If I Believe, Why Do I Doubt?
August 14, 2005
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, Habakkuk. Many of the psalms touch on the theme of doubt and feeling abandoned by God.
Last year, the 20/20 singles group invited me to an “Ask Pastor Ray” night. That’s always fun because the group is lively, and they pepper me with unpredictable questions. That night 50 to 60 of us sat in a big circle in our 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.
I know that when I preach or when I write, I do sound very certain. Part of that is intentional. For one thing, I know what I believe, and I’m not shy about presenting my views in a forceful manner. When a man stands up to preach, he should preach his faith, not his doubts. People have enough troubles of their own without me adding to their burden. But having said that, I think the question deserves an answer.
Yes, I do have doubts. I don’t talk about them very much, but I doubt every day. (After I preached a sermon on this, one of the elders of the church was concerned about that statement — did I really mean it? Absolutely, I said. I have doubts and questions that come to my mind every single day.) I don’t know how a person could 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, you will know that you are 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? 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? 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 questions touch the intersection of biblical faith and the pain of a fallen world.
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 stronger.
It helps me to think of doubt as a kind of immunization. When you receive a smallpox vaccination, the doctor actually gives you a tiny portion of the disease. That tiny portion is just enough to activate your antibodies so that you have the strength to fight off the disease later. In the same way, doubts can actually end up developing a much stronger faith if we face our doubts honestly.
In order to flesh out this principle, let’s look at three men who doubted, and how Jesus dealt with them.
I. Three Men Who Doubted
A. The Father of a Demonized Son
“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24 ESV)
Every parent understands these words. Who among us has not looked down at a sick child and felt fear, worry and doubt overwhelm us? Often it is much easier to maintain our faith when we ourselves are sick. But let our children suffer, and the whole world seems to collapse around us. And if the suffering is great, as it surely was in this instance, we may find that we can hardly pray because fear has so gripped us. We may begin to doubt God’s presence and his goodness, and we may even wonder if somehow God has abandoned us. If the suffering is not soon relieved, we may become angry with God and turn from him altogether.
Certainly we have all said, at one time or another, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“Lord, I believe, but my heart is filled with doubt.”
“Lord, I know you can, but I’m not sure you will.”
“Lord, the situation seems hopeless. Help me to trust you.”
Here was a father with a son possessed by an evil spirit from his childhood. For years the spirit had caused the child to throw himself into the fire or into the water in order to kill him. Sometimes the child became rigid, foaming at the mouth. The primitive medical science of that day offered no help at all. When the man brought his son to Jesus’ disciples, they could not help him. Who can blame the father for saying to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (v. 22). The little word “if” hangs in the air, expressing both faith and doubt intermingled in this father’s tortured soul. For years, he has sought help everywhere and always he has been disappointed. Having heard about Jesus and his miracles, he brings the boy to his disciples, and they fail also. Who could blame him for doubting?
Jesus’ response is immediate: “Everything is possible for him who believes” (v. 23). The healing the father desperately desires hangs on his own belief. Will he believe? Can he believe? From his heart comes the truth: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Notice three positive aspects of the father’s statement: 1) He admitted his need. 2) He admitted it to the right person. 3) He asked for the help he needed. Here is faith deeply intermingled with doubt, and yet Jesus performs the miracle anyway. Evidently the faith mattered more than the doubt, because Jesus doesn’t even rebuke him for his unbelief. He simply heals the boy once and for all.
B. 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). In order to understand this, we need to keep two things in mind. First, 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. And that leads me to the second insight. In recent years, our church has sent over 250,000 copies of An Anchor for the Soul into prisons across America. As a result, we have received thousands of letters from prisoners. 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. 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 circumstances may have changed, but the question is the same one this generation is asking: “Jesus, are you the one or should we look elsewhere?” 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.” Matthew 11:7 says that as John’s disciples were leaving Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John the Baptist. He praised him by calling him “more than a prophet” (v. 9). Then he declared, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (v. 11). What a commendation by Jesus. But remember when it was given. Jesus spoke those words while John the Baptist was still nursing his doubts. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “John may doubt me, but I don’t doubt him. He’s still my man, doubts and all.” What an incredible affirmation.
