For as long as I have been a Christian, I have struggled with doubt. Doubt of God’s goodness towards me and doubt of my salvation in particular. For instance, I can pray and absolutely believe that God will do something for someone else, trusting and believe that God is with them and he will not fail them. But when it comes to personal struggles, doubt of God rescuing me or crowning the year with goodness towards me chokes the faith out of me. I mean, I know this is not true and a subpar way to experience the faith. No one is as apt at explaining why this is so, as Michael Brown: “…yet that is exactly how some of you have lived for many years, wanting to believe, trying to believe, acting like you believe, yet in spiritual agony on the inside. What a terribly difficult way to live! How God’s heart must ache for you, and how He would want you to know that this is not what He requires of you“. So, let’s talk about it – doubt even though one believes. The “I believe, help my unbelief” Christians.
Faith, the bedrock of our walk
The fundamental reason why I am Christian is because I know it is true. Yes, I can’t prove everything about it, but there is proof of Jesus’ existence, proof of his miraculous deeds, proof of the bible being divine writing, proof of his death and that of his resurrection. While I am a far cry from a historian, my measly efforts at finding this proof made it clear to me that this is so. The FocusOnTheFamily website put it so much more neatly than I could ever dream of doing. “Remember, the Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This is why Luke, in the dedications to his Gospel and the Book of Acts, places so much emphasis on eyewitness accounts and “infallible proofs” (Luke 1:2; Acts 1:3). We don’t believe simply because we want to believe. We believe because there are good, solid reasons to believe“. This is why I can’t not believe. Unbelief for me would be to pretend not to see a house right in front of me because I don’t want it to be there. The truth is, I see the house – I know it is there. This is where faith starts for me, the foundation is in this knowledge because of my temperament. Then I read scripture with this disposition that it is so, and sometimes I feel it to be so but sometimes I don’t. I don’t think “feeling it to be so” has ever been as important for me – I think knowing that I know that it’s true has always taken first prize. Therefore, obedience and reverence for scripture; belief in God’s goodness all come from the knowledge of its truthfulness.
The challenge with this is that sometimes when life storms come, the heart needs comfort and feelings are involved. So while I know God’s word to be true and cannot unknow this even if I wanted to, sometimes I would really like to feel this. When challenges come and I don’t feel the presence of God, the word can feel like a cold and clinical set of facts. This is where the tension lies – knowing of God’s goodness towards me intellectually yet experientially feeling like this is not so. And knowing not to trust my feelings even when they rage yet still feeling the feels. That’s my thesis, lol. The tension of knowing yet not feeling. The intellectual “belief” and emotional “unbelief”. Therefore being caught in “I believe, help my unbelief”.
I think one of the most comforting yet frustrating/ seemingly minimising thing that people have said to me in this, which I am inclined to call a grapple with doubt, is that I can be assured of God’s love because of what he has done in Christ. This truth is comforting because it’s true. It is an ever standing fact – God has shown us the ultimate love in giving his son for us. Nothing he does or does not do can ever change this fact. The truth of this – ever so present – is comforting to know intellectually even when it does not feel that way. However, it feels minimising/ frustrating as a response to every challenge because we don’t always feel that way experientially. So when situations seem to be mounting against us, when calamities seem to overwhelm the soul, some of us are more tempted than others to feel unloved by God. This can be because of a number of reasons – unfaithful/ absent earthly parents, our own tendencies, grapples with weaknesses like comparing our experiences to those of others, etc. Whatever the reason, some of us are more prone to doubt than others.
And what, exactly, is doubt?
Christian professor Michael Brown describes it as this: “Sometimes it is an inability to believe that God will do something for us personally, as in, “I know the Bible says this, but I’m struggling to believe it will really happen to me.” At other times, it is a struggle to believe that there really is a God, or that the God we believe in is the real God, or that the Bible is truly His Word, or that certain parts of the Bible are really inspired. Whatever the case, doubt eats away at our confidence and steals our peace“.
