Grappling With Doubt

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.


When I began struggling with doubt, I felt I faced an unscalable wall. I knew the Bible says that without faith it is impossible to have a relationship with God, but nobody ever seemed to be able to tell me how to get faith if I didn't have it.

   Every time there was a sermon on faith, I would listen intently, hoping the speaker would actually tell me what to do if I found myself lacking in faith. Unfortunately all the sermons I heard concentrated on the importance of faith, which, in my opinion, any child in Sunday school could have told me. They never explained how I could muster faith if I already knew I needed it. Apparently faith was something either you had or you didn't, and I obviously didn't because I was constantly hounded by doubts and questions.

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   That kind of reasoning led me to a riddle I couldn't solve. It seemed that either faith was something God granted arbitrarily at some magic moment to some people and not others or faith was something some people just had naturally from birth, just as some people naturally have dimples or blue eyes. In either case, it didn't matter how much I wanted faith; if I didn't have it, there was nothing I could do. And this left me back staring at the wrong side of a rock-hard wall.

   Have you ever wrestled with what to do when you find yourself lacking faith? If so, what were the circumstances? Have you ever heard someone teach on this? If so, what did they say?

Cracks in the Wall

Around this time I stumbled onto Jeremiah 29:13, which says, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." At this point my doubts were so strong I couldn't have said for sure whether I even believed the Bible to be true. However, this verse gave me a glimmer of hope that if it was true I wouldn't be stuck on the wrong side of the wall forever, as long as I was willing to search for God with all my heart.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. MATTHEW 11:28-30

   I found the same promise in Matthew 7:8: "For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." And I looked closer, I began to see it threaded throughout the entire Bible.

   I also found the Bible mentioned some surprising instances of people who seemed to suffer from doubt — people Jesus didn't just send away empty-handed. When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent a delegation to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah or if they should look for another (Mt 11:2-3). That sounded like doubt to me. And of course Thomas, one of Jesus' own disciples, didn't believe the others when they told him about the resurrection (Jn 20:25). Another man who brought his son to Jesus to be healed said, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us" (Mk 9:22, emphasis added). That sounded like the kind of pitiful statement I might

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have made. Later this same man cried out to Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24), echoing the contradiction I found in my own heart.

   In none of these cases did Jesus turn the doubter away. Jesus told John the Baptist's friends to go tell John about all the miracles people were experiencing as evidence that he was the Messiah. To Thomas, Jesus stretched out his hands to let him feel the nail prints. And to the man with the sick son, Jesus showed his power by healing his child.

   Do you believe the Bible teaches that if we sincerely seek God we will find him? Why or why not?

   Which of these New Testament doubters do you identify with most?

   Based on Jesus' response to these doubters, how do you think he would respond to your doubts?

The Nature of Faith

These examples of New Testament doubters helped me begin to see three things about faith.

   1. Strong and weak faith. Faith isn't some magical substance that we either completely have or completely don't have. And the existence of doubt doesn't necessarily mean the absence of all faith. If the man with the sick son had had no faith, he would not have brought his son to Jesus. And if I had had no faith, my doubts wouldn't have bothered me and I wouldn't have been scouring the Bible and listening to sermons trying to find the remedy.

   2. Seekers welcome. God doesn't arbitrarily turn people away for flunking the faith test. We may have faith of differing levels at different times, and as long as we are committed to seeking God, we can trust him to give us what we need to strengthen our faith. Faith is a gift from God, but the Bible indicates it is a gift freely given to those who seek it. That doesn't necessarily mean we can expect God to appear physically to us or show us an obvious miracle when we doubt, but it does mean that somehow, though perhaps in a different way than we expect and in different timing, he will give us what we need for faith.

   3. Not just a blind leap. I had heard faith defined as belief in something

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you have no reason to believe, and I couldn't understand why God would value such a leap against the intellect. To hold that kind of faith seemed comparable to my randomly choosing some stranger off the street to put in charge of everything I own — or worse yet, my family's safety. Who in their right mind would do that? And if faith was like that, how was I supposed to decide which religion to blindly follow? Under the blind leap system I could just as easily follow Buddha or Muhammad as Christ. How could I know which was true?

