Pastor and author Dominic Done knows from personal experience the pain that comes when certainty crumbles, when old ways of doing things no longer sustain us, and easy explanations don’t work anymore. The pain is compounded because any hint of questioning is so often demonized. Family, friends and church leaders may misunderstand or criticize and we find ourselves marginalized. In his new book “When Faith Fails” Done offers a safe place to question and points out the amazing potential for doubt to lead us to a deeper, more genuine pursuit of God.
Interviewer: You’ve titled your book When Faith Fails. The Bible says that faith, hope and love remain, so faith can’t fail—can it?
Dominic: There are times when we wrestle with unanswered questions and the Bible really doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Or we go through seasons of suffering that really shake us and we have that sense that our faith is fragmenting or falling apart. I believe that it’s in those very times that we can actually encounter God in a new way and discover a faith that is more gritty and alive.
Are you saying that doubt is not always a sign of spiritual collapse?
I’m saying what we do with our doubt can actually make or break our faith. Doubt in and of itself is essentially neutral and it’s not the same as unbelief. It’s being in that middle space where you have unanswered questions or tension in your faith, where you’re torn between two points of view, or something shakes the credibility of what you grew up believing. It can be incredibly painful but also incredibly redemptive. Doubt can lead us toward deeper faith; it all depends on what we do with it.
When did you start seriously questioning the Christian faith?
There were different seasons of doubt and I think it can take on different forms. Emotional doubt was prompted by a lot of brokenness in my family during the first half of my childhood and the suffering I witnessed while in the ministry. Later on I wrestled with intellectual doubt as I pursued a degree in theology at the University of Oxford. There my faith was challenged in new and painful ways as I plunged into the world of philosophy and atheist writers. All the doubts I had suppressed suddenly had space to flourish and the weaknesses in how I thought about God were uncovered. I still loved him but something was fractured in my soul. My wife encouraged me to open up to people who would understand and to balance my studies with books that would nourish my mind with truth and hope. As I did, I was reminded of how rational, sophisticated and beautiful the Christian faith is compared to the implications of atheism that wound us at the deepest level. I became more honest with God than I had ever been in my life as I shared my doubts with him, but he accepted me as I was and I fell in love with Jesus again.
Can we have a vibrant faith and serious questions at the same time?
Absolutely. I think a vibrant faith lives in the place of questions and discovery. Mystery is the lifeblood of intimacy. I’m still learning things about my wife that I didn’t know before and that’s what makes the relationship feel alive and vibrant. Knowing absolutely everything about her would be rather boring, but because it’s continually growing, our relationship is more beautiful and multi-dimensional. There are intimate aspects of God to discover and I think that’s what leads us to worship. When we allow our questions to push us to the pursuit of answers, deep faith is born. The place of uncertainty, wrestling, and angst is where God meets us and that’s where we truly grow.
What are some things that can cause us to question our faith?
A significant one is the Bible itself. There is no question that this is the most influential, life-changing book in the world. It’s the bedrock for our faith, but it’s also complex, mysterious, beautiful and often bewildering. The Bible is brutally honest about real people with real flaws, but that doesn’t mean that God endorses what they did. If we are willing to do the heavy lifting of peeling back the layers of history and culture, we discover a unified story that shows us the “big picture” and ultimately leads us to Jesus. Perhaps the Bible’s primary objective isn’t intellectual certainty, but to bring us into a flourishing relationship with God. Another stumbling block is the assumption that science and faith are at odds, even though belief in God has actually been the main inspiration for science. Where there is apparent conflict, we can consider what we know is true about nature and then come back to Scripture with humility, looking closer, investigating more, open to the idea that our analysis of either science or Scripture is wrong. It’s okay to embrace the wonder of unknowing.
In your experience, what is the biggest reason people turn away from God?
The problem of evil and the apparent silence of God in the face of suffering and injustice. We want to know why a good God would create a world that is so broken..
Dominic Done’s book When Faith Fails
How can we respond to people suffering?
Whenever we’re confronted with someone going through a season like this, an immediate response would never be to come up with a 3-point sermon. The first step is always empathy, listening, just being a faithful presence. There are no pat answers. But there are some answers. Starting in Genesis we see a God who designed a world that was flourishing, full of delight and wonder, not broken with heartache and pain. So I think we start there with a God who is good and who loves us. Secondly, we see that God’s heart ultimately is the renewal of all things. To me this is probably the most important answer–the hope that someday all our pain and our sickness will be healed and questions will be answered. At the end of the day it’s not so much why would God allow it but it’s about the God who walks with us through it and promises never to leave us. We may not understand suffering, but we can fight against it and try to put a broken world back together. We can be the voice of healing and advance the way of love. We cry out for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and then we link arms with him to help make that hope a reality.
This global pandemic that we’re experiencing is certainly a time of crisis. Do you think it has made people more skeptical and doubting God or has it pushed them toward questions about spiritual things?
There will be varied reactions, for sure, but a recent study showed that online searches for prayer go up whenever statistics on the virus rise. Maybe this is one illustration of how a time of crisis can cause us to look up and ask questions that we’ve been too busy to even slow down enough to ask.
What steps can I take to make doubt a catalyst for an authentic and vibrant faith?
We can begin at a place of honesty and vulnerability. One of the worst things we can do with our questions is to suppress them. Secrecy is what makes doubt destructive. When we bring it into the light and are honest with our struggle, that’s when we discover God’s incredible grace and mercy. One of my favorite verses is Jude 24: “Be merciful to those who doubt.” No-one showed more mercy than Jesus. The Bible tells us that even when his followers saw the resurrected King standing before them, “some doubted.” But Jesus sent out both the worshipper and the doubter and they turned the world upside down.
When we have doubts and are willing to bring them honestly to the surface, then we can commit ourselves to a season of exploration. We take the trouble to look deeper into the issue, read about it and ask questions of knowledgeable people. When we seek clarity for the things that trouble us, we may actually find that some of them are not the issues we once thought they were. Often there actually are answers and our uncertainty can be resolved. It’s a very practical way to deal with doubt.
Can we do this by ourselves?
I’d say that community plays a big part in this. Asking others to walk with us through this season in our lives is so important. Find a mentor, someone who’s mature in their spiritual journey. Having that kind of a person in your life makes such a difference because we weren’t meant to walk alone.
You’ve said the greatest danger is not that we lose our faith but that we settle for a mediocre version of it. What does that look like?
A mediocre version of faith would be a faith that is complacent and lukewarm. One of the worst things we can do is become indifferent because then we stop asking the hard questions. We’re not willing to explore or go deeper. If we actually care and want our faith to become richer and more alive, that necessitates climbing challenging mountains and facing hard issues head on. It means having the courage to continue taking one step after another instead of giving up. Doubt may become the very instrument that refines your faith so that only Jesus remains.