If I Believe, Why Do I Doubt?
November 7, 2007
This is a sermon about a topic we rarely discuss in church. This is a sermon about doubt. As such, it is an unfamiliar topic to most people, even though there are whole books of the Bible that deal with the issue of doubt in various ways — Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Habakkuk. Many of the psalms touch on the theme of doubt and feeling abandoned by God.
During my pastorate in Oak Park, the young singles group invited me once a year to an “Ask Pastor Ray” night. That was always fun because the group was lively, and they peppered me with unpredictable questions. The last time I did that 50-60 of us sat in a big circle in the church dining room. I told them I would be glad to answer questions on the Bible, the Christian life, theological issues, or they could ask about my personal life. No topic was off-limits. Near the end of the evening, a young lady raised her hand and asked, “Pastor Ray, when I listen to you speak, you always sound so certain about everything. Do you ever doubt?” I told her I thought that was a very important question. My answer was short and simple. Yes, I do have doubts. I don’t talk about them very much, but I doubt every day. (After I told this story on Sunday morning, a very godly man was concerned about that statement — did I really mean it? Absolutely, I said. I have doubts and questions that I cannot answer every single day.) I don’t know how a person can be a Christian and not have doubts from time to time. Faith requires doubt in order to be faith. If you ever arrive at a place where all your doubts are gone and all your questions are answered, take a deep breath and relax because you’ve arrived in heaven.
This is one of the hidden secrets of the church. We all doubt from time to time. Doubt itself is not sinful or wrong. It often can be the catalyst to new spiritual growth. As I have pondered the matter, I have concluded that our doubts tend to fall into three categories: First, there are intellectual doubts. These are doubts most often raised by those outside the Christian faith. Is the Bible the Word of God? Is Jesus the Son of God? Did he really rise from the dead? These are the doubts raised by the Da Vinci Code, the so-called Gospel of Judas, and the controversies stirred by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and other contemporary apostles of atheism.
Second, there are spiritual doubts. These tend to be the doubts of those inside the church. Am I really a Christian? Have I truly believed? Why is it so hard to pray? Why do I still feel guilty? Why is it taking me so long to get better?
Third, there are circumstantial doubts. This is the largest category because it encompasses all the “whys” of life. Why did my child die? Why did my marriage break up? Why can’t I find a husband? Why did my friend betray me? Where was God when my uncle was abusing me? These are the questions we meet at the intersection of biblical faith and the pain of living in a fallen world. In my experience these are toughest doubts of all, and we tend sometimes to sweep them under the rug and to put down those in the church who struggle with these issues. But when we refuse to deal with circumstantial doubts, they soon become spiritual doubts, and those spiritual doubts eventually become intellectual doubts. And then people start leaving the church altogether.
I. The Nature of Doubt
As we approach this topic, there are several things we need to understand up front:
1) Many people think doubt is the opposite of faith, but it isn’t. Unbelief is the opposite of faith. Unbelief refers to a willful refusal to believe, while doubt refers to inner uncertainty.
2) Many people think doubt is unforgivable, but it isn’t. God doesn’t condemn us when we question him. Both Job and David repeatedly questioned God, but they were not condemned. God is big enough to handle all our doubts and all our questions.
3) Many people think struggling with God means we lack faith, but that’s not true. Struggling with God is a sure sign that we truly have faith. If we never struggle, our faith will never grow.
Several months ago I wrote a blog entry called Is It Hard to Keep Believing? In it I recounted a moment during a board meeting of Keep Believing Ministries when I said, “It’s hard to keep believing.” I don’t think I had ever said those exact words before, but when I did, every head turned in my direction. I don’t want to say that it’s hard for everyone to keep believing, but I do think it’s hard for many people. When I asked my blog readers to respond, they were quick to offer their comments. A pastor shared this experience:
There came a trial for me and my wife when we knew that the Lord was using difficult circumstances to mold us, but we felt as if He had abandoned us. I’ll never forget that moment, standing in our kitchen weeping and feeling so very guilty for even thinking that the Lord had abandoned us. Since then, the Lord has brought us through many smaller moments of faith stretching, each time using a brother or sister in Christ to remind us of His promises and to help us lift our eyes of faith once again. It is so important to come along side of a struggling Christian and share your faith with them when they have little of their own.
Another pastor said this:
As I write this, it is Sunday morning 11:30 AM. I’m supposed to be in church…preaching. I’m not there today. Yes, sometimes it is hard to keep believing.
