Seeking God Through Doubt
Counsel for a Faith Crisis
Doubt can be a miserable appendage to Christian experience and thought. It feels like a sort of constant and visceral caveat on each motion of the Christian life.
One cannot read the Bible without wondering (and even feeling) that perhaps it is just a historical document. One cannot pray without it feeling vaguely plausible that one’s prayers are but puffs of wind in a silent cosmos. One can spend years mastering apologetic arguments, going over one’s work, and yet below all of this is a nagging feeling of one’s finitude, a sense of the possibility that all of our tradition’s reflection upon the great questions is only so much discourse about the ornateness of the emperor’s clothes. Moreover, do I feel pressured into making the Christian judgment because I fear the judgment that would attend “getting the answer wrong”?
In all of these ways, being a Christian begins to feel like the sort of thing I must keep trying to do, such that any relaxation of my thoughts to their default settings would result in my faith collapsing like a house of cards.
I have known doubt. And I hope these few reflections might help you in your own pilgrimage. No counsel offers the final word on such a subject, but perhaps I can at least provide assistance along the way. Here are seven suggestions (in no particular order) for how to endure a crisis of faith.
No sane path could possibly require that you deny or ignore what you are actually going through. Even if you think you shouldn’t be going through it (which is not always true), you just do doubt the things that you doubt, and you just are uncertain about what you are uncertain about.
The impulse to deny or minimize doubt will ultimately lead to the willful and performative grasp of certainty without the pilgrimage through which reality is internalized.
If God is the ground of reality and of reason, then we have nothing to fear from thinking. This principle is complicated, however, by the fact that we often fancy ourselves good reasoners when we are not: when we beg questions, for example, or when we operate as though we know when, in fact, we lack knowledge and wisdom. In short, humans are necessarily free and open to the whole splendor of revealed Truth, but the wise man recognizes his own limits of vantage point.
This does not lead to the abandonment of reason, but rather to the awareness of one’s moral and epistemic limits, and therefore precisely to the skilled employment of reason. Putting these factors together, one should be able to expect that the Christian faith would ultimately seem more plausible to the honest soul over the journey of trying to understand it.
Do not pray to God as some collection of propositions. Do not project anything on God. Pray to your Creator, the one to whom all humans are immediately and irreducibly related as the very ground of their being, the One in relation to whom all creatures are a freely willed echo (Acts 17:26–28). Speak words into the ether if you must, and expect that God is the rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Cry out to him who alone can summon you into the wakefulness of reality because he is Reality himself.
The Christian confession is that our chief and deepest moment of waking up is when we encounter the friendship of God in Christ — in both his Person and work. But the Creator of our world, revealed to us in Scripture, is a living Person. And he is not the sort of Person who is waiting for your conclusions about him to be perfect to hear you. Your Father is near and disposed to help you (Psalm 62:8).
Forget that you “already know” what is in the Bible. Sit before it fresh. Let it wash over you. Just listen to it. Read the Gospels over and over again. Try to understand Christ. Read Genesis over and over again. Let its own categories work on you and make you curious. And get some help in this. Consider watching The Bible Project or listening to Alastair Roberts’s reflections on the Bible.
We can become numb to the Bible because we bring so many screaming interpretive voices to our encounter with God’s word. While the interpretive tradition is a great aid to us, the encounter between the word and each soul is its own experience. And we miss a crucial benefit of the word if we do not learn to sit before it and listen with expectation. It does not disappoint. “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). It is our imagination that is atrophied.
This piece of counsel is especially sensitive. Often doubts occur in the context of ecclesiastical pain. Nevertheless, without denying the unique suffering of extreme situations, it is crucial to ask both (1) what our pains reveal about us and (2) whether or not they are alienating us from our community.
Oftentimes, these suffering saints begin to feel like the Christians around them are simply religious drones, going about their little traditions with no knowledge of “what is really going on in the universe.” We should perhaps observe that this construal is not a little self-flattering. In fact, the church sometimes looks like a collection of drones precisely to the extent that we give into pain’s retreat reflex, and therefore become numb toward persons and reality. But just as Christian community, like any ordinary family, can be a source of pain, Christian community, like any ordinary family, is the site of healing.
To be a living person inevitably requires the experience of the livingness of others. And precisely here it is healthy to remain committed to exposure, to intimacy with one’s fellows in the Lord. There are moments when we will be tempted against this kind of intimacy, but stay committed to at least being in the game of pursuing Christian fellowship, especially the fellowship of common worship (Hebrews 10:24–25). The church is surprising. The ordinary layman is not lacking in profound aid for you if you but place yourself to encounter it.
Moreover, you also have gifts to give. This is especially difficult to believe in a state of doubt, but do not withhold what you have to offer the church, because that will also maintain the connection to a living body in which the living Christ is at work between us.
Reality is not grasped under any discipline singularly. Read science. Read literature. Read philosophy. Read poetry. Let your soul and mind be shaped by each of these, and I would wager that you will discover the impoverishment of many of the “answers” that each offers to the big questions from within its limited vantage point.
Much of what bothers you as an objection to the faith will be shown to be infected with the distinctive intellectual defect of our times: the separation of the discourses, or hyper-specification. And this is true not only of secular, but of Christian discourse. Do not expect that the perfect answer to all of your questions is latent in the popular literature. It may be outside of it.
For the especially adventurous, one may be happy to know that there is still much to be said. Read Augustine. Read Herman Bavinck. Read C.S. Lewis. Grow in your imagination and your categories. Grow in your mental instincts, because each of these has been deeply shaped by our world in intellectual and practical ways that we don’t realize.
The peculiarity of man is precisely that he is a journey. To be a man is to be the kind of thing that grows in wisdom. Of course, the fall complicates this human trajectory, but crucially, it does not change it. The risk of error does not imply the inadvisability of pilgrimage. The latter is just reality.
Try to question, then, not merely as fueled by anxiety, but with the gratitude that you are a creature, that you are inhaling and exhaling the faculties of wonder and exploration that God gave you, and be expectant that this God is a God of surprise — and that God can redeem your capacity to err precisely because he is gracious, and does not delight to see anyone go astray.
Much more could be said. But I think the above is a start. Speaking as just one of the brethren, I can say that I’ve found God to be my friend through all of my doubts and wonderings. He displays himself in the cosmos, in history, in the mind, in his special revelation, and especially in his Son (Hebrews 1:1–3). I don’t believe that any rational and well-ordered inquiry could possibly lead anywhere else but the Word made flesh.
To grow in knowledge and wisdom is to see the central picture of reality emerge, where all else plays the role of scaffolding, where everything else is a thread in a tapestry that has one center, Christ himself — God’s friendship with a human face. Seek him, and find him seeking you.
Joseph Minich (PhD, The University of Texas at Dallas) is a teaching fellow at The Davenant Institute. The author of Enduring Divine Absence, one of his current projects is writing and recording a series of videos for doubting Christians and curious non-Christians.