Do you ever feel like a fraud? I do. I sometimes wonder what on earth I am doing as someone who has made a career choice for ministry when I find myself wrestling with so many doubts. I question my calling, my personal integrity, my work, and even whether or not I truly believe all the tenets of the faith I'm supposed to be proclaiming. If you feel like this, you are not alone! Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience seasons of doubt. They can be scary but they can also be very fruitful when we approach them not as a sign that we are hopeless but rather as an opportunity for growth and deepening of our faith.
1. Identifying doubts
Not all doubts are the same. In thinking about this, the tri-perspectival grid that one of my teachers, John Frame, always worked with came to mind. There are normative, existential and situational types of doubts.
- Normative doubts. They are doubts about theological truth claims: claims of the Bible, such as the reality of miracles, doubts about certain attributes of God, such as the perennial question: “Is God good?" "Is he really sovereign?” Difficult theological pills to swallow, such as the exclusivity of Jesus’ claims,among others.
- Existential doubt. These doubts have more to do with our inner life. Self-doubt, our own ability to believe, questions such as "Is my faith real?" " Am I bearing fruit?" "Is the power of the gospel evident in me?" "Does the Gospel really have the power to change people?"
- Situational doubts. This category has to do with our real life context. These doubts often encompass issues of calling. "Are we in the right place, at the right time, doing right thing?" "Did I hear God right?"
2. Causes of doubt?
- Ignorance. It could be that I do not know enough about the Bible to understand difficult passages and that careful theological study might help explain some concerns. However, sometimes knowing more can make us have even more doubts. Intellect alone can never be the ultimate source of our satisfaction since there are certain things we will never understand with our human limitations. Concepts such as eternity boggle our minds, no matter who smart we might claim to be!
- Moral choices. Have I allowed myself to go down the wrong moral path? Sometimes, whether subconsciously or deliberately, a series of small, seemingly unimportant compromises lead us down the road to big moral failure. This, in turn, causes us to reinterpret our own beliefs grid to make our moral failure seem more rational. Doubting our original beliefs follows suit.
- Rite of passage: For young people, this is often the case. Doubting their parents belief is part of growing up and a certain amount of testing is necessary for them to come to their own conclusions about world and life view.
- Existential crisis. Big transitions, changes in course, family events can all cause us to doubt certain things we thought were unshakable foundations on which to build our lives.
- Suffering. Ah…this is a biggie! Here we are really challenged wit how the rubber of our beliefs meet the bumpy road of our pain. Do we have a robust understanding of God’s plan for suffering or is it always a surprise that catches us off-guard and causes us to doubt God’s goodness?
- Sleep deprivation/hormonal imbalances. We should not underestimate how these factors undermine our ability to think and see things clearly. A healthy lifestyle is very important to develop in order to safeguard against exaggerated mood swings, but if all else is in order, maybe there is something medical going on. I know how PMS affects me. These are usually my worst days of bleakness, so why am I surprised when I am thrown in a pit of despair every month around the same time?
- Massive faulty worldview. If we have built our lives based on a worldview that doesn’t match up with reality, we will always be surprised and doubt the God who is supposed to be over that reality. Is our worldview in line with the biblical reality portrayed in Scripture?
- Satanic attack. This one is huge and not to be underestimated. Do we believe that our souls have an enemy who wants to keep enslaved to darkness, hopelessness, self-reliance and fear? Recognizing where this one is coming from is half the battle won already. Unmasking this kind of doubt requires shining the light of God’s truth onto our hearts, and our thoughts. When I get stuck here, I have to ask my husband or others to pray for me, because that is when I am paralyzed, spiritually and praying is the last thing I feel like doing!
3. Redemptive purpose of doubt
If you are struggling with doubt, then you are a believer whom it bothers. This is a sign that God is working on you! If your doubt about God doesn't bother you, your heart is most likely hardened and you may not even be a believer. But it could also be that you are not a believer in the God of the Bible and you are experiencing doubt about your current world and life view. Maybe God is using very difficult circumstances in your life to shatter your paradigms and to break into your darkness with his light, love and truth!