And someone else wrote these words:
Frankly, it is a relief to me to read these entries…sometimes I think we (my husband and me) are the only ones who are struggling in this way.
Then there was this thoughtful response:
I am one of those people who have always found it hard to “keep believing”. I envy those for whom belief in and love of God seem to come so easily and so passionately. For a long, long time, I struggled with feelings that something was wrong with me, that I was somehow spiritually inferior… until I read: “When they (his disciples) asked him (Jesus),‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: To believe in the one he has sent.’” John 6:28-29 NIV.
If I am rightly dividing my Greek dictionary, that word “work” means: toil, labor, work.
Work is hard, and Jesus said that it is work to believe. Finding it hard to keep believing does not mean that I don’t believe. It means that believing is hardly ever an easy, enjoyable, rather passive activity for me. In the moments of my life, I find that I am constantly having to come against doubts, the world’s lies and the devil’s accusations; I often have to let go of my illusions (and delusions) about God, evaluate and refuse incorrect feelings, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes it is a sheer teeth-clenched act of will for me to keep holding on and moving forward in faith, obedience, and the power of Christ. Sometimes, for long times, I find myself just shutting down until I’m ready (humbled enough) to do business with God again and seek His face and counsel. On top of all that, every victory seems to be followed up with a more challenging set of circumstances. For me, it never ends. I get weary and I have to fight discouragement all the time.
And I’m okay with that now – because I think that, messy as it often is, Scripture affirms that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I am doing, what is for me, personally, the hard work of believing. I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling.
I know a man who says that he has never doubted or found it hard to believe. Now this is a man I happen to greatly admire and consider to be a very close friend. He also said he had never really been discouraged in his whole life (80+ years). Because I know him well, I am happy to take him at his word. Part of the answer here is that we’re all wired differently by the Lord. If some people struggle greatly or repeatedly, others seem to have no trouble believing even in the worst of times. I suppose most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
That leads to me say that we needn’t feel bad if our experience doesn’t match up to someone else’s. And I’m glad we can talk openly about our struggles to believe. It’s healthy to air this out and to give each other some grace in this regard, knowing that we’re not all the same and our faith experiences are not the same (nor should they be).
But many Christians struggle with doubt and then feel guilty.It is to those believers that my words are directed. In order to get a biblical perspective, let’s focus on one man who doubted and how Jesus dealt with that doubt.
II. The Doubt of John the Baptist
Do you recall the occasion when Herod threw John the Baptist in jail because John dared to rebuke him for his gross sexual sin? No doubt confused and frustrated by his incarceration, John sent messengers to Jesus with a very pertinent question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3). That’s a powerful question if you think about it. And it may be troubling to some people to think that John has come to a point of such deep doubt. Having read a few of the commentaries on this passage, I am struck by how many of them clearly feel uneasy with John’s doubt. They seem to want to explain it away. And on one level, I can understand their discomfort. After all, we know that John had made one of the earliest public confessions of Jesus when he cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(John 1:29). Then he said, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (v. 34). Make no mistake. John knew who Jesus was. How could a man who was so certain about Jesus now harbor such doubt? The text does not provide an exact answer to that question, but I think I know part of the answer.
In 2000 I wrote a short “gospel book” for Moody Publishers called An Anchor for the Soul. It’s a simple presentation of the gospel in “Wal-Mart English” for people who don’t go to church and don’t know much about the Bible. Over the last seven years we have given away over 350,000 copies, most of them to prisoners through a partnership with Prison Fellowship and Good News Jail and Prison Ministries. As a result, we have received over 10,000 letters from prisoners. If you stacked them up, they would reach far above my head. I confess that until I started reading those letters, I knew very little about what it’s like to be in prison. My heart has been deeply moved by the accounts of the hopelessness most of them feel. No place on earth is more corrosive to faith than a prison cell. No place on earth is darker and more hopeless than a prison cell. Just this week I read a letter from a prisoner who said, “Being in prison is like being dead. No one wants anything to do with you.” Other inmates write about how the prison is Satan’s playground.
It is no wonder that as he languished in prison, not knowing when, or if, he would be released, John began to wonder, and then he began to doubt. He at least knew enough to ask the right question. “Are you the one sent from heaven, or is there someone else who will be our Savior? Are you really the promised Messiah?” The answer our Lord gives is very instructive. He does not rebuke John or put him down. He simply gives John the evidence he needs in order to regain his faith. Go back, he says, and tell John what you have seen.