   But the accounts of doubters in the Gospels helped me see that the faith taught in the Bible is actually rooted in fact. Each time doubters came to Jesus, he gave them something to help their unbelief. To John he gave the evidence of his miracles. To Thomas he gave the evidence of the nail scars. And to the father of the sick son he gave the evidence of a healed son.

   Describe a time when your faith was strong and another time when it was weak.

   In what ways have you been encouraged when your faith has been weak?

   Have you heard faith defined as believing something you have no reason to believe? If so, where did you hear that, and what was your response?

   Do you agree with the three observations about faith stated here? Why or why not?

The Reason of Faith

You may be surprised to hear that the Bible teaches that faith is grounded in facts. Many people characterize faith as being both illogical and anti-intellectual. However, the Bible depicts its message as something that can be supported by evidence and understood by the mind.

In Isaiah, God invites the Jewish people to come and reason with him (Is. 1:18).

Jesus instructs his disciples to love God with all their heart, soul and mind (Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." MATTHEW 11:4-5

After explaining  salvation through Christ to King Agrippa, Paul pleads

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with him to seriously consider his words and adds, "What I'm saying is true and reasonable" (Acts 26:25).

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his job as "defending and confirming the gospel" (Phil. 1:7).

Peter instructs Christians to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet 3:15).

Faith is an act of the whole man, not of his understanding alone, but it is precisely because it is an act of the whole man that it includes the understanding. OS GUINNESS1

   Do you agree that biblical faith is based on evidence? Why or why not?

The Trust in Faith

But saying that the faith taught in the Bible is based on fact does not imply that faith ends there. It is as if act is the root system for faith — the basis — and the spiritual working out of that faith is the tree.

   Having faith isn't really like putting a stranger in charge of everything I own; it is more like what I did when I married Erik. He gave me good reason to believe that I could trust him as my husband, but it was still a matter of faith for me to make those vows. On our wedding day I could not prove to myself or anyone else that Erik would fulfill his part of the commitment. I just had to trust him to do so based on the integrity and love he had demonstrated in the three years we'd dated.

   As Clark Pinnock says in A Case for Faith, "Faith ... does not involve a rash decision made without reflection.... It is the act of wholehearted trust in the goodness and promises of the God who confronts us with his reality and gives us ample reason to believe that he is there"2

Christianity is based on evidence. It is reasonable faith. Christian faith goes beyond reason, but not against it. PAUL LITTLE3 

   Describe some instances in your life when you have demonstrated a fact-based faith in someone or something.

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So Why Do Christians Struggle So Much with Doubt?

I used to have a disturbing suspicion that the very existence of doubt in my life and in the lives of other Christians was surely a strong argument against Christianity. Why would committed Christians continue to question the very basis of their faith? Why would God allow doubts to cripple Christians even after they have decided to follow him? The only reason I could think of was that perhaps God is truly not there and we are just attempting to convince ourselves of some extravagant fairy tale.

   Needless to say, many skeptics would agree heartily with this reasoning. But since that night in the chapel I have stumbled onto another possible explanation. I couldn't see it at the time, but looking back I am amazed to discover that it was actually my doubts and questions that drove me to become more serious about my faith and led me to a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God.

   I suspect that if God had simply revealed himself to me during my experiment in the chapel, I would not have begun seeking him wholeheartedly, as I did in his silence. Things that come easily are too easily taken for granted. I never spent more time praying or prayed more sincerely than when I faced the true implications of believing God did not exist.

   "A twice-born faith, a rebuilt faith," a Quaker pastor named Rufus Jones wrote, "is superior to an inherited faith that has never stood the strain of a great testing storm. If you have not clung to a broken piece of your old ship in the dark night of the soul, your faith may not have the sustaining power to carry you through to the end of the journey."4

Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamour of this visible and audible world is so persistent and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving. C.S. LEWIS (twentieth-century Christian writer and former atheist.)5

   Doubt actually can work to drive us toward God if we let it. It can motivate us to reexamine our foundation to make sure it is not faulty, and it can be a doorway to new insights that we never would have unlocked otherwise.

