William B. Bowes on Four Ways to Respond to Those Who Doubt

Have mercy on those who doubt. – Jude 22

I have never heard a sermon about doubt, and rarely have I experienced responses to doubt that I would call merciful. But, in the oft-neglected book of Jude, we are commanded to have mercy on the doubting. To have mercy is to show compassion, kindness, pity, or a loving and patient spirit. God’s mercy is what we all rely upon; his mercy does not give to us as we deserve. Just as God does, we are supposed to show a special deference, kindness, patience and compassion to those who are questioning, unsure, or are having their convictions shaken. Why then, is this not often the response to doubt?

Part of the reason is because doubt makes us uncomfortable. There is something about calling into question who we are and what we believe that makes everything in life feel more insecure. We all want the security of certainty and familiarity, and doubt begins to cloud some of the things that were, perhaps at an earlier or easier time in life, clearer.

Doubt can also make us afraid, and lead to avoidance. For us who believe, to have robust faith can feel like it is the most important thing in life, and so someone who questions their faith can make us fear that they are turning away from what they need most. And for many people, when they are afraid, they do not engage with their fear. Rather, the natural tendency is to avoid it, bury it, or drown it out. But when it comes to doubt, this does not work. Just like people need to be engaged with on a deep and personal level to feel understood and loved, doubts need to be engaged with deeply and personally. If not, they have a way of rising up from the place where we bury them.

We have all experienced doubt, in varying degrees. And we have all experienced bad responses to doubt. But what are merciful and loving ways to respond when someone you know is doubting?

William B. Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts. | Courtesy of William B. Bowes

1. Remember that behind the doubt is a person.

This is the first and most important rule of responding with mercy. To respond well to a doubting person is to truly listen to the person. Although it may be tempting to simply try to offer an answer to a person’s doubt when it is presented or to debate about it, rarely does that involve listening. When someone is struggling with doubt, there is usually something that caused it, or a process that led to it. A doubt is never just a doubt by itself, but a doubting person has his or her own process that led to their questions and that process may have its own emotional turmoil and sensitivity that requires patience and not pat answers. I have found that sometimes that most profound doubts come from those who have experienced a personal tragedy or catastrophic setback, not someone who was maligned by another person being antagonistic to their faith.

People by nature want to be received more than they want to be debated. To be merciful is to recognize that a doubting person often wants to be welcomed and wants dialogue, not silence or resistance. In my view, the silence and anti-intellectualism of those who respond badly to doubt leads far more often to disastrous consequences than the questions brought about by a personal tragedy or interaction with perspectives antithetical to Christianity.

2. Be diligent and intellectually responsible enough to deal with your own doubts.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, William B. Bowes