A while back I remember reading a little phrase that stuck with me because it needed to be mulled and pondered and reflected on: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Apparently it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.
I found it amusing, and then a little bit provocative. Does doubt really keep faith alive and moving? Do we actually need doubt to help keep our faith vibrant? And I am not just talking about Christian faith here, but whatever or whoever it is in we put our faith. You see, if we doubt then we question and if we question then we explore and if we explore then we find new vistas, new ways of thinking about what we believe, new understanding, and perhaps even new / renewed faith. If we have no doubts we have no need to question. I think that is what Buechner is trying to tell us.
However I don’t think that ‘ants in the pants’ is enough. That suggests a sort of irritant, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that makes you squirm. Doubt can be like that, but big doubt, real doubt, foundation-shaking doubt can be dark, all-embracing and menacing. It can be the monster under the bed ready to torment and keep you awake. It can be a highly corrosive acid that eats away the flesh. It can be the black ice on the journey of faith that causes a multiple vehicle pileup.
This is the sort of ‘is there really a God?’ or ‘how can God be like that?’ type of doubt that causes faith to scream in pain and won’t be placated by patronising platitudes. It’s the sort of doubt that demands answers. It’s the sort of doubt that can make or break faith.
If you are experiencing that sort of doubt then you need a few things to help you deal with it.
You need good friends who will support you without judging as you work things through.
You need space and time to explore things properly.
You need grace to be able to explore previously-held beliefs and see whether they still hold true.
You need be determined to persevering through the difficult terrain.
You need to want to come through the doubt (some people prefer to wallow in it).
If you are a Christian I suggest that you spend time looking again at Jesus in the gospels and see what he has to say about faith and doubt.
And, whether or not you call it ‘prayer’ you need to seek wisdom ‘above’ to help you discern truth from lies.
It’s the sort of experience that John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s an experience that strips away a faith that we have received but not owned, that dis-empowers our own futile attempts to get to know God on our own terms and provokes within us a desire for a deeper, simpler intimacy with God. Those who have been through it, endured and emerged find that their faith is deepened, stronger and somehow much more relevant to life. It is something lived rather than something thought, it is something experienced rather than something understood. And such a faith enables us to hold faith and doubt in tension.
I think that faith and doubt are siblings – two responses to the innate human suspicion that there is more to life than simply ‘me’. In the Bible Jesus was asked by a desperate father to heal his son. In response to Jesus nudging him in the direction of faith the father exclaimed: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) The siblings are both present as the father wrestled with the reality of a son whose affliction was incurable and was causing him to injure himself and the possibility that Jesus could heal him but what if he didn’t and yet he has healed others…
That’s honest faith. That’s faith that has been wrestling with doubt and has just about emerged victorious but bruised and scarred.
If you are experiencing doubts I hope and pray that beyond a search for answers you will find truth, hope, peace and love.
Be blessed, be a blessing