Why Doubt Is Good for Evangelism

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Doubt has been one of the most helpful things in moving me forward in faith. Yes, doubt. Both my own and the doubt of others. For that reason, I’ve come to view it as a good thing, especially when it comes to evangelism. Here are three reasons why.

Doubt grounds us.

Or maybe it’s better to say that doubt enables us to become more grounded in faith.

Christian faith is personal, so personal we can never have it for someone else and others can never have it for us. That means we don’t just inherit faith, we have to claim if for ourselves; and that is where doubt enters the picture.

Tim Keller (@timkellernyc) once wrote that “a faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.”* That’s an excellent metaphor, because the grounds for our faith are found and strengthened when we struggle with objections to that very faith.

Doubt is about asking hard questions. It is about listening and wrestling, and contemplating. If we never ask hard questions about why we believe what we believe, if we have never faced our doubts head on and resolved them after deep reflection, not only do we risk losing our faith in the face of tragedy or heartbreak or misfortune, but we will be ill-equipped to respond to the legitimate faith questions of others.

Doubt points to faith.

Where doubt can ground faith in a Christ follower, it can point to faith within skeptics and others outside the Christian sphere. That is because all doubts, regardless of how they may appear on the surface, are simply a collection of different beliefs, many of which are not able to be proved empirically, nor are universally accepted by everyone. In this sense, all doubts require a leap of faith of their own.

Though doubt wasn’t the specific topic of J.D. Walt’s (@jdwalt) Daily Text last week, he helps us understand when he writes, “faith is not an aberrant outlier or rogue category within the realm of reason. Reason is a category of faith.” (emphasis added) This rings true when we recognize that doubts do not necessarily begin with reasoning, but with (a sometimes unrecognized) faith hidden within that reasoning – a faith in an alternative belief that, again, is often as unprovable as the belief in question.

Here is where it becomes important for evangelism.

Often when we engage others, especially others who look critically at Christianity, it is easy to become caught up in argumentation, proof, and things of that nature. Unfortunately, these kinds of interactions can also become polarizing, with emotions and rhetoric running high, and both sides experiencing denunciation rather than communication. When this happens the atmosphere is poisoned and all shared space for conversation disappears.

On the other hand, when we recognize that faith of some sort (even if it is unrecognized) is the predisposition for all humans – it is the way we all deal with the fact that our knowledge will always be incomplete – common ground can emerge. From this perspective we are challenged to see others not through the lens of the doubts they hold about our beliefs, but through the lens of the beliefs they hold beneath those doubts. In this way our desire becomes understanding rather than debate – a much better foundation for mutual sharing.

Doubt provides both clarity and humility.

No one likes being criticized for what they believe. Especially in our current culture, what could potentially be constructive criticism often quickly turns to snarky, condemnation – on both sides.  A hard truth for many of us to admit is that if we would wrestle more deeply with society’s objections to our faith, as well as with our own doubts, we might be better prepared to respond with both strength and grace in these types of contexts.

Serious reflection not only on our own doubts but on the doubts of skeptics and others who object to Christian faith provides us with clarity and humility. We gain understanding and respect for others that we may not have had before. We can disagree without demonizing because we have have stepped into the another’s shoes and discovered how to frame their thoughts in the most positive light. We cannot control the response of others, however, when we have clarity about both our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, we can converse with both humility and boldness because we have offered a safe space for mutual engagement.

Doubt can be difficult because we have wrongly associated it with failure in faith. Yet that is not how Jesus responded to those who doubted; even Thomas, that most famous of doubters, was provided with evidence rather than rebuke. Being honest about our own doubts and being willing to walk with others as they are honest with theirs, opens us to the possibility of deepened faith and shared discovery, two very good things for evangelism.

 

*Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, New York: Riverhead Books, 2008, xvii

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Kimberly Reisman is an author, pastor, teacher and theologian serving as Executive Director of World Methodist Evangelism of the World Methodist Council. Prior to beginning at WME, Kim served in local churches, as Executive Director of Next Step Evangelism and General Editor for WesleyanAccent.com. She is a frequent speaker, focusing on evangelism, spiritual formation, women's ministries, leadership development and the intersection between faith and culture. Kim is an elder in the United Methodist Church and has written numerous books, most recently, The Christ-Centered Woman: Finding Balance in a World of Extremes (2013, Abingdon Press). Kim is also an Adjunct Professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and The School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington.

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