O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Dean Nelson: Test Everything

DeanNelson.jpgThere are few people I like better in the world than my friend Dean Nelson. Some of my most spiritually significant experiences and most hilarious conversations have occurred in his vicinity, and I suspect that’s no coincidence. Dean’s the kind of guy who’ll be telling you a story that has you shaking with laughter until he gets to the punchline and (boom) suddenly you’re wiping tears from your eyes, but they’re not the laughing-too-hard kind of tears.


So I am an unapologetic Dean Nelson fanboy. Dean is a journalist whose work has appeared in everything from the New York Times and the Boston Globe to Christianity Today. He’s the founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma University in San Diego, and the host of the legendary Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, held annually on campus. Also, he has a Ph.D. in journalism. Seriously, how many people do you know with a Ph.D. in journalism? (I know one.)

Dean is the author of several books, including God Hides in Plain Sight, his latest. His thinking in that book — about discovering God via the traditional Christian sacraments as they occur in your day-to-day life — directly impacted a chapter or two of O Me of Little Faith. In summary, I want to be Dean when I grow up, and I’m so grateful he was willing to contribute to the Voices of Doubt series:



It doesn’t happen very often that an elderly woman walks up to me with tears in her eyes and can barely get the words out. I had just finished speaking at a retirement community for their spiritual renewal week, and several of the residents came up to talk with me afterward. The community was largely made up of retired ministers, missionaries and educators, and they seemed to deeply engage with the themes of my seven talks — all based on seeing the sacraments in everyday life.

This woman, though, didn’t want to talk about vocation, confession, baptism, marriage, communion, confirmation or extreme unction. She was focused on one little digression I had made in that evening’s talk. My overall theme that night was on becoming a more spiritually deep person (a type of confirmation). During an election season in particular, the voices that seemed the most dominant were the ones full of fear and anger, I said. But fear and anger have never been our best teachers. In fact, I continued, the Bible repeatedly has messengers from God saying Fear Not. And usually that statement is followed by the word Behold. In other words, don’t let fear be your guide — instead, see me all around you. God calls us to be deeper than just being full of fear and anger.


Then I just tossed in this seemingly throwaway paragraph — “We think we’re in spiritual trouble when we doubt — whether we’re doubting God, the existence of God, our own relationship with God, ourselves, whatever. But the Bible doesn’t say Doubt Not. It says Fear Not. There’s a big difference. When we doubt we join a pretty good cloud of witnesses, including Mother Teresa and Jesus himself. Paul Tillich says that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith — it’s actually an ELEMENT of faith. So when you doubt, you’re in good company. Doubt just means you’re on the journey.”

THAT’s the part that reached this 80-year old. With tears now spilling out of her eyes she said, “I’ve been doubting quite a lot, lately, and feeling guilty about it. I was a missionary my entire adult life. I thought I shouldn’t have any more doubts. But I’ve been starting to have some health problems, and I’ve begun to wonder if it’s all true. And you showed me that it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God any more. I just wonder sometimes.”


At the Christian universities where I speak, that same paragraph always grabs someone. And it’s always someone who thought he or she was a freak for having doubts. I tell them, “Welcome to the club. Certainty is overrated. Only when we doubt can we enter into the Mystery that is God. Not knowing is where the real action is. That’s what leaves room for wonder.”

For the last two years I’ve been working on a book about the faith and science debate, focusing on the British physicist/priest John Polkinghorne. As a physicist at Cambridge University he helped explain the existence of the quark, the smallest known particle. Then he left physics and became an Anglican priest. Imagine bowing at an altar in an Anglican church in Cambridge, as I did last year, and having one of the most famous physicists in the world hold out bread and a cup to me and say “This is the Body of Christ, broken for you.” I took the elements, but didn’t swallow my doubt. Really? A priest who is a physicist telling me that these elements are more than what they appear to be?


But of course the whole world is more than it appears to be. In my work on this book I was struck by a quote I came upon by the atheist physicist Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize and teaches at the University of Texas. He said, “We don’t believe in quarks because anyone has seen one. We believe in quarks because the experiments that include them seem to work.” He doesn’t know that there is such a thing as a quark, because he hasn’t actually seen one, but he is motivated to believe in quarks because of other evidence. No one is certain, though. It’s an unseen reality. There’s an unspoken element of doubt in there, don’t you think? The driving force behind both science and faith, according to Polkinghorne, is this question: “What makes you think this is the case?” It’s what causes us to press on and find out, allowing plenty of room for doubt.


