Do you ever struggle with doubt? You do if you’re honest.
Doubt affects the lives of many believers. The reality is that no one’s faith is ever perfect in this life. That includes you. And if your faith is not perfect, then it can grow and become stronger today than it was yesterday.
I like to think of doubt as the gap between our current faith and perfect faith. If this is the case, we all doubt.
Not only this, but there is nothing Christians cannot doubt. Sometimes we doubt our salvation; other times we doubt God’s love. Many times we will even doubt the reliability of Scripture, the existence of God, or the identity of Christ. Even John the Baptist, whom Christ called the greatest man ever born (Matt. 11:11), once expressed doubt about the very identity of Christ (Matt. 11:3).
Here are seven principles to consider when dealing with doubt.
1. Have mercy on those who doubt.
Jude 22 tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt.” It is easy to judge, condemn, and look down on doubters as if they are second-rate Christians. But to have mercy on those who doubt is to be there for them, comforting and building them up.
Many times, this isn’t just an overnight bout with doubt that ends after a good night’s sleep. Some are doubters for a lifetime. It’s just in their nature. You need to learn to have mercy on them (and on yourself). You may have to answer the same questions over and over again. That’s all right. And it’s an opportunity for you to learn patience.
2. Realize doubt is often the birth pangs of deepened faith.
Many of us became believers at an early age, with a faith mediated through our parents whom we trusted implicitly. As we become older, our faith is tested though trials, temptations, and suffering (Job; Luke 8:5–15; Rom. 5:3–4; James 1:3).
This is why our most significant doubt often comes during our 20s and 30s. But this is not a bad thing. We all need to consider that the truths we espouse might be wrong, in order to embrace our faith more deeply. Such doubt often results in stronger faith.
3. Be ready to live with mystery.
Sometimes we want all the answers. We want complete understanding before we commit to God.
While God has revealed so much to us, and there is much we can understand, there are the “secret” things that belong to him alone (Deut. 29:29). We will never be able to comprehend the Trinity, or how God created everything out of nothing. But what we can comprehend is enough for us to rest in God when mystery arises.
4. Make the main things the main things.
Paul told the Corinthians he delivered to them things “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). He goes on to talk about the atoning death and vindicating resurrection of Christ as being most central to the faith.
So many of us doubt secondary issues such as how and when God created the world or the details of Christ’s return. There are many issues in the Christian faith about which there has been legitimate disagreement for centuries. All of orthodox Christianity, however, has always been in unity about who Christ is and what he did.
So when you begin doubting what you were taught about secondary issues, don’t get too bent out of shape. A lot of us are still working through these matters.
5. Live according to the faith you still have.
Doubt is not unbelief. Again, doubt is the bridge that connects current faith to perfect faith. And that bridge will stand until our death or Christ’s return. When we go through a faith crisis, though, we don’t naturally see things this way. Once doubt enters and infects our lives on a conscious level, we may interpret it as outright unbelief. We simply don’t know how else to process it. We think we’re on an inevitable road to complete unbelief.
Unfortunately, since we think this way, and since others may treat us as if we have the plague, we begin to live as unbelievers. If sin were not the instigating problem before, it becomes the chronic problem now. It’s important for those struggling with doubt to not let their doubt influence their lives such that they start living like unbelievers. Encourage doubters to continue to live as Christians, repenting and believing the gospel, even if they don’t always feel like Christians.
6. Doubt your doubts.
Why give your doubt a courtesy you don’t give your faith? Is your doubt so compelling that it can’t be questioned?
When we go through times of doubt, we need to make sure we are critical of our doubts as well. Doubt usually doesn’t offer a better solution; it just nags at the one we already have. For Christians, we can be sure that the central truths of our faith will never be outweighed by our doubt. Pestered, yes. But never, when we learn to doubt our doubts, should our faith be overthrown.
7. Work through the sin in your life.
I intentionally saved this one for last. Often this is the first place Christians go with a loved one in the crisis of doubt, in large part because it helps us put doubt into a discernible box. It also helps us to find a quick solution. “Oh, you’re doubting your faith? Okay, quit sinning! Next?” Obviously, doubt is often more complicated.
But we must recognize that personal sin is a faith-drainer. Disobedience to God will take a significant toll on your faith.
We’re all sinners, but some sins take a unique toll on our mind and worldview—especially if we attempt to justify them. For example, struggling with same-sex attraction is one thing; actively embracing homosexuality and trying to justify it biblically is another thing altogether. The toll here is not only moral, social, and physical; it also corrupts the mind. The effort to reinterpret the Bible in a way more friendly to homosexuality won’t remain isolated to this one category; sooner or later, the mental paradigm you constructed to make your sin acceptable will corrupt everything else.
In short, if there is something you know you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re not doing it, doubt will soon spread, and your crisis of faith will be hard to overcome. We need to gently ask these types of questions when the time is right. But simply accusing people of some deep-rooted personal sin right from the gun can be judgmental and embarrassing. Ask if there’s any sin that might be causing the person’s doubt. If the answer is no and you cannot readily identify anything as the cause, don’t push the issue.
Land and Country
I’ve found that there are primarily two types of doubters. The first are walking away from God and believe they’re finding freedom. The second feel they’re walking away from their faith and are deeply disturbed about it. The difference with the second is that they are always facing God, crying out with arms outstretched for him to help. Thankfully, in most cases, these doubters eventually return to the faith.
You may always, to some degree, live in the land of doubt. But it’s possible your particular land of doubt is still within the country of faith. Doubting your faith does not mean you don’t have faith. Jude 22 says we should have mercy on those who doubt, whether that doubt is in ourselves or in others. Let us do so.
This is an adapted excerpt from the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015).