Six Lessons I’ve Learned about Doubt
by Martin Thielen
“I have doubts. I have such doubts.” Those are the closing words of Doubt, a 2008 Academy Award-winning film starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Those anguished words of doubt were spoken by Sister Aloysius, principal of a New York City parish school. She spoke the words after accusing a priest of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student at her school. However, by the end of the movie, one suspects Sister Aloysius’s doubts went far deeper than her unproved accusations against the priest. In all likelihood, they also included doubts about her religious vocation, the Roman Catholic church, and faith itself. “I have doubts,” said Sister Aloysius, “I have such doubts.”
Sister Aloysius isn’t alone in her doubts. In recent decades, tens of millions of Americans have left their churches and other places of worship, and that trend shows no sign of abating. Instead, it’s almost certain to accelerate. Although motivations for departing organized religion are numerous, doubts about God, institutional religion, and traditional beliefs lead the pack.
Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find the early followers of Jesus struggling with doubt about the resurrection of Christ. Per the risen Lord’s command, the disciples gathered on a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus. The text says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17, emphasis added). As one who has doubted much of my adult life, I’d like to briefly review six lessons I’ve learned about religious doubt.
- Doubt is unavoidable. Every major character in the Bible struggled with doubt including Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Thomas, and Peter. That’s also been true throughout Christian history. Most leading figures of the church, including Martin Luther and John Wesley, had moments of faith crisis. Mother Teresa, perhaps the greatest saint of modern times, felt God’s absence for decades. In a letter she wrote, “The silence [of God] is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Nobody who believes in God escapes doubt. Instead, like the father with a sick child in Mark 9:24, we often cry out, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
- Doubt is acceptable. It’s important to affirm that doubt is not the enemy of faith but part of faith. Tennyson was right when he said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” Even Jesus experienced doubt. While dying on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In his thoughtful and helpful book, Faith after Doubt, Brian McLaren, himself a doubter, said, “Let’s give one another permission to doubt.”
- Doubt is necessary. The fact is, Christians need to doubt many popular beliefs. For example, we need to doubt biblical literalism, including the idea that God condones slavery, commands genocide, oppresses women, created the world ten thousand years ago, and considers homosexuality an abomination (according to scripture it’s also an abomination to mix fabrics and eat pork). We need to doubt that God eternally torments people in the flames of hell for having erroneous beliefs about Jesus. We need to doubt that non-Christian believers have no hope in this life or the next. We need to doubt that America is God’s preferred nation and is capable of no wrong and that God has a preferred political party. And we need to doubt the idea that everything that happens in the world is God’s will, as if God actually wants children to get leukemia, teenagers to die in automobile accidents, or global pandemics to terrorize the world.
- Doubt is painful. Although doubt is common, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If doubt is felt deeply and lingers long, it can prove overwhelmingly painful, bringing distress, disorientation, and trauma. That’s especially true for people who get paid to believe. One Sunday morning as I drove to church, I found myself singing an old Paul Simon tune called “Kathy’s Song.” In one of the verses, Paul Simon speaks about doubting everything he once held as true. As I sang the old familiar lyrics, I realized that I felt exactly the same way and had for a long time, and I began to weep. Not long after that experience I took early retirement from vocational ministry. For serious believers doubt hurts like hell.
- Doubt is survivable. Near the end of the classic film The Shawshank Redemption, the lead character, Andy Dufresne, escapes prison through a sewer line. In voice-over narration his best friend Red commented, “Andy Dufresne, the man who crawled through five hundred yards of s*** and came out clean the other end.” Grappling with religious doubt can feel like crawling through a mile-long sewer pipe. But, if we navigate it well, we, like Andy, can come out clean on the other end. I cannot give you a precise prescription for traversing doubt. We all have to navigate our own journey. For example, some people stay in church, others take a sabbatical, and a growing number leave and never return. For most doubters, talking with trusted friends is therapeutic. Reading about other people’s journey can also help, and I’ll share some recommendations at the end of this article. For me, surviving doubt meant writing reams of journal pages. But one way or another, you and I can survive—and even thrive—as we journey through doubt.
- Doubt is beneficial. In my conversations with doubters, I often speak about “the benefit of the doubt.” If we let it, doubt can lead to profound insight and growth. As already noted, it can help us discard toxic beliefs. Doubt can also help us develop a more mature and healthy faith. After doubting and discarding nonessential beliefs, we can move beyond a faith of doctrinal propositions—doctrines Jesus didn’t talk about or care about. The Golden Rule, the Great Commandment, the Sermon on the Mount, and the parables have nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs. Neither do the Ten Commandments, the prophets’ call for justice, or Paul’s bottom-line conclusion that “the greatest of these is love.” Instead of calling people to affirm creedal beliefs, Jesus calls us to live a life of love. Period. Therefore, in the end, doubt’s greatest gift is that it leads us away from a faith focused on beliefs and shifts us toward a faith focused on behavior.
About a year ago, while creating “Doubter’s Parish” website, I finally found relief from my decades-long struggle with religious angst. I’m not exactly sure how it happened. But a switch flipped, turning off the endless agony of doubts. Soon afterwards I came upon a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that means a lot to me. He once said, “I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
After years of groping through the seemingly endless maze of doubt, I feel like I have finally crawled through the complexity of faith and found simplicity on the other side. I now realize that I will never understand the mysteries of God, nor do I need to. Instead, I only need to follow the call of Jesus to live a life of love. It’s as simple as that. And it is enough.
Resources for Dealing with Doubt
For a fictional account of dealing with doubt in the twenty-first century, see my novel, An Inconvenient Loss of Faith, available as a free download on this website. You might also want to see my books, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? and The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion.
For help understanding and traversing doubt, I highly recommend Brian McLaren’s new book, Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It. Brian is currently working on a sequel tentatively titled, Do I Stay Christian? You might also enjoy Brian’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.
Although he writes far beyond the boundaries of traditional theology, I find the unorthodox writings of John Shelby Spong extremely helpful, including Why Christianity Must Change or Die, A New Christianity for a New World, and Unbelievable.
I also enjoy the writing of Diana Butler Bass, especially Christianity after Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening and Grounded: Finding God in the World—a Spiritual Revolution.
Another helpful resource is www.ProgressiveChristianity.org, which provides articles and other resources that advocate for progressive understandings of faith.
If you are unsure about traditional Christianity, including the divinity of Christ, but are still drawn to Jesus, you would do well to read Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe by Tom Krattenmaker.
As you attempt to deconstruct old faith and reconstruct a new one, Marcus Borg’s books will likely prove helpful, including The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, and The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith.
If you struggle with doubts in the context of conservative evangelicalism, you will benefit from reading Leatherbound Terrorism by Chris Kratzer, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, and Religious Refugees by Mark Gregory Karris.
My final (and most important) recommendation is that you secure a journal and write your way through your faith struggle. I call journaling, “Therapy You Can Afford.” That discipline, more than anything else, helps me navigate the ongoing journey of living, including doubt and faith.