For years scientists knew that light was a wave. But they couldn’t explain why it sometimes didn’t always act like a wave. They eventually discovered that it’s also a particle. The assumption was that something can only be this way, and not that way. But now we know that some things can be both this way and that way. So much for certainty.

“Test everything,” the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. “Hold fast to what is true.” Maybe it’s the journalist in me who wants to paraphrase that verse to say, “Doubt everything. Find out if it’s true.” That’s where the action is.



Thank you, Dean. Keep up with Dean via his blog at, become a fan on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter. And seriously, go find a copy of God Hides in Plain Sight. You’ll be glad you did.

Previous posts in the “Voices of Doubt” series…

Carlene Bauer: Prodigal Daughter
Larry Shallenberger: The Knight and the Fortune Cookie
David Dark on Sacred Questioning
Cara Davis: A Textbook Case
Matthew Paul Turner: Letting Them See My Doubt
Sally Lloyd-Jones: Where Did You Put Your Faith?
Chad Gibbs: When It Doesn’t Seem Fair
Leeana Tankersley: The Swirling Waters
Robert Cargill: The Skeptic in the Sanctuary
Dana Ellis: Haunted by Questions
Rachel Held Evans on Works-Based Salvation
Winn Collier: Doubt Better
Tyler Clark on Losing Fear, Losing Faith
Rob Stennett on the Genesis of Doubt
Adam Ellis on Hoping That It’s True
Nicole Wick on Breaking Up with God
Anna Broadway on Doubt and Marriage

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posted November 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I’d argue that doubt isn’t as much of an element of the Faith as it seems here. When reading the Bible I often get the impression that doubt isn’t a thing Christian should entertain too much of. I mean, I don’t have one iota of doubt with regard to God, Jesus, my faith, the absolute truth of the Word of God. Thomas was rebuked (gently) for doubting until he saw with his own eyes the scars Jesus bore. I don’t doubt God’s absolute sovereignty. I may wonder sometimes why God doesn’t intervene in the world more directly…but I don’t doubt the fact that He is in total control and has a purpose and plan for everything. That’s where my faith comes in and extinguishes my doubt. I don’t doubt, because I have faith. Jesus didn’t doubt in Gethsemane…He just didn’t want to be crucified. He said “Your will, not mine, be done.” Job was greatly rebuked for questioning and doubting God. I think the theme isn’t “Doubt is part of faith,” so much as it’s “You will doubt things, but have faith, and don’t let doubt have that much of a hold on you.”
1 Thessalonians 5 says:
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
It’s not talking about doubting God; it’s talking about seeing through false prophets, false doctrine and the evils of the world.

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Adam Ellis

posted November 12, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Dean (and Jason),
This was such a brilliant and thoughtful post. Thanks for posting it. It seems to me that most of us are often willing to test/doubt everything except ourselves and our own understandings. Maybe that form of fundamentalism (regardless of what belief set it ascribes to) is the last great idolatry. This ability to doubt self has a name: humility. Thank you for displaying it so authentically in what you have written here.

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Charlie's Church of Christ

posted November 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm

“Only when we doubt can we enter into the Mystery that is God.” That could have been his whole post and I would have been fine with that.
Dear Jason – its time to bury the voices of doubt series, because my amazon wishlist is too full thanks to it and I need to focus my finances elsewhere.

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posted November 13, 2010 at 10:39 am

@ Charlie
You really think that you can only enter into God when you doubt?

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Gary Mac

posted November 19, 2010 at 7:31 am

Doubt (unbelief) is the element that will keep you from being like Jesus was. God sent Jesus to teach you to be like him, he was Gods example for us to follow, to be like, to imitate. If one is in doubt that he cane be like Jesus was then you will never ever see the kingdom of God. Behold the kingdom of God is within you Luke17:21. The whole purpose of the Christ it to reveal Gods kingdom in you. Christ in you, the revelation of the Christ is you being that anointed one of Gods Spirit.
If doubt says that you can’t be then you are slave to doubt and unbelief, sin. Sin simply is to be separated from Gods Spirit and Christ in you unites you to Him as one, He in you and you in Him. If you doubt that you can be ye perfect even as you’re Father in heaven is perfect, Matt 5:48, then doubt has become your god and you are slave to your own understanding. If you doubt that you can then you doubt that He can do it in you.

