They say the dog is a man’s best friend. For several years, doubt was mine. It was my pet poodle: I fed it a steady diet of questions, groomed it when it got too disheveled, showed it off for family and friends, even cleaned up after its messes from time to time.
But after a while, I realized doubting and questioning can only get you so far. Faith and belief take you the rest of the way. There comes a point in your spiritual journey when you have to put a stake in the ground, take the red pill, take the plunge down the rabbit hole, jump through the looking glass—whatever is your choice metaphor for faith and belief. I know I had to.
Eventually I ran out of questions to ask and doubt no longer fueled me like it had in the past. While doubt was originally the catalyst that grew and strengthened my faith, eventually my spiritual life was running on fumes because I was in desperate need of something to hold on to.
Looking back, I understand why. Which is why there’s one more thing I think I’d tell my twenty-something self: Doubt, but don’t sit there. Mostly because I think that’s what I think Jesus would say to me. After all, that’s what he said to Thomas.
After Jesus was raised to new life, Thomas questioned the truth of that claim. He doubted whether Jesus really was alive. A week later Jesus showed up to disprove this theory!
What I love about this episode is that Jesus totally engages Thomas in the midst of his doubt. He doesn’t wag his finger at him. He doesn’t condemn him for questioning. In fact, he offers Thomas his hands and side to find the answers he was looking for! But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus isn’t content to let Thomas sit in his doubt forever. Instead, he calls him into faith: “Stop doubting and believe!” Jesus says.
Questioning Jesus’ resurrection didn’t fuel Thomas’ missionary journeys to India, where he was later martyred, to share Jesus’ story of rescue. His belief in Christ as “My Lord and my God” did.
While my season of questioning and doubting was incredibly important for my faith journey, I think Jesus would tell my twenty-something self what he told Thomas: Stop doubting and believe! For two reasons:
1) Doubt is a blessing and a curse.
While doubt is often essential in moving our faith forward, it can become toxic if consumed in large quantities and for too long. It did for me. As I found out, deconstructing your faith will only take you so far; I had doubted and questioned my faith away. Eventually you need to build a structure that will guide and make sense of life.
At the beginning I found incredible freedom from my doubt because I finally felt permitted to poke and prod at my faith. I also discovered a whole world of other people asking the same questions I was asking, which gave me confidence to question my faith.
But eventually I began to get motion sickness from my carousel of questions. Round and round I went, asking about the origins of species, wondering about Noah, questioning why a good God could allow so much evil. Eventually I toppled over from so much dizziness! I needed far more stability than my questions and doubt provided.
While doubt and questions provided the momentum my faith needed to propel me forward, faith and belief took me to where I am today. That happened when I rediscovered the central Story to the Christian faith after reengaging the Bible more intentionally and listening to the voices of our Christian ancestors.
2) Doubt isn’t a virtue; it’s a means to an end.
This brings us back to something I mentioned at the beginning. Asking questions and doubting is a good thing because it strengthens our faith; the faith of our future self depends on it. But it’s only a means to an end, not the end result.
Sometimes it seems like doubt is the new black. It’s as if doubting and questioning is a virtue in and of itself—something to pursue and hold on to in its own right, alongside belief and faith, as if the two were equal, valid options. Yet remember Thomas’ story.
After Jesus engaged Thomas’ questions and doubts and then invited him to believe, he did. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas declared. He recognized Jesus was who he said he was: God of the universe, Lord over all.
Thomas did what we all eventually must declare: “Yes, this is what I trust to be true. This is what I’m willing to die for. This is what I believe.”
The earliest Christians knew this. So they boiled those beliefs down to a short, easy-to-memorize declaration. We call it the Apostles’ Creed. It goes like this:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
I understand what it’s like to experience a crisis of faith. Maybe you’re not in a full-fledged crisis, but you’re asking questions you haven’t asked before and the creepy, crawly claws of doubt are beginning to prickle the back of your brain. Maybe you’re scared or empowered or thrilled or confused or any number of other emotions because of this crisis and period of questioning. And so you’ve come looking not so much for answers, but for direction.
Regardless, I understand what it’s like to wonder if the Christianity of your childhood or past still connects to your modern world. And I want to say, Bravo! Bravo for asking, bravo for poking, bravo for prodding!
I respect your journey; I understand it. Not all of it, because we all travel our own paths. But over the last several years I’ve discovered a number of insights on the other side of my own faith crisis. Insights I wish I could share with my twenty-something self. If I could, this is what I’d say:
- It’s OK to ask questions, it’s OK to doubt. You have permission!
- Rediscover what the Church has believed by recovering the plot to the Christian Story.
- Sometimes in order to move forwards in faith you need to go backwards.
- Spend more time with the Bible than X, Y, or Z author.
- Doubt, but don’t sit there.
May you continue asking and pushing. But may you find what you’ve been looking for: faith not in an idea but in a person, and that who he is and what he’s done for you is more than enough for every ounce of your life—past, present, and future.