Re-framing Doubt: The Stuff of Faith & Spiritual Growth?

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This is the text of my sermon preached today in Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast:

When I was training to be a scientist, and later when I worked in that field professionally, it was very common for co-workers to get together and discuss their latest results from any experiments that had been done.  A very common comment, that I heard, and indeed made, was ‘is that result real’, or ‘are we just seeing an artifact of the experiment’?  In other words, we approached the work of investigation with a profound dose of scepticism…..or doubt.  We looked at what was in front of us from a number of different perspectives, re-evaluating it again and again, testing our assumptions each time.

And so that expression of doubt was, and is, very healthy.  It prompts deeper reflection and it fosters a questioning outlook.   It recognises the fact that life operates at a level of complexity that requires a thoughtful, questioning and unfolding response.

Christianity, at its best, operates with similar assumptions.  But sometimes, we know that it doesn’t.  It can be presented to us as far too formulaic and simplistic; questioning, in this environment, is not to be encouraged or entertained.  The rational component of Faith is subverted and it verges on becoming a superstitious endeavour – formulating a simplistic list of ‘facts’ that must be adhered to and not explored to the full extent our intellect allows.

Charles Spurgeon, the famous British Baptist Minister recognised this.  And it is of course worth remembering that Spurgeon was hardly a liberal!  It is after all ‘liberals’ (whatever that label means…..and it is often used pejoratively!) that have unfairly been seen as having the monopoly on doubt.  So here is what Spurgeon wrote in his sermon entitled “Desire of the Soul in Spiritual Darkness” (quoted in Relevant Magazine: See Further Reading)

“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him, it is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, ‘It is too good to be true.'” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine)

And doubt wasn’t the preserve of Spurgeon.  None other than that great reformer, John Calvin, had something positive to say of it too.  He said this:

 “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine).

There are many other prominent Christians, across the ages, who have expressed similar sentiments in relation to the utility of doubt in shaping our faith and helping us to better understand the divine more holistically and realistically. Luther was one, and so was the writer C.S. Lewis. I’m sure you’ll each know other examples.

We also see numerous examples when we look to Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.  Look at our Old Testament Lesson today – Judges 6:36-40, a rather strange story of Gideon doubting God’s plan for him.  And so he ‘tests’ God, and God indulges him, and Gideon eventually gets the message and moves on to fulfil his role and live out his vocation. Here, doubt had served a concrete purpose for a man who was unsure.

Perhaps the most famous example of a biblical ‘doubter’ is that of ‘Doubting Thomas’, where one disciple struggled to comprehend the reality of the resurrection.  But if we think about how the biblical narrative portrays the disciples, especially in Mark’s Gospel, where they frequently question Jesus, miss the point of what he was saying and teaching, and fail to grasp the import of his message.  They were very human in their attributes, and that’s the way it was meant to be.  And so it was with Thomas – he was wrestling intellectually and emotionally with everything he had seen, heard and believed.  It was through that process of questioning and probing, that his faith made sense to him as an individual.  And that’s surely the point, is it not? We approach questions of faith and understanding as individuals; we need to satisfy those questions that have meaning for us. That’s why Thomas’ doubting….his deviation from the ‘norm’……is instructive; it was his nature to doubt.

Crucially though, in all the instances we encounter across in the Biblical narrative, God uses that doubt for greater use, to bring forth a series of messages that are universal in their application. Doubt, in its thinking, rational and constructive form is not to be viewed in a negative light as it often is Christian circles.

You may be familiar with a book entitled ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ which is written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; it included a number of letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, a young soldier. Rilke wrote the following words in one of his letters:

 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

Now, that’s perceptive!  And it served the basis for a recent publication ‘Letters to a Young Doubter’ by William Sloane Coffin, an American Minister, Chaplain and Social Activist.  In this book, Coffin writes a series of letters to a fictional young college student. He reflects and offers advice on a diverse range of issues centred around faith and how this interacts with those perennial problems of life – bereavement, failure, politics, ambition, relationships, love and achievement.  Coffin says this in one of his letters:

 “…don’t be anxious about your newfound doubts.  Doubts move you forward not backward, just as long as you doubt out of love of the truth, not out of some pathological need to doubt.”

And there we have it.  When we doubt out of love for the truth, we follow the path set before us with integrity.  True discipleship is tough; it includes failure and doubt, but also victory and certainty.  When we love the truth, doubt is transformed from a negative to a positive.  Doubt takes on a beauty that unquestioning conformity can never understand nor enjoy; it journeys with us a delineates our path.

So let us today embrace what God has given us – a questioning mind, a loving heart, a desire for the truth and a peace that comes with it – a peace that surpasses all understanding.


Further Reading: Jesse Carey, 7 Prominent Christian Thinkers Who Wrestled With Doubt, Relevant Magazine.

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