Is It Okay for Pastors to Have Doubts about Their Faith?
- Cole Douglas Claybourn Writer & Podcaster
- 2021 9 Sep
In 1998, Christian singer-songwriter Chris Rice released a song called “Big Enough.” It was a bold, honest song that acknowledged the inability of man to fully understand God. The song starts out like this:
None of us knows and that makes it a mystery
If life is a comedy, then why all the tragedy
Three-and-a-half pounds of brain try to figure out
What this world is all about
And is there an eternity, is there an eternity?
God if you're there I wish you'd show me
And God if you care then I need you to know me
I hope you don't mind me askin' the questions
But I figure you're big enough
I figure You're big enough
There were a lot of Christians who railed against Rice for these lyrics at the time. How could he spread such doubt and fear with his music?
Obviously, that’s not his intent with this song. What he’s getting at is that even though we may know the truth about God in our hearts, we are human. Our sinful nature causes us to doubt.
For many believers, part of the journey toward a deeper relationship with God is marked by a season, or even seasons, of doubt. The Barna Group reported in 2017 that 65% of Americans who identify as Christians experience doubt at some point in their lives.
Doubt Is Normal
We doubt the promises God has made. We doubt the abilities God has gifted us with. We doubt the provision God has over our lives. We doubt that God has joy set apart for us, because our current suffering doesn’t seem as appealing as our neighbor’s prosperity. We doubt that God is working out all things for His good.
Sometimes we just have questions that we don’t have the answers to, and the quest for those answers turns up empty. Yes, we can even doubt God’s existence.
“Spiritual doubt has been a reality of the Christian journey since the disciples — and today is no different,” said Roxanne Stone, managing editor of the Religion News Service and former editor in chief of Barna Group. “Just like first-century Christians, their twenty-first-century counterparts question aspects of their theology, doubt the existence of God, and mourn His seeming absence during hard times. Doubt remains a flip side on the same coin as faith.”
Many Christians, understandably so, seek answers for these doubts both in their own studies of the Bible and from pastors or leaders at their local church. But what do we do when our pastors and church leaders experience doubts as well? They’re supposed to have the answers for us, right?
Pastors Can Have Doubts, Too
First, it’s important to understand that it is normal for pastors to experience doubt.
“I have had doubts and, in fact, sometimes pastors have more doubts than those in the pews, given the pressures pastors face in terms of leadership and the depth of human brokenness pastors see on a daily basis,” said Daniel Darling, a pastor and author in Nashville, Tennessee. “I think most of our doubts center around the mystery of what God is doing in the moment. I think of spiritual leaders in Scripture who doubted like David and Habbakuk and Jeremiah and Paul.
“The key to answering doubts is to rest and remember what we know to be true about God, what we've seen him do in Christ, what we know of his goodness and grace. This is where a foundation of thick theology, a reservoir of hymn lyrics, and a community of saints is vitally important.”
While our pastors will indeed have many answers, we cannot expect them to have all the answers. God is a marvelous mystery. He is an infinite being. Our finite minds simply cannot fathom or understand everything about God, nor were we created to.
None of us — even pastors — were given the capacity to fully understand God. This is why we have faith.
Responding to Those Who Doubt
Expecting our pastors to have all the answers is simply unrealistic and puts too much pressure on someone who, like us, is merely human. Pastors are susceptible to the same sins, temptations, heartache, and — yes — even doubts that everyone else is. Oftentimes, as Darling noted, it’s the trying seasons or traumatic events that bring about doubts, even with pastors.
As churchgoers, it is vital that we understand the reality that our pastors can and will experience doubt, and it’s equally important that we pray and support them during seasons of doubt. We must encourage them in their quest for a deeper understanding of who God is and pray for them to find contentment in their limited earthly understanding of God.
“I think churchgoers should welcome a spiritual leader who has doubts in terms of understanding the mystery of what God might be doing in the world,” Darling said. “I think a good shepherd is vulnerable with his own real wrestling with God. Pastors are not content machines or Bible bots, they are flesh and blood people.
“I do think when pastors face doubts, they can model a way to navigate them in ways that help others find their way back to what they know is true. I'd be concerned if a spiritual leader was openly doubting and questioning the basic tenants of the Christian faith. It may be time for a season of rest and stepping away from leadership. But a pastor who has doubts — like David, Abraham, Habbakuk, Jeremiah, Paul — about what God might be doing in a given moment: this is the stuff of real-life as we walk by faith and not by sight.”
When someone expresses doubt in their faith, they are sometimes met with judgment, as if enduring a season of doubt is an affront to God. That misconception can be amplified when the doubt comes from the pulpit. How could a pastor have doubts about God?
Here’s how Adam Weber, pastor of Embrace Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, put it on Twitter:
“Note to Christians: One of the best answers you can give in response to someone’s questions about God, life, Bible, Heaven,… that you don’t know is: ‘I don’t know,’” he tweeted. “Don’t try and dance around their question. Don’t make up an answer. Thank them for asking and say, ‘I don’t know.’
“You can faithfully search for an answer in addition and share it with humility if you do find answers. I think often we think we lose credibility if we don’t have all the answers to questions. Not true! We lose so much more when we try and sound like we know something that we don’t.”
Not knowing an answer is not always the result of doubt, but accepting that “I don’t know” is a legitimate answer for any Christian will remove any pressure that we might feel to understand it all or seek to understand it all. We simply can’t, and we won’t. And that’s okay.
Appearing on the That Sounds Fun Podcast with Annie F. Downs, Rice put it this way:
“Everyone’s faith journey is different,” he said. “We want the confidence instead of the mystery. The word faith implies that there’s an unknown. We’re holding on to the truth that we believe. The very essence of faith implies that there’s a level of doubt involved, but also that we’re waiting in hope. If we knew everything and it was right in front of our face, we wouldn’t need faith.”
Two Choices When Doubts Arise
When doubt creeps in, we have two choices: run away from God and hide behind the fear that the doubts create, or allow the doubts to propel us toward seeking answers, spending time with God to understand Him deeper, and deepen our relationship with Him.
That goes for any believer, whether they spend their Sundays in the pulpit or in the pew.
“I think the best place to take our doubts is to the one who hears our doubts,” Darling said. “Whenever David was angry or upset or could not understand, he directed his thoughts toward God. Over and over again we see this in the psalms. God can handle our questions and our wrestling.
“I also think we should revisit what we know to be true about God and we should allow the rich treasure of Christian hymnody to speak to our souls. We also need rest — like Elijah did in 1 Kings 19 — and we need the company of good friends who can help walk us back toward wholeness.”
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ridofranz
Cole Douglas Claybourn is a writer and podcaster living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with his wife, Emily. Cole teaches high school English and is the host of the In No Hurry Podcast. His work has been featured in RELEVANT Magazine, Sports Spectrum Magazine, Outreach Magazine, Think Eternity, and USA Today. He enjoys telling stories of where faith and creativity intersect and sharing his story to help Christians navigate through their own journey. You can also find his work at coleclaybourn.com.