The Grace of Self-Doubt

by Graham Edwards.

When I was a child in a church service, I remember one preacher holding up two pictures for us to look at, a picture of the building we were in and a picture of a group of people. “Now,” he said, “which one of these is the church?” after a bit of back and forth we decided that the picture of the people was the church.  “That’s right,” he exclaimed, “the people are the church,” and then with a remarkably booming voice, “we are the church!”   I encountered that same phrase when I was doing my own research, I asked a group of people “what is the church?”  and after a slight thoughtful pause, one member said, “well … we are the church!”   I don’t disagree with the notion that church is primarily about people and not buildings, but as I reflect, I find the phrase “we are the church” riddled with gaps.

The “gaps” I’m talking about are the kind that Wolfgang Iser (1978) argues exist when we read a piece of literature.  He claims that texts are not all-sufficient, because as we read, there are unwritten implications, blanks or gaps that we have to bridge.  As I read (or hear) the phrase “we are the church” I find that the gaps take the form of questions.  “We”- who do we mean?  Those we are with now?  Those who are like us?  Those who agree with us?  Those of different ethnicity, or sexuality, or gender?  “Are” – do we mean that we are church at this moment?  Are there times when our actions or words mean we are not church?  How do we judge when we are and when we are not church? “The” – do we mean we are part of a larger whole, or is our local church really where it begins and ends? “Church” – what do we think claiming to be church demands of us? Merely turning up on a Sunday? Or something more?  We probably won’t agree on the answers to all these questions, some may be contentious and some potentially divisive.  In the Methodist church there are other issues we are considering – the nature of ministry, supervision, marriage and relationships and so on, these too may be difficult for us to agree upon.

Our disagreements are not simply intellectual opinions but are often deeply rooted in our lived experience which provides us with a different hermeneutic, a different starting point for our reflections on the life of faith.  Yet we know that we are not Christians in isolation, we learn from each other and our different experiences, which help to make “transparent the truth for which we seek” (Farley, 2002, p. 67).   With all that in mind, what, then, do we do?  Perhaps we need the grace of self-doubt.  Margaret Farley (p. 68) calls this “one of the least recognised gifts of the Spirit”. It is not about doubting our value before God and spiralling into hopelessness and despair. She writes:

“This is not a grace for calling into question every fundamental conviction we have achieved … it allows us to listen to the experience of others, take seriously reasons that are alternate to our own [and] rethink our own last word” (p. 69).

This grace calls us to see differently, to understand the position of others, and face the sometimes-uncomfortable truth that our position – on whatever issue we reflect on – may not be the end of the debate.   Fundamentally, I think, the grace of self-doubt bids us to see again that the grace of God is not only ours, it is also spread across the world, indeed as Paul Lakeland (2012, p. 17) notes there is “a worldly grace that the church does not control or even know”.   The grace of self-doubt is for those who struggle to make sense of the world and the challenges of faith in an ever-changing context.  It allows us to begin to work with the complexity of living in a church where people sometimes hold diametrically opposed positions, by asking each of us – in grace – to consider whether our last claim is all there is to say.  In doing this, we may find new ways to value each other and honour the image of God within each of us.   Without this grace, we may miss our part in God’s great work.

“We are the church” – yes, we are, all of us, when we agree and when we do not, so perhaps we need the grace of self-doubt as we live our faith in the church and in the world.

Farley, M. A. (2002). Ethics, Ecclesiology, and the Grace of Self Doubt. In J. J. Walter, T. E. O’Connell, & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), A Call to Fidelity (pp. 55 – 76). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Iser, W. (1978). The Act of Reading. Baltimore: John Hopkins.

Lakeland, P. (2012). Reflections on the Grace of Self-Doubt. In D. M. Doyle, T. J. Furry, & P. D. Bazzell (Eds.), Ecclesiology and Exclusion (pp. 13 -17). New York: Orbis.

3 thoughts on “The Grace of Self-Doubt”

  1. Thank you for this! I found that it really spoke to me. I’ve been doing some thinking recently, about Paul and his writing about food sacrificed to idols. And what strikes me about that, which this article beautifully expresses also, is that he calls on those who feel ‘strong’ in their faith to give up the right to be right. That is, they must follow their own consciences, but they must also be sensitive to the fact that others hold, also in conscience, a very different position. Whether it’s about the grace to doubt that we’re always right, or the grace to recognise that it might not matter too much whether we’re right or wrong, it’s a hard but important thing to work on.


  2. We can’t all be right, but we could all be wrong!
    Best to stand, not on our own beliefs, but on the promises of God.


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