Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


A Letter about Doubt: A response

posted by Scot McKnight

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Yesterday I posted a letter from a young adult who is struggling to regain some lost ground in faith. Your responses were wonderful, and today I’d like to sketch the answers that I outlined last week when I got the letter. 
Dear Friend,
You asked me, brother, for advice, so I will give you some suggestions. Please don’t understand them as imperatives but as suggestions from someone who has walked some paths of doubt. 
First, brother, thanks for breaching your silence, and I hope you can find someone with whom you can walk with you through this struggle. Faith can sometimes be lonely, but doubting all alone is utter loneliness. You need not be alone. Talking to God, even when you wonder if God is there or listening, is vital as much for the faithful as it is for the doubter.
Doubters tend to be thinkers; and thinkers want someone to interact with, and so I want to recommend two books that have been helpful for me with doubts. I begin with Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment
and Robert Wennberg Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters
. These books will sometimes speak to you as if they authors were in your own head and heart.

But I have to begin with this observation: you will never go back to where you were and you will never be the same again and you will never get back to where things were. Instead, this season of doubt, which for some lasts months and for others years and even in some ways lingers for a lifetime, is with you and it changes you and your faith. There is a temptation to seek to go back and find your first feelings or your former way of doing things. That approach to encountering doubt teaches most us one one thing: that’s not the approach that “works.” 
Instead, it is my advice for you to see that faith and doubt are not opposites but instead companions, with doubt a direct challenge or at times an assault on what you believe. Your faith will mature and develop because of encountering doubt, but it will be a new and more flexible form of faith itself.
You have now experienced what many today call “deconstruction.” Deconstruction bewilders, but provides an opportunity for reconstruction. That is, once the building has been dismantled, the new reconstruction will not be the same — but dismantling will give you the opportunity to begin all over again with an existential yearning for it all to make sense. This opportunity may be the most significant season in your life. I know when I was in seminary I struggled mightily with the nature of the faith but I came out chastened but stronger in that everything considered important had to be important in order to be included in the new construction.
How we conceive of what the Bible is strikes a chord with me. Some of us are nurtured into the faith through folks who are well-meaning but woefully mistaken about ancient history and the ancient world and about what the Bible really is saying and what it meant. If you keep your ear to the ground you will find many with a robust faith (accompanied by doubt at times) who find discovering what Genesis 1-2 or chps 1-11, or the exodus and entry into the Land, or Judges, or the prophet’s role in writing or even in the redactional slant of the Evangelists to be welcome relief to their doubts instead of an assault on the faith. Sure, these issues can disturb faith, but it can never wrong to pursue truth — regardless of where it might be found. If you can prove something that shifts our view of a text — as John Walton has done with Genesis 1 for instance — well, all to the good for all of us. You might be on that journey at times. You will find plenty of companions.
There will be a temptation for you to surround yourself with doubters, and I can surely understanding “like being with like,” but the only way we can really grow is to be around folks who disagree with us. So, find friends and companions who are themselves strong (right now) in their faith and “breathe in their faith.” A friend of mine, a former professor who went through some serious doubts at your age, told me he went to church and trusted in the faith of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ when his faith seemed non-existent.
One more point, and I hope this is not too much: I urge you to focus on Jesus. Sometimes our faith gets so spread out that we begin to think the date of the exodus is as important as Jesus’ teachings and his life and his death and his resurrection. Begin with Jesus and spread out from him. Listen to his teachings and watch him interact with others; observe his behaviors and drink in his death and his resurrection. Watch him send the Spirit to his followers on Pentecost. Those were not “fateful” days but “fate-filled” days: days, once experienced and given permission to shape us, can shape our fates as well.
Blessings and prayers from me and all of us at the Jesus Creed blog,
Scot


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Carol Anne

posted January 26, 2010 at 4:02 am


I have believed in the Lord Jesus for 34 years. I want to say it is very stimulating and refreshing to hear that the “Doubt” is married, so to speak to the “Faith” and is discussed of so honestly here. There have been times thru the years when I felt so amazingly grounded and then there have been literally years when I felt the restlessness of uncertainty. It is in those uncertain times after a season, I realize how even more powerful my belief in Jesus actually is. At those times there is an aloneness that I felt was actually assualting me attempting to frighten me with attacks that shook me to my core but the results never cease to astound me that even in this place, I can hear his voice resound within my being more real than anything else “Fear not little flock, it is the Fathers’ pleasure to commune with you” & “Fret Not, it only leads to evil”.



