Dealing with the Fear of Doubt and of Questioning Religious Beliefs We have been Taught

Growing up a fundamentalist, and then 25 years as an evangelical, I witnessed a lot of fear and experienced significant fear myself. These very conservative environments are filled with fear and, to a large extent, are based on fear—fear of God, fear of hell, fear of making a mistake, fear of being wrong, and fear of being rejected by God (and the church).

One must constantly toe the line on God’s many requirements, believe all the right doctrines, and never waver. One of the greatest dangers is doubt; doubt is castigated as being from the devil, and we are warned of the dire consequences of being led astray—punishment in eternal hell fire. Security is found only in accepting tradition passed down as God’s own certain truth from one generation to another to another.

In these circles, having doubt is considered a loss of faith, so it is no surprise that when a believer begins to question their beliefs it often induces a lot of fear. Taking action on those doubts can be even more fearful. But there is NO REASON to fear!

Doubt, Faith, and Authority

Doubt - James McGrath

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; doubt is the opposite of gullibility. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; doubt is an element of faith. Until we question beliefs we have received, those beliefs are not our own but someone else’s. Until we examine what we have been taught, we are actually putting our faith in some human authority or system. And, often, ‘Do not doubt!’ is a strong part of their message.

Don’t doubt = Don’t think

Appeals are made to the authority of the Bible, but in reality much of what people believe is based on an interpretation of the Bible and not a ‘clear teaching’ of the Bible itself; so our authority is not really the Bible but some particular understanding of the Bible, which is not at all the same thing.

For our beliefs to be our own we must question whether our underlying assumptions are correct and whether our beliefs make sense generally. As followers of Jesus, we must also consider whether they align with his teaching and example.

We must investigate aspects of our belief that just don’t seem right; we must pursue them diligently even if that means we can no longer accept them. This is called critical thinking—where we think for ourselves instead of depending on an outside authority.

‘Do not doubt’ means ‘Do not think’. It means accepting what someone else thinks (or what the group thinks) without questioning whether what they think is valid.

Warnings Against Questioning Our Beliefs

Of course, we are warned against such questioning. We are warned not to heed false prophets or to be tricked by the devil. But doubt means only that we examine our beliefs to see whether they are indeed valid. Do they reflect the most reasonable understanding of reality?

When I was young, a verse in Proverbs 14 guarded me against the danger of questioning my beliefs:

There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.

I didn’t want to be tricked into following the wrong path—one that led to death. This verse was very effective against my harboring doubt until one day I realized that it could apply to any ‘way’–even my current belief system. I was shaken. It was only then that I even considered there might be flaws in my beliefs.

But as I began to embrace critical thinking I was afraid, sometimes intensely afraid, because I had been warned to not fall into the dangerous error of questioning my beliefs. I was afraid God would punish me for my doubts even to the point of sending me to eternal burning hell. This is a tremendous deterrent to doubt—and independent thinking!

I feared I might be making a huge mistake, that the conclusions of my quest might be wrong, and that I would be rejected by God. But these fears were unfounded. No one should fear honest doubts and questions about beliefs they have been taught.

Discovering Errors in the Religious Baggage I Inherited from Others

As I began to question my inherited beliefs, it is interesting that I asked some of the same questions many other people from such conservative circles ask:

  • Is God angry, harsh, and vindictive or a loving Father as Jesus tells us?
  • Does God want us to follow long lists of religious rules (commandments) or to follow Jesus and his principles of the kingdom and of loving others?
  • Does a loving God really send people to eternal burning hell, and does the Bible even teach such a thing?
  • Should we assume the Bible is God’s very word throughout or read it as a record of how people understood God within their own eras, cultures, and limited grasp of God’s character?
  • Does a loving God exclude and reject some people such as gays, and does the Bible even suggest this?

These are not all the possible questions, of course, but are some of the most common ones. And I think there is a reason for this—these beliefs, passed down in some traditions, are seriously mistaken and lead to baggage, bondage, and erroneous understandings of God, Jesus, and the Bible; and at some point they just don’t feel right. I bet you have wondered about some of these questions—perhaps fearfully.

Faith in these and other mistaken beliefs, based on someone else’s word and understanding, is not true faith but a dependence on human authority. And once we realize this fear vanishes.

Next time we will talk about 5 great fears believers should never have.

