Doubting our faith can facilitate one of the most emotionally traumatic events in our lives. Whether it is doubting your salvation, God’s love, the accuracy of Scripture, or the very existence of God, doubt can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being and stability. It can send you into a matrix of depression and, for even the most committed believers, thoughts of hopelessness often leading to suicide.
The most traumatic time of doubt comes when it first knocks at your door. For those of us who have been believers all their lives, we think a “do not disturb” sign was placed there by God and would prevent entry to any militating thoughts of doubt and unbelief. When doubt shows its ugly face, the Hows? and the Why? are in no short supply. “How did this happen to me?” “Why am I doubting?” Fear and disillusionment are flanking doubt with swords drawn. The hardest thing for Christians are the thoughts of abandonment and betrayal. For those who retain some of their belief, they wonder why God would allow this to happen to them. The only thought is a return to their first love, but that road is closed. “Just help me to love and follow you the way I did before,” is the cry. When the answer does not come, they begin to succumb to their life on the road to unbelief or perpetual stagnation. Coping with doubt becomes the only hope.
I am going to try to make an argument here that puts doubt into perspective. No, it is not going to apply to everyone. And no, it will not necessarily kick doubt out of your house. But it may help to see that the What? of doubt is not as important as the Why? of doubt when our goal is to overcome it.
Why do Christians doubt?
I contend that many Christians doubt for no other reason than a passionate desire to grow in the Lord. Did you get that? Many times an enlightened passion to grow in our faith makes doubt appear for the first time. And you know what? This is not a bad thing at all. Let me explain.
When many of us begin our faith journey, we are very young. I became a Christian when I was 4. At least that is the earliest I can remember knowing and trusting in Jesus. My faith was simple and naive from an intellectual standpoint. But it was also very green from an experiential standpoint. Just as I was not critical enough to recognize or work though the challenges of my faith (i.e. Is Christ’s resurrection historically true? Did a snake really talk? Are there factual errors in the Scripture? etc.), neither had I accumulated enough of life’s experiences to harmonize them with the truths of the Scriptures (i.e. How could God allow me to go through pain? Why is God so “hidden”? Why aren’t Christians better people? etc.). Therefore, my faith was present, but my faith capacity was low. It was not hard to have the kind of faith that I had at the time since its threshold was minimal.
Some people just stay at that level. Their faith remains simple, naive, and, might I say, weak. But for most Christians we would hope that their is a passion that ignites within them that ups the ante of their faith. At some point in our lives we desire to leave behind the elementary teachings and thinking and graduate to a more robust faith. Ironically, this is the time when paralyzing doubts begin to surface. But, as I will argue, this is the way God intends it to be.
These doubts come in many forms, but I want to focus on two of the: intellectual based doubts and experiential/emotional based doubts.
Before I briefly speak to each of these, let me provide a picture.
Notice the first person on the left. This is a simple faith that we have as a child. He is happy because his faith is strong. Well, at least it is as strong as it can be from his perspective. He may be a child. Or, more importantly, he may be an older Christian who does not care to grow much. He is content with his level of faith and does not seek or have any reason to strive for more. A lot of “cultural Christians” are this way. The faith that they have is whatever minimal amount that they need. They are all to happy to remain “weak” in faith. Often, they are “luke-warm” if you will. They are not too engaged in living a life radically committed to the Lord. Therefore, study, contemplation, and prayer are not a big part of their hope. Evangelism and reaching others for Christ is not a reality or even much of an aspiration. Sure, they may tell people they are Christians, but they are content with their blind-faith-like witness. Therefore, their faith does not need to be high capacity. The key thing to notice here is that when your faith has such a low threshold, you will rarely doubt as there is not too much to doubt.
The person on the right is much different. While he shares the same level of faith as the person on the left (illustrated by the dark gray), his capacity for faith is much higher (illustrated by the light gray). This person has decided to live a thoroughly converted life. He or she is not content with a blind faith. They want to grow. They want to tell others about Christ. Whatever questions the unbeliever might have, they want to have an answer. They want their understanding of God to increase in every way. They want to harmonize every thought with the Scriptures. In short, they are passionate. However, with this increased desire to grow in their faith, they have a new perspective. They begin to understand how weak their faith really is. Before, they could care less about what the carnivores ate after they got off the Ark. Before, they simply believed Jesus rose from the grave without any need for a critical defense. Before, they believed the Bible was true because that is what mom and dad told them. Before, they had not even read through the entire Bible. Now they are reading it for themselves and finding some things that are disturbing and hard to reconcile with other sources of knowledge. Now, when they watch the news and hear stories of murder, rape, holocaust, and tsunamis, they have to reconcile it with their passion for a sovereign God. For the first time, they begin to approach the throne room of God with questions and a confused faith. As they seriously engage their faith for the first time, they begin to realize how weak their faith really is. They find it wanting. The threshold required for them to live a faith-filled converted life is much higher than it was before. The key thing to notice here is that when your faith threshold increases (a good thing), so, often, does the capacity for doubt.