We should know better, and yet…
It is true that in the Bible Jesus often rebuked people for their doubts and unbelief because they should have known better. Based on what they had witnessed and experienced, they should have had faith. And yet he also dealt with them gently, reassuringly and mercifully. I think the wisdom of Jesus was knowing when to employ which strategy and always, always being drenched in mercy. I don’t think we are very good at this as Christians. Michael Patton’s tongue-in-cheek caricature of crooked responses from different Christian groups had me in stitches, so I am sharing!
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.
These responses are similar to what I heard & read online when Joseph Solomon, a former Christian entertainer who struggled with assurance of faith publicly and ultimately disavowed the faith, said he was not Christian. Joe, as he is commonly known, was transparent about his struggles. It almost felt like he wanted to bring these to the light so that they don’t overwhelm him. When he finally left the faith, some argued that he was never sincere. Others said he just needed renewed assurance of Christ’s love for him. Some said he just wanted to give in to sin. Others said it was a spiritual attack. I am a card-carrying Calvinist so my own leanings are always toward the “he was never saved to begin with” position – a cliché and honestly simplistic response. Because we don’t know Joe’s ultimate destination, his heart or God’s plan. We know that we are called to share the good news with those who don’t believe and to be merciful to those who believe but struggle with doubt. And we are to exercise wisdom in how we deal with those who doubt, never carrying our “Christian, not Christian” stickers that we are tempted to attach to them.
Instead of minimising people’s struggles or over diagnosing their spiritual problems (yes they are sinners) or questioning their salvation, we should take a page from Jesus’ book on how to deal with doubters.
Jesus, friend of doubters
One of my favourite interactions that Jesus had, was with the man whose son was sick in Mark 9. The man meets Jesus and in their interaction, decides to ask him for help in healing his son. He says to him “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us”. Jesus replied, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes”. The man responds to this rebuke with these words “I believe, help my unbelief“.
This sentence has been a prayer of mine for the longest time. When something bad happens and I am tempted to go “of course”. Or a situation I was hoping would go well doesn’t and I get that knowing sinking feeling in my heart, like this was always going to be the case. Or when things do go well and I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, I have prayed “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”. You see Jesus was the ultimate model of mercy. Therefore, in trying to be more like Christ, telling those who doubt that without faith it is impossible to please God, or that they just need to trust God more doesn’t have the effect that you think it does. I think I speak for most of us when I say, we know this. We fight to claw our way out of unbelief or being jaded, consistently being in the word and praying for assurance of God’s love. It is therefore dismissive to merely tell people what they know and yet cannot seem to believe. I would call on Christians to be merciful to doubters. Maybe ask about the doubts, and don’t be quick to dismiss them though you may share the truth in love. Maybe share the truth over time, in appropriate doses and contexts instead of regurgitating the word to those who also read it. Mercy is about knowing when to say what, how to say it and thinking about being helpful to the one who receives. Mercy is not giving us Christian doubters what we deserve, which is really a firm hand given that we should know better.
I want to return to Michael Patton when he argues that doubt does not necessarily mean 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 “. Furthermore, “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.”
As one who has had to deal with this condition across the various theological positions that I have held, I am aware that this may afflict me until I reunite with Christ. Therefore, I must learn to live with the reality, though I say this sorrowfully. One of the things that I take from constantly struggling with doubt is that all the times when I am wrong about God’s character in my feelings, I am accumulating more mental evidence for the next time my feelings threaten to accuse God. I know they aren’t always trustworthy and I have the receipts to prove it not only in the word but in my previous experiences also. Finally, I want to empathise with those who doubt. It may seem overwhelming most times but we can rest in knowing that we do not have faith in our faith’s ability to sustain. We have faith in God holding us fast until the end, even when it feels like we have let go. Christ, not our faith or doubt, is what saves and keeps us. We can therefore rest in that, even when it feels like we have slipped away. Christ will carry us home, whether we doubt this or not if we are his elect.
https://www.christianpost.com/voices/have-mercy-on-those-who-doubt.html https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/have-mercy-on-those-who-doubt https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dealing-with-the-doubting/ https://credohouse.org/blog/doubting-calvinists https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/wrestling-with-doubt-and-disbelief/