***

This entry was posted in authority, baggage, doubt, evangelicalism, faith, fear, fundamentalism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Dealing with the Fear of Doubt and of Questioning Religious Beliefs We have been Taught

  1. uj418 says:

    I read somewhere that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but faith’s compliment. Doubt is our wrestling with God. We question God. We question ourselves. We feel the dark part of faith. We question our purpose, If we work through our doubt, and find the best answer we come out on a more solid footing. Perhaps we lose faith in God as we understand, but we are more open to who God really is instead of the idols we have created in our minds. We let God out of the box we built, and we let ourselves out at the same time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ylfrith says:

    Reblogged this on Pots, Pans and Proverbs and commented:
    Love this. It is ok to think and have doubts.

    Like

  3. Gerald J Rounds says:

    The Gospels are interpretations of Jesus’ life. Look how different John is from the Synoptics. So if the Gospels are interpretations, then any reading we do of the Gospels becomes our interpretations. Liberals like myself have no problem with this. I can learn something new every time I read a passage. But as you say, conservatives need to have it fixed and codified. I was a fundamentalist once, until I realized it was demanding that I give up my intelligence. That was my awaking. O lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief. That is our life long journey of faith.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve says:

      Like everyone else, Robert Funk also had an agenda.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Steve, I agree. The Jesus Seminar produced some good results, but I think a lot of the results were, indeed, based on pre-conceptions and agendas.

        Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Gerald, I agree that, while the gospels are written from the memories of Jesus’ earliest followers, we must be aware that those followers reported events and teaching according to how they impacted each individual follower. We must also be aware that the gospels include emphasis from whatever issues the communities were dealing with at the time of the writing.

      However, I think there is a remarkable consistency among the four gospel writers in their presentation of Jesus’ general character, teaching, and example.

      Like

  4. Alan C says:

    I like the quote I read once from Frederick Buechner: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ali says:

    Hi tim I find your blog very interesting and reassuring. I was wondering if you would discuss the salvation message of being baptised by full immersion , and receiving the holy spirit with the bible evidence of speaking in tongues.
    If you have already discussed this topic please point me in the right direction.
    I go to a church where this is the doctrine and me questioning it will likely lead to eviction. I am quite traumatised and fearful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hello, Ali. I understand you to be asking about two different things. One is about receiving the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues. I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist, but I became Pentecostal as a young adult; and I did pray for the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. I was with Pentecostal churches for about 25 years. Because I was becoming less conservative I left the Pentecostal churches and became Presbyterian, and since then I have not spoken in tongues.

      I don’t have a firm opinion on the validity of the concept of receiving the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues, though I am quite familiar with the biblical arguments used to support it. Most Pentecostals embrace a lot of harmful beliefs such as angry god, eternal hell, legalism, inerrancy, and homophobia. It seems that if they were really being led by the spirit they would abandon those views.

      I am not sure what you are asking about specifically, but I don’t have a firm opinion about the validity of the doctrine.

      Secondly, I was a Baptist when I began following Jesus, so I was baptized with full immersion (in a lake). However, I think any form of baptism is valid. If you are interested, I talk about this more at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/choosing-to-identify-with-jesus/.

      Let me know if you want to discuss these things or other things further!

      Like

    • Chas says:

      ali, speaking in tongues is a way that God speaks through us, so if you are able to do it, I would encourage you strongly to do so. Some pentecostal churches have insisted on this as a badge of membership, with the result that some people feign it. They can usually be distinguished by short repeated phrases and lack of fluency. In regard to baptism by full immersion, this is insisted on in some churches and is based on the Gospels. However, those Gospels are the writings of man and so should not be interpreted as a statement of God’s will for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. tonycutty says:

    I love this: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; doubt is the opposite of gullibility. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; doubt is an element of faith”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tim says:

    Jesus asked “Who do men say that I am?” Mans opinion isnt enough. The revelation that Christ is the son of the living God, was not from Earth but was from God. Your opinion is based on the same earthly reasoning as any belief system. Revelation is beyond human reasoning. Revelation opens our eyes to the reality of the Spiritual realm that created this natural realm. The real problem with your opinion is its all based on human reasoning. When you can’t see with spiritual eyes that’s all you have to work with. If someone talks you into something, then someone else can talk you out of it. Jesus said he seeks those that worship him in Spirit and truth. Religion comes in many forms. To say you have no belief system is a statement of a belief system. I would encourage those that are truly seeking God to be open to him and have him reveal himself to you. He said “My sheep hear my voice and another they will not follow.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tim, I agree with you that I have a belief system and that it is based on human reasoning–as all belief systems are. I am not sure why you assume Jesus does not reveal himself to me, that I don’t see with spiritual eyes, or that I don’t worship him in spirit and in truth. Jesus is the foundation of all my belief. I think I HAVE heard his voice, and I follow him.

