I deal with many people doubting their faith. To be more specific, these are Christians going through some sort of faith crisis where they no longer believe with the simplicity that once characterized their belief. This is becoming more common in a world where sheltered or isolated beliefs are impractical and antiquated. However, most of us really don’t know how to deal with doubt. We don’t know how to deal with it when it comes to our own doubts, much less other people’s.
At the risk of presenting a bit of a caricature, let me give some tongue-in-cheek ways that some different theological systems deal with Christians going through such a crisis of faith:
Baptists: They are still saved, no matter where their doubts take them. They just need renewed assurance.
Calvinists: They were never saved to begin with. They need to hear the gospel.
Charismatics: They are demon possessed. They need an exorcism.
Arminians: They are in the process of losing their salvation. They need to stop sinning or be argued back into the faith.
I don’t know if I agree or (necessarily) disagree with any of these options. I certainly disagree that we can fit these situations into a nice, neat package for everyone in the middle of this crisis. Nevertheless, here is some general counsel for those seeking to help loved ones through this crisis in a positive way.
1. Have mercy on them.
Jude 22 is quite neglected. It says for us to “have mercy on some who are doubting.” If we don’t approach people with genuine mercy and love, we cannot expect to be Christ for them in what might very well be the biggest struggle that they have ever been through. This time is truly traumatic for the doubting. If you have never been through it, you will have an extremely hard time understanding. In fact, we default to judge and condemn those who are doubting. When they endure such treatment from the community of faith, it intensifies and prolongs the problem. You would not believe how many Christians who are going through this crisis and seriously considering suicide. From their perspective, their entire worldview is collapsing beneath them.
I won’t get too much into the story, but I have been through this crisis at the deepest level. It nearly killed me. Simply to have someone there having mercy on me, not waiting for the other shoe to drop, but fully supporting me in love, was so important. Those in doubt need to know that you are not ever going to leave or forsake them. That is being Christ to them (Heb. 13:5). Be as understanding as you can even if you have not been through this.
2. Realize that these are often the birth pangs of deepened faith.
I almost put “these are the birth pangs of true faith,” but that is saying too much. You see, when we are children, we receive faith from our parents in a mediated way. This does not mean that this faith is false. But, for the most part, it is untested. Trials, temptations, and the suffering of life tests our faith (Job; Rom. 5:3-4; Luke 8:5-15; Jam. 1:3).
For those of us with children who are going through this, we cannot panic . . . please don’t panic. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to watch your child (or friends or other loved ones) go through this. Just like when your child is hurt, you want so much to vicariously take their pain. When our children are going through this faith crisis, we also want God to shift the burden to our shoulders. We can bear this burden with them, but we cannot (and should not want to) bear this burden for them. Our faith must be tested if it is to grow. Periodic faith struggles are the norm of the Christian life. When I am at my best, I worry most for those who have never been through any faith crisis. To me, this normally means that they don’t take their faith too seriously. But for those who do take their faith seriously, the crisis is sure to come.
3. Be ready but don’t manufacture answers.
The last thing the doubting need are cliché answers. In fact, these will almost always make the crisis worse. People normally go through these trials because they are thinking deeply about their faith. They are critically examining it, possibly for the first time. Sound-bite answers only reinforce a naive picture of the faith. People in the crisis have a new ability to tell if you are being fake, even when you don’t know it yourself.
Be ready. Be honest about your faith. Enter into the crisis with them and find answers together.
I remember when my mother had a ruptured brain aneurysm at age 56. This came just on the heels of my sister’s death. We were all at the hospital groping for hope and wondering why God was attacking us (as we saw it) in such a way. My little sister was in the deepest crisis of us all. When my cousin came in to offer spiritual support, he said, “While the pain you are going through is bad, you have to remember that God lost his own son.” My sister would have none of it. She responded without hesitation, “Yeah, but at least he got his son back after three days.” Now, my cousin could have stuck to his guns and continued to promote the validity of his wisdom. He did not. He joined with my sister and said, “By God, I never thought of that.” He then remained silent. That meant a lot. It meant that he was not just trying to offer advice that he had never thought through himself, but that he was willing to shoulder the burden that unexpected difficulties bring to our faith.
