Friday, November 16, 2012

The Effects of Doubt

“Do you know that you KNOW that you KNOOOOOOW that you Know?!?” bellowed from the pulpit nearly every Sunday for the three years I attended. It was the characteristic beginning of the alter call. The message was implied not so subtly: If you were a true Christian your certainty of your faith ran as deep as you could possibly know. A lack of certainty needed a pledge or a prayer. This message carried deep into my personal journey of Christianity. Having a dramatic teenage conversion, I knew that I knew that I knew. Until I didn’t. And when I couldn’t be sure of that last “know”, I couldn’t be sure of the first one either! Doubt crept in. Confusion gave way to fear. This message, tied with others similar to it, created a belief in me that it was wrong to doubt. Many Christians hear similar messages from the faith community. This creates a bewildering experience for anyone who finds themselves struggling with an aspect of faith or doctrine.

Recently, psychology has explored the psychological wellbeing of those who experience religious doubt. What has unfolded is complex and at times seems inconsistent (Krause & Ellison, 2009). Is religious doubt healthy or unhealthy, positive or negative to mental wellbeing? My upbringing would shout (bellow!) that it is unhealthy and negative. Yet research has revealed that it is a dynamic mixture of both. Common doubts rise from difficult life experiences. Seeing evil or suffering gives rise to tension with religious views. Further, conflicts between faith and science as well as struggles with life meaning may also generate doubt (Galek, Krause, Ellison,Kudler, and Flannelly, 2008).

Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer, pastor and founder of L'Abri, went through a period of religious doubt surrounding meaning as a pastor. He states in True Spirituality, "I faced a spiritual crisis in my own life. I had become a Christian from agnosticism many years ago... After that I had become a pastor... Gradually, however, a problem came to me - the problem of reality... I realized that in honesty I had to go back (to agnosticism) and rethink my whole position."

Joni Earikson Tada
Joni Earikson Tada struggled with doubt as a result of severe pain and trauma when she became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. As she healed and learned to cope with her new disabilities, Joni went through a period of intense anger and doubt of God.
Conducting a study on the effects of doubt, Galek et. al. (2008) discovered that those who doubt are likely to experience more depression and anxiety. Such struggles seem consistent and natural for painful life experiences that give rise to questions concerning longstanding beliefs.
Doubt does not affect everyone in the same ways. Several factors influence the experiences of doubt. Doubt is not the same thing as unbelief. As opposed to the rejection of religion as in unbelief, doubt is seen rather as uncertainty and questioning. It does not reflect immaturity or lead to a blind rejection or rebellion against religion as many may fear (Puffer,Pence, Graverson, Wolfe, Pate, and Clegg, 2008). The struggles of doubt may be exacerbated by painful experiences with other church members. Additionally, attempts to suppress doubt are related to poorer overall health (Krause &Ellison, 2009). These issues may reflect the strong associations doubt has with anxiety and depression.
Rather than avoiding these questions and doubts, it may be beneficial to engage them. The questions of faith may be an important step in forming individual convictions and maturity. Doubt has been shown to have several advantages: higher self-esteem, the ability to think critically and problem solve, to develop principles and morality, and to have less dogmatic judgments. Baltazar and Coffen (2011), researchers who see doubt as an important part of religious exploration and commitment, encourage youth workers to teach the Bible using faith challenging questions in order to foster deeper religious thinking.
Francis Schaeffer worked systematically through his doubt and developed a deep and rational conviction for the basis of Christianity. He continued as a pastor and founder of L’Abri and became a renowned apologist and author.
Joni Eareckson Tada found peace with her doubts and became a bestselling author, motivational speaker, artist, and disability advocate founder of Joni and Friends.
And I – I learned how to doubt from Joni and Francis. I learned how to take my questions and struggles to God. From this I developed a better understanding of the character and nature of God - and of grace. Now my questions about my faith do not cripple me. They encourage me to explore and to learn.


