Self-Doubt as a Spiritual Virtue

Two years ago I wrote a piece about St. Thomas entitled In Defense of Doubt. In it, I praised St. Thomas for facing his doubts and said that honest doubt can be a good thing. In light of current proposals to change the wording of the last clause of the “Our Father,” I should like to elaborate further on the value of doubt.

The last clause states, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” and the thinking goes that this reveals an incorrect way of thinking of God because he would never lead us into temptation. There is the linguistic side of the argument for keeping the traditional formula, e.g., what the Greek means, why it works, etc., but there is another aspect, too. I read it as asking God not to let me be too sure of myself and to help me to doubt myself.

There is a good book on the spiritual life entitled The Spiritual Combat. (St. Francis de Sales called it “the golden book,” read from it every day, and recommended it to everyone.) The very first lesson it gives for our spiritual life is: distrust yourself. Now, I know this goes against all modern notions. We are forever telling others (and ourselves) “Trust yourself” and “Believe in yourself,” which, if you think about it, are other ways of saying, “I know best.” This usually leads to a whole lot of trouble. Just ask Eve.

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It seems to me that what this world needs—and what we as individuals need—is much less self-confidence and a lot more self-doubt. How many times have we said, “I should have known better”? We did know better, but we trusted ourselves too much. How many sins have been committed because a person trusted himself to look at a website (just for a minute), give his judgment (because he “knew” without checking), or be in questionable company (just being a “friend”)? How many drunk drivers would say, “I know when I’ve had enough”? How many drug addicts trusted themselves to try some drug “just once”? This is especially true in areas of chastity, about which St. Philip Neri said, “It is the coward that flees who wins.”

One of the best descriptions of the devil I’ve ever heard is “someone who comes along when I’m very tired and suggests something very reasonable that I know I shouldn’t do.” Every time I’ve ignored this I’ve ended up in the confessional. But we know best, don’t we? We’ve argued, we’ve questioned, and we’ve rationalized. As Jane Austen said, “Where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?” Blessed is the person who has such self-doubt.

The “spirit of Vatican II” could roughly be described as a breezy self-confidence that said, “now we know better.” There was a “new Pentecost,” as though the first one was insufficient. New liturgical forms, church architecture, religious formation, and catechesis were all tainted with the notion that what had happened prior to 1964 had been done in the dark and that now the lights would be turned on. Too much light blinds a person. “New” and “different” were “good” almost by definition because to doubt was to be against the “spirit.” Some liturgists and clerics have had the visceral reaction to the Tridentine Mass and Gregorian chant that an IRA member would have had to the Royal family. (As the joke runs: What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.) There’s no inkling that hundreds of years of tradition built upon by masters of art, architecture, and music may have some merit.

We run into this self-confidence as well with those who are “Catholic, but.” Senator Kirstin Gillibrand exhibited this temerity in her recent comments on the Church’s teachings on anything conflicting with getting the Democratic nomination (e.g., abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.). “They’re not supported by the Gospel or the Bible in any way … and I go to two Bible studies a week,” she said. It is true that the argument from authority is the weakest argument, but that’s not what is in question with Senator Gillibrand and others of her persuasion. The question is: whose authority do you accept? Whose do you doubt? Senator Gillibrand’s authority rests on her 52 years and her two Bible studies a week. (I suppose she would also add her sex.)

The Church, on the other hand, has 2,000 years of experience, theology, Scripture study, philosophy, as well as the thought of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Henry Newman, and St. John Paul II (and we can add St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa for gender’s sake). Would it be too much for some people to ask, “Don’t you think we had better give some credit to the other side?” Do these people really think that any of these issues are new? Or, that sex was somehow invented by graduate students at Cal Berkley in 1960? There’s no hint of deference and no thought that anyone has thought about this before. There’s no self-doubt. Why pray “lead us not into temptation” when for some of these people there is no temptation? They have had experience; they know.

Imagine how many scandals in the Church could have been avoided if someone had said: “This is against reason, against prudence, and against Church teaching. Doubt yourself. Stop. End of discussion.”

This hubris also explains much of the anger on the pro-abortion and pro-LGBT side. Who throws more tantrums: the obedient child or the self-willed one? The hardest part of the cure for any sin or addiction is to say, “I am wrong.” And if it takes humility to say, “I am wrong,” it takes even more to say, “I have been wrong.” Both grace and sin have a compound effect in strength.

Self-doubt is not always humility, but it’s a good first step. The last clause of the Our Father is a plea for humility. Any choice is a temptation and, in that sense, when God offers us a choice he “leads us into temptation.” We would be much better off if we asked not to be led there and prayed for more self-doubt.


  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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