I have some doubts in life. I doubt I will ever be wealthy, because of the career path I have chosen (indeed I would prefer to not be). I doubt I will ever win the Iron Man Triathlon, though I would love to race in it someday. I doubt I will ever travel to space, though my imagination resides there 85% of the time.
There are also some things in life about which I have assurance. I am sure that I love my family deeply. I am sure that I will one day die. I am sure that any difficulty I am currently experiencing with eventually pass. And I am sure that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord, that he died for me, and that I am a child of God.
But my assurance of that last sentence was not always so.
This morning on the radio I heard a song that talks about how God comforts us when we doubt. As I began thinking about the words, I realized that a lot of our contemporary Christian music talks about doubt and grief in on way or another, and I think this is so because so many of us do wrestle with doubt. We sometimes doubt that God’s promises are true, we doubt that we are freed from sin through Christ, we doubt that our situations will ever improve, and we doubt that God really loves us, no matter that John 3:16 says.
Notice here that we are talking about professing believers in Jesus Christ, not the unsaved. For those who have not yet come to know Jesus as Lord, doubt holds much bigger sway, and with much more significant implications. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to talk about that in another post.
For now, why do you suppose that it is so hard for many Christians to believe, without some trace of doubt? Maybe it will help if we first define what doubt in the life of a Christian is, and what it is not. Let’s start with what doubt is not.
What doubt is not
Doubt is not sin. There will be some who tell you that to doubt is to lack faith, and to lack faith is to sin. This can not be farther from the truth. Many of the Church’s faithful have experienced moments of doubt in their lives. Sometimes this is the result of life situations, sometimes it is dues to an inquisitive mind seeking to more fully understand God’s truth and mystery. What is important to remember is that doubt does not equal lack of faith. Doubt is not itself sin, unless we allow it to persist to the extent that it becomes a barrier between us and God.
Doubt is not a sign of weakness. I know that when I have wrestled with doubt, I have tended to view this as some weakness in my character. I have wondered at times why other people don’t seem to struggle with questions of faith the way I have at times, and for a long time I assumed there was a problem with me. But doubting does not make a person weak, unless it takes control and becomes the primary way of viewing life. It is one thing to have doubts. It is another thing entirely to become a doubter, for whom all things are suspect or unreliable.
Doubt does not mean you aren’t a child of God. One of my biggest fears earlier in life coincided with one of my biggest doubts – that I was truly a child of God. For much of my early adult life I struggled with assurance of my salvation. This was due in part to factors we will discuss below of sin, broken promises, and a misplaced desire for independence. But sometimes people lack assurance for other reasons.
John Wesley, the subject of my doctoral research, early on thought that those who were “born again” received immediate assurance of their standing with God. It was something he taught as an expectation for all believers…until he learned that this isn’t always the case. When confronted with testimonies from many people who had come to faith in Christ, but who did not receive assurance until later (sometimes much later), he modified his teaching and recognized that God gives the gift of assurance in different ways.
Just because you are wrestling with doubt (of assurance or anything else), it doesn’t mean you aren’t a child of God. If you profess Jesus Christ and your Savior and Lord, believe that he died for your sins and rose again from the grave, and have confessed your sins to him, you are a heir of God and co-heir with Christ. Doubting sometimes can’t take away this glorious gift of God. If your doubts are in Jesus and his sacrifice, then you aren’t a Christian to begin with. Christians are by definition those who believe in and follow Christ.
Now that we have identified some things that doubt is not. Let’s talk about what doubt is.
What doubt is
Doubt is the result of broken promises. Most doubt is grounded upon past experiences of unfulfilled promises. Think about it, if everyone you ever know had always told you the truth and kept their promises to you, what basis would you have for doubting that what someone else tells you is reliable? Unfortunately, for most of us this is not our experience. We have all experienced hurt, and loss, and broken promises. All of these things contribute to our skepticism. They make us prone to doubt.
The Bible tells us that God is not only truthful, but that he is truth itself. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life for all those who believe in him. God does not give false witness, and he does not make false promises. His word is reliable. How do we know this? When God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed everything that Jesus said about himself.