      I am unsure exactly what you are proposing as an alternative approach to Jesus, but it seems you are appealing to more traditional understandings about Jesus; but these are also based on human understanding as people tried to grasp the truth about Jesus from the Bible. You don’t say so specifically, but it appears that you are defending the idea that we should never question the beliefs we have been taught.

      Can you clarify? Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

      Like

    • Chas says:

      The problem is that those words: my sheep hear my voice and will not follow another are the words of man and so cannot themselves be trusted. Those who truly hear God know that they are doing so. His are the only words that can be trusted.

      Like

      • Steve says:

        Who should bear the burden of truth? The Gospel writers? Or those that doubt the authenticity of Jesus’ words?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Steve, I think I understand your dichotomy: believe the gospel writers’ reports as accurate or doubt the authenticity of what they describe as Jesus’ words. I would say that the gospel writers were not under any pressure to deliver the exact ‘quoted’ words of Jesus–but rather the essence of what he said. There was no secretary copying his words as he said them or a recording device to use later as a source.

          However, this is not a problem in my opinion; I think the memories from the minds of Jesus’ earliest followers as they were impacted by what Jesus said are genuine. So I would say that most of what is written as the words of Jesus are ‘true’ though they might not be exact renditions of his actual words.

          On the other hand we must read the words ourselves, understand the cultural and topical contexts as well as we can, and interpret the meanings of what Jesus said. So the burden of ‘truth’ is shared by both the writers and the readers.

          You refer to those who doubt the authenticity of Jesus’ words as though there are people who accurately embrace the authenticity of his words. But I think that what some people take as authenticity are really particular interpretations of what Jesus said. Doubting a persons interpretation is not the same as doubting Jesus’ words. This is the point of the article; I believe we must think for ourselves about what we read of Jesus rather than adopting rigid interpretations taught to us by other people as ‘truth’.

          Like

          • Steve says:

            I get all that, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. My point was much more simple and straightforward, and in response to: “The problem is that those words: my sheep hear my voice and will not follow another are the words of man and so cannot themselves be trusted. “.

            So let me re-phrase it:

            Pertaining to the sayings of Jesus, where should the burden of truth lie? With the Gospel writers who claim they are recording the words of Jesus? Or with those who claim those same words were simply created by imaginative ‘men’ 50-or-so years after Jesus lived?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Steve, my point was that the words of the Gospels must be the words of men, otherwise they would all be the same and there would only be one version. The usual response is to say: well, the fact that they differ is like witness statements, each one notes something different. However, this very point PROVES that they are men’s words.

            Like

          • Steve says:

            I might be way off base… but when you say “Those who truly hear God know that they are doing so. His are the only words that can be trusted” it sure sounds a lot like divine inspiration. So how do you reconcile that with your view that the scriptures are 100% human documents?

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Steve, thanks for the re-phrased question: “Pertaining to the sayings of Jesus, where should the burden of truth lie? With the Gospel writers who claim they are recording the words of Jesus? Or with those who claim those same words were simply created by imaginative ‘men’ 50-or-so years after Jesus lived?”

            I am still unclear on what you mean by ‘burden of truth’. Is the question whether the words of Jesus written in the gospels are ‘true’? And by true, do you mean ‘accurate’ or ‘the very words of Jesus’?

            You then refer to those who claim the words were created by imaginative men much later. I don’t think the words of Jesus in the gospels were ‘created’ by ‘imaginative’ men. I believe, for the most part, that the words of Jesus reported by the gospel writers accurately reflected what Jesus said, though not necessarily word for word.

            On the other hand, perhaps you are asking where lies the burden of ‘proof’ that the words of Jesus in the gospels accurately reflect what he said. So I guess my question is what do you mean by truth. Can you clarify?

            Like

          • Steve says:

            Sorry, I’m not trying to be obtuse.

            Where should the “burden of proof” lie?

            With proving that what an ancient document reports is right? Or with proving what an ancient document reports is wrong?

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Steve, it is probably I who am being dense. Words are often thought of differently by two different minds, and I like to have a good idea of what the other person means by the words or the questions instead of trying to guess what they mean. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t communicate well, but I sometimes have to discover precisely what a person means in order to address it.

