Doubt has a great deal of cultural cachet these days. People who have serious doubts about their faith are considered normal, healthy, and most of all, intellectually honest. A writer who expresses his or her doubt eloquently is considered a sage.
Self-assured, confident, and bold faith has been the hallmark of evangelicals, so much so that it sometimes gets out of hand (as in the word faith movement). But it appears that doubt is becoming an increasingly common experience for evangelicals: Note John Ortberg's Faith and Doubt, David Dark's The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, and Alister E. McGrath's Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith—among other offerings. Such books would not see the light of day if evangelical publishers didn't suspect that their readers weren't looking for wisdom on this matter.
Overall, this is a healthy development. To pretend that faith in Christ does not entail some rough patches is sheer hypocrisy. Some of the greatest heroes of Scripture doubted God's goodness—Abraham, Job, and Habakkuk quickly come to mind. If them, why not us?
In such a time, we are wise to note that there are also many of us who live a doubt-free faith. Doubt has never been much of a player in our lives. I had one period in seminary when I was deathly afraid that God might not exist, but the period was short lived. Before and after that, I can candidly say that I've had no doubts about my faith. I've talked to a couple of trusted friends this week—one pastor, one nationally known writer on spirituality—and their experience is the same. I suspect we're not the last three people on the planet with such faith.
So in an era when doubt is on the ascendency, what are we to make of those who live a doubt-filled faith and those who enjoy a doubt-free faith?
To be clear: the contrast I'm interested in is not between faith and certainty. For the sake of this column, I'm going to assume that faith, by its very nature, assumes uncertainty—otherwise, why would we need faith and hope? We are not given to know as God knows—with utter and complete and perfect knowledge. We are, however, given faith that God knows with utter and complete and perfect knowledge, and thus we can trust in him. Nor am I talking about that aspect of faith in which one can grow—an increasing humility and trust and obedience to God in all things.
Instead, I want to think about the doubt that would question perhaps God's existence, but especially his wisdom or goodness—a deep anxiety or concern which comes over us, not something we seem to have much control over one way or another.
This is something even devout Christians experience—thus the spate of books trying to be of some help. Still, those who wrestle with doubt are tempted—as are those who live with doubtless faith—to justify themselves and their lives.
In the worst case scenario, we justify doubt to allow us to maintain distance from God. I've had conversations with some who say they refuse to believe in Christ because to do so would require them to submit to him, and they have no interest in changing their libertine ways. They don't admit this upfront; at first they describe all the intellectual problems that prevent them from becoming a Christian. But when pressed, some have been at least honest enough to say what was really going on.
Another type of doubt—or at least the type of faith that might result from this doubt—becomes a way to justify the faith we end up with. For instance, we're told not to panic when our children or friends express doubts, because this is said to be a normal stage in the life of faith. We cannot make faith our own if we do not go through periods in which we question what we've been taught.