Have you ever experienced doubt in your faith journey? If we’re honest, I think many of us do!
Today’s post is from Ann Sullivan, the author of Permission to Doubt: One Woman’s Journey into a Thinking Faith.
I met Ann years ago when she was working alongside Stuart and Jill Briscoe at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
I believe the topic Ann shares on today will resonate with some of you and that’s why I wanted to share it and let you know about her great book on the subject!
As a university student away from home for the first time, exploring other cultures and beliefs, my faith began feeling dangerously inadequate, narrow-minded, and naïve. It wasn’t as though I wanted it that way. I wasn’t looking to make waves or get into heated debates like some of my classmates and philosophy professors. But I didn’t want to delude myself either, pinning my hopes on something that wasn’t real. I was hungry for truth and I needed answers, though I would have given anything not to have the questions in the first place.
I remember visiting my mother-in-law one afternoon soon after I graduated from college. I was still troubled by my doubts and looking for some kind of comfort, so I decided to broach the subject with her. She was an extraordinary person who was blessed with a cheery disposition and rarely complained. She’d grown up in her faith, was reared in parochial school, and rarely missed church. On that particular day, as my secret storm raged within me, I asked her if she ever questioned her faith. I watched for her reaction as she stood folding laundry still warm from the dryer. She paused, looked at me, and said, “No . . . never. We were taught not to ask questions.” Then, she resumed her chore contentedly as I sat in amazement, wondering why I couldn’t be more like her. Why was I tortured with so many questions? Why couldn’t I be satisfied with someone else doing my thinking for me?
Most of us spend the first decade of our lives believing everything our parents tell us. Up to that point, we typically trust them and take what they say at face value. In the second decade, things tend to change dramatically. Not only do we begin to challenge what our parents tell us, but we sometimes wonder if they’ve ever had a clue. It’s almost a rite of passage, I think to myself, every time I remind my kids how cool I was before they came along.
According to child psychologists the eventuality of separating is viewed not only as normal but as a healthy sign of developing independence. Exactly when this happens is different for everyone. I was nineteen when my sister walked into my room and asked why I was crying. When I told her my dad had said some things I didn’t agree with, she looked at me knowingly and asked, “Has it ever occurred to you that Dad might actually be wrong?” I stood there, realizing for the first time that no, it had not. I pondered for a few moments this strange new concept to which my sister was introducing me. It felt a bit disquieting at first but strangely liberating.
Thinking and asking questions is a good thing, but challenging a belief system isn’t easy. It’s risky and may force us to move outside the comfortable spaces we’ve set up for ourselves. And who knows what we’ll find there? From the first day of my panic disorder, doubt began chipping away at my faith and set me on a course I would never have chosen for myself. But from where I stand today as a communicator and teacher, I can’t think of better training. Nothing could have prepared me more than picking apart what I knew as truth and discovering for myself what was really worth clinging to and what wasn’t. My journey enabled me to understand a woman’s fear and look her straight in the eye and say, “I know exactly how you feel and it’s okay to feel that way.”
When deciding what to call my new book, I chose the title “Permission to Doubt” for one reason. We need to give ourselves permission to doubt! We tend to ask the difficult questions when life gets challenging, but that can become an important part of growing. God’s Word instructs us to stretch our minds and be ready to give a “reason” for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). Doubt is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid. Instead, when doubts invade, we need to see them as an opportunity to grow. Recognizing the kind of doubt we’re struggling with is the first step.
We are all products of our environment, our siblings, our playground experiences, and our DNA. Each one impacts every aspect of our lives, including our ability to trust. In order to take full advantage of our times of doubt and develop an effective game plan that can use it to build a deeper faith, we need to first identify the type of doubt we’re experiencing.
- Spiritual doubt may require some quiet introspection before God through prayer and Bible reading.
- Intellectual doubt may require a good fact-finding mission to understand what we believe and why. A few books or classes on apologetics can be extremely helpful.
- Emotional doubt is the hardest to recognize and the most troubling. Wounded emotions make it difficult to see things clearly and may require a few counseling sessions with a pastor, a professional, or a trusted friend.
If the old saying, “those who’ve never really doubted have never really believed” describes you; take heart! Doubt need not signal the end of faith. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.
What about you? Has doubt played any role in your spiritual journey?