the benefit of (the) doubt
I remember seeing this comic last December, and thinking it was a warning: stay away from the questions about your faith! Do not ask them or they will consume you!
I heard this sentiment echoed from my friends as well. I remember riding with some friends on the way to Campus Crusade for Christ’s annual Christmas Conference and asking where I would be able to find answers to some of the doubts I had concerning my still-budding faith.
(I remember this because I felt so embarrassed at having asked the question!):
“I’ve been looking for answers a lot on the Internet lately.”
The car shook with guffaws.
“r/Christianity is not a good place to be asking questions, Ryan,” a friend smiled. “Trust me.”
As long as I can remember, I’ve heard that doubt is inherently bad, that entering a forest of questions is only going to leave you lost and alone, looking for a thin trail of bread crumbs you don’t remember leaving.
“Just keep getting into the Word, submit to the Bible more. Stop asking questions….make sure to check out Piper or Driscoll for some solid teaching.”
I heard this kind of stuff all the time.
“The Bible is very clear. If you question in a certain way, it’s a sin. God’s thoughts are higher than your thoughts. God says it, you believe it, that settles it.”
Submit. Trust. Believe. Follow. (Tithe.) Repeat.
However, in contrast to this type of agnosticism, Theologian Paul Tillich has said that “doubt is not the opposite of faith – it is an element of faith.”
Trusting in God and asking questions do not exclude one another – it should be okay to do both at the same time.
And what I see throughout the Christian Scriptures is actually the tendency to question, criticize, and even demand answers from the God of the universe.
For instance, the writer of Ecclesiastes repeatedly calls life “meaningless.”
Job says something along the lines of “why didn’t I die in birth? God, why did you let me be born? Why do you give this miserable, death-soaked life to men and then hide its meaning?!”
In the Psalms, David essentially accuses God of being a coward:
For crying out loud (pun intended), Jesus himself calls out in pure abandonment as he is hanging on the cross: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Doubts and questions are okay – the Bible is full of them! The Hebrew scriptures are recognized as one of the only religious texts in the world that is so deeply questioning and self-critical.
In other words, epistemological certainty is not a central concept of the Christian faith – rather, living in the gap is where we can begin to find the life that Jesus spoke of.
And it is okay to enter the forest of doubt and to critically ask these questions of your beliefs!
are your loving actions contingent upon the existence of that God?
is it even possible that the Christian God approves of gay relationships?
does your God need to punish an innocent man to forgive you?
does this God punish you with hell for not having enough belief? How is that a God we could ever truly call ‘Good’?
These are questions that it is okay to ask! I don’t know that I’ve come to the proper conclusions on these things myself. But search the scriptures, talk to people that you trust, pray and serve and let these questions sink into your bones because they are not going anywhere…and neither is God. And He may not give you answers, but He will give you peace.
The Bible says to “test everything – hold fast to what is good.”
If all of this Jesus stuff seems just too hard to swallow sometimes, but you’re at least open to the possibility of believing in something, I’d argue you’re in the right place. Having the benefit of (the) doubt means you are much less at risk of being trapped within a false and harmful belief system.
Conversely, if you are absolutely certain that you will always be a member of the religion (or irreligion) you are in now, that you will unquestionably build a life and raise your kids in the exact same articulations of the faith tradition you inherited from your parents, that you have “got it pretty figured out” in terms of your theology…
…well, I doubt it.