Dealing With Doubt

by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow

Questions ... everybody has them. But what do we do with them? And what happens when questions about God, the Bible or Christianity turn into doubts? Real Christians aren't supposed to doubt, are they? What about our kids? If they doubt their faith, does that mean we haven't raised them properly?

Writer Tim Keller offers an important observation:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Doubt is a natural part of being human because part of what it means to be human is to have limitations. Everyone has limitations in energy, time and even knowledge. We all experience doubts at one time or another simply because we cannot know everything. But in order to live with doubt in a spiritually healthy and faith-building way, we need to be clear about what doubt is and isn't.

A biblical understanding of faith is not blind or opposed to evidence, but it doesn't require absolute information either. Rather, faith is simply trusting in what you have good reason to believe is true. It is also important to remember that faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. Sincerity is important, but trying really hard to believe something doesn't make it true or false. A great way to find out if you really believe something is whether you are ready to act as if it were true in everyday life. For example, do you really believe being pure in your thought life and relationships is the best way to live? Your viewing habits and moral boundaries will show what you believe.

To doubt means to be between two minds or opinions. It is the middle ground between faith and unbelief. Unbelief, as Christian scholar Os Guinness notes, "is a state of mind that is closed against God, an attitude of the heart that disobeys God as much as it disbelieves the truth. Unbelief is the result of a settled choice."

There is a big difference between struggling to believe in God and setting oneself against Him. Prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are exhibits A and B of unbelief.

The dashboard of your soul

A helpful way to understand faith and doubt is to think about the dashboard in your car. When no warning lights are on, we assume things are working pretty well. But when the check engine light comes on, you know there's a problem.

Doubt is a bit like the warning lights on your dashboard. Just as you wouldn't address all the warning lights in the same way (such as changing the oil every time a light comes on), you also need to recognize that each kind of doubt will require a unique approach. The most common forms of doubt originate from intellectual issues, emotional issues and lack of spiritual growth. Here are some suggestions about how to deal with these:

Intellectual doubts

The most important thing you can do with intellectual doubt is to clearly identify what your question or doubt actually is. The longer it remains foggy, the harder it is to address. It's often helpful to dig through your thoughts with others to get at the root intellectual issue or question.

During times of doubt, you may be tempted to isolate yourself and not share your struggles with friends, because you're ashamed to admit you have doubt. Bad idea — you need community most during times of doubt. Remember, doubt can be an opportunity for your faith to grow.

Of all the varieties of doubt, intellectual doubt is the one that is best helped by reading and study. You must be persistent. If something is really bothering you, work at finding a reasonable answer. We promise that you are not the only one who has ever asked the question you're struggling with, and you should have confidence that others have provided good answers to consider. As you process your thoughts, it is important to try to make sure your intellectual doubt isn't an emotional doubt in disguise.

Emotional doubts

Sometimes emotional doubts look like intellectual ones, but the root cause turns out to be something other than unanswered questions. Guinness offers a vivid picture of how this sometimes looks:

The problem is not that reason attacks faith but that emotions overwhelm reason as well as faith, and it is impossible for reason to dissuade them. ... [This kind of] doubt comes just at the point where the believer's emotions (vivid imagination, changing moods, erratic feelings, intense reactions) rise up and overpower the understanding of faith. Outvoted, outgunned, faith is pressed back and hemmed in by the unruly mob of raging emotions that only awhile earlier were quiet, orderly citizens of the personality. Reason is cut down, obedience is thrown out, and for a while the rule of emotions is as sovereign as it is violent. The coup d'état is complete.

We've all been there. Sources of emotional doubts can be found in experiencing disappointment, failure, pain or loss; having unresolved conflict or wounds from the past; letting unruly emotions carry us away for no good reason; being spiritually dry and relationally distant; and fearing to truly commit to someone (whether that "someone" be God or another person).

Emotions are good and normal, but they aren't always right. They may be an accurate barometer of what is going on inside our hearts, but they don't tell us whether we should be feeling the way we are. Emotions need to be examined carefully, as they can often be projected onto an intellectual question, and it becomes really easy to confuse the two.

This is another reason community is so important. Others can usually help us discern what is going on if we are experiencing emotional turbulence. Don't be afraid to invite other mature believers into your faith journey.

Doubts from lack of growth

If you are a follower of Jesus, then it is always good to ask yourself if you are growing spiritually. Are you reading your Bible on a regular basis, praying, sharing your faith and living in community with others? (Not in a legalistic, "God will love me more if . . ." sort of way, but because these are necessary ingredients for spiritual growth.) Just as a plant either grows or withers, so a worldview must produce results or it will be discarded as impractical."

Also, when we sin and are disobedient to God, our sin creates relational distance from Him. God doesn't love us any less, and we aren't at risk of losing our salvation, but we may need to ask Him to show us if we need to confess anything so that our fellowship with Him can be restored. A great prayer to meditate on is Psalm 139:23–24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

If you find yourself with doubts, you're in good company. But having the courage to doubt your doubts and investigate the root of these issues over time will lead to greater confidence as a follower of Jesus. This is what the journey of faith is all about.


Taken from Is God Just a Human Invention? Copyright © 2010 by Sean McDowell and Jonathon Morrow. Used by permission of Kregel Publications.

For Further Engagement:

God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt by Os Guinness (quoted in the above article)


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