People react to this in many ways:
1) They begin to think that they never really believed to begin with. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes the cultural Christianity which they adhered to before, was nothing more than a flash in the pan. When challenges come, both experiential and intellectual, they abandon ship.
2) They fall into depression and despair only wishing to return to the “childlike” faith from before. But the sands of time cannot be turned back.
3) They see their doubt as being from the Lord and make any and all necessary adjustments. God is exposing how much they need to grow. As a result, their faith begins to grow significantly.
I was listening to a guy on the radio the other day. He was experiencing significant doubt in his Christian faith. His knowledge was keen and insight very deep. He was not lacking at all in the intellectual aspect of his faith. His faith was a very rational faith. However, he explained how he was in severe depression because he could not “feel” God’s presence at all. He wanted to walk with Jesus, not just think rightly about him. He wanted his faith to be more holistic, but he could not find a way to get his emotions and experience of God to catching up with his intellect. The doubts produced were from his desire to grow. If he did not desire to grow, he would have experienced doubts. This is how his faith looked:
This next person is just the opposite. He has experienced God all his life. His emotional connection to God has been very strong. During prayer, he can feel God’s presence. Every experience in his life is interpreted though the grid of his faith. God’s subjective presence could not be more real. However, he has just begun to challenge himself intellectually. He desires to be a greater witness for Christ and begins to engage in apologetics (defending the faith). He is now studying the theory of evolution, other religions, and the accuracy of Old Testament history for the first time. He finds the study very disturbing for his faith and begins to experience significant doubts. Once again, his faith has not necessarily changed, just his capacity for faith has grown. With the growth in capacity comes the growth in requirements to be content with our faith. He interprets his doubts as from the devil and attempts to go back to the faith he had before. But he can’t. Pandora’s box has already been opened.
In both cases, faith has been challenged. In both cases, doubt has surfaced. In both cases, if the desire to grow was not present, the doubts would not be either. However, in neither case is this evil or, necessarily, from the devil.
We all begin our faith green. Sometimes it is very naive. This is especially the case for those who grew up in the church and accept Christ with a “blind-faith”. At some point, we must graduate from this naive faith to one that is more secure and real. However, we must go through many storms of doubt and confusion to arrive.
I think of the faith of the Apostles’ faith when Christ was here on the earth. Early on it was very naive. The capacity threshold had not risen much and they were ready do anything for Christ, even die with him. Remember the story when Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that Lazarus had died. The disciples told Jesus not to go back to Bethany where Lazarus was since there were people who would stone him (John 10:8). When Christ made clear his purpose to go there anyway, what did the disciples say? “Let’s go with him so that we can die too” (John 10:16). I love it! Childlike faith. They thought their faith capacity was filled to the full. However, what happened when push came to shove? What happened when Jesus was arrested and crucified? They all ran and hid. Life’s experience showed them that their faith was small. Life’s experiences put their doubts on display for all of us to see.
God wants our faith to grow. But he cannot grow it unless our lack of faith is revealed. When our lack of faith is revealed, yes, doubts will surface. But take heart. None of us have perfect faith. All of us have room to grow. Whether the doubt you are experiencing is emotional, experiential, intellectual, or (as is sometimes the case) based on wrong information (bad theology), God exposes our doubt for one purpose: to grow our faith. I know its hard. I know its painful. I know it is often traumatic. And I know you would often rather go back to the “little” faith you had before. But don’t. Work through these doubts. Don’t let them control you. We will overcome so many of them, but don’t think your faith will ever be without some doubt. We have to learn to live with our doubts. But doubts don’t mean we don’t believe. They just reveal the imperfection of our current faith.
Just as we have to learn to live with our sinfulness in thought and deed, we also have to learn to live with how sin affects our faith.