I met with a Christian-turned-skeptic friend recently who asked, “Does anyone ever really believe?” After listening to more of the questions and the struggles he faced in the Christian life, I understood why he would ask this question.
A few weeks later, I began to doubt God more acutely than I ever had before. I felt as if there was no end to my fight against sin. I was running the race of faith in circles rather than progressing toward the finish line. I felt as if my search for a job was becoming futile. Dead ends were everywhere I turned. I began to feel as if my education was a waste of time, energy, and money. Had I misinterpreted God’s call on my life a long time ago? I felt as if God had set me up to fail. What if he did set me up to fail? What if God set everyone up to fail, beginning with Adam and Eve?
This is the place my doubt took root. Like Adam after eating the forbidden fruit, I shifted the blame to God. I said in my heart: “If you had not created this world, I would not be in such a mess.” I simply did not want to believe in a god who would create a world with people made in his image, knowing beforehand they would rebel against him. I did not want to believe in a god who would want me and everyone else in this world to suffer or at least to struggle in some degree or another. I didn’t want to believe in this kind of god. This is the heart of atheism, or any other -ism which essentially rejects the God of the Bible.
Kinds of Doubt
People experience various kinds of doubt. One is neutral, when someone temporarily suspends their presently held beliefs, for serious, careful, and honest re-examination. Another kind of doubt is caused by shock or surprise, ending either in joy, mockery, or desire for further consideration (Matt. 28:17; Acts 17:32-34). Yet, a third kind of doubt is caused by suffering or disappointment. It can either lead someone toward God or away from God. I was experiencing this third kind of doubt.
When we speak of doubt, we often unconsciously place doubt in the intellectual category, and unbelief in the spiritual category. For example, during my doubt, I questioned God’s purpose for creating the world he knew would go bad. At the same time, I was dealing with unbelief. I struggled to believe God’s promise that he was working everything out for my good (Rom. 8:28).
We often equate doubt with issues of the head and unbelief with issues of the heart. Or, doubt is provoked by intellectual questions while unbelief is provoked by personal questions. My doubts originated from a personal struggle not an intellectual struggle. Yet my personal struggle influenced my intellectual struggle.
Lessons from Doubt
During the days of my doubt, many things were happening inside of me. I felt as if someone had hijacked my head and my heart. Dead to the God I once loved and believed in. However, through this season of doubt I learned the following:
Doubt never (or rarely) arrives at your doorstep carrying only intellectual baggage. We are complex holistic creatures, whose faith and doubt are shaped by various influences: personal (emotional, intellectual, physical, circumstantial, spiritual, familial), cultural, and social. My doubt was largely influenced by the burnout I was feeling after six years in seminary. “Part of burnout is losing track of your purpose. Now you’re working harder and harder, faster and faster for that which is seemingly more and more meaningless,” says Jeff Van Duzer. Somewhere along the way I lost track of my purpose. I lost sight of my identity first of all as a follower of Christ, second as a husband, and third as a seminary student. My seminary studies were becoming “seemingly more and more meaningless,” as I was not working out what I was learning on a regular, consistent basis. I found that just as life without Christ is meaningless, the Christian life without discipleship is absurd.
Doubt is often necessary to experience and healthy to face during certain seasons of life. An unexamined faith is not worth believing. And during this season of life, I felt as if the Lord was bringing my wife and me through a certain wilderness. What was God’s purpose for his doubting people when he brought them through the wilderness? No less than to humble them, test them to know what was in their heart, whether they would keep his commandments or not, make them know they must not live by bread alone but also by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord, provide for their every need, discipline them, and do them good in the end (Deut. 8). And just as the waning faith of God’s people was being tested on their journey toward the promised land, so also I was pressed to examine the holes in my faith.
Satan is against God, me, and all my relationships. He knows that if he can destroy my faith, he will certainly undermine most everything else God is doing in me and through me, affecting everyone I know. Since I believe there are various kinds of doubt, I do not believe Satan is necessarily a direct cause of some. However, we should not extract him from the equation too quickly. In my case of doubt, I believe Satan played an essential part. Just as Satan planted a deceitful question in the ear of Eve (Gen. 3:1), so also he provoked my heart to ask: “What if God set me up to fail?” This is a deeply personal question, affecting my faith both emotionally and intellectually.
God was using these doubts to awaken my soul in the following ways:
- To check the pulse of my own personal-existential faith. Have I been attempting to drop meaning into my life and faith through a variety of means other than Christ, or is Christ the substance and reason for my existence?
