Speaking Wisely About Doubt In The Church

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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Doubt is best worked through individually with trusted friends. If leaders confess doubts on major Christian doctrines, their congregations may lose confidence in their leadership, equate doubt with unbelief, or be thrown into an unnecessary crisis of faith themselves.

Christian author Joshua Harris recently announced that he was no longer a Christian. It seems that the Bible’s views on sexual morality were a major stumbling block for him, although there were probably other concerns. Songwriter Marty Sampson similarly released statements saying he was questioning Christianity but had been reading apologetics to try to keep the faith.  Thirteen-year-old Steve Jobs was troubled by the suffering of children produced by the 1968 famine in Biafra, Africa. After he asked his pastor whether God knew about this ahead of time, he replied, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knew about this.” The pastor offered no apologetic—no reason to believe in God despite evil (1 Peter 3:15)—to this young, brilliant and inquiring soul. Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson writes, “Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshiping such a God, and he never went back to church.

These examples should challenge us to consider the place of doubt in the life of the Christian and what pastors can do to address their doubts. Unhappily, many in the church don’t know where to turn when doubts arise. This must change. Jude tells us “to have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). In this essay, I won’t so much respond to doubts concerning the existence and goodness of God, or of the need for faith in Jesus for salvation, as I will outline a strategy for addressing doubt with love and integrity.

Shepherding the Flock Through Doubt  

Leaders in the church are shepherds of the flock. A good shepherd knows the health and strength of the sheep and attends to them properly. He doesn’t ask a weak sheep to pretend to be strong, nor does he punish a sheep who is lame. Those suffering from illnesses or the death of a loved one are prone to confess their needs and receive help in the church through pastoral visits and support groups. But those suffering from doubts are often ashamed and keep them to themselves, fearing being judged or even ostracized by fellow Christians. These fears may be warranted since Christians sometimes shoot their own wounded. So, the first thing a church can do to help doubters is to create a safe place for questioning the Christian faith. How might this be done?

Pastors and other teachers should address what the Bible teaches about faith and doubt.  Reading Os Guinness’s book God in the Dark is highly recommended. I offer a few truths to keep in mind.

The Bible calls us to have faith in Christ’s atoning work for our salvation. We are redeemed by God’s grace through faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8). Faith lays hold of the truth that God reveals to us in the Bible. Yet, faith is not the opposite of knowledge, nor does it require a blind leap in the dark.

Paul calls us to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). The contrast he draws is not between faith and reason, but faith and sight. Many of our beliefs are justified without being based on visual evidence. We may believe a book of history on the basis of testimony, for example. I believe you have thoughts, but I do not see your thoughts. In fact, God is invisible in His essence, so He cannot be directly seen at all. Thus, when Paul tells us to walk by faith, he means a reasonable conviction that runs deeper than what everyday sensory evidence can provide. But, Paul never foreswears reasons for faith. After all, it was Paul who gave such convincing evidence that Christ rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

To doubt God or His promises is not virtuous, as James writes.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That person is double-minded and unstable in all they do (James 1:5-7).

Yet if one is doubting, steps can be taken to remove or alleviate doubt. Before addressing doubt, a distinction should be made between unbelief and doubt. An unbeliever in Christianity doesn’t suffer from doubts. He simply doesn’t believe. But a doubting Christian is not an unbeliever. He does believe but is having difficulty maintaining this belief for some reason. One in this situation can take comfort from the man who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Jesus did not rebuke this man but granted his request that his son be delivered from a demon. Jesus encouraged the faith of the apostles when they confessed their need for more faith. He did not scold them.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5-6).

Even great biblical characters suffered from doubt, including the prophet who directly heralded the ministry of Jesus. When John the Baptist was in prison for challenging the morality of Herod, he sent disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He truly was the Messiah. Jesus’ reply was not harsh, but loving and intellectually based. He said:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me (Matthew 11:4-6).

Jesus cited the evidence that He was indeed the Messiah. Through His actions, Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophesies and brought the supernatural to bear on a distressed world. Jesus did not rebuke John’s probing question but answered it with compelling reasons for John to believe. Jesus’ response tells us that giving evidence for Christianity is one way to address intellectual doubts.

What about old “Doubting Thomas”? Didn’t Jesus rebuke his doubts? Thomas heard reports of Jesus’ resurrection but did not at that time believe it. So, he did not doubt Jesus’ resurrection. He did not believe based on the testimony he heard. Rather, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). When Thomas did see Jesus, he cried out,  “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). To this, Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Of course, the vast majority of Christians have not seen the resurrected Christ, as did Thomas and others at that time. We are blessed, Jesus says, and we can find sufficient evidence to ground our beliefs. Jesus never rebuked Thomas for his request for eye-witness evidence.

Many Christians have been told what to believe but have not been given the reasons why they should believe it. When an apologetics-deprived Christian encounters skeptical arguments, she may have a crisis of faith because she never knew the positive support for Christianity in the first place. I met a woman who had been a Christian for many years. After my talk on Paul’s use of apologetics before the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17), she told me she had never even heard of apologetics. After that, she started a blog called, “The Littlest Apologist.”

Two Positive Steps

Having discussed the general need for the church to teach about the nature of faith and doubt, let us consider two specific measures to help those who doubt.

Teachings in the church should not dodge apologetic issues, but relate to them when warranted.

If the fact that some find the Gospels unreliable were addressed in a sermon, a short apologetic on their historical reliability could be given during that sermon. But, do not stop there. Additional information, perhaps even an in-depth class or small group devoted to the topic, could be offered. Correlating topics reinforces each one. For instance, if someone were teaching on the attributes of God, it would be appropriate to give several arguments for God’s existence, since God cannot have any attributes if He does not exist! The Illustra video The Case for a Creator (2005), hosted by Lee Strobel, is superb, as is the book of the same title. Churches may want to host or promote seminars on apologetics which address common questions and doubts about Christianity pertaining to the reliability of the Bible, the uniqueness of Christ, the Bible’s view of sexual ethics, and more.

Many church leaders have suffered from doubt or have deeply questioned the nature and basis of the Christian worldview.

If one has faced these challenges and has come through them with greater confidence in the reality of God, then talking about this with a congregation is appropriate. However, it is not helpful—and may be dangerous—for leaders to voice their unresolved questions or nagging doubts publicly. These matters are best worked through individually with trusted friends. If leaders confess doubts on major Christian doctrines, their congregations may lose confidence in their leadership, equate doubt with unbelief, or be thrown into an unnecessary crisis of faith themselves.

From Doubt to Faith

We should not be surprised when confessing Christians express doubts. Nor should we when some purported Christians deny the faith they once held. The Apostle John writes of such individuals of his day.

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us (1 John 2:19).

God alone knows those whose doubts will turn to unbelief and apostasy. We should have mercy on those who doubt and do all we can to relieve their doubts with strong but lovingly applied doses of truth as we “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).

© 2019 Douglas Groothuis.

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