(RNS) — “Unprecedented challenges” became our mantra during the global pandemic. It turned our work lives and our lives at home upside down. Many people, in the United States and abroad, encountered unexpected, unwelcome suffering and death. All of us observed it and felt it from a distance. As a result, many of us wrestled with serious questions about our faith.
That doubt may have been the best thing that could have happened to our faith.
Doubt often gets a bad reputation, especially within Christian settings, but doubt can be hugely productive. It can paralyze us, yes, but it can also propel us to seek truth. Nearly every person of faith (including me) has experienced a season of doubt, a process that often takes one deeper into an exploration of God. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
We must not suppress doubt but unfold it. The process of questioning and exploring faith has the power to open minds, give rise to new ideas, reveal new horizons and change our lives. Even as an evangelical Christian pastor, I know that times of deep doubt and intense questioning have helped me to grow, intellectually and spiritually.
Questions about God’s existence, pain and suffering in the world and why we live on this Earth are worth asking; their answers are worth seeking. A September 2020 study by Lifeway, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 60% of American adults understood religious beliefs to be matters of personal opinion, and not based on objective truth. While personal faith is an essential component of any religion, our beliefs should be informed by facts, history and science. It’s not enough to believe something because someone told you to believe it. We must be critical and intentional in pursuing truth and letting the answers we discover inform our beliefs.
In fact, it is the realizations we uncover on our own terms that have the potential to transform our lives.
A study by the Harvard Business Review found that households with children estimated that 70-80% of their kids’ dialogues with others consisted of questions. But those same individuals said that only 15-25% of their own interactions consisted of questions. Researchers pointed to many reasons why adults stop asking questions. Some are eager to impress others with their own thoughts and ideas. Some may be apathetic, or may be overconfident in their own opinion. Or they may worry they’ll be viewed as incompetent. It requires vulnerability to admit when you don’t have all the answers.
Indeed, there is a stigma around being curious for adults, but science shows excellent benefits. Most people don’t realize how beneficial questioning can be. According to Harvard Business School professors, emotional intelligence is naturally improved in individuals who ask questions.
The same is true in our common questions regarding God and faith. There is a benefit in doubt. Doubt is an opportunity to explore what we believe about life and God.
In the Bible, Jesus encouraged his listeners to ask questions. He said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “I believe in Christ and confess him not like some schoolboy; but my hosanna has passed through a great furnace of doubt.”
From the refining fire of doubt strong convictions can emerge, forged by the act of pursuing answers to our hard questions. So embrace your doubts, ask your questions and seek out truth. Question your faith.
Not every question you ask will have a clear answer. Mystery abounds in this life, and there are spiritual realities that exceed our understanding. But I agree with theologian Peter Abelard when he said: “Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom. … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry, we perceive the truth.” Explore your doubts down the path of questioning your faith. In time, your path may lead you to find God’s reality in fresh ways.
(Bruce B. Miller is senior pastor and co-founder of Christ Fellowship Church in McKinney, Texas. He is the author of 10 books, most recently “The 7 Big Questions: Searching for God, Truth, and Purpose.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)