Doubt has a good public relations manager these days. The world seems awash with books, articles, sermons, even a few TED talks, praising its beneficial goodness. I too have tried to redeem the sullied reputation of doubt in the church with my preaching and writing. Over the past year I’ve started to wonder if the pendulum has swung too far though. Have we naively overestimated and championed the virtue of doubt without fully appreciating its destructive power?
The book of James (1:6) names one thing that will prevent us from receiving divine wisdom. Doubt.
So who is right? James or TED? Is doubt good or bad?
There are two primary modes of doubting. The first mode utilizes doubt as a tool to seek understanding. I call this “sincere skepticism.” This mode analyzes ideas, beliefs, stories and arguments with logic and critical thinking, testing for validity and reliability. This mode of doubting is healthy and essential to understanding.
I call the second mode of doubting “toxic skepticism.” Doubt, like most tools, can become deadly if used inappropriately. There are many genres of this deadly “toxic skepticism,” but one of the ways doubt turns toxic is when it becomes our primary tool for life. For instance, if you wake up doubting gravity every morning, wondering if it’s safe to get out of bed without putting on the NASA space boots you picked up on eBay, your doubt is no longer productive and healthy. It’s pathological.
Many Christians are being conditioned to approach their faith with pathological doubt. Certain cultural influences equate intelligence with doubting the existence of God and Christian beliefs. However, doubting the existence of God is only rational if it is seeking to discover and understand. As soon as doubt isn’t seeking to discover and understand, it’s pathological, and pathological doubt is never rational. It’s lazy. It just wants to doubt.
Healthy doubt wants to discover a new or better understanding of reality and adjust to what it discovers. In order to do that it can’t always be doubting.
Sincere skepticism requires us to be good stewards of doubt. Too much of anything, even good things, can be harmful. For example, plants need water to grow but overwatering plants can kill them. Like water, doubt is good but too much is deadly.
Our relationship to “self” illustrates the need for balanced doses of doubt. A certain degree of self-doubt is necessary to have healthy relationships with other people and reality, because all of us are wrong about a great many things. If I’m unable to doubt my opinions, abilities, beliefs, knowledge, then I’m unable to adjust to reality. If I resist everything that contradicts my view of myself and the world, I’m not able to learn, grow and live in truth.
On the flip side, if self-doubt becomes excessive, it destroys my confidence, purpose, meaning and passion. It also kills my ability to take risks. We can all find “logical” reasons to doubt ourselves, causing us to avoid taking risks like starting up a business, confronting a bully or trying something new. But at some point we need to defy our doubts and take the necessary risks required to develop confidence and discover what we’re really made of and what we’re capable of. If not, our self-doubt becomes pathological and we lose the desire and ability to discover more about ourselves.
While it’s true that doubt is beneficial to our lives, taking risks that defy our doubts is even more beneficial. You will never have enough answers to eradicate all your doubts about yourself. You can never be certain you won’t fail if you try out for a sports team, enrol in university, ask someone out on a date, submit your name for a job promotion, become a parent, or try to lose weight.
There is no certainty in life. So it makes no sense to expect certainty with our faith.
Doubt can help us discover the truth about ourselves, reality and God, but it can also become the very thing that holds us back from discovery. Doubt, as a tool to discover, renews life. Doubt, as a way of life, is death.
We need to take risks of faith to discover who we are and who God is. In order to do this we need to remember to doubt our doubts sometimes.
(For an inspiring message on doubt and faith, check out Joseph Solomon’s spoken word presentation entitled, “A Shadow of a Doubt” on YouTube.)
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.