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”?
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.