Dealing With Doubt: What We Can Learn From Famous Doubters

Collage by Lizzy Hauser

I’d love to say that I never doubt, but that wouldn’t be true. All too often, I find myself questioning aspects of my faith and doubting that God could ever truly love me just as I am. When I feel like I’ve let God down by being impatient with my family, acting selfishly, or thinking negatively about others, I feel guilty and wonder how God could still care for me when I fail so many times. 

When we look to the so-called giants of Christianity for reassurance, it’s easy to think that they must have superhuman powers of trust and confidence. Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, even those we admire for their holiness have had their own struggles.

Here are some holy people who have battled their way through doubts, and the lessons we can take away them.

Saint Thomas

The first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas wasn’t present and definitely wasn’t convinced by the other disciples’ assurances that they really had seen Jesus. He declared that unless he’d seen with his own eyes, and even put his hand into the wound on Jesus’ side, he wouldn’t believe. 

I must admit, I’ve always had sympathy for Saint Thomas. I have a hard time taking things totally on trust without seeing the evidence — maybe you do, too. But I’m comforted that Jesus didn’t condemn Thomas for his attitude and allowed him to touch his wounds as he’d wanted. Rather than condemning us for our need to see before we believe, Jesus seeks to engage us and draw us closer. 

RELATED: How Do You Overcome Doubt? 

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most revered saints, and her writings on faith are renowned worldwide. And yet, she didn’t have an easy life. Her mother died when Thérèse was just 4, and her much-loved older sister entered a convent, leaving Thérèse lonely and without the love and spiritual support of her family. She suffered from depression and anxiety, especially in her later years when tuberculosis began to take a serious toll on her health. 

Nevertheless, Saint Thérèse continued to practice a routine of prayer, study, and receiving the Sacraments, trusting in God’s faithfulness rather than her own convictions. When I’m doubting and feeling far from God, keeping a routine of worship and prayer acts as a framework for my faith. Even though I might not feel like spending time in prayer or worship, trying to stick to a daily practice reminds me of God’s love, and I often find myself inspired and refreshed afterward.

Saint Teresa of Ávila

Another saint who suffered from feelings of doubt was Saint Teresa of Ávila. Following her mother’s death when Teresa was 11 years old, she began to drift away from her faith and her childhood dream of becoming a nun. She loved socializing, and wrestled with her doubts about the idea of a religious vocation. In time, she rediscovered her vocation and entered a convent. Like many Christians, Saint Teresa had a spiritual adviser – Saint Peter of Alcantara, who guided her walk of faith and supported her.

Similarly, I’ve found the support of my church pastors invaluable when I’ve been facing big decisions such as whether to relocate to a totally new city. They listen to my thoughts and feelings, offer me wise advice, pray with me, and support me as I reach my decision.

RELATED: Lessons from St. Teresa: How to Be the Eyes, Hands, and Feet of Christ

Thomas Merton

Monk and theologian Thomas Merton firmly believed that you couldn’t really have faith without first experiencing doubt: 

We too often forget that faith is a matter of questioning and struggle before it becomes one of certitude and peace,” he said.

Merton believed that we have to “doubt and reject everything” before beginning to believe, and that after we’ve come to faith, that faith continues to be tested and purified throughout our lives.

I’ve found this a great comfort when I find myself questioning and doubting. Merton’s words remind me that I’m not alone in my doubting, and his writings, along with those of other devout Christians who’ve struggled with doubt, help me to clarify my own thinking and work through my own doubts. I used to feel guilty when I doubted, thinking that I was falling away from God and sinning by not having enough faith. That guilt was lifted by Merton’s view that questioning what we believe is an essential step in coming to a stronger and deeper faith

Pope Francis

Even Pope Francis has admitted to having doubts, but he believes that seeing them as a path to deepening our faith is the best way to overcome them: 

“We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper,he said. “One who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”

So when I begin to have doubts and questions, rather than try to ignore them or view them as a weakness, I’m now working to use them to get closer to God and deepen my faith. I bring my doubts to God in prayer, read books or listen to podcasts about faith, and strive to be open to different ways of thinking that challenge my past certainties.

Everyone experiences doubts, and my own doubting isn’t necessarily a sign that my faith is failing or that I’m being sinful by not trusting God. It’s what I do with my doubts that matters.

Originally published October 23, 2019.