Though we may be prone to doubt, we must learn to echo the words of the apostle Paul, who said “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Doubt arises out of the guilt of sin. Though I found this hard to admit for a long time, part of the reason I doubted my own salvation and doubted in the promises of God was because I was living in sin. I came to faith in Jesus at an early age, and for most of my youth I lived what might be called a “good” existence. I made mostly good choices, I mostly avoided evil, I went to church, I thought I loved God, and I asked for forgiveness from him when I committed sins. But I remained a baby in faith. I didn’t grow spiritually, because I didn’t spend time with God, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t pray regularly, and I feared more than loved God.
When I became a young adult, my sins increased and so did my doubts. I doubted in God’s promises, because I doubted that I could inherit them as I was. I doubted in my salvation, because I knew that I should be living differently. I was calling Jesus Lord, but that was really just lip service. I believed in Jesus, but not enough to change the way I lived.
With sin comes doubt. This is partly because all sins separate us from God, and it is difficult to trust in someone you don’t know. This is partly because we experience guilt from our sins, which causes shame and leads us to hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.
If you are wrestling with doubt, I would encourage you to examine your life and ask God if any sin remains in you. He has promised us not only that we will have freedom from the guilt of sin, but that we can also experience freedom from the power of sin in our lives. Through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. We can choose to not sin.
Doubt is the product of a misplaced desire for independence. Another factor contributing to my doubts was my desire to be self- sufficient. We have been told a huge lie, particularly in the West. We have been told that people make their own success. We have been told that people have to learn to pick themselves up and become self-reliant to make it in this world. We have been told that the only person we can trust is ourselves.
Scripture tells us that we are to be dependent on God and rely on him for all that we have and are and do. He is the source of life as our Creator, and he both loves and sustains us. When Jesus told his disciples to not worry in Matthew 6, he did so on the basis that God knows what we need better than we do, and that he loves us. We don’t need to be independent. Independence isolates, it creates fear and doubt. Dependence, on the other hand, is inclusive, and it creates joy and peace.
Doubt is the result of misinformation. Let’s be brutally honest here. One of the greatest causes of doubt for Christians is a lack of knowledge. We are often ignorant of God’s truth. We don’t know him and we don’t understand his promises. When I wrestled with doubt I was treating God like a long-distance friendship. I went to him with my needs, and occasionally said hi, but most of the time I acted as though he wasn’t anywhere nearby.
Christians, we have to stop living this way. God has condescended to teach us his truths and to demonstrate his love through Jesus Christ. He has given us his scripture and he speaks to us in prayer. If you were in desperate need for help and there was a phone sitting net to you, would you ignore it, doubting that anyone would pick up on the other end, or would to call 911 with the expectation, the hope that someone would hear your cries for help and come running to you?
Why then do so many of us fail to spend regular time in God’s word and in prayer? He has given us these means of spending time with him and communicating with him. We have a direct line to the Living God through his Son Jesus. Why on earth would we choose to push aside such incredible gifts? And yet many of us do (notice I include myself here).
When we do not live on the word of God, we cannot know or understand his promises and truth. When we do not know him it becomes much easier to doubt him.
The truth is that many Christians experience doubt at some point in their lives. Equally important to understanding doubt is to recognize what we must not allow doubt to become.
What doubt should not become
Doubt should not be allowed to develop into fear. From cover to cover, scripture tells us that we are not to fear. Fear cripples us and leads us into sin. The antidote to fear is belief. So what do you do when you lack faith and are having trouble believing? Ask God to increase your faith, and he will be “faithful” to do so. Faith is a gift of God. It is not something we gain by our own work, but something that is freely given. Do you fear? Ask God for a greater measure of faith, and you will be amazed by the peace that comes with reliance upon God.
Doubt should not produce hopelessness, but rather its opposite. When doubt has become so prevalent that it becomes a default mode, it can quickly turn into hopelessness. It is nearly impossible to maintain a sense of hope when nothing around us appears trustworthy. The Bible tells us that God’s promises are true and that he has plans for us. We have been promised that those who trust in Jesus will have eternal life with God and that we will experience the resurrection. These are the content of Christian hope. But how can one hope in something when doubt reigns?