Then he lists six miracles:
The blind see.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cured.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have the gospel preached to them.
Note what he didn’t say: “Tell John that I am the fulfillment of the Messianic promises of the Old Testament.” That is true, but he didn’t say it. “Tell John that I can walk on water.” Also true, but he didn’t say that either. “Tell John that I make the Pharisees look like fools.” Very true, but also not mentioned. Jesus essentially says, “Go back and tell John that in my name, the hurting people of the world are being totally transformed.”
Ants in the Pants of Faith
Then notice what happens next:
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ’I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:7-11).
John the Baptist sent his disciples from the prison to find Jesus in Galilee and ask him the all-important question. After answering the question, Jesus then shares with the crowd his high praise for John the Baptist. He is “more than a prophet,” he is the forerunner who was foretold in the Old Testament. No one born of woman has been greater than John the Baptist. Note carefully when Jesus says this. According to verse 7, it happened “as John’s disciples were leaving.” That means they heard the high praise of their master and no doubt relayed it to him back in the prison. But where was John at this point?
He’s still in prison.
He’s still wrestling with his doubts.
He’s still living with uncertainty.
He’s still unsure about Jesus.
He hasn’t heard the answer yet. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “John may doubt me, but I don’t doubt him. He’s still my man. He’s still on my team. I still believe in him.” He affirmed his faith in John while John was still in his doubts. He knew that underneath those doubts there was genuine faith. Jesus is saying, “He’s still my man, doubts and all.” What an incredible affirmation.
Above the front door of every church in the world, we should erect a two-word sign: DOUBTERS WELCOME. That should be the church’s message.
If you have doubts, come inside.
If you have questions, come inside.
If you are uncertain, come inside.
If you are a skeptic, come inside.
If you are searching for truth, come inside.
Doubt does have its uses. Deep doubt is often the prelude to an even deeper faith. I love the way Frederick Buechner expresses it: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving” (from the book Wishful Thinking). It is a wonderful truth that the greatest doubters often become the strongest believers. And honest doubts — once resolved — often become the bedrock of an unshakeable faith. It has been said that no truth is so strongly believed as that which you once doubted.
II. Five Ways to Move from Doubt to Faith
Doubt is not sinful but it can be dangerous. It can also be a spur to enormous spiritual growth. It’s what you do with your doubt that matters. Here are five suggestions about how to handle your doubt.
A. Admit Your Doubts and Ask for Help.
That’s what John the Baptist did. God is not fragile. He can handle your doubts, your fears, your worries, and all your unanswered questions. He’s a big God. He runs the universe without any help. Your doubts won’t upset him. Tell him your doubts, cry out and ask for his help. And don’t fight the battle alone. Go to a Christian friend, a pastor, an elder, a deacon, anyone with a strong faith and godly insight. Ask them to walk with you as you face your doubts honestly.
B. Don’t be Afraid to “Borrow” Some Faith.
Several years ago woman came up to greet me after the morning worship service. “You probably won’t remember this,” she said, and proceeded to tell me a story that, in fact, I did not recall. Some months earlier she happened to see while she was going through a very painful divorce. She briefly told me the story and said that she felt like she was losing her faith. On the spur of the moment, I replied, “That’s fine. I’ve got plenty. You can borrow some of mine.” I said it and then forgot about it. But when the woman recounted the story, she told me how much that had helped her. She had indeed “borrowed” some of my faith to get her through the hard time. Not only did I not recall the conversation, I must have had plenty of faith right then because I didn’t miss it when she borrowed some of mine.
I’ve told this story several times and each time heads nod. If “borrowing” someone’s faith doesn’t make sense to you, then just skip this point. But if it does, then keep it in mind. When you find yourself filled with doubts, go find someone filled with faith and “borrow” some of theirs. It works.
C. Act on Your Faith, Not Your Doubts.
That’s what Noah did when he built the ark. That’s what Abraham did when he left Ur of the Chaldees. That’s what Abraham did when he offered Isaac. That’s what Moses did when he marched through the Red Sea on dry ground. That’s what David did when he faced Goliath. That’s what Joshua did when he marched around Jericho. That’s what Daniel did when he was thrown into the lion’s den. That’s what Nehemiah did when he built the wall.
Don’t you think that all these great heroes of the faith had their doubts? Of course they did. They didn’t know in advance how everything was going to come out. But they took a deep breath, decided to trust God, and they acted on their faith and not on their doubts. Do the same thing and your faith will continually grow stronger.