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Rodger D

posted November 20, 2010 at 10:34 am

First of all I would like to say. I am not so smart you could say I am stupid you may not be wrong.
That is one reason I trust in Jesus Christ and not Me because I am stupid if I say I am Smart just how smart am I?. As smart as God that would not be smart of Me would it!.
I will speek my peace here Gary Mac you are at war with doubt as you call(unbelief) some ? doubt to check there Fath.
Joshua no one can inter in to God but by Jesus Christ if you take up the Spirit you take the Spirit of Christ not God Jesus Christ will take you to God and behold means (be done).
There is no such thing as perfect in this world perfect went unto the Father in Heaven an will came again an reveal you to the God of Heaven
May I ask this If God wanted to put up with sin why would He have put Adam an Eve in this world and not just let them stay in the gardon of Edon. I think God don’t look upon evil or even see it for that matter.
Thats why We must tell Him by prayer what We need An what ever We want an it must be rightious not sinful thats why He said ask that it will be given unto you.
It is Jesus that will deal with the evil at the end by Gods will and them that will do His will
Science can’t even find Edon mite alone Heaven I think thay can’t see pass there eyes everything is doubt if you can’t see it base on science

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Joe Gonzalez

posted November 21, 2010 at 12:57 am

Very interesting article. Jesus said to us ” I AM the WAY, the Truth and the Life.” Paraphrasing the Imitation of Christ, ‘ the Way i should walk…’. When on this Way, you discover the Truth, and the Truth ” shall set you free.” Free of what ? Free from doubt, for one thing. Cause right after that comes ‘ the Life ‘ Paraphrasing from the Imitation of Christ again, ‘ the Life that doesn’t lie.’ When you walk the Way, and the Truth ( capital T ) sets you free from all restraints, and you taste and live ‘ the Life ‘ ( Eternal ) that is here even now – remember that time and space are 2 dimensions that are foreign to spiritual life ( not earthly life ), then you get a
” Glimpse ” of that Light which supersedes and antecedes all other lights, you can doubt no more. Unless of course, God wants to – may He not – visit you with a Dark Night of Faith, or even a Dark Night of the senses ( St. John of the Cross ), which i believe was, amongst other blessed souls, Mother Teresa’s last challenge. It truly takes a Saint to begin to doubt He that you’ve dedicated your life to, and all your time, and all your devotion…’ poor ‘ as these might be, might really after all not BE. To carry on in the midst of these vicissitudes is truly heroic and saintly. So, like Mr. Dean says, it is quite True : ” Fear not ” and then suddenly ” Behold ! ” ‘ Fear not, ‘ said Jesus when the disciples on the boat thought they were seeing a ghost ( they doubted; what is This ? a man walking on the sea ? must be…a Ghost!’ No,’ Fear not, it is I, Jesus ( who later went on in John to call these disciples ‘ my friends ‘ ) ” Lord, but if it is You, let me come to you…” ” Come ” says Jesus ! It was Jesus gave Peter the courage to step out, but when Peter kinda winked at the raging seas – the torments of this life, one might interpret,- he started to sink. And it was Our Loving Lord who reached out ( like a loving parent with a scared kid ) caught him by the arm ( in His Mercy ) and said :
” Why ( o, foolish child, my loving foolish child ! ) did you doubt ?”
So that’s the formula i’ve arrived at. It ( God Bless God ) works for me : WALK THE WAY ( with the Spirit making it easier to follow the Path ), discover the Truth – be set free from all previous setbacks – by the Truth that cannot lie, and ENTER LIFE. Once you’ve done that a couple of times, you never forget – unless, of course God wants you to. In which case, the formula doesn’t change : Walk the Way, Be free in the Truth, Taste the Life…and : LIVE !

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Rodger d

posted November 22, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Way to go Joe !

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