   This is especially important for those who have grown up in the church as I did. Since my earliest awareness I had accepted Christianity based on the faith of my family. If I was going to take my faith seriously, it was inevitable that a time would come when I would have to examine Christianity

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for myself to see if I actually believed its claims. This is a more difficult process for some than for others, but all of us must go through it if we are to develop a mature faith. And this testing of our faith will continue throughout our Christian experience to nudge us out of our comfort zone and challenge us toward continued growth. As Gary Parker writes in The Gift of Doubt:

Doubt occurs when the certainties that we have always trusted tremble and shift beneath us. Doubt represents a searching out of these certainties to make sure they're solid enough to support us. It means we allow ourselves to question the previously unshakable truisms of our faith to test their firmness under our feet. And this testing is not necessarily harmful. Indeed, it might only warn us to move toward safer, more secure ground.6

   How do you usually respond when you encounter Christians with doubts?

   Do you agree that doubt can have a positive effect? Why or why not?

   Describe some things you have had to put effort into that have become more valuable to you because of this effort.

   What insights, if any, have you gained through struggling with doubt?

A Sad Football Story

But the power for good that doubt can have in our lives comes only in the strength and insight we gain in confronting it. If we are wrong about what we believe, doubt can be the agent that drives us to discover our fallacy. If we are correct, doubt can be a catalyst compelling us to confirm our beliefs and gain an even greater understanding of them. But if doubt is left unaddressed, any benefit goes unrealized, and it can become a destructive force.

If a man begins with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties. FRANCIS BACON (seventeenth-century English philosopher and statesman)7

   When I was a junior in high school, our football team somehow managed to win enough games to go to the state championship. But the state challengers were a much better team than we were. The players and students alike went to the game full of school spirit and naive confidence, but within the first few minutes of the game, the other team scored

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two touchdowns. Things went downhill from there. By the end of the game our team had given up and was just meandering around the field waiting for the clock to run out while the other team scored touchdown after touchdown.

   An athletic team can do any of three things when confronted with imposing challengers.

They can recognize the threat and train harder than ever to enable them to win against the challengers. (That is what our team should have done before the state championship.)

They can go into denial and ignore the threat, attempting to convince themselves and others that there is no real challenge. (This is what our team did do before the championship game.)

Or they can become so intimidated by the threat that they give up before the fight has even begun. (This is what our team did at the game that made it such an embarrassment.)

   We can choose to face the challenge our doubts bring, we can live in denial pretending as if our doubts do not exist, or we can give up before we give faith a chance. Only in the first of these options can true resolution and peace be found.

   Describe a time when you reacted to some difficulty in each of the three ways listed above. What was the outcome in each case? Which of these options are you most naturally inclined to when dealing with doubt?

The Strategy

The first step in overcoming doubt is to earnestly commit ourselves to seeking truth. As mentioned earlier, the Bible makes it clear that God wants you to seek him with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and that when you do, he will reveal himself to you. This is a spiritual attitude of making the search for truth a priority in our lives and committing ourselves to accept truth when we find it.

Doubt is an incentive to search for truth, and patient inquiry leads the way to it. G. BAILY (nineteenth-century journalist and abolitionist)8

   This attitude makes sense regardless of whether you believe Christianity is true right now. If we really

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want to know if Christianity is true, it is only reasonable to try doing the things the Bible indicates will help us in finding God. And even if Christianity is not true, it only makes sense that if there is any God out there and if there is anything we can do to discover that being, it would begin with committing ourselves to the quest.

   The second step is to roll up our sleeves and begin firmly establishing what we believe about spiritual things and why. And that is what the rest of this book will help you do.

   Do you agree that these two steps are a good strategy for confronting doubt? Why or why not?

   Do you believe the Bible teaches that if you seek God you will find him? Why or why not?

   Do you believe the faith taught in the Bible is a faith based on fact? Why or why not?

Digging Deeper

   The Gift of Doubt: From Crisis to Authentic Faith by Gary E. Parker (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990). This is an encouraging book, delving into the reasons for doubt and the definition of faith, written by a pastor who has struggled with doubt himself.

   Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by J.P. Moreland (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997). Moreland examines the role the mind plays in all areas of the Christian life and offers instruction on how to use our minds more effectively.

Chapter Three  ||  Table of Contents