Good Doubt vs. Bad Doubt: Six Indicators

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I know we have spent a lot of time talking about doubt here, and I promise to take a break from the subject over the next few weeks. (Perhaps I should consider giving it up for Lent!) But a few things made another post seem like a good idea.

The first was your response to last week’s post about “Embracing Doubt.” Several of your comments really got me thinking. The second was a blog post written by Mike Duran in which he fairly and respectfully criticizes me and other “emerging” Christians for glorifying doubt. The conversation that followed his post made me realize that perhaps I need to be clearer about what I mean when I talk about doubt.  And the third was an absolutely fantastic post by Dr. Richard Beck entitled “Faith and Doubt After the Cognitive Turn,” which was brought to my attention by a reader. I highly recommend reading the whole piece, but here a few highlights:

…Intellectual doubt has become particularly acute for many Christians due to the fact that there has been a hollowing out of faith in many sectors of Christianity. More specifically, for many Christians faith simply means "belief." Further, "belief" is taken to mean "I think proposition x is true.”…Faith becomes an abstract, intellectual, cognitive, and rationalistic process. And the implication is that if you can't get your intellect in line then you don't have faith...In the bible faith is never understood to be unshakable intellectual confidence. In the bible faith is more similar to perseverance, obedience, covenant faithfulness or worship.

When I read those last few words, I felt as though Beck had said what I’ve been trying to get at for years—that the most important indicator of unhealthy doubt is not having intellectual questions about your beliefs, but failing to obey.

As I’ve said before, the line between healthy doubt (doubting one’s beliefs about God) and unhealthy doubt (doubting God Himself) often gets blurred and is not clear-cut. Having been through both, I know from experience that one can lead to stronger faith and one can lead to sin.

So with that in mind, I compiled a list of six indicators that can help us measure the health of our doubt.

Three Indicators of Bad Doubt

1. Disobedience

My friend Dave puts it this way, “Belief is always a risk, a gamble—an adventure, if you will. The line between faith and doubt is the point of action. You don't need certainty to obey, just the willingness to risk being wrong.” 

When I allow my questions about God to stop me from taking the risk of obedience, I am guilty of sin. When I let intellectual certainty dictate whether I continue to love my neighbors, care for the poor, fellowship with other Christ-followers, study Scripture, pray, serve and love, I become “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6), for I am slave to my cognitive whims. 

For example, it is not a sin to have questions about my interpretation of Genesis in light of the science that supports evolution.  It is a sin to allow these questions to kill my prayer life or keep me from reading the Bible altogether. 

2.  Entitlement

Entitlement happens when I start demanding answers from God, as if he owes me an explanation for everything.

In the book of Job, God rebukes both Job and his friends. Job was rebuked for his entitlement, for acting as a “faultfinder contending with the Almighty” (Job 40: 1).  Job’s friends were rebuked for claiming to know all the answers about why Job was suffering (Job 42:7). Job repented. His friends did not.  It seems to me that we have to avoid both the sin of entitlement (demanding an explanation) and the sin of pride (assuming we already know it all). Unfortunately, I’ve spent far too much time bouncing between these extremes.

3. Cynicism

As Jeff noted in the comments last week, “I have found it important to not pair up cynicism with my doubt. It's easy to do that, and it does more bad than good, only leading to more restlessness.” 

Boy, I can relate to that! There have been times when I have allowed my intellectual objections to some of the tenants of conservative evangelical Christianity turn me into a bitter, argumentative person, eager to play the devil’s advocate at every opportunity. I become cynical of everything evangelical, and I look for ways to belittle those with whom I disagree. This is clearly a sin. Even if I’m right about something, without love, I become nothing more than an annoying, clanging symbol (1 Corinthians 13:1). When I am cynical, I am rendered useless in the Kingdom of God, which is inherited by the poor, the gentle, the meek, and the merciful. 

Three Indicators of Good Doubt

1. Obedience

One thing I love about Mother Teresa is that, despite experiencing many days of dark doubt, she continued to serve the people around her.  To me, obedience in the face of doubt is perhaps the strongest kind of faith there is.  

2.  Humility 

The best kind of doubt is the kind that springs from humility—from an acknowledgment that we haven’t got God figured out, from a willingness to admit we can be wrong, and from a commitment to think critically about our beliefs. We doubt with humility when we recognize that our theology is not the moon, but rather the finger pointing at the moon.  In this way, I think it is essential that we doubt, for we are not doubting God, but rather ourselves. If we do not learn to question our beliefs, we will grow arrogant and prideful, unwilling to change our minds even when it’s the right thing to do. 

3. Love

Love should be our motivation behind everything, particularly doubt. The person who loves God will often choose to struggle through intellectual objections rather than ignore them or succumb to them. The person who loves his neighbors and his enemies will often ask serious questions of himself, of the Church, and of God about how to truly care for them. 

The Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimply, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:12-13)

In order to embrace the tension between knowing fully and being fully known, we must learn to abide in love. It is even more important than faith.

So, what would you add? What are some other indicators that your doubt is hurting your faith? What are some other indicators that your doubt is strengthening your faith?

Some other posts about doubt you might like: Dear John, Why Do You Find It So Easy to Believe?Interview with Jason BoyettIs Doubt a Disease?, Maybe God Doesn't ExistOff-Limits Questions.

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