The Darkness of Doubt 7

Doubt sucks.

It might be necessary, it might even be good, but at its worst it has also been probably the most painful thing I’ve experienced in my life so far.

Unfortunately, I think it’s something unavoidable for me, since I do care a great deal about making sure that what I believe in is, you know, actually real. So, as I try my best to make my way closer to the truth, doubt is something that inevitably rears its head at different points in my life.

During my journey of faith, a few particular issues related to doubt have become important to me, and so I’d like to talk about some of those in this post.

You can doubt for purely intellectual reasons

It seems that whenever most Christians talk about doubt, they seem to emphasize that it’s never purely an intellectual issue. They say that there’s another underlying reason that’s driving the doubt. Perhaps it’s that the doubter has a bad experience with the Church in their past, or that they don’t like the idea of God controlling their life, or something else along the same lines.

Now, in the most technical sense, of course it’s true that doubt is never purely intellectual. (To clarify here, by “intellectual” I mean the realm of logically working things out as separately as possible from emotions, social pressures, or anything else that might bias your reasoning.) We are integrated beings. Technically speaking, every choice we make is affected by all parts of us, including our emotions. In other words, we aren’t Vulcans.

However, in spite of this, for all intents and purposes many decisions could be said to be purely intellectual. For example, choosing where I hang my coat in the closet is, for all intents and purposes, not an emotional decision for me. So why do we restrict our vocabulary so when talking about doubt? Why can’t it sometimes be purely intellectual (once again, for all intents and purposes)? I think it can. And in the case of my own doubt, I submit that most of the time it has been.

I will grant, however, that there are understandable reasons that many Christians are hesitant to say doubt can be purely intellectual – one being that doubt is usually not purely intellectual, and another being that faith isn’t founded on mere intellectual belief anyway but on a relationship with Jesus.

In light of that, some Christians will say that doubt can only really creep in when you’re not seeking God or not living a holy life. But if you think about it, that seems patently false. I think any mature Christian can point to times in his or her life when they were “doing everything right” (i.e. reading their Bible, going to Church, earnestly seeking God), but God didn’t necessarily feel close. And when God doesn’t feel close, intellectual doubt that’s been waiting at the door can easily come right on in—if you haven’t already properly dealt with it already, that is.

I’ll also add that I recognize that when one has a powerful supernatural experience of God’s presence, then of course all intellectual concerns melt away—and I’ve even experienced this sort of thing—but the key is that no one has that sort of experience on a daily basis, no matter how hard you might pray for it.

There’s more to elaborate on this point, but I don’t want to make this post too long. My point is I think Christians that say that doubt never ever can be purely intellectual are ultimately wrong.  And if they insist it can’t, then I’m putting the burden of proof on them to tell me why that’s the case.

Why I doubted

Some might wonder, if I grew up in a strong Christian community, why did I doubt in the first place? To answer that in short, I’d say the reason is that I tend to be an engineer in the way I think, and I therefore want everything to make sense at every point within my view of the world (perhaps a bit too much sometimes…). If I hold to a certain belief, I don’t feel comfortable with it until I can take it to its logical extremes safely.

Basically, this was (and largely still is) my line of thinking:

  1. I believe that Christianity is true, though there are some aspects that I don’t understand / worry about / that seem absurd / etc.
  2. If it is really true, then the parts that worry me should ultimately have explanations and in the end not actually be anything to worry about at all
  3. Therefore, the best way to handle the things that I worry about is to directly study them. If I do that, then I should grow in my knowledge of the world and Christianity, be better able to help others with similar struggles, and also not suffer from the anxiety that I had before due to that issue. I should end up continuing on in my walk with God with more peace than ever before.

You might ask, what if Christianity in the end actually isn’t true? What if after years of study, my faith is slowly eroded until the point I’m fully convinced that it’s all just bunk?

Well, no problem!

  1. If I was wrong all along and Christianity turns out not to be true, then that’s ok. I’ll get on my life as a happy atheist and be done with my “anxious Christian” phase even quicker, which is better than continuing to be a deluded Christian fighting against reality for the rest of my life.

The outlined reasoning above seems pretty airtight to me. If Christianity is not true, I’ll realize it and get on with my life, more aligned in my thinking with the way the world actually works (which, from an intellectual standpoint, is generally what I care more about than anything else in life). And if Christianity turns out to be true indeed, I’ll be more knowledgeable and more at peace with any issues that previously bothered me and be more equipped to help others who are struggling intellectually in their faith. I can’t lose!

