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The Opportunity of Doubt

It is human, all too human, to doubt. When we share our faith with our non-Christian friends, we are often skirting the tension between finite understanding and infinite understanding—between the materially possible and the spiritually necessary. Doubt and faith have nothing to say to each other, and yet in this world, they often appear inseparable. For this reason (and by God’s grace), I have felt the Spirit prompting me at times to share my doubts with the folks I disciple. My prayer is that what follows is both a guide to the stormy waters of doubt as well as a clear pointer to the light of Christ shining above the troubled seas of our lives.

One Hundred and One Fun Things to do with Doubt

Last football season, I had an extra ticket to a game, and I invited my friend along. We stopped by the grocery store for some beers and sunscreen before heading to the tailgate party. Which is to say, I wasn’t really brooding about Existence right then, but my friend was. As we waited in the check-out line, he started talking about the end of the world: how humans have polluted the land, air, and water; how we’re continuing to do it; how we’re actually increasing our efforts.

Zoom out. We were waiting in line in a noisy, crowded store, and my friend was speaking to one of my most complex, unending despairs. Here’s how the doubt runs in my mind: both the Bible and science indicate that the future isn’t exactly rosy for the earth, and yet one of God’s initial commands was for humans to be stewards of His creation. I can’t help but feel deeply ashamed of the ways my actions contribute to the destruction of the environment.

This doubt stems from a cognitive dissonance: Take care of the Earth versus the Earth will be destroyed. This dissonance is partly responsible for the heated political rhetoric surrounding the environment and sustainability. At any rate, this is what I told my friend. I explained how deep my despair is about this subject, and I didn’t sugarcoat it with some platitude about my beliefs. I was honest. I told him that I have to pray about the Earth every morning. I have to give it back to God. On a cosmic-scale, it’s almost hilarious just how much global climate change is out of my hands, and yet I cannot help but feel responsible.

The beauty is that God doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He doesn’t have to. He knows this planet—He even knows me—far better than I do. By placing my faith in Christ, I align myself not with unthinking religiosity, but with the greatest thinker in the universe. As a result, I am free to act (and sometimes even fail) in pursuing environmental stewardship.

Zoom back in. My friend and I are standing in line to buy junk from the local mega-corporation. (There’s those cognitive dissonances playing out in real life.) But I don’t have to despair. Yes, I think the gospel calls us to help in renewing all creation, but do I always trust that knowledge? No. That’s what I told my friend. The gospel frees me from judgment and empowers me to act (Romans 6:1-2), but I am still compelled to get down on my knees and pray for strength to accept that freedom everyday.

We can open up to our friends about doubt, if we will see past our feelings of despair into our forgiveness in Christ. This frees our witness from both crippling defeatism and self-satisfied legalism. It can season our speech with the salt of critical thought (Colossians 4:6). In other words, the doubts aren’t the key. The key is the compassion found in Christ—that he understands our doubts and still loves us.

With this freedom, my friend and I climbed into my car and drove to our national distraction. Because I followed the Spirit’s promptings to be transparent about doubt, I gained an opportunity to talk about my faith. Honesty about doubt led to a deeper conversation about faith.

Doubts and the Doubting Doubters who Doubt Them

In Christ, there is no real reason for doubt. In Christ, we claim forgiveness, grace, and peace. Through faith in Christ, we possess the power to move mountains. The problem is one of unbelief. Our brokenness, our every sin stems from something we do not fully believe about God, but if we are to share our faith in a genuine way, we must share how God answers our unbelief, how our wayward minds are redeemed in Christ, how our troubled souls find rest and overflowing grace in the Holy Spirit.

When sharing a doubt with your friends, avoid the language of ownership (if possible). More importantly avoid self-pity about the despair attached to the doubt. Avoid smugness about your faith. The hope is that in disclosing a doubt we can open up a discussion of faith and offer loving words about how God answers our unbelief with grace and courage.

For example, many of my non-Christian friends feel the doubt voiced by logical positivist philosophers like A.J. Ayers. In so many words, they’ll explain that religious language is nonsense because it’s scientifically/empirically unverifiable. While this isn’t my particular brand of doubt, it is certainly one to which many non-Christians cling. But in speaking to them about this doubt, I have not found it helpful to rationally discourse about this philosophical stance. The conversation then caves in on the limits of its own reasonability, resulting at best in a series of metaphysical chess problems.

