Peter Enns on the Benefits of Doubt for the Life of Faith

Source of picture, HERE.

My friend Ady Popa pointed me today to a very interesting article on faith and doubt by Peter Enns, a Protestant professor who studied theology at Harvard. Please find below a few quotes, to wet your appetite.

Warning: this is not for the faint hearted or the naive who are still entertaining the illusions of modernity.

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…sometimes things happen in our lives—a big thing, a lot of little thing—and you start having a lot of doubts.  And—my experience—it’s usually the little things piling up over the years are the hardest—those disruptive thoughts you keep burying and hoping they’ll just go away. They don’t. And you feel your faith in God slipping away—and it is scary to watch it happen. You doubt that he cares, that he is listening; you doubt that he is even aware of who you are—that he even exists.

That kind of doubt is the enemy of faith, right? We all know that doubt and faith rule each other out? It is one or the other. To have faith means you don’t doubt. And if you are in a state of doubt about God, you feel like there is clearly something very wrong with you. You are moving away from God’s grace and his love. You can’t hold on, you’re weak in your faith. “Maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe I’m a faker. Maybe I haven’t memorized enough Bible verses. Maybe I need to go to church more.” Whatever it is, you’re doing something wrong. It’s all your fault.

And this is what we have been taught to do: our only job is to get out of that state of doubt as quickly as we can. Faith in God gives life meaning, a sense of purpose in this universe. Doubt takes all that away. And if you stay in doubt long enough, your eternal state is in jeopardy.

Doubt is a spiritually destructive force. It tears you away from God. Surely, God does not want us to doubt. Right? I don’t think so.

There is a benefit of doubt. Let me put that more strongly: there are things doubt can do spiritually that nothing else can do. Doubt is not the enemy, but a gift of God to move us from trusting ourselves to trusting him. Doubt feels like God is far away or absent, but it is actually a time of “disguised closeness” to God that moves us to spiritual maturity. Doubt is not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth.

Sometimes we think of our faith as a castle. It’s comfortable and above all safe. But what if God doesn’t want us to be comfortable and safe? What if comfortable and safe keep us from pursuing God? Sooner or later God—because he is good—tears your castle down, and he pushes you out, and puts you on a spiritual journey—which always involves some deep struggle.

Doubt forces us to look at who we think God is. It makes us face whether we really trust HIM, or whether we trust what we have made God to be. Doubting God is painful and frightening because we think we are leaving God behind. But doubt—real hard deep unnerving uncomfortable scary doubt—helps us to see that, maybe we have made God into our own image. We come to discover, slowly but surely, that the “faith” we are losing is not faith in God. It is actually in the idea of God that we surround ourselves with.

This is a one of the points I want to make tonight: Don’t try to run away from doubt. Don’t try to fix it. Try not to think of it as the enemy. Pass through it—patiently… and honestly… and courageously…. When you are in doubt, you are in a period of transformation. Welcome it as a gift—which is hard to do to if your entire universe is falling down around you. God is teaching you to trust him, not yourself. He means to have all of you, not just the surface, going to church and daily devotions part. Not just the part people see, but the part no one sees—not even you.

Doubt is usually cumulative; it creeps in. God, the Bible, your faith, stop making sense, and so you toss it all away. But here is the point. You say that God and all that Jesus stuff just don’t work in the world you live in. But maybe the God and Jesus that aren’t working aren’t the real thing. What if what isn’t working isn’t God at all, but our version. Maybe doubts are the first step to stripping off the old getting at the real thing.

When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put is so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.

I know what I am saying is counter-intuitive—it might even sound a bit bizarre and even dumb. Deep doubt about God is about the worst feeling a Christian can have. It is dark, unsettling, frightening. And I am saying not only “it’s OK, it’s normal.” I am also saying, “Welcome it as a gift of God. Don’t run from it.” Because once doubt occurs, it won’t just go away—you can try to bury it all you want to. Embrace the doubt. Call it your friend. God is leading you on a journey.

I’m not just winging it here. Spiritual masters of the Christian church caught on to this long ago. It is not a part of the contemporary Protestant scene as much, which is a shame. We tend to intellectualize the faith—we live in our heads. Our faith tends to rest in what we know, what we can articulate, what we can defend, how we think—our intellects. We tend to place “thinking” over “being” rather than the other way around.

This experience of deep doubt is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” That expression has come to us through the writings of two sixteenth century Spanish Catholic mystics: John of the Cross and his mentor Teresa of Avila. Many, many people have spent their lives thinking about what these and other mystics wrote concerning their experiences of God. I am not one of them, but I am learning. Let me boil down what they are saying.

The “dark night” is a sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes distress, anxiety, discouragement, despair, and depression. All Christians experience this sooner or later—some more than others, some for longer times than others. Everyone feels this way, though different intensities and for different lengths of time. But the feeling is the same: they lose their sense of closeness to God and conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.

This is the dark night of the soul. Not too pretty. St. John’s great insight is that this dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty before God—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on.

There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

...he war between Christianity and postmodernism is so intense because Christianity in our culture is comfortable in the modern paradigm. Fundamentalism is modernist Christianity. A cocky Christianity that has all the answers, can casually sweep away pressing problems in the world with a wave of the doctrinal hand isn’t “pure” Christianity but a modernist version of it.

Faith and doubt are inseparable. There is a long history, and common experience, that back that up. When your faith has no room for the dark night of the soul, then you are just left with—religion, something that takes its place in your life among other things—like a job and a hobby, something soft and comfortable.

Doubt is God’s way of helping you not go there. But it is a tough road. I mentioned the Narnia stories earlier. As for a lot of people, they capture for me a lot of what faith is about. Let me end with that well known and often quoted line from Mr. Beaver when Edmund asks whether Aslan was safe. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Read HERE the whole text. It is worth it.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

4 thoughts on “Peter Enns on the Benefits of Doubt for the Life of Faith”

  1. P.S. I kind of like this too:
    “There’s nothing wrong with doubt, provided it’s the right kind of doubt. Negative doubt is cynical, not wanting to come to a knowledge of the truth. Constructive doubt can lead to faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but unbelief. Doubt is ‘can’t believe’; unbelief is ‘won’t believe’. Doubt is honest; unbelief is obstinate. Doubt is the process of looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.”


  2. Nice. I met Peter Enns right before his separation from Westminster Seminary.
    Harry Emerson Fosdick had a useful/famous sermon on this: “The Importance of Doubting Your Doubts.” I liked it!


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