Video: The Dangerous Grace of Doubt

Andrew Zirschky gave this presentation, titled The Dangerous Grace of Doubt, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Andrew’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.


So her name was Alexia but all her friends knew her as Lex, and Lex was really one of the success stories in my ministry when I was in Idaho. The story was, basically, she had a come with a friend during one of those crazy outreach events that we always say draw kids in but never really do and yet her she was. And she found faith in the midst of the ministry. The only person in her family, even her extended family that was Christian at all. She literally came from a place of having no understanding of faith to a vibrant faith. And one of the last things that I did in youth ministry before I l eft to go to seminary, was I had the opportunity to baptize Lex in the Salmon river, the rushing waters of the Salmon river surrounding us, her friends were there and it was just this amazing celebration.

And then 4 years later, while I was doing a project on doubt and disbelief among teenagers and young adults, I sent out questionnaires to people I knew and one those came back from Lex, and she was in the significance place of doubt in her life. And I didn’t un-anticipate that in some ways, I kind of did anticipate it, because she was a pretty bright kid. She in fact had gone off to college a year early to double major in Political Science and Philosophy and some like, okay I know how these goes right, she’s bright kid, she’s been in philosophy class, she’s having some questions.

The Dangerous Grace of Doubt - Andrew Zirschky

But I was kind of shock to look down the questionnaire that she filled out for me, because the list of faith practices that she had was rather staggering for somebody that I thought was in the midst of doubting her faith. She was going to church weekly as a college student, like involved in the congregation going to potlucks even. I mean that takes a lot of faith right there, right?

She was involved in devotional Bible reading daily, she was involved in a women’s Bible study on campus, she was at a Christian college, she went to chapel 3 times a week, she was volunteering at a soup kitchen, she had, like, this enormous body of faith practices, and she was also in this place of significant doubt. And so I’m like, of course, she has this intellectual doubts to these faith practices that she’s undertaking. I know what’s going on here, so I called her up.

Having an interview with her is part of the research project and I was shocked what I found. I was shocked what she said to me, because she said actually, not real, nothing came up in Philosophy class at all. It was in the midst of praying and the midst of going to church and the midst of going the chapel and Bible study and all of this things, she said “all of those things that you think that my practices of faith, are actually my practices of doubt, because every time I do them, every time I pray, every time I go to bible study, every time I open the scripture and I don’t feel the presence of God, and the peace of God that I have been told I should, it reminds me again that God is not there.”

I was shocked. Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous in the case of Lex. But maybe doubt can only be a grace. A grace as well, that can do something to our faith, other than untangle it.

See, doubt happens. We know that doubt happens; this is clear in all the research that’s done. In fact, Sticky Faith, the research that was done at Fuller, found that 70% of conservative evangelical kids who are still in youth group as juniors and seniors – and you know it’s a subset right there, right? – 70% of those kids said we have significant doubts about our faith. 70% of them, and yet few of them had ever talked to anybody about their faith. In fact, I think the statistics are somewhere in the low single digits among the number of these students that have actually talked to anyone about the faith that they had.

Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous… But maybe doubt can only be a grace.

Doubt happens and it can be dangerous, but not only does doubt happen to this kids, we know that it happens beyond that as well. In fact, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who wrote Emerging Adulthood, found that really anyone in their early- to mid- to late- 20’s all the way along there, had come through or was in the process of some kind of searching out questioning of their faith, even those that returned to their kind of conservative roots, he said they went through this process of questioning and doubting.

Doubt can be dangerous, it happens all the time and yet Douglas John Hall, who I think says it really well, next slide, Douglas John Hall says ‘Hey one of the things that happens in the church that we do so well is we don’t doubt well, but we suppress doubt very, very well.’ We’re in fact experts at expelling doubt and suppressing it.

Doubt is toxic, it can be dangerous, but not when it arises. Doubt is toxic, we find, when its actually, as Kara Powell says, not expressed in a caring and loving environment. When doubt has to be internalized and can not be externalized in a community that understands the process of doubting, what it involves, what it feels like, then doubt becomes dangerous, then doubt ultimately becomes toxic. But maybe doubt isn’t just dangerous maybe it can be a grace as well?

