What do YOU do with doubts?

I recently wrote a blog posting for Gifted for Leadership, a Christianity Today web site for women who lead in the workplace, community, neighborhood, church, volunteer ministry, etc. The posting (below) is about how women in church leadership roles can handle times of spiritual doubt & questioning. I got a wide variety of responses — a few of them basically accused me of not being a true Christian and not having a well-grounded biblical theology. These critics propose that true faith in God means NO DOUBT. I think that perhaps these critics didn’t understand what I mean by “doubts” in the article below. I definitely recognize that there are clearly “bad” doubts — the kind that the Bible speaks against. But there are also doubts that are born of sincerity, of a desire to deepen and strengthen belief, and a hope to find questions answered. Of course there are some things that always remain mysterious, especially in the realm of faith — and I embrace that. But I also think that God is big enough to handle our questions. He knows our hearts and, when our questions are borne out of a desire to know him more, I believe he welcomes them.

So, read the article below and then let me know: What do YOU think about doubt? How have you dealt with spiritual questions? What do you see as the difference between healthy spiritual questioning and a doubt that reflects “little faith”?

No Doubt?

When do we stop being spiritual seekers? Certainly, through a faith commitment to Jesus, we move from the theological category “lost” to the category “found.” But does the seeking ever truly end? Should it?

I’ve often heard it said that Job was a hero because, though he suffered greatly, he never questioned God. Oh really? I wonder if people who say this have ever actually read some of the things Job said out of his anguish. Have they read his expressions of agony, his wrestling, his frustration, his sense that God was not even listening? The message of the book of Job certainly isn’t “never question God.” For me personally, one of the strongest messages of the book of Job and its inclusion in the canon of Scripture is the brutally honest acknowledgement that confusion—serious, painful confusion…and suffering…and questioning…and doubt…and inner turmoil—are part of the human experience. They are part of any human’s relationship with God. There are moments of confusion and darkness for all of us.

Yet there’s an implicit expectation in the church that Christian leaders are to be somehow immune to this. Pastors, missionaries, parachurch workers, Bible study leaders—they certainly never have doubts…right? And if, for some strange reason they did have doubts, they absolutely should never mention them to anyone.

I have noticed one exception to this general rule. I’ve occasionally heard brave and honest men and women share publicly about times of doubt in their lives—but it has always, without exception, been after the fact. In other words, once you’ve made it through a time of spiritual difficulty or theological wrestling, then (and only then) is it OK to talk about it.

Have you ever heard a pastor or ministry leader stand up and say, “Right now my spiritual life is a mess. Right now I’m really wrestling with some logical/ethical/spiritual/Scriptural issue and I’m not sure where I’ll land. Right now I feel like God has abandoned me. Right now I’m waiting for proof/an answer/comfort/satisfaction.”

I never have. After all, it’d be quite dangerous. It could possibly even be contagious! It could lead non-Christians to think this life with Jesus isn’t all its cracked up to be. It could lead immature Christians to give up their faith. And it certainly would lead some in the church to question that person’s qualifications for leadership.

So what’s a leader to do when she has doubts? When she’s wrestling inside, unsatisfied with some Christian idea and in the process of teasing out the issues with God? Or when she’s knocking on God’s door and not getting an answer? Should she just hide out in a closet until she’s somehow made it through (alone) and has got a great testimony to share?

Poor Thomas got labeled a doubter throughout the rest of human history because he voiced his (reasonable) disbelief that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. But we must take note: Thomas was not reprimanded by Jesus for his declaration. In fact, Jesus willingly gave Thomas the proof he needed. Jesus satisfied Thomas’s questions, and the result was Thomas’s life-altering declaration, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas’s authenticity is a powerful example that strikes a blow at the dangerous idea that Christian leaders should never express doubt. His expression of doubt led to a commitment of lordship that gave Thomas the courage to later travel throughout India and possibly Persia with the Gospel, eventually being martyred for his unswerving faith.

What can we learn from Thomas or from Job? Though we must take seriously the danger of sharing doubts or questions in a way that could hurt the faith of others, we must also aim to be authentic about our experience as a Christian and human being. Leaders who keep their human frailty completely hidden away are fakes. Though they may inspire others by their public example, they aren’t really showing what it means to be a human being with faith in Jesus. Sometimes faith really is as small as a mustard seed…or even much, much smaller! Sometimes faith is microscopic. Sometimes faith feels weak and tiny, and like it’s barely hanging on. Leaders who hide this reality away inevitably hurt others by presenting a distorted picture of the Christian life.

I don’t know the answer to this dilemma, other than seeing the dangers of both extremes. Broadcasting doubts and spiritual problems for all to hear certainly isn’t wise nor is it caring toward those of tender faith whom you’re nurturing. But hiding away all spiritual struggle and wearing a “mature-Christians-never-doubt” façade is just as dangerous. It presents a false faith to those we minister to—an inhuman, unreal faith.

When you face doubts, struggles, or are unsure where you land on big theological issues, do you speak openly about your questions? If so, what’s been the result? Do you feel the freedom, as a Christian leader, to be real about your struggles? Or do you feel the pressure to hide them away? Who’s a leader to turn to in order to express spiritual struggles? I’d love to hear your own thoughts and experiences.

