Sunday, 23 June 2013

Understanding Doubt

Doubt; it is possible to experience it about more or less anything. But it’s only truly unsettling when we experience it in areas of crucial importance to us. It is uncomfortable to have doubts about whether we’re really in the right relationship, or whether our friends actually care about us, or whether our job has direction. When something profoundly matters to us, doubts surrounding it are unnerving, even deeply painful. It’s no surprise, then, that doubt can be particularly agonising when it latches on to our central spiritual convictions. And it’s the experience of religious doubt, and doubt as experienced by Christians particularly, that I want to explore in this post.


Doubt has been a factor – sometimes a huge factor – in my own Christian walk since its very first moments. And I mean very first moments. Immediately after praying to accept Christ in my life for the first time, aged nineteen, I experienced not an emotional high but instead, dread and uncertainty. That first year in particular I could spend entire days in turmoil over whether Christianity was true or whether I even sincerely believed it.

The pain of doubt is essentially the pain of desiring a level of certainty we don’t have about a significant belief. As a Christian, it is hard to feel uncertain about whether God exists, or whether he cares about you, or whether you’re even a Christian at all. If we deeply love God and find the meaning of our lives within the great things of the gospel, then being unsure of the gospel, in whatever manner, can be disorientating. The doubt can even dampen our sense of love and gratitude to God. In the grip of doubt, we may end up wondering whether we can honestly and authentically continue to pray, or attend church.

But whole-hearted conviction in our beliefs can be restored (or gained for the first time). I honestly see significant progress won in my own dealings with doubt though I have a long, long way to go. I’m convinced, though, that if we’ve fundamentally misunderstood the nature of our doubt, our journey into confidence will be slow and full of unnecessary hurt. Such a misunderstanding fuelled the extreme levels of doubt during the early stages of my own Christian life.

This series, then, is devoted to outlining a rough understanding of doubt. It’s the “diagnosis” stage where we look at what doubt is like and how it manifests. We’re not necessarily delving deeply into practical tips for handling it. A lot of that practical side will simply be left unexplored here. Doubt is just too big a topic to cover it all. “Mere understanding”, though, ought to give us a good sense of where to go for more practical doubt management. It lets you know what kind of issue you face so you know what kind of approach to reach for.

What kind of issue? Well, it’s doubt isn’t it? Ah, but doubt comes in different kinds. And that’s the heart of the analysis on offer here. That’s the crucial thing to know. Different “species” of doubt emerge from quite differing thought-patterns and processes. As such, a helpful approach to one may not be so for another. The misery of doubt can simply be exacerbated if we’re going entirely the wrong way in tackling it. Indeed for the two doubt-kinds I’m going to focus on (other sorts may exist), the antidote to one kind, if you apply it to the other, will act as a poison. That is, what you want to do with one of them is near enough the opposite of what you want to do with the other. The two are typically described as intellectual doubt and emotional doubt. I am, though, going to re-categorise them as follows:

Factive Doubt: Typically called ‘intellectual doubt.’ This doubt-kind is focussed on our perception of what we suspect is actually the case. The desire for assurance that this doubt-kind generates is legitimate and ought to be gratified.

Anxious Doubt: Typically called ‘emotional doubt.’ This doubt-kind is focussed on our perception of what we suspect is possibly the case. The desire for assurance that this doubt-kind generates is illegitimate and ought to be challenged.

In reality, our doubt will be a complex blend of factors and kinds. Life is deeply complex and these distinctions are a little too neat to be wholly adequate. Still, we need to start somewhere and currently I find these categories to be the most helpful in roughly framing the nature of doubt. Next post we’ll start unpacking Factive Doubt. 

Factive Doubt  
Anxious Doubt

2 comments:

Tord said...

I am glad that you address this subject. Doubt is very powerful indeed and it can really challenge the mind - it should be enough to mention the problem of evil. Doubt is like a weapon you use against yourself and it makes you be exactly in the spot where the accuser (the devil) wants you to be. Doubt can raise arguments which are hard to fight and it is able to paralyze you in the Christian walk. However, the opposite of doubt I would call freedom! Freedom to rest in what you hope and long for, without having the compulsion to answer all the questions...but it takes courage, hopefully not being naive, but raising up to face the anxiety...

Martin said...

Hi Tord. Yes, I think you accurately describe the battle with anxious doubt. What is called for is courage and a certain willingness to let go of the need for answers to absolutely everything.