinion) true, or sadness at the realisation they no longer believed the things they had before – it was an emotional ride.

I think many of us as Christians fear asking honest intellectual questions as we are scared of what the answers might be. We have a Christian comfort blanket around us as it were and we are terrified of what might happen if the answers to those questions rip it off. If we have been brought up in fundamentalist backgrounds (where the list of beliefs which are required to be a Christian are pretty long and pretty rigid in terms of how they can be interpreted), then the fear can be even greater. We may feel that a shift in our “fundamentals” (and I put that word in quotes as I personally feel there are often things included in fundamentals of belief which are not in fact fundamentals at all)  puts the whole structure of belief at risk. The house of cards effect basically starts to come into play.

The problem with that attitude is that whilst you can bury the questions, in my personal experience they don’t ever really go away. They can actually impede you experiencing a deepening of your relationship with God because they are always nagging away, like a toothache one tries to ignore by eating on the other side of the mouth or avoiding ice cream.

There are certain questions which I have which I don’t think will ever go away. How can a good God allow things such as genocide and rape? Is the Bible the word of God? Did everything happen literally as described in the Bible or is it more man’s interpretation of God? And that’s just the beginning. I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts, done a lot of reading…and I’ve realised….there are many answers to these questions and they often contradict each other. You can go down the scientific route but science does not answer philosophical questions around meaning. It also cannot deal with morality or the spiritual realm. When it comes to philosophy, there is always another layer, another angle. Trying to find answers to these questions is, in my experience, like trying to navigate your way through a complex of rabbit warrens. It’s never ending and very stressful! On all of my questions I have found very good arguments in many different directions – the atheists have their arguments (philosophers and scientists), other faiths have theirs, and Christians have theirs. Personally, I’ve had to come to the conclusion that “I don’t know” is the best answer I can give to many questions – and that in itself has been very liberating.

Here’s why. A really key thing for me is to realise has been that my faith in Jesus does not depend purely on intellectual assent of certain concepts and rational argument and that no one in this life has all the answers. I live in a post enlightenment European culture so there is no denying things like reason are important to me. But Christianity existed pre Enlightenment so I doubt very much this kind of intellectualised approach to faith was the predominant one amongst the early church. Yet they still managed to nurture a meaningful faith and follow Jesus. Nurturing faith is different to conducting critical analysis – it’s not that we leave our brains at the door, but it goes way beyond being persuaded by an intellectual argument.

Whilst I will always try to grapple with questions and explore them (my bookshelf and podcast archive being testimony to this!) the thing which effects my relationship with God the most in terms of my actions and the intimacy I experience, is actually the time I spend with him and how I choose to respond to him. Mike McHargue has some really sound advice for the doubter, advising that rather than tie yourself in knots about the things you are not sure about, choose to pray and mediate on the things you do have a degree of certainty on. So for example, on a very basic level,  if you believe God exists and is the source of life, try talking to God about that, ponder that, meditate on it, let it soak in, ask God what that means for you, for the world, practice listening and waiting for him to speak – and see what grows from that. Simplifying things in this way has helped me to move away from a faith which causes mental distress into a faith which can actually grow. A faith which has strong foundations which are actually from God – not borrowed from other people whether that be church leaders, teachers or my own family. A faith where I have a desire to read the Bible because I want to connect with God, not because it’s something I feel I should do and something I can only do if I come to certain pre-proscribed conclusions.

Spiritual disciplines such as silence, meditative prayer, reading the Bible in the lectio divinia tradition, studying the Bible, service within my community, regular confession with my husband…(have a read of the “celebration of discipline” by Richard Foster) have pushed me towards becoming a follower of Jesus much more than any apologetics argument ever has done. Because what is faith in Jesus anyway? Is it being intellectually certain of certain beliefs and, therefore, following Jesus? Or could it include not being 100% sure but making the choice to follow him anyway? Is that maybe how faith might grow?

I read a book recently called “Love Does” which talks a lot about how faith in Jesus is actually made visible through loving action. It reminded me of what Dietrich Bonheoffer says in his book, The Cost of Discipleship that it’s pretty impossible to separate faith from obedience in terms of the order in which things happen for a follow of Christ. I personally have found that the disciplines above have meant that I am more able to love, more able to take steps of obedience in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of doubt. Those disciplines, I believe, position me to be able to receive and hear from God, meaning that whilst the doubts are still there, they are not in the driving seat.