“Remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.”
I've written before about my basic beliefs concerning the relationship between faith and doubt, including in this recent guest post on Jason Boyett's blog. In short, I believe that the two are inextricably bound together. I believe that to say I have faith is, at the same time, to admit that I have doubt. I believe that words like "faith" and "belief" are more closely related to words like "trust" and "hope" than they are to words like "certain" and "irrefutable". Indeed, as thinkers from Tillich to Anne Lamott have pointed out, "faith" and "certainty" may be closer to opposites. Though it may be uncomfortable for many readers to see it stated this way, there is a real sense in which "faith" is at best, a hopeful agnosticism...a confident gamble in which we are betting our lives on what we hope is true. To say "I believe" is also in a sense to say, "I don't know".
While I argue that "faith" and "doubt" are in some ways inseparable, I'd also argue that not all doubts are equal. There is such a thing as "positive doubt". It would be impossible to learn anything new, if one did not doubt the adequacy and/or validity of what we already know and believe. Without doubt, no form of reformation would ever be possible. With that being said, there is also a type of doubt that is chronic, paralyzing, and decidedly unhealthy.
Where does this doubt come from? In his excellent book, O Me of Little Faith, Jason Boyett proposes 6 possible causes:
Sin--While doubt is not in and of itself sinful, it is often the result of persistent, unconfessed sin. When someone lives in violation of their own conscience and what they believe to be right or good, they begin to create distance between themselves and those who share these convictions...including God. This God, who is thus assumed to be increasingly distant and unforgiving, becomes less and less believable.
Familiarity--As much as familiarity can bring comfort, it can also eventually lend itself to contempt and boredom. For those who have been believers for some time, especially those who tend to think of faith as a static thing to be maintained, faith can be a lethargic, tedious exercise that eventually becomes untenable.
Depression--Boyett says "Some of us struggle to trust God when things are great. When things fall apart, it's even harder." As much as we'd like to believe that our emotional state has no effect on what we do or do not place our faith in, the reality is not so detached and compartmentalized.
Circumstances--Circumstances can bring us closer to God and they can also make us feel farther away from God. If you know anyone who has been touched by tragedy and loss, you know this to be true.
Being Human--In one of my favorite lines from the book, Boyett quips, "If you're afraid of doubt, being human isn't your best option." As human beings, we place our trust in other things and other people and often find that our trust was misplaced. If those we can see let us down, how much more difficult it is to trust an unseen God.
Intellectual Doubt--The deeper you dig, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. While some are able to accept simple explanations, others find themselves unable to turn off the questions that aren't satisfied with such answers. In his book, The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor refers to such individuals as "Reflective", and rightly claims that their reflectiveness is both a blessing and a curse.
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While I would never propose that you can (or even necessarily should) find away to rid yourself of all doubts, I can propose a few healthy ways of dealing with chronic doubt. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. I offer it from my own experience as what I have personally found helpful:
Prayer--I don't actually mean "just pray your doubts away" or some other trivial cliche'. When I'm in the depths of debilitating doubt, prayer is often one of the last things I want to do. I just don't have the words. Coming from a non-liturgical background, I have been surprised to find life and vitality breathed back into my faith by fixed-hour prayer. Praying these historical prayers that have stood the test of time, at specific times of the day when other believers all over the world are also praying (given time changes), is a powerful thing. I've found that they strengthen my faith and that they have even brought vitality back to my "spontaneous" prayers. For those who are unfamiliar with the practice, I can recommend Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, and The Divine Hours Pocket Edition, by Phillis Tickle to get you started. Also, praying the Lord's Prayer a few times a day wouldn't be a bad place to start.
Confession--If the doubt you are experiencing is the result of ongoing sin (as discussed above), then I highly recommend that you find a few people whom you respect to confess it to. However, that kind of confession isn't necessarily what I'm talking about here. Doubt becomes malignant and harmful when we keep it covered up, as if it were something to be ashamed of. When you bring your doubts out into the light, confessing them to a few people you respect, you may find more hope than you ever thought possible. You may find that others have the same questions. You may find others who don't struggle with the same questions, but also don't reject you for thinking differently. These moments of "I'm not crazy" and "I'm not alone" can be wonderfully liberating, and will hopefully lead to the next practice on my list.
Conversation/Community--Christian faith is not a solo sport. It was meant to be done in community. Hopefully, the confession of doubt within community leads to hopeful and helpful dialogue that explores the way forward. By this I don't necessarily mean that others will talk you out of your questions. As we've already said, what you are doubting may well be worth doubting. The way forward is a path that is best explored together.
Nature-- I am not an outdoors person, as this blog post by my wife clearly illustrates. Left to my own devices, I'll stay holed up inside with a book. However, I've found that when I'm out in nature, there's something that I can't put words to that points to something greater than myself. There are many different proposals by many different people on what that "something" is. However, the point is that the vastness and complexity of Creation help me to feel an appropriate sense of smallness, awe, and wonder.
Art--When I started a Master's Degree in Theological Studies, someone offered me what I thought at the time was an odd piece of advice. They told me to make sure that I made a point to stay engaged with artistic things...listen to good music, engage with good stories/fiction, etc. As strange a suggestion as I thought it was, I found it to be incredibly valuable. I've found that faith is a very right-brained phenomenon (Daniel Pink writes persuasively about this in A Whole New Mind). When we try to have faith by approaching God from a totally left-brained perspective, we often become junior-high kids with scalpel in hand, who have relegated God to the role of dead frog to be dissected and labeled. Something is obviously lost in the process.
Action-- There is no better antidote to paralyzing, unhealthy doubt that to take action, for the sake of others. Introspection can be both a Spiritual discipline and a snare of self-absorption. Taking action, especially with other people for the sake of other people breathes new life into dry faith almost every time. It's not that the questions get answered--in fact, new questions may be generated in the process. Its that our more self-centered, self-absorbed questions tend to evaporate as we pour out the life and energy we've been trying so desperately to protect, for the sake of the world that God so loves.
“What if there is another category of reality in the universe, no less real just because it doesn’t shrink itself to our instruments and portals of ‘knowledge’? What if that category of reality--let’s call it mystery or spirituality--dwarfs all of our knowledge, as space dwarfs our little earth? Are we humble enough to look up from the little things we are so proud of comprehending and controlling, to face massive realities--humbling mysteries--greater than ourselves, and therefore greater than our ability to squeeze into our little boxes of certainty or ‘knowledge’? Are we willing to step off the narrow ledge of knowledge to soar into the broad spaces of faith?”
-Brian McLaren, Finding Faith