Is Doubt a Healthy Catalyst for Faith Formation?

While I attended seminary at Princeton, a new wave of research began surfacing that asked the question: "Is Doubt a Healthy Catalyst for Faith Formation?"

For some, this was a welcomed question that allowed discussion on a crucial topic. It is a daily issue for those of us who serve in professional ministry, especially with adolescents and young adults. I even know older adults with much more life experience and a deep faith, however, who still wrestle with thoughts of doubt. 

I would go so far to surmise that all people to some extent wrestle with doubt regarding matters of faith, such as the existence of God, the means of salvation, and the redemption of all things. It is a very real part of our human existence. Even the father in the Book of Mark chapter 9 exclaims, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

No doubt that doubt is real. 

Yet, I want to pose the question: Is doubt healthy for faith formation?

Certainly doubt can be a catalyst for faith formation. It was for the father in Mark. After he cried out, Jesus indeed healed his demon-possessed son. Yet, Jesus did not heal the boy because of the father's cry. As Mark records, Jesus healed him because the crowd of onlookers continued to grow, seemingly to max capacity. Jesus used the event as an opportunity to reveal his Lordship as the time grew closer to his death. Moreover, most of the people in the crowd did not believe, for Jesus called them a 'faithless' people in verse 19. It appears that the topic of the father's doubt was an indication of 'faithlessness,' not an attribute for growth. 

Yet, in matters of present-day doubt, the cry of the father is often referred to as a justification for doubt, as if doubt is in and of itself... good?

But is doubt good or healthy? Judging by this passage in context, I would submit that it is not. In fact, Jesus proclaims in verse 19 and following, "How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you?" It would seem from his statements that doubt and faithlessness oppose the very will of God. 

In fact, I want to argue that doubt is a direct result of our human sin and brokenness. 

Recall the creation story and the nature of the relationship between humanity and God. Nothing about that original, perfect relationship incites doubt. God walked with humanity in the cool of the night, fully transparent, fully known. As one grows to become fully known and aware of anything, doubt always recedes. It is only in the absence of knowing that doubt even exists. Doubt cannot exist in the presence of something or someone fully known. 

Thus, doubt by its very nature exists as a void to something hidden, broken, or distant. 

As a Pastor, I long for the day when our relationship with the Father will be fully restored and reconciled through the work of the Son. I long for the moment when I can stand before my Heavenly Father - fully known, fully myself - and give my adoration to a fully present God. That was the true intention of things all along, on Earth as it is in Heaven. 

I long for the day when doubt becomes history. It was never part of the plan. 

To highlight doubt as a healthy, functional part of faith development, then, seems so strange to me. Leveraging doubt for faith formation is akin to leveraging sin as a healthy part of faith. I cannot imagine lifting the sin of one for the sake of faith, so why would I value someone's doubt as a healthy, positive attribute of faith and life? Jesus came to rescue us from sin, and thereby doubt.

A few weeks ago, I met with a great friend of mine. He is in his early 20's, and together, we discussed this very topic. He had recently read Matthew 17:19-20, and this is what he wrote on the topic:

"Is it that we use this verse to comfort our doubt? I say this as a pharisee and someone of faithlessness. Isn’t it better, after hearing this, to say I have no faith, than I have small faith but I can’t “move mountains.” Doesn’t that just cause more doubt? Is it better to admit no faith than small faith? Does that then allow our pride not to stand in the way of how the Holy Spirit wants to move us? I wish I knew for sure! But I know that I would rather be a faithless man with hope than a man of faith who believes there’s nothing better."

This was written by a college student! This is such a great testimony to faith! 

Is doubt healthy? No.

Is doubt good? No.

Is doubt a viable strategy for faith formation? No

Can doubt serve as a catalyst for faith formation? Insofar as doubt leads to questions that move one towards faith, not for the sake of doubting. 

Strive for faith. Fight for faith. You can trust the Spirit to reveal the faithfulness of the Father.

QUESTION: Do you think doubt is healthy?