            But you most recent form seems very clear: “Where should the “burden of proof” lie? With proving that what an ancient document reports is right? Or with proving what an ancient document reports is wrong?”

            I will respond with the understanding that whether the ‘document reports are right’ does not mean whether the document reports are ‘verbatim’ renditions of Jesus’ words. I think the issue is whether we can trust the accuracy of ancient documents.

            In regard to the words of Jesus, scholars find multiple attestation to be very important: Did more than one independent writer report this saying or action? In the case of the gospels we are aware that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source for their own gospels, so anything they say together would not be independent confirmation because only Mark would be the independent source, whereas John WOULD serve as an independent source.

            Another test is whether a passage is consistent with what we are told about Jesus’ overall method and character. And still another is whether a saying of Jesus is inconvenient to the church at the time they were written down. The gospel writers were not likely to make up sayings that were inconvenient to them, so an enigmatic saying of Jesus is likely genuine.

            One thing that some believers prize highly as assurance of accuracy of Jesus words and actions is the inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that God controlled what was written so there could be no error. This is a tremendously misguided approach based on a mere presupposition.

            An objection some people offer is that the gospels were written decades after Jesus spoke and his words passed from one person to another to another to another so that, like the game of telephone, they cannot be trusted. I understand this distrust of oral tradition, but I don’t think it worked that way in the case of Jesus’ sayings. Instead, Jesus original hearers created church communities and preached about their experiences with Jesus over a period of decades. The preaching was then written down by their listeners, and the early hearers perhaps included Peter (Mark), Matthew, and John. So the gospels are a fair representation of how Jesus was heard by those preachers.

            I know I have only talked about the integrity of Jesus’ saying in the gospels. I have not addressed the historicity of passages in the Old Testament which are quite a different matter altogether.

            Does this address your question? What are your thoughts on the matter?

            Like

          • Steve says:

            With regards to historicity and textual criticism and all that I think are pretty much on the same page. So, do you believe that the starting assumption should be that the Gospels are not historical unless proven otherwise?

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Good question Steve. My starting point is to simply read the texts of the gospels with the awareness that they are written from the memories of Jesus’s earliest followers and that each one speaks from how the teachings and example of Jesus impacted them.

            There is also a factor of emphasizing issues current when the gospels were written, perhaps such as the mid-century exclusion of believers from the synagogues by the Pharisees in Matthew or countering the early development of Gnosticism for John.

            Another thing to consider is the use of genre by the writers (or by Jesus himself). One big one is midrash, a genre most believers today have never heard of or even faintly understand. While midrash was a legitimate genre among the Jews of the time, most people today do not realize what it is, so they accept it as historical when it was never intended to be taken so.

            If you are interested, I wrote a simple article on midrash in the NT.
            https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/midrash-in-the-new-testament/

            Like

          • Chas says:

            This is in response to Steve’s comment on Feb 10 at 10.04 am, in which he asked: ‘but when you say “Those who truly hear God know that they are doing so. His are the only words that can be trusted” it sure sounds a lot like divine inspiration. So how do you reconcile that with your view that the scriptures are 100% human documents?’ My point is exactly that. The Bible is wholly the words of man. However, God has controlled what has remained and been put into the Canon of scripture to fulfill His purposes. To Him it would be a very easy thing to do, even when working within the requirement for men to have free will. In that way, it is not necessary to spend time trying to distinguish what are God’s words in scripture and what are men’s. None are God’s. Nevertheless, He can use scripture to show people who are being inspired by Him whatever He wants them to see. Therefore the inspiration is in the reader, not in the writer. He also inspires people to give His messages to others. Sometimes they are conscious that that is what they are doing, sometimes they give His message without being aware of it. Sometimes the message is given to one person, but it is received by someone else who overhears. God controls all of that. I know when He wants me to do something, so I do it. He has never let me down, hence His words received in this way can be trusted.

            Like

          • Steve says:

            @Chas
            Thanks a lot for the explanation. I appreciate it!

            @Tim
            Yes I am fairly familiar with the concept of midrash; what a rabbit hole that is! It’s been years since I dug into it, but it was interesting to me that the ‘scholarship’ ran the gamut from fundamentalist Christians ‘proving’ that there were no midrashic elements in the gospels all the way to academic Rabbis ‘proving’ that the Gospels were basically midrashic wholecloth, lol. But I’ll definitely read your article.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Steve, I can tell you are indeed familiar with midrash. It is strange to us, but it is a fun lake to swim in. Very useful, too, in understanding parts of the New Testament.