Part of our problem, I think, that we encountered with Lex along the way is that we didn’t understand doubt well. We don’t understand doubt well in the church.  We have all this research we’ve done on the nature of faith, if you’ve been to seminary along the way you’ve probably read Fowler’s “Stages of Faith“. We talk about the different patterns and parts to faith. We have theology of faith.

But for the most part, the church has not spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of doubt, or what doubt feels like, or how doubt arises, or how doubt is resolved, or how doubt and faith actually fit together. You’ve probably said somewhere along the way ‘oh yeah doubt isn’t opposed to faith, it’s a part of it.’ But we often don’t understand how that works. We kind of say ‘yeah. You know it’s there, it happens.’

We haven’t understood that well and one of the things we haven’t understood most especially about doubt that it’s culturally conditioned. The historical period in which you doubt and the community within which you doubt, changes the nature of the kinds of doubt that you have.

So the Sociologist Peter Burger tells us really in the 15th century and 1500’s, 1600’s run around there it was really impossible in Europe to doubt the existing of God. There are of course a few people around that did, but for the most part, it was impossible to doubt God’s existence because everyone around you believed in God. And he calls it this sacred canopy of sorts, that kind of flowed all over European society, this sacred canopy in which, when people got sick or when something good happen, they all had this kind of common explanationable, you know devils, angels, or demons, or God was involved in some former fashion.

There was this of idea of magic that over took the 15th century, European culture as well. This sacred canopy that was common explanation for faith, for life. There wasn’t a lot of room for religious doubt. In fact, if the people did doubt during this time, says Burger, what they often doubted was if God loved them or not.

We are in a different epic, all together. In fact, moral philosopher Charles Taylor says this,

“We’ve moved from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace…. We cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.”

And what he means by this idea of living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty – it’s almost like our faith is growing in the midst of our cultural soil in which doubt and uncertainty is embedded into our experience. Not just in terms of religious things, but in terms of everything. We are in constant doubt about what news is real and what news is fake? I mean, open up news browsers right now, we don’t know what to believe right. We live our faith in this epic, not of a sacred canopy where we all agreed, but in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.

Kids like Lex, don’t need a copy of “The Case For Christ“. Maybe along the way somewhere they do, that’s kind of our normal ‘Hey you’re doubting? Let me handle this, let me figure out, here’s the pill to take.” But when we don’t understand well, actually the doubting experience, we end up giving remedies that are the wrong remedy, that don’t take to an account the complex nature of the cultural landscape on which we live and the very individualize experience of doubt that we have.

There is a guy in the 16th century, named Saint John of the Cross, but did something very unique that I think we have to reclaim. He understood that doubt is a dangerous grace. Not just that doubt was dangerous, but maybe it could be a grace but he put those together he understood that the doubt was a dangerous grace, and here what’s interesting about what he did. He was a monk and he watched these young monks coming into the monastery and he just was interested on their development along the way, because he started to notice was that 2 or 3 years into their journey of prayer and work and devotion, some of this young monks will get to a place where they could no longer feel God. When they said ‘Wait a second, I’m praying and I’m worshiping and I’m working and I felt like God has turned away from me, God turned back on me.

And he saw this young monks responding in such a way, that he was shocked and concerned, many of them left the monastery all together and went into secular jobs. And some of them even left and committed suicide, because they had come to the conclusion that God has decided that they were reprobate. That God has decided that they were not to be saved. And so they literally left the monastery, there is no hope in my life, I pray, I feel nothing, God is not there and so therefore, I might as well just end my life now.

And John said “wait a second, there is another way to interpret what’s happening here.” This period of doubt and unfeeling and all of this things that you are experiencing don’t necessarily mean that you have done something wrong or that God is turned away at all, but in fact his explanation was this; you can’t feel God, because God has taken away the feeling of God from you. And the reason that God has taken away the feeling of God from you is that you’ve learned to love the feeling of God, rather than God in God’s self.

He said it’s a dangerous grace. You are being visited upon by the work of God to withdraw God’s presence to you, to bring you into this period of questioning and doubting because you’ve learned to love the feeling of God and God wants you to learn to love God in God’s self. But, we need an exegete, a guide, someone to walk us thru that dangerous grace, because it can go one of two ways: it can either go to a place where we loose of faith altogether or in a case of some of his young monks losing their lives, or we can be guided well to the experience of doubt by someone who is a patient guide, who understands what we might be experiencing and feeling and going through and weaves that into a place where the grace of this dangerous grace truly comes out and forms our faith and who we are.