I should also add one other number to the outline that was a big driver to my analyzing my faith to its core:

  1. Sincerely analyzing one’s beliefs is the only way to figure out what’s true and right within Christianity anyway. If one person is born a hard-line Presbyterian and another a Methodist (or Catholic, or Lutheran, Pentecostal, etc.), how will either figure out which parts of their doctrine is true, unless they humbly and with an open mind examine theirs? It’s really the only way. This is one part where I have to admit there is a slippery slope to deeper and deeper questioning (Rachel Held Evans has an excellent discussion of this). But what’s really wrong with that? Once again, if Christianity is the truth, shouldn’t it ultimately come out on top? (At least if you’re remaining humble about it and truly open to the idea that God does exist and will reveal himself to you.)

I hope this little discussion helps to show how a Christian who already believes very strongly might with honest motives have a strong desire to study the parts of Christianity that are harder to explain or understand. And this process, almost inevitably, leads to at least some doubt.

All of this is to describe how doubt actually can be, for all intents and purposes, purely intellectual. The sort of step-by-step reasoning I described above is not produced by the oft-cited motivations of “I want to sleep around, so I’m going to try to figure out how Christianity is wrong” or “I’m smarter than these closed-minded Christians, so I want to feel better than them by becoming an atheist.” Instead, it’s produced by a sincere believer looking to deepening his or her faith. If more Christians realize this, then they’ll be able to much better understand and help a significant portion of young Christians that are severely hurting as they wrestle with serious but sincere intellectual doubt. The worst thing you can do to this particular sort of doubter is to make them feel guilty for their doubt and question their motives when in reality the doubt resulted from innocent investigation of their beliefs. That will just drive them further away.

On the other hand, let me add, Christians of course have the responsibility to be on watch for deeper issues, which are often, if not usually, there in the heart of the doubter. Very often indeed it’s something like a fear that God really isn’t good, feeling severely let down in life by God, having a bad church experience, or something similar that is a big part of their doubt.

So by no means do I want to imply that all doubt is honest or that it’s not often coupled very tightly with emotional issues. That is quite common. The main point I want to get across is simply that it isn’t always that way. And if you treat someone who has mostly sincere doubts as if they do have some dark, sinful motive, you are risking doing more harm to their faith and driving them further away. You’re risking convincing him or her that Christians are indeed close-minded and judgmental! This latter type of doubter needs acceptance of their questions and validation that they’re not going crazy for worrying about these things.

I also don’t want to act as if the path I have taken in my questioning has been perfect or one that I would even necessarily recommend (at least not without some serious reservations). Instead my main goal in this post is simply to describe what my path actually has been, since I’m convinced that there are a fair number of others out there like me; the more the wider Christian community understands paths like mine, the better they can deal and relate to those who take it.

On a side note, one of the things that helped me most in my journey was hearing about people who sincerely questioned their faith — some completely abandoning their faith for a time — but ultimately returned to it after years of searching and intellectual study (a few examples would be Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and Rachel Held Evans). Ultimately, I’d like to add my name to that list for other people who are struggling with doubt.

Genuine, honest faith can be the very thing that leads to doubt

The reason I began to doubt, was because I first acted in trust that Christianity was for real. My belief that Christianity is absolutely, truly real is what led me to study it more closely and examine the things that worried me. I thought, “Hey, if this is for real, then I have nothing to worry about by looking at the hard questions!”

So I used the faith I did have, and in an act of trust, studied the scary things, and ventured forth to open my mind even more. The result? Well, at least at first, I doubted. At one point, I doubted to the point of at least feeling like I had nearly or already lost my faith. (Though thankfully I’m not at that place anymore – this post is already too long to elaborate, but in some ways my faith is stronger than it’s ever been.)

The darkness of doubt

This is the crux of the issue, and why I titled this post the “darkness” of doubt: because I had faith, I lost it (temporarily). The horrible thing about this process is that it can almost feel like God was punishing me for treating the Bible as true and investigating it, and the punishment was to have my faith taken away.

I think there is no question to me that the worst and darkest moments of my life were the times I was deepest in doubt. The reason these times are worse that other trying events in my life is that the thing I rely on for hope in those other dark times – God – is the very thing I was struggling to even believe exists, or perhaps to believe had accepted me.

I guess one of the main reasons I wanted to write this post (and the reason the title that first came into my head was “the darkness of doubt”), was to give Christians who perhaps have not experienced intense doubt an idea of what that experience is like. And not only experience it, but to get to that point all the while being, or at least feeling like, a sincere, truth-seeking Christian. Let me tell you – it sucks.