- To ask why my faith doesn’t feel as it should (yes, spiritually and emotionally). How is my life not in accord with the gospel and the life Jesus calls me to live?
- To ask what I am not seeing and/or hearing as I read and reflect on God’s word, in order that I would obey him. Along with this, what idols am I clinging to that are keeping me from following Jesus wholeheartedly?
I had to confess. I had to open my heart of unbelief to my community and invite them to listen well and lovingly speak truth to me. I told my friend, Ian, these questions I was asking along with my acknowledgments. But I then added, “This is the closest I have ever been to walking away from the Lord. Please pray for me, so that I don’t continue in this unbelief–that as the writer to the Hebrews says, will lead me to fall away from the living God.” If Satan was attempting to lead my doubting heart away from the Lord, I knew that prayer on my behalf was probably the most important thing I could ask for.
I knew that if anyone could ultimately help me walk through my doubt, Jesus could. I knew I must confess my doubts, disagreements, and unbelief to him. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Although faith and doubt live together in this statement, they should not stay together. Yet, this simple confession itself evidences a flicker of faith, a sign of hope. Jesus is a friend of doubters. Indeed, he ate and drank with them. Jesus died and rose from the dead for doubters like you and me.
Yet, I still attempted to search out passages of Scripture to back up my case against God. The first that came to mind was Acts 17:26, from Paul’s address to the Athenians: “And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and boundaries of their dwelling place…”
“See, Lord,” I thought, “You placed me where I am. In this world, this nation, this state, this city, this situation…”
Then I continued reading the passage: “…that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (17:27).
And I stopped in my tracks. I had read this passage countless times before, but probably not with such Athenian skepticism. Then God, through Paul’s message hit me with hope. God’s own hope.
I thought, “God, you placed me right where I am right now, in this situation, this city, this state, this nation, and this world, so that I would seek you and find you…even in the midst of my doubt. This is unbelievably good news.”
As I walked through my valley of doubt, I acknowledged Tim Keller’s recommendation to “doubt your doubts.” Yet, I realized it was much easier to doubt my affirmations than it was to doubt my doubts. I learned that in order to doubt my doubts, I had to double over in humility and confess that God is God and I am not.
And while thinking through my question of “Why would God create a world with future rebellion and suffering in mind?”, I finally acknowledged that:
I am not God.
God can do whatever he wants.
All that God does is good, even those things I don’t understand or agree with.
God also had a solution in mind–the sacrifice of his own beloved Son.
His Son rose from the dead to defeat such rebellion, and to finally make all things new–even me and you.
Jesus sent me and you to tell fellow rebels and sufferers of his incomparable love.
Unless we tell them and demonstrate such love with our lives, they will continue to live a perfectly rebellious life, suffering alone without God.
Seeing through Doubt
During previous periods of doubt, I had taken up the banner of “I believe in order that I may understand” (originating from Augustine and Hebrews 11:3). Simply put, this confession has not merely relieved my doubts, but has helped me work in faith through doubt unto a more robust, reasonable faith.
This time around, I had to explore more deeply. What sort of belief is it through which I understand? Is it a “blind faith”? No. Rather, the only faith through which we understand is a seeing faith. Not with the eyes of the head, but with the eyes of the heart. We see examples of this sort of faith all throughout Scripture. For example:
Now in putting everything in subjection to [the Son], [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:8-9).
What do you see during times of doubt, anxiety, or depression? Do you only see your circumstances as if they are in constant disarray? Or, looking through your circumstances, do you see the suffering Son, who by God’s grace tasted death on your behalf? Looking through your doubt, do you see King Jesus who righteously orders all things for your good both now and in the end?
Contrary to the lies I was believing, God was not playing games with me. God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, renewal, is no game.
Returning to my friend’s question: “Does anyone ever really believe?” I answered, “Everyone always believes in something.” If I turn from believing in the Lord, I simultaneously turn in faith toward something or someone else.
Yes, but does anyone ever really believe the gospel–that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to defeat sin, death, and evil, and is making all things new, even us? The question is whether or not anyone’s life is 100% consistent with his or her confession. The answer is no. If our lives exemplified perfect consistency with our faith, we wouldn’t need Jesus. We do need Jesus. In both the depths of our doubts and the shallowness of our faith, we look to Jesus, who alone is the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
Another version of this article originally appeared at Gospel-Centered Discipleship, where I served as Founding Editor and Managing Director.