The Emotional Plausibility of Faith vs. Doubt

How We Feel about the God We Believe in Matters a Great Deal to Whether We Believe in Him

Todd Brewer / 7.2.20

When many think about Christian doubt, they tend to imagine it as a kind of midpoint between faith and unbelief, existing in hues of grey. Matters of faith in a transcendent God are rarely so black and white, it is said, and the stance of faithful doubt is perhaps the appropriate stance all Christians should take. Questions and skepticism are to be encouraged because certainty is never guaranteed.

Such faithful doubt can be valorized as a kind of temperate form of faith without the excesses of fanaticism endemic to evangelicalism. Neither too hot or too cold, it is just the right amount of religious devotion. Both atheism and militant religiosity are too extreme to take in matters of the divine. Life is too complex and God is too mysterious for certainties unblemished by our imperfections.

The modern patron saint of the moderate, skeptical, seekers of the faith is Thomas Didymus, better known as Doubting Thomas. His friends tell him Jesus rose from the dead, but he’s not one to be duped by their out-sized zeal. He wants objective proof of Jesus’ resurrection and won’t budge until he gets it. Of the 12 11, only Thomas recognized the utterly incredible nature of belief, the burden of skepticism given to a select few.

But the difficulty with Thomas’ Sgt. Friday canonization is that he isn’t a doubter, but un-believer altogether. Jesus shows his wounds to Thomas and commands him to “not be un-believing, but believing” (John 20:27). Thomas might have hung out with the in-crowd, but he didn’t believe a word of their tall tales. He’s not a composite mix of belief and unbelief; he’s checked out entirely. The story of Thomas may resonate with the modern skepticism of a post-Christian society (and church), but he has much more in common with Judas Iscariot than Albert Einstein. Elsewhere in the New Testament, what is usually translated as “doubt” isn’t a middle place of grey between two extremes, but standing at the fork in the road between the divergent paths of faith and unbelief. What we call doubt is not so much fragile belief, but the absence of belief itself.

When one moves from belief in God to un-belief, there is a shifting of the structures of our thought from one foundation to another. The plausibility of a former edifice gives way to a more suitable one. This process is not simply an intellectual exercise, but driven by the emotional resonance of the ideas themselves within the changing circumstances of our lives. In other words, how we feel about the God we believe in matters a great deal to whether we believe in him, and these mutually support one another, for good and ill. An orderly God engenders feelings of safety, just as disappointment with God leads one to deny his existence.

The emotional disconnect modern doubters might experience is, in many ways, a consequence of Christianity’s own making. Christianity is not a road-map of rules to follow before gaining eternal life, or a set of general principles that govern God’s creation and our ethical decision-making. Christianity believes in a personal, benevolent, creative God who has already and is in the process of fundamentally altering the course of human history. Christianity posits itself as the one truth that changes everything. Its claims are so extravagant, so wonderfully personal, so cosmically consequential, that the emotional investment to believe such things is high.

For people who lose their faith, the issue has less to do with the intellectual preposterousness of these claims than it does the emotional plausibility of them when faced with the counter evidence of experience.

The promises of Christianity are grandiose, to say the least, and these lavish expectations can breed feelings of failure or resentment when one’s life fails to keep pace. It doesn’t take much for the complex intricacies of Christian faith to appear to be more of a house of cards, whether this be personal tragedy, the persistence of sin, a judgmental church, the infinite injustices of the world, or just the gnawing sense of failure that pervades most days. Our God may be the giver of all good things, but perhaps it’s been a while since goodness came knocking on our door.

These days, it’s impossible to not feel the emotional dissonance between the grandeur of Christian hope for the reconciliation of the world and the reality of a global pandemic that threatens our sense of normalcy, if not our lives and livelihoods. We are living through history or, better, a dystopian Hollywood movie, and it certainly doesn’t feel like God is sitting in the director’s chair. Whatever God is up to these days, his purposes are hidden from view.

It seems a little much to demand that God give account for our emotional vacillations, to praise or blame him for our restless heart syndrome. God’s workings on earth may be hidden, but this is not the same as god-forsaken absence. However much we may want to know God’s whereabouts, he’s not some unmanageable teenager we have to keep tabs on. The hidden activity of God in the here and now and the accompanying frustrations and disappointment on our end may be a cause for despair.  It’s also, however, a sign that we need to be reminded anew of who he is, that the faith which led to despair is in need of rebirth.

Like a soldier in the trenches of war, we need to have a cigarette, reread the folded-up letter sent by our beloved, and stare at their picture with longing and delight. Days and years may pass, but a care-package may come tomorrow, or the great war may suddenly end with the sound of an angel’s trumpet.

As Francis Spufford writes, “God makes an elusive lover.” But he is our lover nonetheless. Through all the ebbs and flows we might experience in this life, the promises of God remain. Suffering will one day end; we will see our beloved again without fear or shame. These grandiose claims may feel crazy at times, but for those whose faith becomes a habitual place to stand, its beauty far exceeds any implausibility.


5 responses to “The Emotional Plausibility of Faith vs. Doubt”

  1. Brian says:

    God’s workings on earth may be hidden, the promises of God remain. Where He wants to be found!

  2. Robert says:

    “………………what we call doubt is not so much fragile belief but the absence of belief itself” I”ve been told all my llife that doubt is a part of faith. What am I misunderstanding here?

    Great piece, I must read it again. Thank you

    • Todd Brewer says:

      Hey Robert, I’d say that doubt is a pretty normal part of the Christian life– from which no one is exempt. To say that faith consists in some doubt I think confuses what faith is, which is more like “banking your life on Christ”. It’s not a half-measure or reserved commitment.

  3. Nate Mills says:

    Fantastic reflection for the times!

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