Why You Should Embrace Your Faith Crisis

I’ve been thinking a lot about doubt lately—what it is, why we resist it, and whether it’s actually a gift for people of faith.

If you grew up in a conservative faith community like I did, doubt was viewed as a liability to faith. A threat. Something that believers should eradicate. But as I grew older, I discovered that I couldn’t just dismiss doubt or solve it like a math equation. I had to sit with it, wrestle with it, dance with it, let it live alongside my faith.

Last week, I worked out some of my early thoughts on this topic in a sermon titled, “Daring Thomas and the Danger of Single Storyism” at Trinity Grace Church in Tribeca (NYC). As I said, “Doubt is not a disability. Doubt is a doorknob that opens a portal to divine presence.” It took me a while to arrive at this understanding, and I read widely on the topic along the way. One of the most helpful modern books I read was Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer.

Here, I talk with Fischer about the beauty and burden of faith crises, and why religious communities need to make more space for doubt.

JM: Lots of people in America are having faith crises—because of politics, injustice, personal struggles, the failings of religious leaders or institutions. You say faith crises should be embraced, not resisted. Why?

AF: A crisis of faith is often an expression of faith instead of a failure of faith. Doubt sets in when the (seemingly) impossible claims and promises of Christian faith collide with the savage, bewildering facts of life. Seeing as how savagery and bewilderment are indeed inescapable facts, crises of faith should be expected and embraced instead of resisted because they’re an invitation to a deeper, truer faith. I still have a crisis of faith every time I perform a funeral for a child, and I hope I always do, because if I never have a crisis of faith, it’s likely I’ve traded in the (seemingly) impossible claims and promises of Christian faith for something that causes less pain because it offers less hope. A Christian is destined to die with a broken heart, and we would have it no other way. 

JM: Doubt is often at the root of many crises of faith. Why is it so critical that churches make room for wrestling with doubts in this moment?

AF: People don’t abandon their faith because they have doubts; people abandon their faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts. Churches set people up for failure by teaching them faith is a binary choice between certainty and unbelief, because when the doubt sets in, people sense they must either ignore their doubts (and pretend they’re certain) or leave the church in order to honestly process their doubts, neither of which are helpful remedies. So instead of making people choose between their faith and doubt, the church must help people doubt faithfully, which starts with the church being, in the words of Jude 22, merciful to those who doubt.

JM: You say that many people who walk away from Christianity have really just abandoned fundamentalism masquerading as Christianity. I suspect this is true, but what does this look like?

AF: Fundamentalism, as I reference it in the book, is more spirit than form, more a way of believing than a specific set of beliefs. And so the danger fundamentalism poses is that of a rigid, self-referential temperament that attempts to claim one particular expression of Christianity is the only legitimate expression of Christianity. Fundamentalism’s favorite hobby is creating unnecessary crises of faith for people, constantly adding amendments to historic Christian orthodoxy.

JM: One of the biggest struggles many people have is accepting the notion of a “wrathful God.” You argue that God both is and isn’t wrathful. Help us wrap our heads around this. 

AF: Wrath is often spoken of as if it is an “attribute” God “possesses,” an essential part of the divine personality, and an untrained reading of Scripture could leave one with that impression. But while we must speak of the wrath of God, a Christian must do so with the understanding that God is not wrathful in the same sense that God is loving. Love is the singular divine moral property and all God does is an expression of love. God does not have a personality perfectly balance between love and wrath; no, God is love. The wrath of God is not the anger of a retributive judge, but a loving father’s stubborn refusal to let sin and injustice ruin his children.

JM: What about hell? That a big place of doubt for people. Do you believe in hell?

AF: Scripture clearly teaches universal reconciliation (Colossians 1:15-20), and yet, Scripture clearly teaches there is the distinct possibility that some will find a way to reject this universal reconciliation (Matthew 25:31-46). Theology must live in this tension: God will love everyone forever, and some might hate him for it. In this sense, hell is a real possibility (as a monk once more or less said, “He who doesn’t hope for universal redemption is an ox, but he who teaches it is an ass”), but it is merely the blazing fire of God’s love experienced as the lake of fire by frostbitten souls. It is something wecreate and choose, not God.

JM: Let’s talk about science. Some people predict that the scientific age will kill off religion because it is incompatible with faith. What say you? 

AF: Anyone who says science has killed off religion is really only saying they don’t understand science, or they don’t understand religion, or they don’t understand either. Science explores the physical world using physical tools, and, by design, only finds the physically measurable and observable. That this would somehow be presented as “proof” that God does not “exist” is one of the more brazenly circular arguments ever advanced. God is not a “being” who “exists”, but the infinite ocean of being that endlessly begets and sustains the wild ride we called existence. It is possible there is no God, and it is certain science could never tell us that.

JM: I grew up believing that faith and doubt could not co-exist. So I learned all the “answers” to the tough questions of faith. But you claim that the antidote to doubt may be love, instead of doubt. How does this work?

AF: It is often forgotten that love, not faith, is the cardinal Christian virtue (1 Corinthians 13:11-13). So what God most desires from and for us is not invincible, doubtless certainty, but an ability to experience and share the love of God. In this sense, I’ve found that love is a more effective remedy for doubt than faith, because love creates faith. So when in the throes of doubting, existential angst, my counsel is to stop sitting around, wishing and hoping and thinking and praying for more faith, get off your butt, and go love somebody. I suspect you’ll discover faith is something you often find indirectly, through love. After all, faith is not the absence of doubt, but the presence of love.