Is it ever okay for a Christian to have doubt? Can you question and struggle with your faith and still be a good Christian?
I think there are two common ways of approaching this question that are unhelpful.
The first is perhaps the older and more fundamentalist. Here doubt and uncertainty are to be avoided at all costs. They are sinful, and if you are feeling them, you need to repent and believe. Generally, this environment leads to a form of repression where it is not all right to ask difficult questions or to be unsure about what to believe. And, as anyone who has studied rudimentary psychology knows, repression is always a mistake—what you repress will come back to haunt you in ways that are hard to perceive and control. Much of fundamentalist and tribalist Christianity exhibits this sort of behavior.
The second is perhaps a bit newer and more recently in vogue, at least among Christians. In this case, doubt becomes a virtue. For these Christians, it is courageous to doubt, and Christians who doubt are perhaps even superior than those who have a simple faith and trust. Sometimes doubt and uncertainty even become the end goal. I see this among the exvangelical deconstruction and postmodernist Christianity, but I also see it in a more tame form among more orthodox evangelicals. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects of evangelical culture and dogma that shouldn’t be deconstructed—there surely is—rather, this can and should be done while maintaining a robust orthodoxy.)
Neither of these approaches will provide you with a profound and lasting faith. To demonize uncertainty and encourage only a naïve belief will create a house of glass. Eventually, this will lead to a brittle or shattered faith that cannot afford to take risks or face difficult questions.
To valorize doubt, however, leads also to weak Christians with no fervor. How can you ever have conviction and trust in God if you have willfully mired yourself in unresolved doubt? The Gospel will have little to no power in the lives of such people.
In the story of Thomas Jesus shows us a better way. When Thomas hesitated to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus did not just command Thomas to stop doubting and have faith. Absolutely not! The Lord is not so lacking in mercy and compassion! Rather, Jesus lovingly and humbly came to Thomas himself and gave him what he needed to believe: he personally showed Thomas the wounds in his hands and in his side. Only then did Jesus ask Thomas to believe.
Yet, Jesus did then command Thomas to believe! The goal of Christian life and formation truly is to come, after whatever hesitation, to a place where at the sight of the Wounded and Risen One, you can say with your whole heart, “My Lord and my God!”
What the two approaches above get wrong is that they tend to treat faith as a set of beliefs. If the number of beliefs you doubt begins to outweigh the number that you hold true, then you cease to be a Christian. The more fundamentalist group is so frightened of such an outcome that the whole territory is forbidden, whereas the more progressive group often resolutely enters the terrain of deconstruction and doubt with no sure footing.
What faith really is, however, is trust—trust in the living Jesus Christ. It is not merely assent to a number of Christian beliefs, but trust in the Wounded and Risen Jesus Christ whose Spirit is with us. Jesus did not ask Thomas to assent to the Westminster or Augsburg Confession, or to any mere proposition at that, but to trust in him and what he has done, in his death and in his resurrection. (No doubt this trust does carry with it certain necessary beliefs—for example, that Jesus truly died and resurrected.)
Trust in the Crucified and Risen Christ is the center of faith, of my personal faith. There is much more that is important to faith, believe me, but no less.
I can be a doubting person, and to be sure I have had my restless nights. Sometimes I am troubled by the hypocrisy of so many Christians and question whether God is really at work among this often miserable group of people. Sometimes I am troubled by a difficult or seemingly ugly passage of Scripture and wonder whether this book is truly all divinely inspired. At times I have been troubled when some or another Christian tells me that I have to believe this or that way, or else I am not a true Christian. Other times I worry about whether God is actually at work in my life at all.
Whenever I am troubled like this, I remember that the center and ground of my faith is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything else is peripheral and can be sorted out in its due time. As long as I trust in him and his resurrection, my faith is grounded. Like Thomas, I look to the Wounded and Risen Lord, and he takes me by the hand, and he shows me the wounds that he suffered for my sake, and he shows me the resurrection flesh that he won in order to share with me, and I know that he loves me and is with me transforming me, and I trust him.
What challenges your faith right now? I encourage you to move it to the periphery and to keep Jesus Christ and his resurrection at the center. Be like Thomas and in your doubt seek to know the resurrection of the Lord. Those other things will be sorted out in due time, and many are worth holding with only a loose grip. But as for the resurrection—hold to that tightly and it will be for you a sure foundation through all doubt and uncertainty.