4. Help them to focus on the things that make or break their faith.
It could be something as small as someone at school ridiculing them for believing that a donkey talked, discovering an apparent discrepancy in what Christ said in Matthew compared to Mark, or hearing a science class presentation on the theory of evolution. However, for those who have never been prepared for this crisis, they cannot discriminate between essentials and non-essentials. For many, everything is essential. Their theology is a house of cards. Once one card falls, no matter how small, the entire house comes tumbling down.
We can do much to lessen the effects of this crisis if we can help those going through it gain some perspective. Someone may be questioning the legitimacy of his belief in the rapture, whether to include the Apocrypha in the canon, whether hell is eternal, whether God changes his mind, whether Christ can work through other religions, or the inerrancy of Scripture. Whether the crisis of faith is brought about due to intellectual or emotional reasons, start by encouraging doubters to consider core issues of the faith and then move out from there. I think the primary core issue of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Christ. All dominoes fall from there. It is also the easiest to rest our intellectual head on. I have yet to meet someone who was going through a prolonged crisis of faith who was well established in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.
5. Encourage them to live according to the faith they still have.
Doubt is not unbelief. Doubt is the bridge that connects our current faith to perfect faith. That bridge will stand until death or Christ returns. However, those who are going through a faith crisis don’t naturally see things this way. Once doubt come in and infects their life on a conscious level, they interpret it as outright unbelief. They don’t know how else to process it. They think that they are on an inevitable road to complete unbelief.
Unfortunately, because they think this way and many Christians treat them as if they had a plague, they begin to immediately live as unbelievers. If sin were not the instigating problem before, it definitely becomes the chronic problem now. It is important for those who are struggling with doubt to not let their doubt influence their lives so that they start living as if they are unbelievers. Encourage doubters to continue to live as Christians, even if they don’t feel like one anymore.
6. Realize there is no timetable.
Each person is unique. Just like with depression, the length of this faith crisis has no timetable. For some people, due to personality and life circumstances, their crisis will last a very long time. The more contemplative (and compulsive) might suffer with this intermittently for their entire lives. I know that it is a long time to teeter on the edge of unbelief, but this is sometimes God’s method.
Who knows how long Job endured his faith-defining crisis, but one thing is for sure: it was not over quickly. So be patient. Join with the doubting in prayer for as long as it takes. Be kind, knowing that such problems are not uncommon to man.
7. Help people work through their sin.
I intentionally saved this one for last. Often this is the first place Christians go with a loved one in crisis. I think it helps us to mentally put doubt into a discernible box. It also helps us to find a quick solution. “Oh, you are doubting your faith. Okay, then quit sinning. Next!” Sometimes the problem is this easy. Personal sin is a faith drainer. Before long disobedience to God takes a significant toll on our faith.
However, keep in mind that we’re all sinners, and sin is usually deliberate. Therefore, we are all in deliberate sin. But God deals with us in different ways. Some sins, in order to stay in them, take a toll on our mind and worldview as we attempt to justify them. For example, a Christian living in homosexuality is one thing. This is a definite sin and will take its toll in many ways. But a Christian living in homosexuality and trying to justify this biblically another thing. The toll here is not only moral, social, and physical, but it also corrupts the mind. The mental task of trying to re-interpret the Bible will not remain isolated to this incident. Sooner or later, the mental paradigm that you set up to make your sin viable will corrupt everything else.
In short, if there is something that we know we are supposed to be doing, and we are not doing it, doubt will soon spread, and the crisis of faith will be hard to overcome. We need to gently ask these type of questions when the time is right. Simply accusing people of some deep-rooted personal sin right from the gun can be judgmental and embarrassing. Ask if there is any sin that might be causing this. If they say no, and you cannot identify anything that is sure to be the cause, then don’t push this issue.
Assume the Best
Though a Calvinist, I am not interested in the question, “Was this person ever really saved to begin with?” It is an important theological question but does not have any practical relevance when dealing with the doubting. I treat those who confess the faith as believers and work from there. I also treat this as if this person can truly lose his or her faith. After all, there is a faith that does not save, and we need to hold this out as a real option. We may eventually find out that this person was not a believer, but we should cross that bridge when it becomes evident to all parties.
I am a perpetual doubter learning to live with it. I don’t rejoice in my doubt and don’t wish it upon anyone else. However, I have come to realize that it almost always makes my faith stronger in the end, so long as I am not apathetic. This perspective can help us deal with others in their doubts.