            With your background, my linked article might not be of much value to you.

            Like

  8. AndyP says:

    I can totally identify with this …. The verse “do not be tossed around by every wind of doctrine …” is one that I always remember being quoted. In other words, don’t start questioning what we are teaching you, or consider alternatives ……… So glad I got passed that ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Andy, I agree. ‘Do not be tossed around by every wind of doctrine’ was a big one in my circles too. And I think you have captured the meaning very well. In remembering the passage preached in my life it really meant, ‘Doubt all winds of doctrine except the one I am teaching you because I have it right and those who say differently are being led of the devil (or their own invalid understanding).’

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Vince Tucker says:

    This article describes me perfectly. I was raised in rigid fundamentalism/evangelicalism. I recently left my Southern Baptist church. I feel so liberated. My new church teaches core essentials, but the leaders encourage us to explore. The are deliberate in teaching us HOW to think and not WHAT to think. For the first time in years, I don’t feel like the smartest person in the church. These folks are so smart…and I am not just talking about the pastorate…I am talking about the laity. I am actually learning from my church family and being challenged. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that none of them think they know it all already. If you don’t explore, you will never get any smarter. It is so refreshing, and we do wonderful work in the community. This is an authentic group of Christians. Thanks for writing such an affirming article. God has given me the gift of writing, and I will tell you my brother, I could not have written this any better. It is perfect and Spirit inspired. Keep doing what you do!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Vince, first let me say that I am so glad you have found a good church that meets your needs. And I know what you mean about feeling like the smartest person in the church; like you, I would rather be in a ‘smart’ church where everyone is thinking and exploring and growing than to be the smartest in the church.

      Thank you for your very kind words!

      Like

  10. mandibelle16 says:

    This is very good. I did not occur to me until I was in university taking philosophy classes and English courses with writers who had been Christian, that God wants us to think about and wonder why we believe what we do. He gave us brains to think so that we can discuss with others and work out in our own minds and hearts, why we believe His teachings. Pastors guide us as well as others but You are right in that a certain denominations interpretations of scriptures can throw us off until we explore the truth for ourselves. I think the main belief that Christ was born and died for our sins and rose again so we can have eternal life through faith and grace, is essential to Christianity, but not everything is as black and white. For instance where capital punishment stands, I’ve had pastors and religion teachers where some say God says it’s right and just, while others quoted this verse to me: “Judgement is mine, thus says the Lord,” by which they told me, life and death is for God alone to decide.

    Thanks for this post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “He gave us brains to think so that we can discuss with others and work out in our own minds and hearts, why we believe His teachings.”

      Mandibelle, I agree! But, of course, there are so many believers who say, ‘This is what we have been taught, and we should not question it.’ It is apparent that you take thinking for yourself very seriously. I am glad you do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mandibelle16 says:

        Thank you. It’s a combination I guess of believing what we’re taught and working out the truth in our minds and with others we share similar beliefs. Because just because things are done or were done traditionally, doesn’t make it always right. Have a nice weekend 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Thanks, Mandibelle. I have a better idea of the situation now. And I think you conclusion is a very positive one. We can listen, but then we can also think and investigate. You have a nice weekend, too.

        Like

  11. Chas says:

    Tim, it occurs to me that the most significant sea-changes in the church have come out of people questioning the doctrines imposed by the authorities of the church and that these questions have have mostly come from individual interpretation of biblical passages (e.g. Luther, Calvin, Wesley). Since most of these sea-changes have moved the emerging new splinters of the church forward, compared with the reactionary old, the questioning of former interpretations of scripture should be actively encouraged. That may cause us to feel uncomfortable, maybe even fearful, but we ought to recognize that these earlier rebels often put themselves in danger of real persecution (think of the Inquisition!) and even of losing their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Chas. There are many in the history of the church who began doctrines that have become ‘God’s absolute truth’ to some people today. And a few of those people have had tremendous influence, including those you mention.

      Like

  12. Very insightful. I too struggled with doubt for a number of years. I too worried that I was not in faith. However, once I began peeling back the facade of some of the things I believed, I came into more of a balanced, practical faith. Great post. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks Disciple! I am glad you decided to struggle with your doubt instead of ignoring it, and I am also glad you found a better balanced, practical faith. Many of us here have had similar experiences. It is often difficult but well worth the struggle!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: 5 Great Fears Believers Should Never Have | Jesus Without Baggage

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