Tackling Doubt

Doubt is not an uncommon visitor in the life of the Christian. Many of us strive so hard to fit the wisdom and knowledge of God into our heads, while others crusade to unite every conceivable scientific and philosophical exploration with the claims of Scripture. Some may be simply stricken with grief or confusion over the evil and suffering in the world. Whatever the case, most Christians will probably wrestle at least once in their lives with colossal questions about their faith.

These are not easy chapters of life. Doubt forces one to grapple with the most fundamental questions of existence and often feels like a battle between the head and the heart. It can be a time in which music is distracting, companionship is annoying, and recreation is downright asphyxiating—you’d rather be spending your time “sorting things out” than pursuing even the simplest pleasures in life. Above all, a season of doubt can make your heart either cold towards God and the glory of His Gospel, or confident in His goodness and provision even in the hour of questions.

1. Whom are you fearing? Friends who jab at Christianity now and then? Congenial academics who gently make light of critical doctrines? Family members who express hostility to your faith? Acquaintances with whom you desire common ground? That anonymous troller on the comments section? This list is far from exclusive and can apply to many interpersonal relationships. At the root of them all, however, lies the fear of man. That troller seems so trigger-happy confident. These friends make me feel stupid. This philosophy professor has researched and published so much, and I cannot even being to approach such an academic heavyweight. These acquaintances will never get to know me better if I can’t water down my faith a bit. The narcotic allure of universal acceptance clouds the desire to be pure in God’s sight. From my personal experience, I have found the fear of man to be the instigating factor in every season of doubt.     

2. What are you fearing? An “oops” moment in an evangelistic encounter? How in the world you’re ever going to explain your beliefs about hell or the problem of evil or the inerrancy of Scripture? How your words will be perceived? The fear of insufficiency can be just as crippling as the fear of man. When presenting the Gospel, you suddenly feel as if you are the face of Christianity, that any answer you present is going to forever shape this person’s impression of our entire faith, that one word choice over another is the difference between heaven and hell. These are legitimate concerns, and we should always consider them when preparing to defend our faith. But if we believe the Holy Spirit is at work, and that regeneration is in His hands, then we should have confidence knowing that He will use us according to His good pleasure.

3. Why is God allowing this season of doubt? God is not frivolous. He has a purpose for everything, even this perplexing chapter of life. His will is for your sanctification. After several seasons of doubt over the past few years, I have found at least three blessings even from such spiritual and intellectual discomfort.

  • First, I may more clearly understand the position of the lost. We cannot compassionately proclaim the Gospel in Muslim territory, for instance, until we understand how excruciatingly difficult it will be for every new believer to question and ultimately reject his or her upbringing. Having been through a similar period of questioning everything I believe in, I may more fully understand the agony of their decision, though without compromising in the truth.
  • Secondly, I may identify with and encourage other Christians who struggle in their walk with God. I know several fellow believers who have been a tremendous encouragement to me in my seasons of doubt, because they too have been there. Ultimately, Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2), and only in the LORD may we place our final trust (Micah 7:5-7). But Scripture also bids us to “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). Doubt likes to convince the Christian that he is alone in his struggle, while in reality veterans of these struggles abound for his edification.
  • Finally, God uses seasons of doubt that you may grow in Him. I never enjoyed those miserable chapters of struggle. But I am thankful for them, because through them God has again and again given me a deeper understanding of His attributes and a stronger sense of His presence than I ever had before. The best way to confront doubt head-on is with prayer, Scripture, and worship. A few Biblically grounded books about the issues in question are also extremely helpful. You may not be feeling spiritually vibrant, but neither will you be wasting your opportunity to explore the vast riches of God’s wisdom (Rom. 11:33).

