January 10, 2023

Let’s Talk About Doubt

At that instant he knew that all his doubts, even the impossibility of believing with his reason…did not in the least hinder his turning to God. All of that now floated out of his soul like dust. To whom was he to turn if not to Him in whose hands he felt himself, his soul, and his love?

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

If you Google Christian articles on doubt, you’ll see a wide range of thoughts on the topic. One title really stood out to me: “Doubt—The Sin God Hates Most.” Umm, I’m gonna have to disagree.

First, I’m not a big fan of ranking sins, but I’ll even go out on a limb here and say I don’t think doubt is a sin. Rather, like temptation, it is a normal part of being human. What we do with our doubt is what matters.

I secretly struggled with doubt for much of my life. I was ashamed that I couldn’t just believe. When I tried to share my inner conflict, I was told I was “double-minded.” This was probably an honest assessment of where I was at that point in my life, but I took it on as a shameful identity.

In the months before our family moved to England for my husband to attend seminary, I fought with myself about the path ahead. I wanted to study theology as well, but I didn’t feel like a worthy Christian. What could God possibly do with someone who couldn’t take every word of the Bible at face value? I had questions, but I didn’t feel the freedom to ask them.

I’ve always turned to books for answers to my silent struggles, so I began to search for a book on doubt that would calm my inner turmoil. To my surprise I discovered a book simply titled Doubt: Handling It Honestly, written by Alister McGrath. I was already familiar with McGrath’s robust theological writing, and I also knew of him because he was the principal of the theological college my husband would soon be attending. I didn’t imagine this was a man who could understand my doubts, but the book became a turning point in my faith life.

McGrath’s words perfectly described my struggle:

Doubt is a subject which many Christians find both difficult and sensitive. They may see it as something shameful and disloyal, on the same level as heresy. As a result, it is something that they don’t- or won’t- talk about. They suppress it. Others fall into the opposite trap- they get totally preoccupied by doubt. They get overwhelmed by it. They lose sight of God by concentrating upon themselves.

For the first time, I realized I was not alone. Most Christians have doubts, they just don’t talk about it. These words gave me permission to acknowledge what I was struggling with, without shame.

McGrath’s next words gave me hope:

Viewed positively, doubt provides opportunities for spiritual growth. It tests your faith, and shows you where it is vulnerable. It forces you to think about your faith, and not just take it for granted. It stimulates you to strengthen the foundations of your relationship with God.

With these affirming words, a surprising thing began to happen. As I stepped out of the shame of doubt, my faith began to grow.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

— John 20:27

I love what all of us who struggle with doubt can learn from Jesus’ interaction with Thomas. The disciple is often disparagingly referred as “Doubting Thomas,” but I don’t think that’s how Jesus saw him. Thomas couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that the other disciples had seen Jesus—risen from the dead! Really, who could blame him for wanting some proof?

Jesus didn’t shame Thomas for expressing his disbelief. Instead, eight days later, he met him right in the midst of his doubt and offered what Thomas asked for.

Thomas: Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe. (John 20:25)

Jesus: Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hands, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe. (John 20:27)

The passage doesn’t tell us that Thomas took Jesus up on this offer. I don’t think he needed to. His encounter with Jesus dispelled his doubts. Jesus made him feel seen and heard, not shamed and ignored.

Tradition tells us that Thomas went on to bring the Gospel to India. That must have been a remarkable journey, one that required no small amount of faith. Not bad for someone whose struggle with doubt found its way into the pages of scripture! There is indeed hope for all of us who grapple with doubts. You are seen and heard (and most of all loved!), and God will meet you in the midst of your struggle.

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