It is impossible to talk about doubt without considering the man whose name has become synonymous with doubt, to the point that we call him “doubting Thomas.” In order to understand his story correctly, we need to know three pre-Easter facts about Thomas:
1) He possessed enormous courage.
Thomas first steps onto the stage of biblical history in John 11. Lazarus has died in Bethany — a suburb of Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples are in the area of Jericho when they get the word. When Jesus decides to go to Bethany, his disciples remind him that the last time he went near Jerusalem, the leaders tried to stone him to death. It would be suicidal to go back. Jesus decides to go anyway. But the disciples were unconvinced. At that point, Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). It is a brief statement that reveals enormous courage. Thomas agreed that the Jewish leaders would probably kill Jesus if he went back to Jerusalem. Events would soon prove him correct. But what can you say about a man who says, “If they kill him, they’ll have to kill me too?” It takes a real man to say that. There is love there, and loyalty, and despair, and sacrifice, and total commitment. It may just be that Thomas understood better than any other disciple what was about to happen.
2) He did not accept easy answers.
John’s gospel mentions Thomas one other time before the crucifixion. It is late Thursday night in the Upper Room. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet and given them the great command to love one another. Judas leaves the room to do his dirty deed. The rest of the disciples crowd around their Lord, knowing the end was not far away. To them — those loyal men who had stood with him in his hour of trial — Jesus said,
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place I am going (John 14:1-4).
Thomas has been listening quietly, intently, carefully. All this talk of coming and going is too much for him. It seems vague and mysterious. In a moment of great honesty, he blurts out, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Those are the words of a totally honest man. The rest of the disciples were just as perplexed, but only Thomas dared to speak out. We all know people like that—if they don’t understand, they won’t let it pass. They keep asking until it makes sense. That’s Thomas. And that’s a second key to his personality. He was an independent thinker, a thoughtful man, not easily stampeded. He wouldn’t make a confession of faith unless he deeply believed it to be true. Let others have a glib, easy faith that comes without reflection and deep thought. Not Thomas. His was a faith won through the agony of personal struggle.
3) He was fully devoted to Jesus Christ.
He was with Jesus during all the tumult of the last few days of his life. He was with him in the Triumphal Entry and he was with him when Jesus debated the Pharisees. He was with him in the Upper Room and he was with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. The picture we have of Thomas on the eve of the crucifixion is this: He is a brave man, intensely loyal and deeply committed to Jesus. If need be, he is ready to lay down his own life. He is no doubt inclined to look somewhat on the dark side of life. He is completely honest about his doubts, confusion and fears. And he won’t be satisfied with second-hand answers.
John tells us that Thomas was not present on that Sunday evening when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst (John 20:19-25). The Bible doesn’t say why, but I think I know. There are basically two different ways people respond to sorrow and tragedy. Some seek solace in the company of their friends. They want people around to help them talk it out. Others prefer to be alone with their thoughts. Such was Thomas. If it is true that Thomas realized more than the others what was going to happen in Jerusalem, then it may also be true that he was more deeply hurt. He was not with the disciples because his heart had been crushed. Everything he had, he had given to Jesus, and Jesus had died. He still loves, still cares, still wants to believe, but his heart is broken. He is not a bad man nor is his doubt sinful. Deep inside he wants to believe. Thomas is definitely not a skeptic or a rationalist. His doubts come from devotion to Christ. There is no doubt like the doubt of a broken heart. It’s one thing to doubt the Virgin Birth in a classroom setting. It is something else again to lose someone you love and wonder if there is still a God in heaven.
Thomas is not an unbelieving skeptic; he is a wounded believer. He was not unwilling to believe, but unable. Thomas stands for all time as the one man who most desperately wanted to believe if only he could be sure. After all these years, Thomas has gotten a bad reputation. Doubting Thomas, we call him. We tend to look down on him. But not Jesus. Eight days later, Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus speaks to him as to one whose faith is weak, not to one who has an evil heart. He said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). It’s worth noting that Jesus knew all about Thomas’ doubts. He knew the raging sea within his heart. And he came just so Thomas could be sure. Jesus didn’t put him down. He said, “Go ahead. See for yourself. Stop doubting and believe.” This means that 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.