Something that encourages me in the midst of the battle it the following thought. The deeper my struggle with doubt, the greater opportunity I will have to come up with satisfying answers. Those who never really doubt, never push themselves to have a deep understanding of the world, the human condition and the Word of God. Doubt is a God-given opportunity for growth. Maybe you have met people who seem to be able to accept everything easily. And there are people who have an amazing gift of faith and hope. But there are also certain types of people who doubt more. They tend to be the thinkers and philosophers. What I am not saying is that those who have faith cannot be deep thinkers. Church history reveals to us that numerous philosophers and theologians struggled with massive doubts. Martin Luther, Blaise Pascal, John Newton, etc. These thinkers left a legacy that help us in our struggles because they struggled with big doubts!
Situational doubts, like doubts about calling, can be opportunities to a) examine and come out with a stronger sense of current calling or b) the restlessness reveals that God is getting our attention and possibly changing our calling, deepening it or leading us in a new direction.
4. Examine doubt as an alternative form of belief
This idea was helpful to me. It came out of a sermon by Time Keller that I listened to online. Here were the three main points he brought out:
- Start viewing doubt as an alternative form of belief. Push that to its logical end to test it. We will see what that alternative belief leads to.
- We are all on spectrum of doubt and disbelief according to him, we need to unmask doubt, examine faith and fuel hope.
- The resurrection is key to doubt. Have a look at doubting Thomas. He believed in God, but he didn't want to be deluded.
Jesus deals very gently with Thomas, the doubter. We read: "Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe." Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (Joh 20:24-29 ESV)
Faith, as some critics of Christianity may claim, is NOT a leap into the unreasonable. The search for intellectual truth is God-given. He wants us to use our minds to search him out. He does not want us to be deluded or build our lives on lies. The biblical view of people, the world, its sorry state and God’s plan of redemption do make sense, though it requires a logic that starts with certain basic assumptions about God. If we start with atheistic presuppositions, it will be harder to come to truth because all truth is God’s truth and serve him and his purposes. Refusing to look at reality from his perspective gives us a false understanding of reality. So whose assumptions are we going to believe? C.S. Lewis tells the story of a woman who went out on a date with a man. All of her friends forewarned her about him because they witnessed his shady character elsewhere. She didn’t listen to them because she was attracted to him. After a painful break-up, she remembered her friends’ advice. Who are we going to believe and trust? Our own minds of the eyewitness accounts we have?
5. Words of warning
Doubt is not something that is easy to deal with. We need patience, prayer, others supporting us too. Usually, those phases do not leave us utterly hopeless. However, If doubt is causing you to despair, have suicidal thoughts, persist in intensity for more than 6 months, it could be that you are dealing with more than the normal spectrum of doubt. It could be a sign of depression or some other serious medical condition and I’d encourage you to seek out medical and counseling help.
6. Some comfort for the doubter
From my experience I can say that a personal relationship with Jesus often precedes answers. Jesus bends towards the doubting Thomas, lets him have the evidence he needs and wants in order to believe. He calls him by name, "Thomas!" He is not afraid of his doubts. God can deal with them just fine! Jesus wants us to rest in our relationship of trust with him even if we cannot understand all the answers yet. And if we struggle with this, calling his name, “Jesus, help me,” may have to suffice for now. God is able to reveal to us what we need in his timing. Thank goodness that God is greater than our hearts and conscience: "By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us." (1Jo 3:19-24 ESV)
In conclusion, one of the most helpful analogies I love to remind myself of is Tim Keller's branch analogy. He describes a situation in which someone is on the edge of a cliff and falling off. The person reaches out to grab a branch on the way down. In this situation, what matters most is not the strength of that person’s grip, but the strength of the branch the person is holding on to. Similarly, on a spiritual level, what matter most is not the strength of our faith, but the object of our faith!
Sometimes our own perception of ourselves is most accurate, sometimes not. What we think of ourselves is not what is seen by others around us. Our self-doubts do not in any way change the objective reality that we are children of God. I love the following poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sitting in his prison cell, anguished and lonely and awaiting his execution he penned these amazing lines:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equally, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest me, O God, I am Thine.
This little article is the result of my own wrestling with doubt and a summary of a workshop I did with some ladies in Italy. In preparation, I listened to many a sermon on doubt. I cannot list them all here, but if you are interested in them, I can send you my notes and the places I found them, just leave a reply below.