“I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.“
– Mother Teresa
Doubt is a concept I’ve spent a great number of years pondering. When studying many men and women of faith, I have been interested to discover how many of them have been plagued by the same doubt that you and I often find ourselves mired within. Mother Teresa seems to be no exception. She lived a life of dedicated service, received honors from both secular and religious organizations, including not only the first ever Pope John XXIII Peace Prize but the Nobel Peace Prize as well.
And yet, while she could easily have chosen a life of celebrity, fame, or fortune; she never swayed from her mission of service. What is so admirable, is that she did so while suffering unbearable doubt in the very God and mission she so proudly proclaimed. So why, if doubt is so incredibly common, is it so often discussed in hushed whispers, behind closed doors, and hidden away as a cause for shame?
The modern church tells us that doubt is a disease, that it must be defeated and removed at all costs. We’re told that to discuss it openly may lead it to spread its contagion, and so we pretend that it doesn’t exist. Or, when we do choose to acknowledge it, we treat those who experience it like modern day lepers. We tell them that maybe they’re simply not praying enough, or reading the scriptures enough, or maybe they’re simply just not good enough. So they hide, afraid to reveal the doubt that plagues their soul, quietly pleading for God to take it all away.
But if the life of Mother Teresa teaches us anything, it would be that doubt is most certainly a critical component of faith. To force it away and treat it like a disease is to remove our chance to truly grow in Christ. Paul Tillich once said that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Anne Lamott took it a bit further when she wrote that, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
In modern Christianity, there is no room for gray. There is no room for questioning. There is only room for certainty. Certainty that the Bible is a literal, inerrant, and infallible document and that our understanding of God and His Word is complete. In the situations where there appear to be gaps in what the scriptures discuss, we build complex, systematic theologies, happily checking off our questions one by one. But it is these very checklists that inevitably lead to our downfall.
Faith is not a memorization of rote answers and standards, but a trust in God that He is there even when things start to go off the rails or stop making sense. Certainty on the other hand, acts as a faith in our own limited knowledge; in our ability to fully grasp the mind of God. How foolish! Rather than reinforcing the foundations of our faith, this certainty simply acts as some type of spiritual duct tape, slowly peeling away, until it rips apart in the midst of the storm sending us spiraling face first into the mud.
But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Oswald Chambers once wrote that, “When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God–it is only believing our belief about Him. . . . If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled.”
Humanity desires certainty, and we expect it from our faith, but God seems to somehow move through uncertainty and doubt as a method of propelling us forward, forcing us to let go from our ways of old, and to instead, dive into a deeper understanding of our role in His Kingdom.
In my experience, doubt and questions are not a practice to be feared. Instead they should be encouraged and embraced as a process necessary for spiritual growth. It is only through our trials that we can be certain of anything. Only after our beliefs of God have been thoroughly buffeted by the winds of doubt, our theological systems blown away, and our grip on certainty finally released that we may find ourselves looking at the face of God.
Doubt doesn’t have to send us spiraling into a pit of uncertainty and dread as it once did with me. It can, instead, move us forward into a fuller, more unexpected faith. But we’ll have to let go of our answers. We’ll have to trust in an uncontrollable God who never acts as we would expect. We’ll have to welcome uncertainty and embrace our limits of knowledge. It is only then, when we step outside of the certainty and safety of our spiritual boats, into the waves of uncertainty and doubt, that we’ll ultimately find true faith in God; and in doing so, a new, resurrected life.
*I hope you’ll join me over the next several articles as I cover a number of the areas that led to and fed my doubt along with some of the methods and revisions I’ve made to my understanding which has allowed me to grasp a faith in God again. We’ll discuss the role of the Bible, the character of God, the problem of evil, and many other items over the next several weeks. If there are any specific areas of doubt you may be struggling with, please feel free to send me a note. You can use the contact link up top. I’d love to hear from you and discuss any items that may be plaguing you on your journey to understand God.
*In this article and others to come, I choose to refer to God using the masculine pronoun He and Him. I do understand that God is genderless, and to some this usage may continue to reinforce the overly patriarchal attitudes of the faith. I have chosen to do so mainly out of habit, and as attempting to continually modify the pronoun to they, her, or other forms seems overly distracting from the text. I will discuss other characteristics of God in future articles, but I do ask your understanding for this particular decision.
Should you want to read more regarding the quotes provided in this article, I have provided their sources below:
- Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta
- Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest
- Elizabeth Dickson, “Defining Faith: Paul Tillich on Faith and Doubt”, Psychotherapy and Spirtuality