Rather, when I’m attentive to the Spirit, I’ve learned to take a step back and remember my own feelings of doubt—how they create such pointless sorrow and anxiety—and I speak to that. In other words, when we’re in tune with the Spirit, we speak from the heart to the heart (not necessarily from the mind to the mind).

The Division of the Individual

That’s all good and fine for sitting at the café chatting with our friends. What do we do when doubt gets personal? For example, what of the militant doubts that point out the uncounted atrocities that have been committed in the name of religious belief?

Again, take a step back and pray. Remember, this is the despair and anguish of unbelief talking. We are not equipped to answer these charges. Fortunately, Christ is. In this example, it may not be a good idea to air your own feelings of unbelief and doubt, but rather speak directly to the pain of the individual with the healing and love you have found in Christ Jesus.

Here’s the funny thing about faith. We all have it. It takes a certain amount of faith simply to be convinced that my “self” or anyone else exists. Interestingly, folks don’t typically assign this aspect of faith any religious meaning. It’s simply “who we are.” But, in the total absence of faith, who are we really? There are statistics that speak to those who lose this last hold-out of faith, and they aren’t pleasant. Without some small amount of faith, we would begin to doubt the very substance of our being.

This is the critical juncture of how broken we really are. Except for faith, our humanity is literally falling apart. In John’s Gospel, Christ says,  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). This is kinda scary stuff for a non-Christian to hear, but God is bigger than those fears. God is bigger than the horrifying things that have been done by ignorant and deceived and broken people in his name. How do I know this? Is it simply wishful thinking? Is God loving only because I say so? No. Christ says that’s all sorts of backwards and upside down.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. – John 15:9-12

In other words, when addressing—for example—despair over the atrocities committed in the name of religion, leave everything else and follow Christ. Remind your self and your friend that—according to scripture—nothing has been done in Christ’s true unutterable name that wasn’t also done in love. If an act of “religious belief” was done without love, it was done without Christ, and if it was done without Christ, then it was done without faith. In the absence of faith, all that remains is—not just doubt—but the void, the total dissolution of the God-breathed life inside us.

The critical distinction we must make as disciples of Christ is that our identity and agency do not arise from the formless void gnawing at the base of individual identity. By grace, we are learning to see that the very prospect of this construction of individual self is impossible from its foundation up, hence the terror and pain of those feelings of doubt. But when we take ownership of faith in Christ, then from him flows a new communal identity and a powerful fellowship of agency—the foundation of which is the very center, the unshakable core of all Creation.

Identity Restored

My true identity is in Christ not in myself. In Christ, we stand united with the true meaning of our lives, with our renewed humanity. But for a person hearing this truth for the first time, all this sounds pretty weird. The loss of individual identity? Being united with what? This is when—if I’m in tune with the Spirit—I often hear that still small voice saying, “Share those same doubts you once had… now share how Christ offers so much more.”

Christ is the hinge on which the entire universe turns. Christ is the door that opens to the infinite glory of God. Likewise, the gospel is the key that unlocks our restore identity. The good news is Christ understands our doubts. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ dispels the disciples’ doubts just before his ascension, offering questions that convict me even now: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see.” (Luke 24:38-39)

My prayer today is to lay my doubts before Christ. To meditate on the wounds he suffered for my sake and find in his cuts and bruises the fullness of grace poured out for my sake. What doubt can withstand this flood of mercy? May the Holy Spirit guide the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts toward healing the sickness and pain of unbelief in ourselves and in those we disciple!—that we might sing of the peace and restoration found only in our redeemer Christ Jesus.

Ben Roberts is follower of Christ & an Editor at both Gospel Centered Discipleship & the speculative literary journal, Unstuck. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, he lives in Austin with his wife, Jessica & son, Solomon. They fellowship and worship at City Life. Twitter: @BenStoleMyName.

For more on sharing the gospel authentically, check out Jonathan Dodson’s Unbelievable Gospel.