  1. Hi, I enjoyed reading your post. I like how you used Doubt to perceive the negative and the positive. It is almost impossible to avoid doubt just in our natural self-being. I do agree that it does help us to stand grounded with rationality when faces with circumstances. It allows to think through. However, consumed or immersed in doubt becomes the force that stops us from living in the freedom Christ has for us. It blinds our faith, our self-image in Christ and stops us from conquering the fears and battles faced in our lifetime. So after reading your post, I see that how doubt can influence us negatively and positively. What comes to mind, is having self-awareness, mindfulness and flow of the Holy Spirit to discern the good and bad. Thank you for sharing this post!

  2. Mary, what a wonderful post on the effects of doubt! I agree with you that we must understand the distinction between doubt and unbelief. It appears that within our Christian communities, we often do not understand this difference, and thus assume that all doubt is equal to unbelief. Since this is the notion all too many have, those with doubting thoughts often suppress their uncertainty and questioning for fear of appearing as an unbeliever. The misconception between the two leads the doubter to believe they are not “strong enough” in their faith, or that they lack spiritual understanding. If we look at Matthew 5:3 we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (New International Version). I was reading a commentary on this verse that said that “poor in spirit” in its literal sense means “spirit beggars”. The commentary mentioned that God wants us to admit that we are full of doubt, and He wants us to bring our doubt before Him and place them at His feet. God understands our doubt, and wants to take it from us, so that we might not be burdened with doubt any longer.

    1. Christine, Thank you. I was struck with your parallel to Matthew 5:3. That is a very powerful insight.

  3. Mary!
    Loved your post on doubt! Growing up as children we are taught to "question everything" or at least in my public school education we were. And why not apply this to our faith as well. A healthy dose of doubt brings great maturity and allows believers to be prepared to answer every question. Colossians 4:6 talks about having conversations seasoned with salt and being prepared to give an answer. 1 Peter 3:15 talks about being prepared to give an answer... and what better way to do that, than to ask the hard questions yourself. Your post was so great, creating a well balanced, well supported approach to doubt.

    1. I love that you were taught to question! I fully plan on helping my own children learn how to question and develop their reasoning skills.

  4. I believe doubt is something most people struggle with. I can't remember who quoted, "An unexamined life is a life not worth living," perhaps Albert Einstein? Anyway, when I take a step back to analyze my life and my walk with God, I am sometimes uncertain about things. In my uncertainty, I sometimes get reassurance or what could be considered an answer to my question but I still have many unanswered questions that feel only God can answer. I guess we will have to find a way to deal those question marks in our lives one way or the other.

  5. Mary,

    Wonderful post, and most well written! The one thing above all else that really plucked something deep inside of me is the attention that you brought to this idea that we should openly face our doubts, instead of hiding from them. I think you are right, the tacit meaning behind the changeless we get bombarded with sometimes in the church seem to scream "the doubting Christian is no Christian at all!"

    You wrote, "The questions of faith may be an important step in forming individual convictions and maturity. Doubt has been shown to have several advantages: higher self-esteem, the ability to think critically and problem solve, to develop principles and morality, and to have less dogmatic judgments." The process of developing these skills and abilities is overshadowed many times in favor of strict legalism and convenience. Many of us find ourselves just like the scholars of Christ day: unchanging, unyielding, and inauthentic because we have not worked out our faith in a way that pays dividends.

  6. Mary,

    I loved this post. It was actually encouraging to me. As human beings we so easily can doubt many things. It is so encouraging and ocmforting to know we have a wonderful Savior who wants to know all our struggles and doubts. It is interesting to look at the lives of those who we look up to such as Joni Erickson and Francis Schaeffer. It is uplifting to see their life struggles and doubts, yet their life for Christ in the end was stronger than ever before. I normally looked at doubt as only a negative thing. Yet we can grow closer to Christ through doubt if we learn how to cast our doubts, fears, and struggles at the foot of the cross. Thank you for such an encouraging post!


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