To struggle with one’s faith is often the surest sign we actually have one.A.J. Swoboda, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It (2021)
By quoting from A.J. Swoboda’s new book, I’m sort of cheating. Because I’ve not read it yet. It just arrived in the mail today.
But I am looking forward to reading it. Partly because I’ve heard him give a few interviews about it on podcasts and my impression is that he treats the subject with honesty and depth.
Though not only for that reason.
You see, I’m attracted to books like this because at one level I’m always wrestling with doubts. With questions. With what I was raised to believe and what I’ve held to be true for the majority of my 48 years on this planet.
I’m the kind of person who wants and seeks answers to big, hard, profound, life-altering questions. I listen to apologetics podcasts, read books that pertain to subjects I struggle to understand, or that help buttress my faith with encouragement, sound biblical interpretation, and good rational arguments.
And at the risk of offending someone out there, the “just believe it because the Bible says it” simply doesn’t work as a response to genuinely difficult questions. At least not for me. Besides, for someone of my temperament, that approach only manages to push the question a further back: Why should I believe the Bible is trustworthy? How do I know it is reliable as a source of truth about God? Again, I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are utterly reliable, and are the revelation of God. But I also believe I have good reasons for believing this.
Do I ever seriously doubt my faith in the person of Christ, you ask? Well, I don’t think that’s quite the right question. Instead, it’s much more about, say, building up my confidence in the historical reliability of the resurrection. Or about wrestling anew with the problem of why God—who we believe and confess is loving and all-powerful—allows so much pain and suffering in the world.
And sometimes the struggles aren’t simply intellectual. Doubt is also an emotional experience. We feel the weight of hard questions. Not only do we want answers for our minds but our hearts too. After all, as Christians we live in the real world as flesh and blood human beings, as vulnerable to tragedy and fragility as anyone else. Faith doesn’t shield us from pain; instead, faith ought to be what gives us perspective right in the midst of it.
To be honest, when it comes to believers who say they have never had any doubts, I confess I am skeptical of such claims. Have they never wrestled with anything they believe, with the hard questions of a family member or neighbour, or with a particularly tricky or difficult biblical passage? Or is it that they‘re somehow content with staying at an elementary Sunday school level of understanding?
Granted, in the same way that I’m predisposed to wrestle with hard questions and to find simple answers unsatisfying, others are not. Not everyone is cut from the same spiritual cloth. Even if I find it hard to understand Christians who never wrestle intellectually with their faith, no doubt some Christians I know find me equally odd.
And of course there’s a difference between seeing a problematic passage of Scripture that you’re not sure what to think about and finding yourself struggling to believe as a Christian. One’s confidence as a follower of Jesus doesn’t only come from the intellect and the ability to figure out what the Bible really means here and there. That is, our faith and our confidence as believers also comes from our experiences of God, and our relationships with other Christians who love and support us.
In other words, as Tim Keller says, the Christian life “requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.” Some might need one more than the other, but in some measure we all need both.
All this to say, experiencing doubt is not an indication that someone lacks faith. It might well be that such an experience—entered into intentionally—will actually grow our faith and steady us in a world full of questions. Think of doubt as God’s invitation to think more deeply about him and to draw more closely to him.
Here’s the thing: none of my doubts and questions have come close to derailing my faith. No, my faith isn’t perfect. Questions remain. Yet somehow my experience of wrestling with doubt has only strengthened me. But that’s in many ways because of my willingness to face the questions rather than avoid them or pretend they don’t matter. And because I’ve been intentional about seeking out resources that provide help and encouragement—both for my head and my heart. So if you find yourself struggling with doubt, with hard questions about what you believe, realize that you’re not the first and that there are ways of dealing with doubt that strengthen rather than undermine your faith.