A dangerous grace. I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt, of trying to understand well what doubt feels like, of all the diversity of the experience of doubt in our culture, and yet we know some of our students are experiencing it, so many of us are as well because our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty. So instead of responding as exegetes and guides, which I think we have to learn to do…

I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt…

Some of the research I did a research I did at Princeton found that really there are two main ways tend to respond to doubt in the church. And the first one is kind of a pushing away response. We see this mostly in more conservative churches, evangelical churches, but not all the time. There’s kind of this “you know doubt’s ok, but you know your significantly questioning your faith… and maybe you just need to take that copy of “Case for Christ”… and like maybe step off the worship team for a while… and maybe not be on the student council team anymore… and maybe take some time away…” -almost like doubt is contagious. And we kind of like want to quarantine you over here because we don’t want  doubt to kind of seep into the rest of the student ministry. And so we saw that coming up in some of the research that we did, as opposed to saying “Hey we need to be patient guides, and exegetes of doubt, and walk with kids individually, this kind of pushing away response.

But the second thing we saw, in more of mainline, liberal churches, was kind of this embrace response.It’s like “Oh man, everybody down, is everybody down is that okay, like I’ve doubted, he’s doubted, she’s doubted a whole lot. Just come have some pie with us in the fellowship hall, we will get you some coffee, it will be okay.”

And next thing you know you have kids that are sitting there with their piece of coffee cake on Sunday mornings, amidst the community that says that they all doubt, but guess what they’re not talking about – they are not talking about their doubt they’re just talking about the pie and the kind of “everybody’s okay, but we’re not going to talk about it either.”

And what we found actually is that both of those responses led to this, kids doubting alone. Whether it’s was the push away response or the embrace response, teenagers largely were spending their time, whether in main line churches or evangelical churches, they were doubting alone, rather than having patient guides and exegetes of the experience of doubt in our own culture in time. They ended up doubting alone.

I think there is a third response. And I think it’s the biblical response, that the response to take a look at this afternoon in the workshops that I’m going to do. What does it look like to embrace those who doubt in the midst of the community? What does it look like to have a responsive community that understands the nature of doubt and the diversity with which young people experience it? Because sometimes it’s very intellectual and sometimes very experiential ,and sometimes it’s very situational, it can change. And how do we actually walk with young people? And how do we walk with one another thru this experiences of doubt?

I love this painting. You know what it is, it’s Doubting Thomas, right? The painter here is literally like putting his finger in the side of Jesus, it’s almost like your 12 year olds were like painting this “Oh yeah Jesus really got this finger like stuck in the side and really like looking at the wounds.”

But the most amazing part of this painting I think is you’ve got this two people looking on… Peter and John, the ways that we have always looked at Peter and John, there they are. And they are interested as well, they want to see, “Yeah what’s going on here? Is Jesus real?”

One thing we recognize when we read the story of Doubting Thomas, well it’s not the Thomas doubted, you know Thomas he doubted, but one of the things we don’t recognize, is that he doubted in the midst of the community of Christ. He doubts and then it says, the very next week, he was still there, and the doors were locked. There wasn’t a pushing away, it wasn’t just like “you know, hey you can hangout and not talk about this.” But in fact, the community together embraced the doubt he had, because doubt is a dangerous grace. It is a grace that can be visiting about us by God and it needs someone to guide it along and it forms our faith rather than deforms it.

I’m giving eight things these afternoon, help you figure out how you and your context, in your cultural situation, might become a community that embraces young people as they go through the dangerous grace of doubt. Thanks.

About the Author: Andrew Zirschky

Andrew ZirschkyAndrew holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He oversees the development of Center for Youth Ministry Training’s academic program and also teaches many of their youth ministry courses offered through Memphis Theological Seminary. He has 20 years of ministry experience as a youth and college minister at churches in Idaho, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He has also been named a Timothy Scholar by the United Methodist Foundation for Evangelism based upon his research emphasis in youth and young adult ministry.