Dealing with doubt
The etymology of ‘doubt’ can be traced back to archaic roots meaning duality, hence to be of two minds. Doubt is so much a part of all human existence that it’s difficult to envisage a world without it. We live with ambivalence and ambiguity. Like batsmen facing accurate bowling, we are plagued with ‘the corridor of uncertainty’. He who hesitates is out!
In Eden there was no uncertainty. Adam knew what he was for: he had no doubts about his God-given role as the first man – to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. He enjoyed a fellowship with God unclouded by fear, shame or self-analysis. He experienced a confidence in his walk with God. It never occurred to him that God was anything other than love, seeking his highest good. For Adam God’s law could not possibly be other than just and holy and good.
There was only one master Adam had in view. God had an unrivalled place in his will and affections. Then Satan introduced doubt – ‘Has God really said…’ – and Adam became attracted to an illusory ‘sceptics’ position, embracing the right to question God’s commands and even motives.
In his book Dealing with Doubt Gary Habermas puts forward three categories of doubt which it will be useful to group our thoughts around.
1. Factual doubt
A common form of uncertainty is that which questions the foundations of Christianity – doubts regarding the trustworthiness of scripture, the fact of the supernatural or even the existence of God.
The pressure exerted especially on new or young believers to moderate their views can be quite persuasive. They are surrounded by groundless assertions, e.g. that trusting God is for weak people who need a ‘crutch’ in life; or that morality is a purely private matter; that Christians shouldn’t claim exclusivity for their gospel; that you can have the (subjective) essence of the Christian faith without it being (objectively) true.
This is why Paul emphasises the factualness of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-3). And Luke is at pains to stress the historicity of the record he provides to Theophilus of the things Jesus began to do and teach (Luke 1:1-4). Os Guinness writes:
Faith does not feed on thin air but on facts. Its instinct is to root itself in truth, to earth itself in reality, and it is this which distinguishes faith from fantasy, the object of faith from a figment of imagination . . . . This is always the way. This type of doubt is silenced by facts, answered by truth and reassured by understanding . . . . Truth is the only sufficient answer faith can give doubt, for it is the truth of the matter, the facts of the case which give faith its solid foundation.
2. Emotional doubt
These kinds of doubts stem not only from psychological states such as anxiety or depression and mood swings but can also come from medical and physical factors. The prophet Elijah was in a state of despair when God caught up with him. The immediate remedy was nothing more complicated than sleep and food (I Kings 19:4-6).
Deficient views of God can produce doubt. Losing sight of His fatherhood or sovereignty, and especially His faithfulness is a recipe for doubt. These aspects of the character of God need constant cultivation and development in the believer’s life.
Christians who lack assurance of salvation tend to be focusing too much on themselves rather than on God. Doubt in some senses is the elevation of self. Some are temperamentally preoccupied with themselves, their ability, their performance, etc. and find it hard to accept that their standing before God is all of grace.
This is particularly relevant for believers with low self-esteem or a traumatic family background, for whom it may be difficult to accept God’s love or to commit to the truthfulness of His word. For these, as for everyone, the grace of God needs to be prominent in the church’s ministry.
More generally in regard to the emotions C.H. Spurgeon writes:
Those who live by their feelings judge the truth of God by their own condition. When they have happy feelings, then they believe; but if their spirits sink, if the weather happens to be a little damp, or if their constitution happens to be a little disordered, down go their spirits, and, straightway, down goes their faith.
We need also to beware of a subtle contemporary danger – identifying too closely with fictional characters on TV and in films. We can start to view issues through their eyes and then empathise with them – their outlook, their values, their aspirations – in a way that creates doubt about our own identity.
3. Volitional doubt
This category has to do chiefly with one’s will and choices. A person can be unsure whether he can carry through what he is starting. But this uncertainty can mutate into unwillingness. The believer’s failure to grow in the Christian life may be because he realises that further commitment might require getting serious with the Lord. The decision not to seek progress in turn produces uncertainty, because he is not availing himself of the means by which doubt is avoided.
Doubts can arise about a person’s first commitment of his life to Christ. Some who were ‘converted’ very early in their lives are troubled that perhaps their hearts were not really committed at that time. Others can drift away and realise that although they ‘made a decision’, it was in effect a false start. They need to be encouraged to come to the Lord afresh.
A different kind of uncertainty arises from a desire for autonomy, an attitude of arrogance towards God. Lack of repentance can certainly contribute to a sense of separation from God, encouraging doubts. The decision (either implicit or explicit) not to repent of particular sins can keep a person from having peace.
Gary Habermas refers to a young woman who had an outstanding Christian testimony but began experiencing severe doubts after she decided that her marriage relationship was too restrictive. As long as she remained in her rebellious state, the doubts also remained.
The remedy for doubts is not to focus on them but to take steps to strengthen faith. And the scriptural prescription to strengthen faith is simple – do things! Do the things that prove you’re a Christian.
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 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 (1 John 3:18-20).
The classic doubter is Thomas. His problems arose mainly because he missed the first meeting Jesus had with the disciples after His resurrection. He hadn’t received the Holy Spirit and the peace Jesus had breathed out on them. Be where your Saviour is. Use the means of grace. Be at the meetings of the church.
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love… be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practise these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:5-11).
Tim Curnow is a member of St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff.