Why church should be a place for doubters
Written by Andy Stirrup, Children’s ministry and family ministry at Youthworks College.
Is doubting Christian?
If Paul is to be believed, then doubts are a characteristic feature of being a Christian. They are part of the consequence of seeing only partially:
"For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known." (1 Cor 13:12)
Doubts were part and parcel of the church’s post-resurrection experience:
"When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted." (Matt 28:17)
Yet, many people today feel that church is a place where doubts are taboo, unable to be expressed or discussed. Where this is the case, there is a likelihood that we will feel our doubts are something that cuts us off from the fellowship, and is at odds with our participation in it.
Doubting and Psalms
The psalms give us plenty of opportunities to think through the issue of doubts and doubting.
Walter Brueggemann has suggested that a number of the psalms have been given to the church, to help us engage with doubts, and to process them in a way that leads to individual and community growth:
- There are those psalms which invite us to see the world as ordered and governed by God. These psalms help release us from the burden of trying to save ourselves, of trying to secure our future and the welfare of those that we love. They invite us to engage with those around us, in a way which reflects God's character. These are the psalms of orientation.
- There are other psalms which engage with God from a perspective of disorientation. Things have not progressed as the psalmist imagined, and it has caused him to question God’s involvement in the world, and his commitment to us.
- Finally, there are psalms which celebrate a new-found orientation, which is more substantial and more robust than our earlier understanding. They invite us, once again, to re-engage with the world as God’s representatives.
Church - the perfect place for doubters
If Brueggemann is on to something, then church should be the place where doubt should be expressed and explored. This is where disoriented people should be encouraged to acknowledge their disorientation, and get help to move to a renewed sense of orientation.
However, when David Kinnaman (You lost me) explored the reasons why large numbers of young people were leaving church, he found that doubt was a significant factor. More importantly, he found that it had to do with the way Christian groups and leaders gave little room for people with doubts to do anything but disengage from church.
Acknowledging your doubts
According to Brueggemann’s scheme, Psalm 73 would be an example of a 'psalm of disorientation'. In it, the psalmist starts with a confession of faith, a statement of orientation. The statement may be theologically correct, but it sounds hollow. It doesn’t seem to connect with his experience.
God may be good to the upright, but they have troubles.
It takes effort to keep a guard on your tongues, and to be thoughtful towards others.
It is costly to bring sacrifices to God and to try to live each day for his glory.
It is very demanding to honour God.
Meanwhile, there are those who have none of the burdens associated with a life of faith. They are able to devote their time and energies to looking after themselves. More to the point, they seem to be doing very well. It doesn’t seem fair. It causes the psalmist to ask, 'is it really worth it'?
Importantly, the psalm invites us to share the psalmist’s feelings. We do this as we acknowledge our own similar concerns and anxieties, or as we reach out with empathy towards him. Either way, we enter into the experience of dis-orientation with him (vv1-14).
Finding your way again
If we are experiencing the same disorientation ourselves, then the expectation is that with the support and encouragement of others, we will likewise be comforted by the re-orientation that comes to the psalmist (vv15-28). Alternatively, we may find ourselves in a place where, at the moment, we are untroubled by doubt and dis-orientation. In that case, perhaps as we vicariously share the psalmists experiences, we will be better placed to be empathetic towards others, and more available to offer the support and encouragement that they need. Either way, there is a path towards growth and greater maturity.
Re-orientation comes with a richer, more nuanced appreciation and understanding of God - in particular, of how he governs (v17). The benefits of faith are indeed worth the effort (vv1, 28). But the psalmist comes to the realisation that sometimes God’s plans and purposes are worked out over longer periods of time than we sometimes allow.
He also recognises that our lives are more inter-connected than we often consider, and so our fruitfulness doesn’t just please God, and satisfy us. It also benefits those around us, and particularly those who look up to us. As the psalmist says, “I would have been untrue to the generation of your children” (v15).
And so, at the end of the psalm, there is a statement of re-commitment which the psalmist expresses and which we are encouraged to echo:
"But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works" (v28)