D. Doubt Your Doubts, Not Your Faith.
This simply means that you should not cast away your faith simply because you are in the deep valley of darkness. All of us walk into that valley from time to time. Some of us spend a great deal of time there. But when you find yourself in that valley where all is uncertain and you are sorely tempted to give in to your doubts, fears and worries, remember these two words. Keep walking. Just keep walking. Nothing is gained by camping out in the valley of darkness. The only way out is to keep on walking. Every step forward is a way to “doubt your doubts.” Soon enough the light will shine again.
E. Keep Going Back to What You Know to Be True.
This, for me, is the most important point. After considering the sufferings of this life, and the perils and tribulations of following Christ, Paul concludes Romans 8 triumphantly by declaring, “For I am persuaded.” And he declares that nothing in all the universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In 2 Timothy 1:12 he says, “I know whom I have believed.”
Some things you think.
Some things you hope.
Some things you know.
In times of trouble, keep going back to what you know to be true. When I hit my 50th birthday five years ago, I realized that I believe less now than I did 30 years ago. Back then I thought I had everything totally figured out. Life has a way of knocking us down a few pegs. That’s certainly happened to me. So on one level, I don’t have total certainty about all the details of theology. In a sense, my knowledge is both greater and smaller than it was three decades ago. But what I know, I really know. I have a handful of convictions that cannot be shaken. I would include in that short list these truths: God is good, Jesus is Lord, the Bible is true, life is short, every day is a gift, people matter more than things, fame is fleeting, this world is not my home, and even hard times are meant for my benefit. And at the core of my faith is an unshakable belief in the sovereignty of God. He’s God and I’m not. He is sovereign over all the details of my life, and I can trust him completely even when those details seem to be spinning out of control.
Going “All In”
Let me illustrate. In every game of high-stakes poker, there comes a defining moment that separates the winners from the losers. You never know when that moment will come because it’s up to the individual players. There is a moment when a player says two words—”All in.” That means he thinks he’s got the best hand so he takes his chips and pushes them to the middle of the table. He flips his cards over so everyone can see them, and then he stands up. Going “all in” means that you are risking everything you’ve got on just one hand. If you win, you win it all. If you lose, you lose it all. That’s why it’s a high-drama moment. You can’t win a tournament unless you’re willing to go “all in” at some point. You’ve got to pick the right moment to risk everything in order to win. And you don’t know whether you’ve won or lost until you’ve gone “all in.”
It’s that way in the Christian life also. You can’t hold on to your cards forever. Somewhere along the way you’ve got to make a stand. Years ago I decided to go “all in” on Jesus. I pushed my chips to the center of the table and I decided to go “all in” that he is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that he is the Lord of the universe, and that he will someday take me to heaven. Lewis Sperry Chafer said that believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. I like that. If Jesus can’t take me to heaven, then I’ll never make it because I’m going “all in” on him. I don’t have a Plan B.
Recently I ran across a statement that resonated with my own heart: “One who has never doubted has only half believed.” By that standard, I’m not ashamed to say that I have fully believed because I have often doubted. But my doubts have only made my faith stronger in the end.
Just As I Am
In 1822 a young woman named Charlotte Elliott was visiting some friends in the West End of London and there met a noted minister named Cesar Malan. Over supper he asked her if she was a Christian. When she replied that she did not want to talk about the subject, the minister replied, “I did not mean to offend you. But I want you to know that Jesus can save you if you will turn to him.” Several weeks later they met again and Miss Elliott said that she had been trying to come to Christ but did not know how to do it. “Just come to Him as you are,” Mr. Malan said. Taking the advice to heart, she composed a poem that began this way:
Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
In 1849 William Bradbury set the words to music. Since then it has become one of the most beloved hymns of all time. For many years Billy Graham has ended all his crusade sermons with the singing of Just As I Am. The third verse contains Charlotte Elliott’s own testimony:
Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
And the last verse contains the gospel promise:
Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
That is also the promise God makes to you and to me. God never turns an honest doubter away. Never. Come to him with your doubts, your skepticism, your unbelief, your hard questions, your uncertainties. He welcomes your hardest questions. Doubt is not a sin. It’s what you do with your doubt that makes all the difference. Don’t let your doubts keep you from Jesus. Come to him just as you are—and bring your doubts with you. He will not turn you away.