Doubting is an unpleasant phenomenon.

For pastors it can be an isolating experience as well. For those who live and work in realms that seem to require knowledge and confidence, having doubts threatens to undermine livelihoods and reputations.

How, then, should we handle doubt?

Defining our terms

First, it is important to define what we mean by doubt. Doubts are not questions. Questioning is a form of exploring, a searching out of the world. When we question, we acknowledge and confess our own ignorance—but the confession frees us to learn and grow. Doubts, however, are a wavering in the face of what is known. They are a hesitation to accept what is before us, a psychological unsettledness.

By conflating doubting and questioning, Christians have created environments that breed doubts and make them more difficult to resolve. We are naturally attuned to notice unknowns and to want to find them out. If we deny ourselves the freedom to explore and inquire, we'll find the pressure of doubt slowly building. Those who do not question well will wind up plagued by doubt. If we're not able to confess, "I don't know," we will be in danger of saying "I do not believe."

Doubts do not arise in a vacuum: like all our mental states, they are shaped and formed by the environments in which we live and we initiate and lead. If we've created a culture that suppresses questioning, we may want to consider doing something extremely difficult: publicly repenting.

It has been helpful for me to consider the turmoil of doubt as a gauge for what form of knowledge I have been pursuing. It is possible for our knowledge to stay on the surfaces of our lives, for us to momentarily grasp a thing and then hurry on to the next item of business (which in our pastoral culture, often means doing something). Cultures that privilege "getting things done" have a tendency to keep our understanding shallow. To embark on the slow and patient work of understanding will make us seem (momentarily) less productive. But the soul is made for the depths—and doubt can be an indication of that desire. It can disenchant us with our current form of shallow existence and move us to bring the knowledge crave into the marrow of our bones.

Room for questions

This may mean we need to increase the margins of our lives, creating time to linger more at the waters of life without feeling the standard pastoral pressures. Doubts haunt us from the shadows; they lurk beneath the noise and busyness we use to drown them out. They sit beneath the surfaces, nameless and threatening. Only by leading an unhurried life can we face up to our doubts; it is within that life that we are able to see how our desires and aims have gone amiss. Wisdom never developed in a hurry, but it is hurry that drives our leadership and ministry cultures. If we are ever to overcome our doubts, truly and finally, it will only happen if we give ourselves the space and freedom to do so.

When it comes to doubt, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of prayer. Prayer is the only true remedy for the doubts that assail us. It does us no good if the space in our lives is filled by amusements and trivialities. Prayer is the source and center, and when we begin to doubt our dogmas we must consider whether we have embraced them in the life of prayer. As the theologian Austin Farrer once put it, "No Christian deserves his dogmas who does not pray them." The right advice for those with doubts, Farrar writes elsewhere, is "positive, not negative: not to run away from disquieting considerations but to feed your soul on God." A church culture that makes no space for the meditative, contemplative duties of the pastoral life is not only a culture that will breed burnout; it will exacerbate doubts as well.

But in creating margin and encouraging questions, pastors open themselves up to their congregations in a new way. They are able to overcome the sense of isolation that often accompanies doubt. The pastor's duty is not to know—or at least not a duty to maintain in every moment the psychological confidence that we often attach to knowledge. Rather, it is the pastor's duty to point to the living Christ, to say with Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." In that pointing, the pastor may not silence his own doubts—but he opens up the possibility that others who look along with him might see, and through that seeing find something to instruct, edify, and encourage others.

In facing up to their doubts and in bringing others along with them, pastors can take the first steps toward transforming their church cultures into places that question well. We live in the shallows, but were made for the depths. And it is not, in many cases, the temptations of great learning or a conscious anti-intellectualism that has breed doubts among us. Instead, our prayerless, busy lives and our idolatry of work (even ministry work) wear our souls thin and corrode our questioning. The life of questioning well must be, first and foremost, a life and not a technique.

Matthew Lee Anderson is author of The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questions and the Confidence of Faith (Moody, 2013).