(Cover art courtesy of Thomas Nelson)
Knowing We Don’t Know
Excerpted from “When Faith Fails” by Dominic Done (Copyright 2019). Used with permission from Nelson Books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson and HarperCollins Christian Publishing Inc.
Because we live in a world of limits, we doubt.
Because we don’t have all the answers, questions naturally arise:
What is God like? How can I know him? What is life’s purpose? Which way should I go?
An anonymous fourteenth- century mystic once said that we find ourselves “in a cloud of unknowing.” That is why we doubt. We don’t always see the sky.
However, what we have to be reminded of here is that all of this was part of God’s design. He purposefully made it like this. He built limits into the system. It wasn’t an accident. He knew we would have to live with so many unknowns. And yet he chose for the human story to look this way. Author Ronald Rolheiser wrote, “Every choice is a thousand renunciations. To choose one thing is to turn one’s back on many others.”3 When God decided to create, he could have said yes to a thousand other possibilities. But he didn’t. He chose this world. He chose you. He chose me. Limits and all. And still, he called it “good.”
All of this means that doubts are normal.
They’re a natural consequence of living in this world.
You doubt not because you’re a terrible person or because you’re less spiritual than everyone else. You doubt because you’re human.
This is important, because so many Christians view doubt as if it were an unspeakable, repulsive sin. I once saw a television interview where a well- known pastor was asked whether he ever doubted. He looked horrified, as if he had just been asked if he enjoyed chain- smoking and late- night binging on marijuana brownies. “Of course not!” he retorted. In his view doubt represented a flaw of character or an in- your- face rebellion against God.
Why do people think this way?
One reason is related to our cultural obsession with certainty. We want to know everything, all the time. We map the world with GPS because we want to see where everything is. We seek answers on Yelp because we want assurance the food is good. Every second we ask Google forty thousand questions globally. 4 Easy answers are just a few taps away. And, for the most part, we love it. We’ve tasted the tree of knowledge, and we keep coming back for more.
But this can be toxic for our faith. If all we care about is certainty, we lose the beauty of mystery. If all we value is explanation, we lose the joy of exploration. Deep faith is about progress, not perfection. But a glance at Christian subculture reveals what we prefer: our bookstores are stacked with resources that accentuate quick answers and easily memorized proofs. Our songs are replete with affirmations. Even our sermons are neatly structured models of industry: three didactic points, all beginning with the letter p. The benefit of this kind of Christianity is that all the work is already done for you. Just sign on the line and never worry about faith again. It’s all highly structured and systematized; certainty has become the blueprint for our faith. No wonder Christians who draw outside the lines feel so unloved.
Another reason has to do with the way we’ve read (or misread) Genesis. Sadly, many have used the opening chapters of the Bible as a pretext to shame those who question their faith. We’ve literally demonized doubt. How so? Well, if you skip Genesis 1 and your starting point is Genesis 3, then doubt is a satanic lie, a catastrophic byproduct of the fall. I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard and books I’ve read that suggest doubt is somehow our fault: “Doubt came into the world the moment Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.” “Doubt is always a sin.” “Doubt reveals that something is wrong with your character.” The solution? Confess the sin of doubt and “just believe.” Doubt ought to be repressed and denied. Push it back into the shadows. Anesthetize it with more church gatherings, songs, sermons, and statements of faith.
The downside to this, of course, is that suppressed doubt has a propensity to reemerge, often in a form far more volatile than before. And if that’s the narrative we believe, should we be surprised when Christians who struggle with doubt feel they have no place in church? Should we be shocked when the questions they’ve concealed for years suddenly materialize and they announce on Snapchat that they’re walking away from their faith?
The fall of humanity is a vital element of the Genesis story, but it must be interpreted in light of chapter 1. Starting there, not three pages in, reveals that doubt is part of the package. God didn’t create Adam and Eve with all the answers to life’s hardest questions. Instead, he allowed space for them to explore, question, and learn. He cultivated a garden in which mystery could coexist alongside faith. This means that when we doubt, it’s not because we’re a disappointment to God; it’s because doubt is a natural response to the limitations of our understanding.
I’m not saying we should be content with our doubt or not make every effort to mature in our faith. Nor am I saying all forms of doubt are good. In fact, maybe as a reaction to incomplete and judgmental attitudes toward doubt, some run the opposite way and give up on their faith entirely. They look back on their faith and ridicule what they used to believe, and then look down on those who still have traditional understandings of faith, assuming they’re standing in the way of progress.
Deconstruction can be healthy and sometimes even crucial for genuine faith to emerge, but it can only take you so far. Any two- year- old can tear up a room. The real challenge is having convictions strong enough to live by.
Not all expressions of doubt are healthy. Not all doubt is worth holding onto.
But doubt itself is normal.
We need to stop vilifying those who live in the tension of conflicted faith. Doubt isn’t a malevolent demon that we need to exorcise out of our brothers and sisters with sanctimonious words. It’s part of their story. It’s part of my story. Jude 22 says, “Be merciful to those who doubt.”