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Jim Martin

posted January 26, 2010 at 5:41 am


Scot,
This post is a “keeper.” In fact, this is a post that I will be sharing with others who would especially be encouraged by your words. Scot, have you considered writing a book addressing doubt? Again, this is very good.



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JoanieD

posted January 26, 2010 at 7:54 am


I am about halfway through reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. He writes about listening to a Bishop Ambrose explaining some of the things in the Old Testament that could be understood as being allegorical and how it freed Augustine from trying to believe things in the Bible that he could not believe literally and that had pushed him away from the Christian faith altogether. It freed him up enough that he could actually begin to come to a full Christian faith whereas he had spent his life up to that point mainly within non-Christian philosophical circles. Perhaps this book could also help Jacob in some ways.
(Augustine’s Confessions are amazing! It really gives a feeling for how much was going on back in the 4th and 5th centuries. I think we tend to think things were not as developed as they really were back then, intellectually, theologically, academically, etc.)



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Scot McKnight

posted January 26, 2010 at 8:25 am


JoanieD, you are dead-on with that observation: Augustine talks like a professor/pastor in our own day (most of the time).
Jim, thanks brother. For now I’ll stick to offering some ideas about doubt in this venue but maybe I’ll start storing up some ideas…



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Marty

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:43 am


I am one past 65 who was raised in the church, and was regularly invited into leadership roles. When that experience over time caused me to pull back from both the unintentional hypocrisy and intentional sin that I observed within leadership circles, and the unwillingness of the fellowship to open their eyes to it, I withdrew.
The time away allowed me to evaluate myself and my beliefs. The first conclusion I came to was that, although I had made a sincere profession of faith, much of what I said I believed was in fact what I was, as a “good Christian,” supposed to believe. Stepping back, and having no belief requirements coming from the organization, helped me realize I was in a place where I could honestly ask myself what I do believe.
I started with the basics. For me, 1) this world could not have created itself. 2) Jesus was an historical person, who made amazing claims and had deep insights about life that I cannot explain away. 3) The cross cannot be explained solely in historical, political-social terms. 4) The Bible is full of good information, revelatory regarding the big things of life, and explanatory about things that I otherwise could not know. It is also full of mystery which, as it unfolds, adds richness to my life. 5) Other “religions” don’t compare.
I could go on, but I hope the reader will see that my spiritual life has morphed from organizational religious compliance to a careful readiness to continue from an honest starting point, and a humble attempt to trust the One I have concluded is at the center of it all.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:56 am


Amen! Lovely.



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Jeff Doles

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:59 am


When I read the Bible, I don’t get the impression that faith and doubt are companions and not opposites. I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-23:
“Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ?Be removed and be cast into the sea,? and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.”
That does not sound to me like faith and doubt are to be companions but that doubt hinders faith. Also, in James 1:5-8:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Again, faith and doubt are not presented as companions meant to co-exist, but as opposites in such a way that faith is hindered by doubt.
The Greek word for “doubt,” diakrino, essentially means to be of two minds, caught between two judgments, divided. It is what James calls a “double-minded man.” It does not lead to stability but to instability in all one’s ways. Imagine an automobile with two steering wheels manned by two drivers who want to go in different directions.
The father of the young man who was demon-possessed and the disciples could not help him. He asked Jesus for help. Jesus answered “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” IOW, this man was in a state of doubt. He had two things going on inside him: He believed, but he also recognized that he had some unbelief going on inside himself, and he was divided between them. But notice that he did not say, “Lord, help me learn to live with this doubt, this divided state between belief and unbelief. Help me to see that they are not opposites after all but actually companions.”
While it may be a popular answer, and one I used to promote myself, I don’t think that acquiescing to companionship between faith and doubt is an effective way to receive the benefits of faith that God intends for us. It does not seem to me to square up with what the Word says.
Peace be with you.



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AHH

posted January 26, 2010 at 11:03 am


Great response, but I think the part near the end about surrounding yourself with people of strong faith needs a caveat.
This needs to be people who have honestly faced up to hard issues and come through to the other side with strong faith. If it is people with a “strong” but unexamined faith, people who expect that all faithful Christians should have their level of certainty, people whose reaction to doubt and questions is to judge them as signs of weakness and sin, those “strong faith” people may well make the situation worse.
And I agree that Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty is a great book for those of us who don’t seem to be wired for satisfaction with strong but unexamined faith.



