Thank you so much for your excellent question. I am glad that you asked, because I think doubt is an issue that so many others are struggling with… and if they haven’t yet, they may well at some point! In fact, I think that doubt is perhaps more pervasive in the culture of the church today than it has been for a long time.
In part, I think this is because these days, those with strong convictions are often perceived to be ‘naive’, or ‘immature’, whereas those of a more skeptical disposition who see in shades of grey are praised for being ‘wise’ or more ‘reasonable’. I actually think this is a flawed perspective, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a prevalent one in our culture today!
And of course, there’s also the fact that we live at a time when every other worldview is just one google search away, and so the temptation to continually compare and assess and re-evaluate Christianity in light of everything else is constant. The Christian philosopher James K A Smith said it this way:
“Even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught, confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”
Out of the two of us, I have actually been the one who wrestled through a period of doubt in my faith journey rather than Vince. As someone who came to faith through an intense and extensive period of intellectual searching, most of Vince’s most fundamental questions were answered on the way into Christianity. Whereas in my case, I grew up in the church, and I always believed in the existence of God. What this meant is that when my questions came, they actually came much later, after I had already known God for a long time, and loved him for a long time.
I have actually never seriously doubted God’s existence (although I’ll admit I gave it a good try for a while, as there was a season where I thought it might be easier if He didn’t), nor the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (I have always found the evidence for these historical events intellectually compelling and persuasive, and my own relationship with Jesus has been so real that it has truly been the most meaningful, powerful, and transformative of my life).
Rather, my struggle was with the character of God as He is revealed to us in the Old Testament. At my toughest moments, I reached a point where I felt torn between having to say God wasn’t good (and that didn’t sit right with me, because I knew Jesus, the fullest revelation of that same God, and he was incomparably beautiful), or that the Bible wasn’t true (and I didn’t want to concede that either, because I believed Jesus when he spoke about the Old Testament, and he treated it as authoritative and the true word of God).
At the time, I couldn’t see how I would ever reconcile my doubts, and I was afraid for what it meant for my life and my faith. Now, however, I am so glad that I went through that experience, because it proved to be an invaluable part of my faith journey: a time when I learnt what it truly means to trust in the Lord and lean not on my own understanding, to acknowledge Him in all my ways (even when those ways seemed very dark), and through all of that, to discover that He truly would be faithful in directing my paths.
I’m also so glad I went through it, because it means that I’m now in a place to help others wrestling with those same doubts. Ironically, the very texts I used to dread are now the very texts that I love speaking about the most. I never thought that would happen!
Here are a few things that I learned through that time of real struggle and fear in my life.
- Don’t run from doubt.
In the second year of my undergraduate studies, a friend and I hosted an alpha course in our kitchen at college to invite along our friends who weren’t interested in coming to church. But when I asked another Christian to give the talk on ‘How can I be sure of my faith?’ that tragically proved to be the catalyst that triggered the collapse of his own faith. While preparing the talk, he realised that actually, he himself wasn’t really sure of his faith: instead, he’d been living with a host of internal doubts that had been piling up for years until they all came crashing down on him.
But the reason that everything went so wrong was because somewhere along the way, he had come to believe that difficult questions should be suppressed. Actually, however, loving someone with your mind means not just asking the ‘safe’ questions, but also asking the ‘difficult’ questions.
If I truly love Vince, then I want to understand him fully: I want to understand his behavior both in the good times, and in the challenging times. I want to know the way his mind works even if on occasion it seems contrary to my own way of thinking, and even if we have very different opinions on the matter. Loving someone with our mind means not burying the tough topics, but instead asking the questions that dig into the aspects of a person’s character that other people, people who cared less, might shy away from. And it’s the same when it comes to God.
- Asking questions is not offensive.
Sometimes, we think that admitting our doubts or struggles to God is going to offend Him. I think the opposite is true: we offend him with our distance and our silence, but we honor him with our questions, because that’s how we show that we love Him enough to take every aspect of Him seriously. After all, the rest of the world is asking questions about our God. If they want to understand these things, how much more should we, as those who profess to love Him, also pursue the answers to these questions?
- Run towards God.
My doubt came while I was working on a masters in biblical interpretation, when for about a year I really got stuck on the issue of warfare in the Old Testament, as I struggled to understand how God’s commands in those texts could match up with the loving character I saw in Jesus Christ.
At first I tried to run from the questions, because I was scared of what I might find. However, I found that these were questions that I couldn’t outrun. Instead, they kept over-taking me. Finally, I mustered up the courage to stop running away and instead to turn and face them head on with God.
Once I did, I was astonished by what I found.
It didn’t happen overnight (more like over a year), but by working through these issues in the context of a Christian community that I trusted and respected (and I love that many of you are using RZIM Connect for just this purpose), and by relentlessly pouring over the scriptures (rather than hiding from them because they were hard to understand), as well as several other books by experts on the subject (because sometimes we really do need help making sense of what we’re reading), my understanding was gradually transformed.
But of all these important steps (and they were all important), the most important of all was when I stopped ignoring God (my prayer life had run dry because I didn’t know how to pray to a God that I wasn’t sure of), and instead took every single doubt and worry (and many, many tears) to God and included Him in the conversation, asking Him to show me who He really is.
It’s not that my every question was answered, or that I came to a place of perfect understanding. But I learned enough. Enough to hold on to what I did know of Him, even as I learned to be patient with the things I may never fully know this side of eternity. Certainly enough to convince me that not only is the Bible true, but the God of the Bible is truly good.
But far more important than what I learned intellectually was the simple and surprising fact of God showing up. And He showed up in the very last places that I expected to find Him: the very pages of the Bible that I had been tempted to rip out began to reveal to me glimpses of His glory, and unexplored contours of His character, that I had never seen before. I was captivated.
Gradually over that year, I found that rather than being disturbed by his character in the Old testament, I was blown away by the beauty of the God that I encountered in the very texts that I used to panic over: a GOD who was committed to justice, to loving the victim, who was both utterly perfect in his standards, and yet unfailingly compassionate.
By choosing to invite Him into my wrestle rather than shoving Him out, I discovered that far from winding up disillusioned, instead I felt embarrassed about how limited my vision of God had been, and how small was the box that I was trying to stuff Him into.
Ultimately, I found that the very subject that I feared to face was just one more reason to love Him more.
To quote C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …"Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Jonathan, I don’t know whether doubt is something that you personally are struggling with, but if it is, let me encourage you: don’t run from your doubts, bring them into the light. And don’t run from God, run towards Him. He isn’t scared of your questions.
I know that when we’re in it, the questions seem so overwhelming that we feel like no one else can have ever really been where we are, or struggled with this issue in the same way that we’re struggling with. But these questions aren’t new to God. He’s been in those places with His children many times before. The doubts may seem huge, but they aren’t bigger than God. You can’t pull yourself out, but you don’t have to. The One who called you is faithful: He will do it.
God bless you,