Does Doubt Have a Place in the Church?
I found my suspicions were necessary for my faith. Here’s why.
I remember lying on my bed on my 16th birthday, staring at the ceiling through tears, and admitting to the wide-eyed parents standing in my doorway that I just couldn’t believe in God anymore. We’d just had an argument, and somehow the conversation led to the real issue: the doubt that had crept into my heart over the past year.
The minute the words left my mouth, I felt honest and empty. The façade of a safe, “Sunday school” faith was gone forever.
I vividly recall how calm my parents were when I voiced my confession. My mom didn’t yell; my dad didn’t try to persuade me. They simply told me that everyone has to doubt or else their faith won’t be their own. Then they told me they loved me and walked out of the room, undoubtedly heading to the living room to pray for their broken daughter.
From that moment on, I desperately sought ways to claw my way back into the safety net of the belief I’d grown up in.
I spent the next few months reading the historical facts. I read about the empty tomb and about how unlikely it was for Jesus’ body to have been stolen by his disciples. I read about creation, theology, and philosophy. I read personal testaments. I talked to people I trusted, and in the end, what I’d sensed to be true all along was what I came back to: the love of Jesus. I can’t see Christ, but in the same way that I know my family loves me, I know God loves me.
I don’t see the love; I see the effects. The never-ceasing provision, the peace in the most difficult times, the beauty in the sunsets, the scandalously redemptive story of the gospel, and the warmth within those I know who are closest to Christ—these are the things that keep me believing. Faith came in and through these realizations.
Without the space my parents gave me to think, doubt, and ask hard questions, though, I probably would have walked away from the whole thing a long time ago.
As a matter of fact, everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s walked away from his or her faith has started out with the same story: “I began to ask questions, and people told me I just needed to have faith.”
When you look into the eyes of these people, they all seem to wear a thin veil of defiance over an abyss of pain. They’ve been hurt by the church, hurt by its impossible “standards,” and bruised for their lack of faith.
I fear that in the American church, we use the idea of faith as a catch-all scapegoat. Instead of diving into the questions of fellow believers and looking for the answers together, we at times suggest that they just need to believe more. We tell them to pray about it. And eventually, those people get sick of our lame responses, and stop showing up to church. They start hanging out with people who aren’t afraid of questioning things. And then, more often than not, they leave the faith altogether.
I’m curious about whether we do this out of ignorance or out of fear. Are we afraid that exploring doubts will open a Pandora’s box of theological confusion and stories that don’t line up? From the outside, nonbelievers often see Christians as individuals who have convinced themselves that Christianity is true, not using logic and research, but because they want to have something to believe in. I fear this is also how doubting Christians within the church begin to see themselves and others as they spend their Sunday mornings looking around at the smiling faces in nearby pews, wondering why they feel so alone with their struggles.
The truth is, those who fearlessly dive into the investigation of their faith rarely resurface disappointed. In the early 1980s then-atheist and hard-core journalist Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, set out to investigate his wife’s newfound faith, only to come to faith himself. C. S. Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity during his time at Oxford University, after spending time talking to G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. History is full of men and women who came to faith through asking the difficult questions, not shying away from them. And those who asked the hardest questions came out, it seems, the strongest and most effective for the kingdom.
In a world where information is so readily available and questioning millennials are leaving the church in droves, I feel deeply convicted by the importance of knowing the Bible, knowing history, and never, ever being afraid to ask the tough questions. If Christians never doubted their faith, they’d also probably know little about their faith. Encouraging one another to question is the best way to learn.
God walked with me through the doubt and the tears, and he has again, many times since my 16th birthday. His words are true—he never leaves us or forsakes us, even in times when we can’t see him. My prayer for the church is that it becomes a place for doubters, as well as believers.
Was there a time when you doubted God? What brought you back? Are there any books you recommend for the doubting believer?
Ashley Moore is the editorial coordinator for Today's Christian Woman, GiftedforLeadership.com, and ChristianBibleStudies.com, and is also a contributing writer to the TCW blog. Follow Ashley on Twitter @ashgmoore.