Doubt is uncomfortable for so many Christians. Many feel that they have a right to the answers. I would say that it is baked in as part of the American mindset, a sense of rightness. American Christians have a peculiar arrogance that is offputting to many people. We need to become comfortable with doubt if we are going to be compassionate.
Many evangelical Christians have a very black-and-white view of the world. There is a strong desire to be right and with that sense of rightness comes a lot of arrogance. The world is divided into those who have “accepted Christ” and those who “live in sin.” Preaching and teaching can come across with a heavy hand of judgment. If you do not repent of XYZ you are living in sin. When you choose certain lifestyles you are living in sin. Sometimes specific standards are set up, what to wear, eat, or watch. Other times they are left with vague condemnation. “The Bible does have wine, but really drinking alcohol is always bad.” Better to err on the side of caution, and be extra strict.
This environment is often not conducive to questions and doubt. When someone brings questions about what they should and should not do, they will be given specific answers. There are plenty of people who want to be told what to think and how to live. Yet there are still many that don’t want that. They want to know the why’s, more than the how-to’s.
If your religious experience is prescriptive you are missing out on the beauty of doubt and questions. The God of the Bible is happy to sit with doubt. There is no condemnation of questions.
doubt in the bible
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.John 3:1-9 NIV
Nicodemus is a man well-educated in the Jewish religion. Yet he is a man full of questions. Jesus never condemns his doubt, he answers his questions, and when they bring more questions he keeps answering those. We aren’t told how what happens when Nicodemus gets his answers. What we do see is the model of a man of religion who still has questions and a conversation that continues to this day.
“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.”Judges 6:13-18, NIV
Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.” And the Lord said, “I will wait until you return.”
Gideon asks a lot of questions when he is confronted by the Lord. He wants to know why hard things have happened, he wants to know how he can change things. Even after this initial exchange, he continues to give tests and ask questions. And God is shown to be comfortable with all the doubt and questions. It is not a burden on him, and quite frankly it makes for a more interesting story.
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”John 20:25-27 NIV
Thomas is the most famous of doubters. I think he gets a bad rap for this because earlier in the gospel of John, he was shown to be willing to die with and for Jesus, John 11:16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He had faith in the work Jesus was doing, he simply had more questions. It is also difficult to hear that all the other disciples had experienced something without him. Jesus is patient with the doubt of Thomas and allows him to have an experience as well.
Doubt and Deconstruction
Many people who grew up in Christian homes have a unique relationship to doubt. There are those who have always heard it condemned. So they stuff down their fears and questions and try to understand the teaching they have been handed. Others “walk away from the faith” because they cannot find the answers to their questions within the religious confines of their upbringings. Still others (and this is the group I am in) go through a process of deconstructing the religious tenets of their childhood in order to deepen their own faith.
The questions that deconstructionists ask are much like trying to explain weather to a child.
“Why is it raining?”
You answer, “Because the clouds bring rain.”
“Where do the clouds get the rain?”
Maybe you explain the water cycle and weather fronts. They ask how things happen, and then they come back to why. Some children become bored, while others will be satisfied at a certain point. Then other children will continue to ask how and why much longer. The questions breed more questions.
I don’t know when we stop asking questions with the hope that we will find the answers. It probably is around the same time that our education focuses on passing tests rather than encouraging creativity. I know that many people value homeschooling for this very reason.
A Childlike Faith
Jesus talked about having faith like a child (Matthew 18). This coversation is about how simple their faith is compared to adults. Adults complicate with rules and definitive answers. A child’s faith is not without questions. Any Sunday school teacher will tell you the questions of children are endless. No, the faith of a child is that there is an answer to their questions. God is not going to run out of answers anytime soon. But adults muddle around with, “Because I said so.” Or the pastoral equivalent, “Because the Bible says so.”
Learning how to become comfortable with doubt is learning how to be comfortable with not always having clear answers, and maybe even any answers.
I have been exploring more of my own story with deconstruction in my weekly Substack.