Doubt should not become persistent. As I have said several times before, it is common for Christians to experience doubt at some point in life. However, we must not allow those moments of doubt to persist. When doubting persists, it produces fear and hopelessness, and ultimately leads to sin. And sin separates us from God.
So, must Christians doubt?
I have heard some people say that, until a person has wrestled with his/her faith, it isn’t a vibrant faith. I completely disagree with this. I have known those to whom God has given a lively, vibrant faith, and yet have not wrestled with doubt the way that I have. I think some personalities are more prone to doubt, but I also think that some people accept God’s gift of faith as just that, a gift that doesn’t need to be dissected or pulled apart and reassembled in order to be enjoyed.
This is the essence of a childlike faith. It is by no means an immature faith, but a true faith that rests in the promises of God, seeing them as what they are.
I did not possess this type of faith at first. For many years, I wrestled with doubt. I didn’t doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he truly died on a cross as an atonement for sin, or that he was raised again from the grave. I didn’t doubt that God has promised eternal life for those who place their trust in him through Jesus. What I did doubt was that he could ever forgive someone as awful as me. I had no doubts that he could save me, but I had doubts that he had saved me.
But just because I did doubt, it doesn’t follow that I must doubt. Nor does it follow that all Christians must doubt. The Bible is full of God’s promises to humanity. Because he is trustworthy, I know his promises are true, and my hope rests in those promises. But here is the rub. No one can prove to you that God is reliable but God himself. He has shown his trustworthiness in that he raised Jesus from the dead. He has demonstrated his faithfulness throughout history, and we can read about this in his word. But until a person experiences God’s faithfulness personally, all of this other evidence is anecdotal.
So far, I have been talking to Christians, those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I want to take a brief moment to talk to everyone else. If you have not yet experienced God’s faithfulness for yourself. If you have doubts about all of this Christianity stuff. If you just don’t feel like you have the strength to believe, there is hope for you too.
The Bible tells us in 1 John, chapter 1 that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Do you hear that? It doesn’t say that when we confess our sins, God looks down on us and condemns us. It says that he forgives us AND purifies us from all unrighteousness. He makes us clean, and new. He fulfills his promises IN US.
If you want to experience a new life, free from a myriad of doubts, then turn to Jesus Christ. Place your trust in him, in his death on a cross for your sins and his resurrection from the dead, confess your sins to God, and ask him to make you new. He will be faithful to do so as a free gift of grace.
What to do as a Christian when you doubt
So what about those Christians who are experiencing doubt? Fortunately for us, the Bible is loaded with people who doubted. First and foremost were Jesus’ disciples (not just Thomas), who doubted that Jesus’ way of ushering in God’s kingdom was the right way, and who doubted in Jesus after his death, and before they saw him resurrected. Fortunately, the road that leads from doubt to assurance is well-worn and straight as an arrow.
Repent of your sins. If you are wrestling with doubt, first examine yourself and ask God if there is any sin that remains in you which might be contributing to your guilt, your shame, and your doubt. If so, confess your sins to God and he will be faithful to forgive you and wash you clean from all unrighteousness. This is the first step toward trusting in God’s promises for you.
Press into the promises of God. Then press into those promises. What I mean by this is to lean on, to rest on the promises God has made to us in this life and the next.
Remember that faith is a gift from God. Next, remember that faith (the antithesis of doubt) is a free gift from God. You cannot earn your faith. You cannot create it on your own. But if you ask God to give you faith, he will do so.
Ask God to give you assurance. And finally, ask God to give you assurance that you are his child. As a father, I know that my children need to hear that I love them regularly. As a son, I know that my security rested in knowing that my father loved and cared for me. God is our heavenly Father, and he loves his children. If you ask him to give you assurance that you belong to him, and you have repented of any sin that separates you from him, then he will lavishly bestow that gift of grace that only he can give. Right now, you can receive the greatest gift that a child can ever receive – the assurance that:
“This is my Son [or daughter], whom I love; with him [her] I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
Don’t doubt. Only believe.