I Believe, Help My Unbelief!
Last week we heard about author Andrea Palpant Dilley’s struggles with faith and doubt that eventually led her to leave the church in her twenties. Through God’s grace and the faithfulness of friends and family, Andrea returned to the church and recognized that doubt has a place even and perhaps especially inside the walls of the church.
Today, Andrea gives insight into how individuals and churches can help those who doubt and explains how doubt has enriched her life. Catch the first part of the interview here.
Throughout the process of your leaving and returning to the church, what role did your family and close friends play? How can those with a close friend or family member struggling with doubt be helpful?
During my own faith crisis, people gave me space to pray that “prayer of unbelief.” My dad sat on the couch and talked with me about my doubts. College professors took me out to coffee. Friends listened to my questions without giving cheap, easy answers. They modeled the church at its best – a place of stark honesty and shared pilgrimage.
For those of you who have a close friend or family member struggling with doubt, here are a few thoughts:
- Spend time listening. Take their questions seriously. Pilgrim with them. Feel free to share your opposing views, but do so in a gracious, peaceful (rather than antagonistic) spirit.
- Stay in community with them. Assure them of your unconditional love. If they sense that your relationship with them is contingent on the outcome of their struggle, they will trust you less and confide in you less.
- Be open about the struggles you’ve had in the past. If you’ve entertained doubts, share about that experience. Be candid about your own story, whether it’s resolved or unsolved.
- Try not to react. Give them time and space. Remember that doubt can be a healthy, truth-seeking, soul-searching part of faith. Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.”
What advice would you give to a church who wants to be a welcome place for those who aren’t sure about faith? Tell us about a church in your life in which you’ve been free to bring your struggles and doubts.
At the time that I left the church, I was 23 years old and more interested in “the search” than I was interested in answers. So in that sense, I believe doubt can be used as permission for perpetual non-commitment. The church should be wary of that. If a church works too hard to make room for doubt, the congregation might end up forfeiting its convictions and falling prey to “theological mush.”
On the other hand, I do believe that it’s better to actively question faith—in a spirit of seeking the truth—than it is to passively accept the doctrines and enigmas of Christianity. Anger at God is healthier than indifference toward God. In that sense, I think it’s imperative that a church body make room for people struggling with faith and doubt. Without that space for deep questions, the church risks becoming flat, staid, and lifeless.
When we first started attending our current church, the pastor’s wife said to me, “I struggled with doubt and darkness for a long time.” In a very strange way, my heart leapt when she said that. I thought to myself, Okay, this is a church where I can feel at home. This is a church where questions and doubts are welcomed and understood.
How do you see the Bible and Christian thinkers addressing doubt?
In Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed child says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Flannery O’Connor calls this the foundation prayer of faith. I couldn’t agree with her more. Active doubt (as opposed to passive skepticism) can be a vital, soul-searching part of faith. All we have to do is open up the books of Job, Lamentations, and the Psalms to realize that doubt has been an integral part of the human experience and the Christian experience for thousands of years. I also take great comfort in the fact that many great saints of Christian history—Mother Teresa and others—went through a “dark night of the soul” for years and sometimes for a lifetime. I’m not alone.
How has your journey of doubt enriched your life now? Outside of your book’s influence, has God given you opportunities to encourage others with your story?
As I correspond with readers, I’ve been surprised by the diversity of people who seem to resonate with the story: college students trying to figure out faith, retirees reflecting back on their own stories, and people in life stages in between. Even readers with no religious affiliation have connected with the book somehow. Recently, a young woman sent me a long letter in which she described herself as a “worn out theist” who felt like the book “offer[ed] solidarity in the ongoing struggle of the human condition.” This book is written for her, for anyone on a spiritual journey, and for anyone who’s ever wrestled with questions of doubt, faith and belief in God.
I hope readers like her come away carrying one simple but livable insight: that doubt has a place inside faith and inside the church. In my own journey, I left the church burdened by questions, but eventually realized that those same questions actually belonged in the sanctuary. They only made sense inside of a theistic framework. Sitting in church one day after years of struggle, I thought, “Okay, I’ll call this place home. I’ll bring my doubt. I’ll wait for God in this space.” Even now, this idea of “bringing my demons to church” – as I call it in the book – challenges me to stick it out in Christian community. It also gives me comfort, knowing that I don’t have to find all the answers before I can lay claim to a church pew.
My coworkers want to know: Apple or Android? Mac or PC?
I’m a Mac user. I used to be fine working with either PC or Mac, but after watching my husband with his Dell—oh, the frustration!–and after years of satisfaction with Apple products, I’m officially married to Mac.
We’d love your comments! Have you struggled with doubt in your life of faith? What are passages in the Bible or in other books that comfort you in times of doubt?
Check out these other articles from Andrea:
- Faith and Leadership Website (out of Duke Divinity School), entitled “A Safe Place to Doubt”
- Her.meneutics (out of Christianity Today), entitled “How To Smartly Engage With the Young Doubters in Your Midst”
Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries and spent the rest of her childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Her work as a documentary producer has aired nationally on American Public Television. Her work as a writer has been published in Geez, Utne Reader and the anthology Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, as well as online with CNN, The Huffington Post, and Christianity Today. Her memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, tells the story of her faith journey. Andrea lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas. For more about Andrea, visit http://andreapalpantdilley.com or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrea-Palpant-Dilley/159447840841841