As far as I can tell, Thomas never actually touched Jesus. It seems that simply seeing him face to face completely convinced him. Thus do the strongest doubters often become the strongest believers. When he sees Jesus, he rises to the highest level of faith in the gospel of John as he cries out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
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 the 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. Seven 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 seven simple suggestions about how to handle your doubt.
A. Admit your doubts and ask for help.
That’s what the father did in Mark 9. That’s what John the Baptist did. And in a way, that’s what Thomas did also. He plainly stated why he could not and would not believe until he saw the evidence for himself. 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. Recognize that faith is a choice, not a feeling.
It took me a long time to figure this out. For many years I tended to associate faith with how I felt at any given moment. It’s easy to feel like you’ve got a lot of faith when all is well, you’ve got money in the bank, your wife loves you, the doctor says you don’t have cancer, your children are doing well, your career is moving ahead, you’re happy at your church and all is right with the world. But what will you have when you run out of money, your marriage falls apart, you end up with cancer, your children have problems, you lose your job, your friends at church won’t talk to you, and life in general stinks. If all you’ve got is a “God of the good times,” then your faith is shallow indeed.
While doing a radio interview, I was asked how I could be so positive and confident when I spoke about God’s will. The man asking the question seemed burdened with many cares and difficulties. My answer went this way: “When my father died in 1974, I came face to face with the ultimate unanswerable question of life. I didn’t know then why such a good man would have to die at the young age of 56 or why he would leave my mother and her four sons without a husband and a father. I had no clue about what God was doing. In the years since then I have learned many things about life, but I confess that I still don’t understand why my father died. It doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. I am older and wiser but in the one question that really matters, I have no answers. But I have learned since then that faith is a choice you make. Sometimes you choose to believe because of what you see, often you believe in spite of what you can see. As I look to the world around me, many things remain mysterious and unanswerable. But if there is no God, and if he is not good, then nothing at all makes sense. I have chosen to believe because I must believe. I truly have no other choice. If I sound confident, it is only because I have learned through my tears that my only confidence is in God and God alone.”
C. Don’t be Afraid to “Borrow” Some Faith.
A few weeks ago, a woman in our congregation came up to greet me after the service. She said, “You probably won’t remember this,” and proceeded to tell me a story that, in fact, I did not recall. Some time ago she was going through an extremely difficult time that related to a very painful divorce. In the midst of it all, she saw me, briefly told me the story, and said that she felt like she was losing her faith. On the spur of the moment, I looked at her and said, “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 lately and each time, heads nod across the congregation. 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.
D. 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.
E. 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.
F. Understand That There are Some Things You Will Never Understand This Side of Heaven.
All of us have questions that we simply can’t answer. Often those questions revolve around the whys of life. Why did this happen? Why did it happen to me? Or to my children? Or to my wife? Or to my husband? Why did it happen now and not ten years from now? To all those questions of the heart, the answers will not come until we get to heaven. It is faith-building to say, “I understand that I won’t understand right now.”
G. Keep Going Back to What You Know to Be True.
This, for me, is perhaps 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 II 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 several 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, 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 is God and I am 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.
There comes a moment when we have to decide to go “all in” about what we believe. You have to look at your cards, look at your chips, and then you have to say, “All in.” That means you are risking everything on that one hand. If you’re right, you win it all. If you’re wrong, you lose it all. 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’m pushing my chips to the center of the table and I’m going “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.
Here is my final word to you. God never turns an honest doubter away. Never. Come to him with your doubts, your skepticism, your unbelief, your hard questions, your sincere uncertainties. He welcomes your hardest questions. How do I know that? Thirty-six years ago, when I was 16 years old, having just finished my junior year in high school, I struggled to figure out what I could believe. Although I was a baptized church member and a leader of our youth group, I had never truly trusted Christ as Savior. Miserable and confused, I knew something was wrong with my life, but didn’t know what to do about it. One day in June 1969, I sat down on the concrete steps outside my house and prayed a simple prayer, “Jesus, if you are real, come into my life.”
That’s not much of a prayer if you think about it. That’s a very shaky confession of faith. “Jesus, if you are real, come into my life.” He was and he did. And my life was changed that day and the change continues 36 years later. I know God welcomes honest doubters because he welcomed me.
If you have doubts, cry out, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Then get ready because that’s a prayer God will always answer. Amen.