My first experience with doubt began when I entered my graduate program in English. I couldn’t clearly see how scripture and my faith fit in with the intellectual environment I’d committed myself to; they seemed incompatible. I began to wonder if the Bible was effectual in all spheres of life or just the spiritual ones.
These feelings went against everything I had been taught growing up, so I kept them relatively quiet, believing that if I voiced these uncertainties it would make them more real, more decisive.
Apparently I’m not alone. One survey (2011) found that one-fourth of young people admitted they have “serious doubts they’d like to discuss,” yet for one-third of those polled, “church is not a safe place to express doubts” (CT Barna Poll).
For me, even the concept of doubt made me question the reality of my faith. What did it say about me? And most importantly, what did it say about the God I had committed myself to?
Did doubt make my personal faith or even the Christian faith less real, less effectual?
William Cowper: When Doubt Leads to Despair
William Cowper, perhaps best known for his poetry and hymns (most notably “Praise for the Fountain Opened” or “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”), lived a life certain that God was good, but that God’s goodness did not extend to himself.
He once wrote wrote, “I [once] thought myself secure of an eternity to be spent with the spirits of such men as He whose life afforded the subject of it. But I was little aware of what I had to expect, and that a storm was at hand which in one terrible moment would darken, and in another still more terrible blot out, that prospect forever.”
In “Praise for the Fountain Opened,” a hymn that rests entirely in the hope of Christ’s work on the cross, Cowper wrote,
E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply:
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
Evidence proves a powerful testimony of redemption.
I’m not sure what Cowper experienced that caused him to doubt his own salvation, but it affected him enough that he would spend his later years convinced that God had eternally rejected him.
The tension between perfected faith and faith existing in a broken world pull tight in Cowper’s life, as he struggled to reconcile what he knew to be true about God with what he experienced. Even though Cowper felt rejected by God, he insisted on trusting him. In a letter to John Newton, he wrote, “I can say this as truly as it was ever spoken.—Here I am; let Him do with me as seemeth Him good.”
Even in the midst of his doubt and depression, and even though he believed he was damned, Cowper trusted the goodness of God’s design.
Flannery O’Connor: Loving Those Who Doubt
Since Flannery O’Connor was known as a Catholic writer, it should come as no surprise that people wanted to write to her about faith. But it still surprised me that people wanted to talk with her about their personal faith.
She wrote, “I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward, but that this journey is often impeded by emotion.”
Her responses show depth both in concern for the doubter and in the wisdom provided. O’Connor is not afraid of those who doubt. Her provision of gospel truth is given from experience.
One particular response displays an extension of profound Christian unity between O’Connor and a friend who doubted:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
O’Connor recognizes faith as a process, but not a perfected one.
She closes her letter with this: “I don’t set myself up to give spiritual advice but all I would like you to know is that I sympathize and I suffer this way myself. When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.”
O’Connor stands beside her friend, not over her. She easily admits that her advice stems from her own experience with uncertainty, and she is ready to provide reassurance and comfort in anyway she can.
She is a friend to the honest doubter, not a savior or a critic.
Martin Luther: Christ’s Faithfulness, Not Our Own
The medieval understanding of faith reflected Martin Luther’s own uneasiness about absolution: while some were content with their dependence on the church for assurance, others doubted. While a monk, Luther nearly killed himself through his religious commitments; uncertainty of personal salvation could arguably be the catalyst for his part in the Reformation.
He once wrote, “Sinners are attractive because they are loved [by God]; they are not loved because they are attractive.”
Luther’s doubt and search for religious security eventually led him to the book of Romans, where he discovered an external justification based on Christ’s work on his behalf.
The writings of Luther clarify what I had misunderstood for several years. He summarizes the concept of justification in his Heidelberg Disputation: “For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.”
All of my works, belief, and trust pale in comparison to the perfect life Christ lived on my behalf, the selfless death Christ died on my behalf, and the glorious resurrection that defeated death on my behalf.
The hope of the gospel is not necessarily that I will always feel assurance; the hope of the gospel is that Christ’s work is sufficient.
Broken Belief, Redeemed
Mark 9:24 displays a father who examples believing in a broken world: “I believe; help my unbelief!” His response is equally emphatic (“I believe!”) and desperate (“Help my unbelief!”). We believe, trust, and love in a world distorted by sin, with bodies and minds affected by sin.
But our stories of faith don’t end here.
John Calvin writes in his commentary on Mark 9:24 that “it is our duty . . . as often as we are engaged in this conflict, to fly to [God] for aid.” God is not afraid of my unbelief, and 2 Timothy seems to anticipate it: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”
The tension of believing in a broken world is evident in every life, but regardless of what I feel in the moment or over several moments, God’s love for me and his work on my behalf live persistent and unwavering.
Cover image by Paul Earle.
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