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JoanieD

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm


To Jeff in #7: You make excellent points. I think that what we can safely say about doubts, though, is that having doubts should not make you leave the faith completely. You need to work through the doubts and come out on the other side, so to speak. I agree with you, Jeff, that trying to balance faith and doubt at the same time makes us unstable at times.
The passage in the Gospels where the disciples watch Jesus ascend after his resurrection where it says “some doubted” is a very odd passage. The questions I have are: “Did they doubt this was really Jesus they were seeing?” “Did they doubt Jesus had ever died in the first place?” “Did they doubt that he was actually ascending and returning to the Father?” I need to find some good commentary on that. Any suggestions from any of you?



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James Henley

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm


Great response. I think as the Church we need to learn how to love and care for (in a non-patronising way) those who have doubts, and to understand the important place of holding our own doubt in tension with our faith as opposed to doing our best to ignore it.
We need to learn to make space for those who are doubting and questioning without creating pressure for them to “grow through it” or isolating them from the faith community.



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Rachel H. Evans

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm


Scot –
Reading this brought tears to my eyes, because I really wish someone had responded this way to my doubts when I first began expressing them.
I’m 28, and I’ve been going through a period of deconstruction for the past five years. About three of those years I spent in serious doubt. I come from a pretty conservative town, so most of my friends told me I was sinning for having questions about young earth creationism, the scientific/historical accuracy of the Bible, the eternal destiny of non-Christians, biblical interpretation, and the Problem of Evil.
Thank you so much for this response. That doubt can be a vital part of faith is such an important, revolutionary thing for us to learn – especially those of us who were instructed all our lives to “always be ready with an answer.” I’ll be sending this post along to some of my readers who are also in the process of deconstructing.
Jacob –
Please know that you are not alone. I’ve wrestled with doubts ever since I graduated from my Christian college!
But I’m convinced that destructive doubt, the kind that leads to despair, does not begin when we START asking questions of God, but when out of fear, we STOP. Keep asking questions. Keep returning to Jesus. My faith survived, and so can yours.



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Daniel mann

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm


Indeed, God does use our doubts to accomplish His purposes as He does with all things that come into our lives (Rom. 8:28). However, the utility of doubt and uncertainty should not become a reason to enshrine them as the final goal of our endeavors. While pain and affliction are necessary and are used for good, they are good only in as far as they are employed to lead to something better.
So too with doubt and uncertainty! They are not good in themselves, but only in so far as they lead to their resolution (which always must involve trusting in God). Consequently, the biblical ideal is not uncertainty but certainty and an assurance about the things of God and about God Himself (Col. 2:1-4).
Scot, you wrote, ?If you keep your ear to the ground you will find many with a robust faith (accompanied by doubt at times) who find discovering what Genesis 1-2 or chps 1-11, or the exodus and entry into the Land, or Judges, or the prophet’s role in writing or even in the redactional slant of the Evangelists to be welcome relief to their doubts instead of an assault on the faith.?
Rather than trying to reconcile the Bible with the evolving ?fruits? of modern scholarship, which seems to always result in Biblical compromise and a deficient, anemic faith, I have found that evaluating these ?fruits? through the superior lens of Scripture (2 Cor. 10:4-5) produces both a more robust faith and a more responsible approach to questions of ultimate truth.



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Jeff Doles

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:28 pm


We should never condemn anyone for having doubts about the Christian faith, or else we would be doing the work of the “accuser of the brethren” instead of that of the Good Shepherd. Doubt is also the evidence that there is faith at work as well as unbelief. Everyone goes through seasons of doubt, but that does not mean we have to stay there.
Nor should we deny the existence of doubt — as if that will make it go away — or that it is a problem that needs divine assistance. The father of the demon-possessed boy said, “Lord I believe; *help* my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Ultimately, doubt is more a matter of the heart than of the mind — “and does not doubt in his *heart*,” Jesus said (Mark 11:23). There is an emotional and volitional component as well as an intellectual one.
Faith does not come by reasoning but by revelation, through hearing of the word of God (Romans 10:17). And it comes as a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8), not because we have reached an intelligent conclusion that is intellectually unassailable. Our ability to reason for or against the faith is not greater than the gift graciously imparted by the Spirit of God.
A community of faith, love and acceptance for the one who needs help, creates an atmosphere that encourages and allows a doubter to grow beyond his doubt without feeling pressured.



