Most of us doubt our faith at some time, and it isn’t much fun. Tim Keller said: “Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts”. But the book of James says a person who doubts is “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:7). How do these things fit together?
People believe for different reasons
We are not all the same and christians may believe for quite different reasons:
- people they trust told them its true – this is especially true for children;
- they believe the Bible;
- they have experienced God in their lives, via healing or guidance or freedom from bondages;
- God makes sense of their life, and gives them hope and meaning;
- there is good evidence in science and philosophy;
Evidential doubt and emotional doubt
Because we believe for different reasons, doubts may occur for different reasons. Some doubts are caused by real problems with our beliefs that need to be carefully considered, perhaps new information we haven’t considered before (evidential doubt). But other times our doubts are caused by our feelings, or by events that have little to do with the reasons why we believe (emotional doubt).
So if we are experiencing doubt, we need to consider what kind of doubt it is, and why we are experiencing it. Sometimes we need to simply re-affirm what we believe; other times we may need to review what we believe.
Guilt and doubt
If we are doubting because we have been living in a way that displeases God, or because we have been neglecting him (perhaps we have been too busy), we are not facing any new reasons to disbelieve. So we will need to repent and get back close to God, and that may be sufficient to remove the doubt.
Doubt vs confidence in God
If we are doubting because God doesn’t seem close any more, perhaps some prayers are not being answered, then we may need to question whether our understanding of God is correct. We will need to pray for stronger faith, but also do some serious reading to find a stronger basis for our faith that God loves us even if we are not feeling it at that time.
Doubts about the Bible
If we are having difficulties with the Bible, we may need new perspectives on scriptures we thought we understood, or to re-examine our assumptions about the Bible to see if they are true. We should ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to understand the difficulties, and also do some reading to get the information we need to resolve them if we can.
Suffering and doubt
Sometimes we begin to doubt because of tragedies in the world, or in our own lives. We may need to reflect on whether we really trust God enough for these circumstances, and we can still believe in him. We should reconsider the reasons that we believe in the goodness of God in spite of these tragedies, re-affirm our faith, and pray for greater trust to go with our re-affirmed belief.
Hurts and doubt
We may begin to doubt because of bad behaviour by christians, especially a christian leader. This can be especially troubling if the leader was a mentor or role model for us. We may need to reflect on whether this changes anything we believe about Jesus – it probably doesn’t – and then resolve not to allow these circumstances to come between us and Jesus.
New information and doubt
We may have serious questions about God, science, the Bible, etc, which have arisen as we have matured in our understanding, or perhaps we have been challenged by an atheist. In this case we certainly need to do some reading and thinking, backed up by some prayer for the Spirit’s guidance. This reading will have to really examine the issues carefully, and not just ‘whitewash’ them, as we will need to be able to continue to hold our beliefs with integrity. Not facing the questions honestly can lead to them remaining an unresolved thorn in our side. My website, Is there a God?, examines many of the questions that we may have to consider here.
Doubt as a gateway
Tim Keller says: “It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them.”
We need to grow in our faith and understanding, and growth sometimes stretches us and challenges us (just like physical growth stretches our skin). As we grow from youth, we may get married, have children, buy a house, take on a responsible job, develop new friends or change churches. Jesus doesn’t change, but we will have to mature as people, and in our faith and understanding, to deal with all these changes and responsibilities.
So doubt isn’t always bad. Doubt can sometimes, by God’s grace, be the gateway to new understandings.
The Holy Spirit and doubt
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide us into “all truth” (John 16:13). I have been a christian for 50 years, and over that time I have learnt many new things, changed many of my beliefs and understandings, and matured in many ways, often through questions and doubts. It was questioning of the beliefs taught to me that led me to new understandings of:
- Jesus in his historical context;
- living with the Holy Spirit;
- God’s plan for his church, which is very different from what modern western churches have generally turned out to be;
- the gospel of Jesus, which is more than personal salvation, but touches all hurting people and the restoration of the entire universe;
- love and courtesy – more important in evangelism than pressing the point;
- modifications to many other doctrines and teachings.
But it is still better when we can trust God without doubt. So our aim is always to get back to a sure foundation, perhaps with quite changed understandings, but with a renewed faith. Then we can keep walking in the Spirit, and praying in faith as James recommends.
In a nutshell …
- We shouldn’t fear doubt and shouldn’t think less of people who doubt.
- When we doubt, we should do something about it, not pretend everything is OK, but pray, ask others to pray, read and discuss. We must allow the Spirit to guide our thoughts (Rom 12:1-2)
- When we doubt, we should think about the reasons, and therefore what is the best way to deal with it. We can ask ourselves what has changed to cause us to doubt – and whether this changes the reasons we believe. If we have significant new information, we should examine our belief accordingly. But if there is no new information, we need to pray that God won’t allow our emotions to lead us astray.
- CS Lewis once wrote words to the effect that, if God and truth seem to be diverging, follow truth, and you will find that was where God was all along. I have followed this maxim, and found it to be true time and time again.
Christianity is changing
This post is part of a series on Christianity is Changing. I believe doubt is a greater issue than it used to be. More and more, we should be training young christians, as well as learning ourselves, how to keep growing in our faith through, and because of, significant questions and doubts.