One of the hardest things about doubt is admitting it’s there. Our beliefs feel like dominos. If one wobbles, won’t the whole lot come crashing down?
Doubts often start small. Is there any point in praying? Yet one question quickly leads to another. Does God hear? Does God care? And finally, Is God even there?
When such doubts begin to nag, we can envy even our atheist friends. They let their unbelief hang out while we must keep ours hidden. How can you admit to doubt if you’re a Sunday school teacher, a home-group leader, or employed by a Christian organization? How can you speak of unbelief when you’re part of a family of “believers”?
But such doubts are there. And like weeds, they grow when unattended. If we don’t confront them, they’ll soon confront us. So how should we respond? Here are five things to remember.
1. Every Unbeliever Has Faith
Don’t look wistfully at your unbelieving friends as though they don’t have to bother with faith. Everyone—even the most hardened atheist—relies on commitments and foundations she can’t see or prove. We all take for granted the regularity of the universe, the reliability of our senses, and the rationality of our minds. We appeal to ultimate values like goodness, truth, beauty, and love. None of these can be proved scientifically; they’re all matters of faith.
But without Christ, they have no true, beautiful, and loving foundation. If you think you’re having a crisis of faith, you can be sure it’s nothing compared to the crisis of faith that is atheism.
2. Every Believer Has Doubts
Doubt is a part of being human. At times I doubt my marriage, my friends, my reason, my cooking, my writing, and myself. It would be odd if I didn’t doubt God at times. More than this, doubt is an inevitable part of Christian experience. This is why Jesus was continually chiding his disciples: “O you of little faith!” (e.g., Matt. 8:26).
Sometimes I sin, and sometimes I doubt. Neither is good in themselves, but they’re not surprising or unexpected. A doubt-less Christian is as impossible as a sin-less Christian. Sin, in fact, springs from unbelief (John 16:9).
It’s not much of a stretch to rephrase 1 John 1:9 this way: “If we say we have no doubts we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our doubts, God is faithful and just to forgive us our doubts and purify us from all unbelief.”
3. Faith Isn’t Feelings
Feelings go up and down with blood sugar. If I let my feelings take the wheel of my life, they’ll crash my job, my marriage, and my faith many times over. Let’s face it: there is such a thing as natural temperament. Some people are Eeyores, and some are Tiggers. That doesn’t make the Tiggers the heroes of faith, it just makes them lucky in the serotonin lottery.
Add to this the important issue of mental health. Clinical depression, for example, will have a huge effect on a person’s expression of faith. But faith itself is something else (as we’ll see under point 5). Therefore I can be depressed and have faith, even though I don’t feel it.
4. Faith Isn’t Fantasy
We don’t believe Jesus in spite of the evidence; we believe because we’ve been persuaded. Faith doesn’t mean screwing up our stomach muscles and deciding to step boldly into the dark. Faith is more like opening our eyes to the dazzling light that’s already shining.
How do we do that? Well, “faith comes from hearing the message” Romans 10:17 says. And when you consider the 274 verses of Romans that precede this advice, you realize this is a weighty message! If we lack faith, there’s truth we can look to.
Faith isn’t anti-rational or sub-rational. It’s a response to compelling truth.
Faith isn’t anti-rational or sub-rational. It’s a response to compelling truth. And Paul tells us to keep hearing this truth. No matter what doubts you may harbor, keep putting yourself in the way of the good news. Surround yourself with the Scriptures and people of the Scriptures, so you keep soaking in what’s true.
5. Faith Isn’t the Point
Faith isn’t a thing we muster up and push out; faith is simply resting on Jesus. In John 1:12, “receiving Jesus” and “believing in his name” are parallel. They aren’t two hoops to jump through in order to be saved; they’re two descriptions of the same reality. Just as a woman could be said to both “get married” (in the active) and “be made a wife” (in the passive), so faith and receiving Jesus are two descriptions of the same reality.
Since faith is embracing Jesus, in times of doubt I don’t need more “faith,” I need more Jesus. And when I get more Jesus—through preaching, Scripture, sacraments, prayer, community—then, maybe even in spite of myself, my faith is revived.
When we focus on the him of Jesus rather than the what of “faith,” doubts are reduced, relativized, replaced, and even redeemed. It might just be that the path of doubt was God’s way of bringing you to a deeper, richer knowledge of Jesus himself.