4.  Is the other grass actually greener? This is a more pragmatic question I ask myself from time to time. The seductiveness of intellectual temptation knows no bounds; everything all seems so much easier on the other side. If I’m experiencing intellectual temptation, I have to force myself to answer this question: Is it? Atheists relish slicing away at every tenet of Christianity without fear of eternal consequence. Mormonism advocates the bootstraps method: be a good, civil citizen and see you in Heaven (who needs that mystical grace stuff?). Islam seems delightfully simple without all that Trinitarian doctrine. But wait! Atheists have to invent a deeply improbable world, and they’re on the bad end of Pascal’s wager. Mormons live in constant uncertainty. Islam denies the grace and immanence of God and also leaves its adherents on a treadmill.

Now this question does need qualification. Christianity is not easy; it requires much of us, intellectually and sacrificially. So I do not think of this as a matter of ease, but of trust and satisfaction. I find Christianity to provide the most satisfying answer to the condition of man, and it shifts our focus from our deeply broken world to the glory and wisdom of God. That is a topic for another post; there is much to be said about this question, and its somewhat subjective nature does not render it a foolproof defense against opposition. Suffice it to say that there is no easy worldview. There is no belief system that does not ask questions. So the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.       

5. Is there a root problem? If you’re struggling with doubt, identify the key issue. What in particular is troublesome for you? The Trinity? Hell? Biblical inerrancy? A personal weakness for relativism and universalism? Find the problem and tackle it head on. Consider the theological and epistemological reasoning behind the doctrine, the applications it has for you as a Christian, and the harmful implications if it is denied. Consider also the two questions that form your entire worldview: what is your view of God, and what is your view of man? If I cannot come to grips with Hell, perhaps I am stroking the idea of human goodness, and diminishing the awesome gravity of God’s infinite holiness. If you are doubting the Trinity, it could be that you are elevating your own intellect and ignoring the vast knowledge of God. If Jesus’ death and resurrection seem absurd, perhaps you are stumbling over the “foolishness of God” which is the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18). It may not always be the case. But it’s worth some inspection.

6. What am I really doubting? On a similar note, it’s good to specify what exactly you’re struggling with. Some people become atheists because they believe God’s benevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience are incompatible. But that’s not an argument against God. That’s a struggle with one or more of His attributes. However, we cannot strip God of one of His attributes, or else we create an idol according to our own desires. So if you’re struggling with this question, don’t throw out God altogether. Why not just start with theism and work from there, progressively tackling benevolence and the omnes as they come? If you feel you cannot accept Jesus as the Christ because you can’t stomach Israel’s slaughter of the Amalekites, by all means go to the Cross first and work from there! I passionately believe in Biblical inerrancy and wish to preserve and promote this belief for the rest of my life, but while it is important, it is not the most immediate, urgent doctrine at hand.

Doubt is scary. Doubt is real. But doubt does not mean you are not a Christian saved and preserved by the indelible grace of God. The Lord gave us the book of Job and the collection of Psalms to show us that there is room for questioning in the Christian life. We see in a glass dimly, and, like Moses, beg God to show us His glory that our faith may become sight. We are able to rage against the suffering and evil in the world while trusting in the merciful provision of God that has overcome it. We may ask questions and delight in the foolishness of God that saves us. If the truth merits inspection, by all means ask these questions! Because God is with us, we have nothing to hide.

A few weeks ago, I reread C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair and was amazed by how much I can identify so much more with the story now than I did as an eight-year old. The Silver Chair is about intellectual temptation. It’s about fighting to remember the truth in a cloudy world after the message was so clear up on the mountain. It’s about remembering the true and beautiful revelation of God even when the world tries to drug you into delusion. It’s about holding onto the hope that is within you, and living and dying on the promises that it makes.

And as I read, I was reminded of the world we live in. A world that seduces us into empty lies according to the traditions of men and away from the glory of Christ Jesus (Col. 2:8). A world in which we sometimes have to fight and struggle to remember God’s goodness and faithfulness. A world full of pain that causes us to rage with hope against the dying of the light. A world in which we have to fight intellectual temptation so hard that it may look like thrusting an inkpot across the room, as Luther once did.

And it’s a world in which we may live boldly, knowing that God’s love is greater than all our greatest doubts. We are His own, and His love will never let us go.

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