The following post was originally part of a Doubters Anonymous link up in June 2014. You can find the posts from other members of the community here.
There is a lot I could say about doubt. I’ve spent nearly six years now with the cloud of doubt hanging over my shoulders, sometimes stormy and sometimes wispy, but most days just grey and heavy. I could shake my fingers at you, the outsider, tell you all the things you did wrong, or don’t understand. I could tell you how your helping made things worse. This would probably be justified, and maybe even productive. Other people, I hope, will bring those words into the conversation, as they are desperately needed. But the words that keep coming back to me are things I didn’t understand as a doubter, the ways I treated myself poorly for far too long. These lessons were hard won, in battles fought slowly over the years through tears and confusion and panic attacks. They are the best words I have to share on the matter, and they are not so much for the outsider as for the insider, my fellow doubter. So be it. This is what I want you to know:
1. Doubt is not something to be ashamed of.
But oh, how I have felt the shame too, for not having enough faith, not being a good enough Christian, not being loved enough to experience God’s presence. I have felt shame for talking honestly about my doubts, as if hiding them would make them not exist. I have felt shame for not being able to make the spiritual rules I was taught work. I have felt shame for being a spiritual leper, a constant, visible reminder of unanswerable questions normally relegated to dark closets. And, like a leper, I have known the risk of infecting others, with questions too dangerous to touch.
But now I see that shame, not doubt, is actually the real danger. It makes you do unhealthy things. It makes you push your fears down inside of yourself until they eat away at you from the inside. I threw myself harder into service and scripture and all the things I thought would finally trick God into fixing my sickness. I attempted to pray the doubt away over and over during moments of midnight desperation, my body shaking in fear of death, in fear of where my doubt would send me.
At some point, I had to make a choice, between shame and mental health, between shame and being true to myself. Once I did this, I began to cross paths with other doubters, and I learned to see how healing it can be to witness doubt in others, to talk openly about it with people who have been there, or are there. You start to feel less crazy and alone and ashamed. So eventually, I began to see doubt as a normal healthy part of the spiritual life and I began to prioritize coping and living with my doubt rather than being ashamed of it. Most of all, I learned that my doubts, when shared openly, could be a catalyst of healing for others, rather than a poison. For me, this has made all the difference.
2. Doubt is not something to fix.
I have tried all the miracle cures. I have tried prayers and devotions and volunteering and community and worship and apologetics and just not thinking about it. And in my six years on this journey here is the closest I have come to a cure: acceptance.
Oh, it has not cured the questions. It has not cured the skepticism or loneliness or social discomfort. But it has helped immensely with the shame and anger.
I spent so many years looking for a backdoor cure, but refused to take even one dose of acceptance for the pain. I think I was afraid acceptance would be like admitting defeat, would be like acknowledging my doubts probably wouldn’t miraculously disappear one morning, replaced by the old faith I’d thought I’d have forever. I so wanted the old faith back.
I could have spared myself so many years of pain, if I had seen doubt as a normal process. I could have embraced my questions rather than pounded my fist at them. I could have made a friend out of the hesitant, probing, cautious mind I was created with, rather than an enemy. But I wouldn’t take a single day of those years back. And I wouldn’t go back to my old faith now if I could. These pesky questions of mine have made me who I am, have created this life, one of depth and creativity and exploration. Fix the doubt and you destroy the complex beauty of this wild life of mine.
3. Doubt is sacred.
Yes, doubt is painful. It is agonizing and debilitating and heart breaking. Once you feel the bottomless chasm of it way down deep, it is not easily irradicated. It settles. But if you go ahead and invite it in and grab it a cup of tea and let it make itself at home, it can betransforming.
Some people have other catalysts for spiritual awakening. Some people hit rock bottom and meet themselves through death or sickness or abuse or addiction or greed. For me, it was doubt. Because doubt– persistent, disturbing, unrelenting doubt– has this way of stripping you of everything you thought made you a person. It destroys all your fantasies of how you earned your own goodness and rightness and merit. It tears an entire layer of false skin from your flesh, leaving you raw and tender and immobilized and angry, because this is not the way things were supposed to go. You thought you had done everything right.
And when you emerge from this divine wrestling match, after you’ve waved your white flag and surrendered to defeat, there are no easy answers left. All you can do now is move forward and cope. Some days God is closer than your heart pounding in your chest. Some days there surely can be no such being. Some days God is alive in the grass and babies and light against the sheets. Some days the shame and fear and anger come rushing back to you all at once. This is the art of paradox you are learning now. You are learning to exist in the questions, to hold doubt in one hand and the smallest sliver of faith in the other and to let that be enough.
And if you make it this far, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perfect faith, but endless mystery. Some days, you feel it before you and within you and wrapping its arms around you and you are not even afraid. On your best days, it feels almost like God. And this, this paradox and mystery and learning to be, it is your spiritual practice. It is the gift doubt gave you.