You aren't able to refuse to have doubt. No matter how secure you are about your system of beliefs, your mode of thinking, your way of living, or your relationships, you will soon run smack up against its limits. The limits of your knowing: there is more to know than you can hold in your mind. The limits of all knowing: there are mysteries that are bigger than mere knowledge. (Wisdom is, in part, knowing when you don't or can't know.) And, there is contradiction in our understanding; we won't always be sure that in moments of one-or-the-other choices, we chose the right one. The more secure you are, the more the whispers come through: maybe it ain't so, maybe you staked your life on nothing. Do you know what this phenomenon is called?
Knowledge and Trust
If your mind is operating right, it is asking, "is this so?" This question keeps coming up. It helps to gather facts, statistics, evidence, and testimony, and on some matters it helps to try it out (though there are certain kinds of matters where tryouts backfire, such as with addictions). Logic, deduction, and analogy help, too. But no matter how much you gather, you're still left with questions, even questions about the information or form of thinking you use. Such uncertainties, when pushed, undermine your ability to act decisively.
One way past that is to ask not only why something would not be so, but also why it would or could be so. Doubts need to stand up to the same examination as beliefs. Adding that question into the mix opens the door for possibilities and imagination, not just rules and negatives. And what you'll find is that no matter how much you examine your questions, those too need to be questioned, and will be found to have holes and dead ends. This is an epistemological problem (that is, it's in the very nature and limits of the ways in which beings can know and learn). The sound mind is able to doubt what it's told, learns what it can, questions what it learns, knows and names its doubts, and then questions its doubts. It's beyond question that each of us do doubt. The decision to entrust God with those matters turns the deepest doubt into an act of trust, and the most stubborn question into a sign of faith.
This means that doubt can be a help to faith, even a part of faith. The truest opponent of faith is not doubt, but fear.
But then, there is another question: can I become confident enough in what I know and what I believe that I am able to take decisive and direct action based on it? That is what Søren Kierkegaard referred to as a 'leap of faith', or what the apostle Paul meant in saying we are to walk by faith, not sight, or even what a Charismatic means in saying that the Spirit gives a powerful sense of assurance to live by. The truth is, even the most materialist and atheist of people make the decisions of daily life on the basis of trust. It matters what or whom you trust in, and why.
Doubt Within Faith: It Happens.
I'll give one example from my own life. The resurrection. It's the event that my entire way of thinking hinges on; my thought projects itself through its lens. But I wasn't around back then. Those who wrote about it from back then may indeed just be blowing smoke. I don't know, on a factual basis, whether or not it happened, nor does anyone else alive today. Yet, I have surprisingly little uncertainty that Jesus returned from the dead. Instead, my fears focus on one particular thing: Jesus' promise that his followers will share in that new world He's creating. Even there, when it comes to what happens to many other people, the unease isn't frequent or strong. I'm secure that they're going to the big dance. When it comes to myself, however, my suspicions are ever present. I believe there's no grading system, but I still wonder if I've made the grade. If it's all about love, then what have I done because of love? A website and a bunch of radio shows? With so few friends, who am I loving, face-to-face and in person? With no wife (or anything within sight distance of having one), I haven't ever been a husband, someone who takes on the sacred promise and challenges of actually loving a specific someone else close up, day in and day out. So how am I living a life of love? But even beyond all that, there is that nibbling little whisper that I was never meant to go on from here. That maybe this life was what God made me for, that God put me here to do certain things, and then one day the Lord would gently close my eyes, and I would come to an end.
This is what I mean when I write that there is no escape from doubts. They come from too many places and at too many angles for us to simply block them all off. It can take into account too many variables - too many 'if's - for anyone to just wish away. I have to face and re-face that question. I live with it every day by staking my life on the God I've come to know over the years, trusting that when Jesus says His followers are a part of the new life, He means it. That is what trust means. The new life is something I'm already taking part in, something I see in the world around me in so many ways I cannot count all of them. Thus, I trust the promise. But the whispers that it's not so for me still come, and never really go away.
You have your own places where spiritual or religious doubt hangs out. If you're honest with yourself, you know where they are. Some you can eventually resolve. Others will never go away. You have both the freedom and the responsibility to account for religious doubt, to learn from it and live with it.
Doubt Grows. And Shrinks.
It often seems as if doubt can only grow; it so rarely seems to shrink. But actually, it's constantly growing and shrinking and changing shape. As with knowledge itself, each time you find an answer, some uncertainties die. But each time you find an answer, new questions will arise about the assumptions you operate under. There will new unsurenesses and wonders about where you're headed. You not only can live with it. You are doing so right now. And you always will. God loves you anyway.
What To Do With Doubt?
- Harness it. Let it drive you into territory that's more real. It's part of the 'growing up' that the apostle Paul wrote about.
- Understand that it's part of a real relationship with God, no less than the one with your spouse. You will be unsure about others, yourself, the church, and God. You can hardly know your own thoughts, much less can you know the thoughts of another. And who can be more Other than God?
- Pray. Think on the Bible. Spend some quiet time thinking, asking, probing. Some doubts will go away, others will stay in place, and still others will become new beliefs.
- Question your key suspicions as much as you do your key beliefs. Track them down to see where they would bring you. Most don't hold up to mental scrutiny.
- Learn to follow through completely, even if you're uncertain or suspicious. That way, you will not be paralyzed into inaction.