Real Christians don’t doubt. Or at least that’s the unspoken message you’ll find in many churches today. Well, if that’s true then I guess I’m not a real Christian because I’ve had (and still have) my share of doubts at times. By the way, your parents, youth pastors, and parents have them too! Pastor Tim Keller offers helpful insight:
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.
As humans, we all have limitations. We all experience doubts simply because we cannot know everything about everything. So be encouraged, you are not alone. But in order to live with our doubts in a spiritually healthy and faith-building way, we need to be clear about what doubt is and isn’t. First, as J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler point out, there is a difference between unbelief, doubt, and lack of belief.
Unbelief – someone willfully sets themselves against a biblical teaching (e.g., Jesus is not the Son of God).
Doubt – someone has an intellectual, emotional, or psychological barrier to a more secure confidence in a biblical teaching or in God Himself (e.g., I believe God is always there for me, but when bad stuff happens I struggle to believe this).
Lack of belief – someone doesn’t believe a biblical teaching or idea, but wants to (e.g., I need some help to believe).
Also, all doubts aren’t created equal; there are different flavors. The two most common are intellectual and emotional doubts. Given a Christian understanding of faith as “confidence or trust in what we have reason to believe is true”—as opposed to ‘blind faith’ or wishing—the recipe for overcoming your doubts is not to somehow dig deep and crank out more faith by holding your breath and concentrating really hard. What you need to do is have the courage to “doubt your doubts.” Investigate. Seek the truth.
Here’s a place to start: (1) be specific about what your doubts are—write them out and list reasons for / against (2) start your investigation by reading the articles in this study Bible (3) remind yourself that you are not the only one who has ever asked this question, and that 99.9% of the time a reasonable answer exists. Sometimes emotional doubts look like intellectual ones. But the root cause turns out not to be unanswered questions at all. Some sources of emotional doubts: (1) experiencing disappointment, failure, pain, or loss (2) having unresolved conflict or wounds from our past that need to be addressed (3) letting unruly emotions carry us away for no good reason (4) being spiritually dry (5) fearing to really commit to someone.
Also, it is crucial to remember that emotions are good and normal but they aren’t always right. They need to be examined. I may be emotionally down, but that may have nothing whatsoever to do with my confidence that the New Testament is reliable, Jesus was who he claimed to be or that God really exists. When encountering emotional doubts, the best thing to do is to (repeatedly) tell ourselves the truth from God’s Word, invite God in to this by prayer, and then tell a trusted friend that we are emotionally struggling.
If you find yourself with doubts, you’re in good company (cf. Mk 9:24). But having the courage to doubt your doubts in the context of a thoughtful and caring community and investigating the root of these issues over time will lead to greater confidence as a follower of Jesus. That is what the journey of faith is all about.
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*A form of this article first appeared in a contribution I made to the Apologetics Study Bible for Students, published by B&H.