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5 responses to “What do YOU do with doubts?

  1. From your blog, what I’m hearing is that it is ‘abnormal’ not to doubt one’s christian life and any christian leader who does not express doubts are being insincere and presenting a wrong picture of being a true christian to those they are reaching.

    My question to you is:
    1. Is it wrong to be confident in one’s faith in the Lord Jesus?
    2. What exactly does it means to have ‘doubts’? What qualify as doubts to you?
    3. The more we grow in our faith and understanding of Scriptures it becomes easier to trust the God of the Bible we believe in and know through the Lord Jesus Christ which will help allay all doubts. Do you believe that?

    • Great questions, Laura! Thanks for commenting. Let me clarify a bit. First, I must say that I don’t think living in a state of doubt/questioning/struggle should be the “norm” for any Christian, especially for leaders. So I’m definitely _not_ trying to say that it’s abnormal for a person not to doubt their Christian life. What I would say, though, is that I think all people have “dark” times in their life in which questions or spiritual confusion assail them. This is reflected in many of the psalms — I do think that most Christians have periods of struggle. So what I’m questioning here is the idea that Christian leaders feel a strong pressure to, in essence, be dishonest about those periods of struggle — to keep them hidden away.
      In response to your questions,
      1) Definitely NOT! I do believe we should have confidence in our faith in Jesus. I actually think periods of struggle/questioning _lead_ to a greater sense of confidence in our faith.
      2) This, too, is a great question b/c the word “doubt” can mean many things. I’m not talking about doubt in the sense of someone rejecting their belief in God. What I am talking about here in my posting are the questions/confusions/skepticism that can come our way in a variety of topics. Thomas had very real, normal, human doubts/questions. I think that most of us can relate to him at least at some point in our life. But he took those questions TO Jesus and Jesus responded. Further, his process of bringing his questions to Jesus led to a profound statement of deepened belief (“My Lord and my God!”). So the type of doubt that I think is “good” are those honest questions/wonderings/confusions (again, like those expressed in the psalms, in Job, and elsewhere in Scripture) that we bring to God in a spirit of faith and hope rather than in a mind-set of rejecting God or rejecting faith.
      3. I agree and I disagree with you here. But hopefully my explanation of “doubts” above helps my answer here make more sense. I do think that as we grow to know Jesus more, study Scripture, etc., we _definitely_ should be overcoming a great deal of doubt and skepticism! Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you in that sense. But again, I do think there are times for all human beings that are just plain tough — and when even a person’s faith (which may have been VERY strong) feels weak. I believe we can come to Jesus at those times and seek his help, asking him our questions, expressing our true emotions. And I believe that if Christian leaders can have the courage to be more honest (as appropriate) when going through those times, it would help _other_ Christians deal with those difficult times when they come.

      What do you think, Laura? Do these answers make sense and help clarify my intention in the post?

      • I see your meaning of doubt clearer now in the light of your quoting Job’s and the Psalmist’s experiences of weakness from being human during trials and testings which we all experience when going through sufferings of life. 1 Corinthians 10:13 Paul talked about common temptations we all go through. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Hello Kelli:

    I am new to your site, and I just have to say that this blog touches my heart. I have always loved the book of Job because of his human reactions and questioning of God. I think we all have had at least one dark time when we have asked God “Why?” and I do not believe this is wrong. This shows are close relationship with Him in that we are confident in our faith to have the “hard conversations” with Him. We ask why this has happened to us, and how do we overcome this situation with Gods’ help. Much of Jobs’ conversation could be considered prayer. Isn’t that what God wants from us? He wants our relationship, our desire for His help in the dark times and to share and Thank Him for the good times.

    I agree that a Pastor (leader) should not express his/her own concern (if you will rather than doubt) during a sermon since the people in the pews are all at different levels of faith. Some are new believers who could be confused with this confession, and of course there will always be someone (or a few) who will take this comment as a lack of faith by their leader as you stated.

    I had a Pastor at my church while in a meeting/class with a few maturing Christians stated his concern (doubt) regarding a situation in his life. He needed to explain the circumstances in as little detail as possible so we would understand his concern and he asked us to pray with him and for him in the future. As I saw in a different blog on Kyria.com I believe, if we can go to our Pastor (leader) describing a bad time in our lives and ask for his/her prayer with and for us, why shouldn’t the Pastor/Leader be able to do the same with Christians who are mature enough to understand this concern does not mean a lost faith. If I were sick I would take the medicine the Dr. prescribes and ask the church for their prayers. I believe the Pastor/Leader can and should do the same. Another Pastor, female, asked for prayers for a foot problem. Does this mean she didn’t have enough faith as Pastor? Absolutely not.

    Going to God with our troubles, our praise is what I believe He wants; this daily relationship.

  3. Kelli — LOVED this article. One of my favorite stories in the Bible is when John the Baptist, in prison and about to die, sends friends to ask Jesus, “Are you really the one, or should we expect another?” It’s encouraging for those of us who love God and desperately want more of Him — yet seem to be perennially wrestling with Him. For a great book on this, see Gene Edwards’ PRISONER IN THE THIRD CELL.

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