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michaeldanner

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm


Jeff (#7) I get what you are saying. I think the difference between what you are talking about and what Scot is talking about can be found in a quote from Peter Rollins. Pete says, “I never doubt God. I doubt my conceptions of God, but I never doubt God.” Through various seasons of doubt, I haven’t doubted God, but I have doubted that people’s dogmatic assertions concerning God are correct, coherent, consistent with what scripture actually says, etc. To me, such doubt is not just a companion of faith, but necessary for faith. I think of Paul’s ongoing abominations to hold fast to the truth and be careful not to believe false teachers. There are some well meaning Christians that will say what they believe is the truth. They will also equate “faith in God” with believing as they do. Rigid in their beliefs, they do not tolerate even reasonable questions concerning their beliefs. But they could be wrong. And if they are wrong, going their way without question is not evidence of faith, nor is it life-giving and God honoring. So I think we have to be pretty careful not to beat on people who have questions or doubts. The doubts and questions of others have helped me grow in my faith and see God more clearly. All useful forms of inquiry begin with a question or doubting the status quo (think Luther). That isn’t the same as doubting God. I don’t doubt God, but I have some serious doubts about the ways some people represent God or claim that God works.



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Daniel mann

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm


JoanieD,
Here?s one possible answer to your question: Doubts aren?t always a product of rationality. Often, they are the product of our own presuppositions, culture, training or proclivities.
When many saw Lazarus rise from the dead, some believed while others didn?t. The ones who refused to believe then conspired to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (John 11). Confronted with such unassailable evidence, why didn?t they believe? I think that we tend to dismiss the power of sin.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm


#14
Well said, Michael.
Thanks for this post, Scot.



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Terry

posted January 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm


I wish I had access to this post Scot, and the thinking in general 6-years ago. I am a pastor and had been for 15+ years when my faith ground to a halt. So much of this resonates with me (and so much has been helped and healed by my time spent at Jesus Creed.)
I agree with AHH Jacob, do find those who have already walked through the grist mill that you’re in. Too many of us have scarring from Job’s well-meaning friends. Some cannot accept anything but absolute certainty (even if it is dishonest, as if the words solve the dilemma) as faithfulness to God. Jacob, I’m praying for you.



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indymavs

posted January 26, 2010 at 2:54 pm


“…Help, Lord, my unbelief…”



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Jeff Doles

posted January 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm


michaeldanner (#14)
My faith is in God and my commitment is to the veracity of Scripture. But I make no claim of infalliblity in my interpretation and understanding of Scripture and what it teaches. My theology has changed often and in many ways over the 40-something years I have been a Christian. So, I will doubt my eyes and ears, my feelings and fears, my intellect and even my doubts — but then, I do not profess to have faith in myself.



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Georges Boujakly

posted January 26, 2010 at 5:33 pm


Dear One who has doubts,
You are in good company here.
Two books that have helped me of late deal with some doubts have to deal with stages of faith. You might find them helpful to you as well.
1. The Critical Journey: Stages of Faith. Jan Hagberg and Robert Guelich
2. Seasons of the Soul: Stages in Spiritual Development. Bruce Demarest.
My prayer is that these will be helpful as you go through a time of doubt in your faith development.



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Graeme

posted January 26, 2010 at 6:14 pm


Thanks for this post. This is the kind of honesty we need to hear more of! There’s a line in one of Brian Mclaren’s video clips (www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPRKCmYuCWA) where he mentions how doubt can be a very real part of our lives, and yet when we’re honest about it, it’s a form of art! (At least, that’s how I interpreted it). It’s been helpful for me to see doubt in this way, because it frees me from the guilt and fear of being real. I believe that’s when we really start to discover both ourselves and God!



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Ted M. Gossard

posted January 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm


Yes, excellent response Scot. And I second Jim’s motion that you write a book on it.
This letter exchange spurred me to post on doubt this morning.



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Mark

posted February 17, 2010 at 11:38 pm


I like your suggestion to focus on Jesus. I’m an unbeliever/doubter who often gets distracted with all the non-important discussions out there. I have to constantly bring it back to, “Did Jesus die and rise again?” If so, it changes everything. If not, then Christians are to be pitied.



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