It’s probably safe to say that everyone has experienced thoughts of doubt concerning God and if he is really there. I have had my own doubts from time to time. Unfortunately, my doubting was sometimes labeled “sin.”
“How could a committed Christian ever doubt God?” they would ask. I guess they thought that if I had some shred of doubt that I had backslidden or I wasn’t really a Christian. That kind of response to a doubter can have devastating effects.
One of my favorite biographies is Walter Isaacson’s account of the life of Steve Jobs. Early in the book, Isaacson recounts that Jobs’ parents wanted him to be raised with a religious upbringing, so they took him to church. When Jobs was thirteen years old he came across a copy of Life magazine that had on its cover a picture of two starving children is Biafra. Jobs had been taught in church that God is all-knowing. He took the magazine to his pastor and asked if God knew about these starving children and what would happen to them. The pastor responded by saying that God knew about those children and that it was beyond Jobs’ understanding. This was not a sufficient answer for young Jobs. His pastor didn’t acknowledge Jobs’ doubts about God head-on. As a result, Jobs walked away from Christianity as a thirteen year old boy and the rest is history.
We can learn at least two things from this story. One, how not to deal with the doubts of young people and two, always being prepared to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15). Jobs’ pastor had a golden opportunity to tell young Steve how we may not have all the answers to why bad things happen to innocent people, but Christianity does offer the best explanation to the origin and nature of the universe, the human condition, sin and evil in the world, and the redemptive power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Timothy Keller makes this remark about doubt: “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.” We have good reasons to probe our doubts. After doing this we may learn to respond to tough questions. Perhaps Jobs’ pastor didn’t know how to respond to Jobs’ doubts because he never investigated the matter for himself. It’s hard to say. But one things remains, Steve Jobs was not in error to question why bad things happen under the watchful eye of our Creator God.
I want to focus on a couple of questions. Should we trust our doubts and can doubts actually help our faith to grow instead of hindering it? To address the first question we must understand that all doubts are a set of alternate beliefs. For example, a person may doubt Christianity is true because he has an alternate belief that there can’t be just one true religion. But notice that the person’s doubt rests on an assumption that there cannot be only one true religion. How does the person know for sure there cannot be only one true religion? In other words, the person’s doubt is really a leap of faith. So, the point is this: if you have doubts about Christianity, put your doubts through the same rigorous tests as you do Christianity and you may find that your doubts aren’t very solid after all.
The question about our doubts helping us to grow our faith is found in the Bible. John the Baptist was a friend of Jesus and a mighty man of God. He was a prophet, a preacher, and the one who boldly announced Jesus’ arrival as the messiah. He saw the Spirit of God rest on Jesus, marking him as the Savior. John the Baptist had tremendous evidence for belief in Jesus as God incarnate. In fact, he was thrown into prison for his convictions.
Matthew chapter 11 reveals the doubting side of John the Baptist. He is sitting in prison with lots of time to think about things. After all the experiences he had since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had the audacity to send his friends to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah. Jesus’ response to John’s doubting is very important. Jesus didn’t condemn him or make fun of John. He told John’s friends to report to him the things they had just heard and seen–the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cured, the deaf hearing, and the Gospel being preached. Jesus gave John good evidence to keep his faith. He didn’t call him a sinner or tell him he didn’t understand. John kept his faith for the rest of his life and was later beheaded.
Another famous Biblical doubter is Thomas. I think Thomas gets an undeserved negative reputation in the Bible. I happen to like Thomas. Him and I think a lot alike. In John chapter 20, after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Jesus begins to appear alive again among his disciples. The disciples told Thomas about this encounter of seeing the resurrected Jesus and Thomas didn’t believe them. Thomas said, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers in them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” Wow! Those are some heavy demands. Not only does he want to see Jesus and his wounds, but he wants to actually put his fingers into Jesus’ nail holes! Eight days later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and his friends. Jesus did not condemn Thomas or tell him he was in sin. Rather, Jesus’ first words to Thomas were, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” Incredible! Jesus provided Thomas with evidence to help him with his doubt. Thomas then proclaimed Jesus his “Lord and his God” and his faith was strengthened through his doubt.
We all come across doubts from time to time just like these giants in the Bible did. It’s important to stress that doubt and unbelief are not the same thing. Doubt can be described as questioning and looking for answers. You can doubt and still be a believer. Christians need to know how to deal with doubt and maybe more importantly, learn to help others navigate their doubts. Here’s some points on how we should and should not respond to doubt.
Ways to not respond to doubt:
- We should never tell a doubter, “don’t think about it.” Our beliefs demand that we have confidence in them. We should cultivate our beliefs and know that they are rational.
- We should never tell someone to, “just believe.” Beliefs must be developed with rationality behind them. A lifeguard doesn’t tell a drowning child to “just swim.”
- We should never tell someone to, “have blind faith.” Why not have blind faith in Buddha then? Blind faith is not Biblical faith. Biblical faith has behind it great evidence that gives us excellent reasons to live by it.
Good ways to respond to doubt:
- Develop a prayer life with God. Conversing with God himself can do wonders to help with your doubts. Just like Jesus helped John the Baptist and Thomas, he wants to help you and he will. Francis Schaeffer said, “God is there, and he is not silent.” Ask him to help you.
- Learn to reflect. Go over the great stories in the Bible about how God has always remained true to his Word and promises. Read the Bible and reflect on it.
- Whatever area of doubt you’re going through, study the subject. Maybe you’re dealing with the death of a loved one. There are many great resources on pain and suffering. Maybe the friction secular scientists try to lay upon Christianity has you doubting. Read up on it. There are many Christian scientists who address these things head-on.
- Develop friendships with people you can trust. Sometimes having a friend to bounce your doubts off of can open up discussion and you may find answers to your doubts.
Douglas Groothuis gave a talk some time ago on his own doubts. He had this to say:
“I have found in the toughest times of life I sometimes do not experience the presence of God. God seems to be distant. But what I come back to is that Christianity is true. There are reasons to believe it.
“And in my ministry, my career, I have tried to study every major worldview, reading primary sources, writing, debating, and having conversations. That was a process. It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t attain a high level of certainty the minute I became a Christian. That had to develop through questioning, through investigating, through conversations.
“But I am a living example of someone who knows too much to walk away. Especially in the last year I have experienced some rather acute crises and suffering…But as bad as it gets and as angry as I can get at the Lord, I can’t deny that the Gospel is true. The Gospel has a firm and unyielding hold on me and I’m a Christian by the grace of God.“