  • max

    I remember the first time I expressed my doubts about the Bible. I was sitting on a trampoline in a buddy’s backyard with about 4 friends. None of them were what I would call Bible thumpers but somehow it came up and I stood alone. I don’t remember what I said exactly but whatever it was I got the “you’re gonna go to hell” fire and brimstone spiel that most teens our age were trained to do. But I think it was a good thing. Not the part where they yelled at me, but it made me seek out what I really believed in.

    I’m a tech guy myself so I too like to know how a thing works and be able to grasp all the ins and outs. As it seems you’ve experienced, trying to apply that mindset to religion can be disastrous. But then I think that’s what separates religion and spirituality, for me anyways. Religion tends to be made up of historical doctrines and the words of God interpreted by man or in some cases God himself. But I didn’t want fact and proof about how to live my life or how the world came to be by someone who never could of dreamed of the technological & information-driven society we live in today. What I sought was something personal, something of a relationship. If there is a God and he still cares about me then I will seek him out. That’s what I told myself. It was an internal desire, both emotional and an intellectual drive not to explain His existence, but explain mine and navigate the course. That drive has lessened in recent years, I’ll admit.

    The Bible does have great words of wisdom and there
    are many statutes that I personally live by, I just think faith needs more than books. It can be healthy to doubt but it’s a double-edged sword. Keep up the good fight, Robert Lee.

    • Robert Lee White

      Hey Max, thanks for your thoughts. It can be rough to be the only one in the room thinking those thoughts — I definitely know what that feels like!

      “As it seems you’ve experienced, trying to apply that mindset to religion can be disastrous.”

      I guess it depends on how you mean “disastrous” haha, but I think it can potentially be the best thing for your religion actually. A good term for what happened in my faith was that it underwent a season of “pruning.” I applied that mindset, as you said, to my religion, and ended up mostly cutting off all the parts that I knew didn’t make sense.

      The beautiful thing about that, is it leaves you with beliefs that you can finally really get behind, since you know you’ve really examined them.

      For instance, I think belief in Christianity, from an intellectual standpoint, really comes down to the Resurrection. The awesome thing is, there are really good reasons to believe in the Resurrection!

      So maybe we differ at this point, Max. I “pruned” my religion to the point where what’s left I really believe in, and it is indeed a religion and not mere spirituality.

      I’d say to you that if you are merely spiritual (without any very specific beliefs in God), give Christianity a chance again. You don’t have to swallow the dogma wholesale… just take another look at the essentials and see if those could make sense (i.e. the outline of the life of Jesus and the Resurrection — read the Gospels, etc). The problem with mere spirituality is that I think it’s not enough to give you any real direction in life. That’s where religion is powerful. Of course, your religion needs to be based on reality, otherwise the direction it’s leading you might be a bad one!

      I might be misreading where you’re at though, so excuse me if I mis-characterized it. I wanted to reply though. I’d love to get together and talk in person about all this sometimes. Next time I’m in Atlanta!

  • mannyglover

    Great essay Robert. No time for a full reply now, but I wanted to say I enjoyed reading it, and it really really resonated with me.

    • Robert Lee White

      Thanks for reading! Maybe next time I’m home you can tell me more of your thoughts on it.

  • Pingback: Why I Believe | Robert Lee White()

  • ClaireBear

    This is so good, General! As selfish as it may sound, I’m so glad you braved the darkness to look into this! Not just for you, but for “us” – other Christians who are committed to Christ but are plum confuzzled about certain issues. Some of what has kept me from digging fully into issues is a fear of going so deep that I lose my way. So, it’s really encouraging to hear the stories of other questioning Christians who have come before me, haha.

    I agree the church at large could do a better job of supporting questioning Christians instead of condemning them. I wonder if they get defensive bc they’re also scared of the answers?

    I’m going through this devotional rn you may enjoy – The Way by E. Stanley Jones. Here’s a quote from it – “..suppose The Way is written in the nature of reality as well as the Scriptures.” One of the main points of the beginning of the devo is that if there is a Way that is true and real, and Christ is the Way, then “..all things have the stamp of Christ upon them.” — so everything true should point us back to God. And if it doesn’t, why keep believing? Scurry idea, but necessary for honest investigation I think.

    Thanks again!

    • Robert Lee White

      Thanks for the kind comments, Dr. Bear!

      I like the quote from E. Stanley Jones — and yes, that sort of thinking is exactly what gave me courage to investigate things more.

      It’s definitely a valid concern about going so deep you lose your way, and I never want to encourage another Christian to needlessly question the fundamentals of their faith. But on the other hand, being too scared to question any part of one’s theology I think really stunts growth, which was the case for me in some ways.