Ad Clerum on Doubt from Bishop Martyn Minns

Ad Clerum on Doubt from Bishop Martyn Minns

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16,17)

It was the early 1970s, and for several months we had lived in Dallas, Texas, where I was on a special work assignment for Mobil Oil. Our four children had all been given places at the day school associated with First Baptist Church, introducing us to the amazing world of Southern Baptist megachurches. We had never seen anything like it – the sheer scale of everything was rather overwhelming. They even had their own bowling alley under the education building. This was during the time that W.A. Criswell served as senior pastor. I recall one Sunday morning when, after they had taken up a special offering of more than a million dollars, Pastor Criswell instructed the choir – numbering more than 700 – to sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in response. It was quite spectacular!

There were a number of interns on their pastoral staff, including a young man from the UK. We invited him over for supper and asked him about his experience and some of the key lessons that he was learning. He had studied at Spurgeon’s College in London prior to his assignment at First Baptist Church and was familiar with the theological ethos, but I have never forgotten his reply: “I have learned that I must never admit to any doubts about my faith because to do so would be to lose pastoral authority!”

“But what happens when you do have doubts or questions? What then?” I asked.

“Keep them to yourself, and tell no-one,” was his grim reply.

While I understood the importance of a pastor being able to lead and teach confidently – especially in matters of faith – I was disturbed by his conviction that there was never any room for questions or doubts. I pointed out that the first disciples were often filled with doubt and that many contemporary Christian leaders have struggled with various aspects of their faith, but he would not budge. No doubts, never!

On our return home to Darien, Connecticut, I met with Terry Fullam, our rector, to share some of our adventures and to thank him, because he had been the one who had arranged for our children to be enrolled at the First Baptist day school. I mentioned the young intern’s perspective on doubt and asked Terry’s views. He shook his head and said that he feared that the young man would have some challenging years ahead of him. “We all doubt and question at times,” he said. “It’s part of our humanity – we don’t need to major on our doubts, nor do we need to ignore them.” He told me that whenever he encounters doctrinal questions to which he has no answers, he imagines them as articles of clothing that don’t fit and hangs them on the back of his closet door. He doesn’t spend too much time worrying about them and revisits them occasionally to see if they are still an issue. Sometimes they get resolved and other times he leaves them hanging there. This way he doesn’t ignore the problem, nor does he let it consume him. As usual, I found his answer most helpful.

Another of my mentors is C.S. Lewis. His various books and essays have been an inspiration to many over the past 50 years – it is estimated more than 200 million copies have been sold of his 50-plus books, and many of his works have been turned into hugely popular movies.2 He was a man of deep and profound faith. However, the pain of grief over the death of his wife, Joy, cut so deeply that he doubted the goodness and fairness of God.

He wrote about it in A Grief Observed, and throughout this brief book, Lewis cried out to a God who seemed silent.

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows.

Lewis questioned the goodness of God because God allowed Lewis’s precious wife, Joy, to go through intense pain and suffering as she struggled with cancer.

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

Madeleine L’Engle, a beloved member of All Angels Church in New York City during my time as rector, wrote about the helpfulness of Lewis’s doubt in this way:

I am grateful, too, to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God with angry violence. This is a part of healthy grief not often encouraged. It is helpful indeed that C. S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed. It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own angers and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.

Mother Teresa doubted. Martin Luther doubted. C. S. Lewis doubted. These are not lightweights. These are giants of faith worth following. They made their doubt work for them. They integrated doubt into their faith, and their uncertainty about God and the future deepened their faith over time. This encourages me. I hope it encourages you. If God did not want us to ever doubt, he could have ripped the book of Psalms right out of the Bible. God is much bigger than our doubts.

It is possible to have great doubt and great faith at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. In Mother Teresa, in Luther, and in Lewis we see that great men and women of faith can also be great men and women of doubt. In faith, there is room for doubt.

Your brother in Christ,

+Martyn