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HOW TO HANDLE YOUR DOUBTS

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THE CAPACITY TO DOUBT

  • After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Acts 1:3.

  • When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Matthew 28:17.

  • Jesus said [to Thomas], 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.' John 20:29.

    Physical resurrections aren't common, so I for one don't blame Jesus' disciple Thomas for doubting the reality of Jesus' conquest of death. 'We have seen the Lord' some of the others told him. Thomas retorted: 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe!' (John 20:25).

    And yet - full credit to him - when Jesus appeared to Thomas and convinced him, Thomas uttered the greatest affirmation about who Jesus really was in all of Scripture: 'My Lord and my God!'

    Doubts, questions, uncertainties, skepticisms face every honest enquirer after truth. The capacity to doubt is one of God's greatest gifts to us. Without doubt there would be no discovery, no progress; we would all simply accept what we're told, and live comfortably with the status quo.

    The Origins of Doubt

    Doubt has three origins: insecurity, instability, or integrity.

    Insecurity: There are some people who are 'temperamental doubters'. They are negative thinkers who always see the dark side of everything. They find it easier to doubt than believe, to be negative rather than positive, to be cynical rather than affirmative. Some with an inferiority complex may try to parade their intelligence by questioning everything and believing nothing. Others seem to get a kick out of upsetting the simple faith of earnest believers.

    Some use doubt as a cover-up for their own guilt. A professor said to Billy Graham, 'I have long said that there were intellectual difficulties to my becoming a Christian. This isn't true. The difficulties are moral. I'm not prepared to accept the moral demands of Christ.' This kind of doubt is, in one sense, dishonest - a failure to look hard at the evidence because the doubter doesn't want to discover the truth. I have met many intellectuals who are very insecure - albeit clever - people, who use their doubts as a cover-up to opt out of the struggle for faith.

    A second cause of doubt is instability. A university student wrote to his pastor. He explained that a year before he had a strong faith, and actually wanted to be a preacher.

    That was in his last year of high school. But now - 'Philosophy 101 and no God, let alone Christianity.' He explained at great length how none of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God hold water. He attacked many of the traditional doctrines of Christianity...

    Part of growing up is leaving behind the unexamined assumptions of childhood (and maybe Sunday school). Piaget, a psychologist, says adolescents begin to think differently they move from 'concrete thinking' to an ability to think 'formally' or 'abstractly'. Children can draw God. Adults can conceptualize God as omnipresent Spirit...

    Paul was referring to this when he said that the way a child thinks and an adult should think are quite different. The challenge for 'grown-ups' is to shed childish concepts while remaining 'childlike'.

    A young man came up to the well-known American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, and confessed with some distress - that he no longer believed in God. 'So you are an atheist,' said Fosdick. 'Describe to me the kind of God you don't believe in.' The youth then outlined the childish ideas about God in whom he could no longer believe. 'My boy,' said Fosdick, 'that makes two of us. I don't believe in that God either.'

    A third origin for doubt is integrity. There is more genuine faith in the person who insists on being sure, than in the one who has never really thought out their beliefs. It is not wrong, or sinful, to doubt. We mustn't be afraid to challenge long-held beliefs. The only faith that is worthwhile is that which is not afraid to question anything. Nothing is too sacred for honest analysis. Doubt which springs from integrity is very healthy.

    If You Doubt Sometimes, You're in Good Company!

    One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see. John 9:25.

    A great American preacher of a generation ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick, once preached a sermon on 'The Importance of Doubting Your Doubts'. In it he listed several great Christians who were plagued by doubt:

    'What a radiant Christian faith [William Lyon Phelps] had. But listen to him in his autobiography: 'My religious faith remains in possession of the field only after prolonged civil war with my naturally sceptical mind.' That experience belongs in the best tradition of the great believers. John Knox, the Scottish Reformer - what a man of conviction! Yes, but remember that time when his soul knew 'anger, wrath and indignation, which it conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt.' Increase Mather - that doughty Puritan - what a man of faith! Yes, but read his diary and run on entries like this: 'Greatly molested with temptations to atheism.' Sing Luther's hymn, 'A Mighty Fortress is our God,' and one would suppose he never questioned his faith, but see him in other hours. 'For more than a week,' he wrote, 'Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God.'

    '[I write] for the encouragement of someone struggling with unbelief... The noblest faith of the church has come out of that struggle. You don't really possess the Christian faith until you have fought for it.'

    [Harry Emerson Fosdick, 'The Importance of Doubting our Doubts' in What is Vital in Religion, London: SCM Press, 1956, pp. 92-93.]

    Positive or Negative Doubt

    Pascal, the 17th century French thinker, wrote in his Pensees: If you know God but do not know your own misery, you will become proud. If you know your own misery but do not know God, you will end in despair.

    So, to paraphrase another beautiful bit of wisdom from Pascal: If you cannot be Christian, at least be honest. There are two kinds of people we can call reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him, and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him.

    There's nothing wrong with doubt, provided it's the right kind of doubt. Negative doubt is cynical, not wanting to come to a knowledge of the truth. Constructive doubt can lead to faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but unbelief. Doubt is 'can't believe'; unbelief is 'won't believe'. Doubt is honest; unbelief is obstinate. Doubt is the process of looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.

    How about the relationship between faith and reason? 'Faith consists in believing what reason does not believe,' wrote the eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire. Surprisingly, the Church has generally endorsed that view. Faith is not based on credibility, nor on the accumulation of probabilities, according to a document of the First Vatican Council. Faith goes further still. Voltaire again: 'Faith consists in believing, not what appears to be true, but what appears to our understanding to be false.' 'It is certain,' declared the early Christian thinker Tertullian, 'because it is impossible.'

    St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, put things in the right order when he said, Credo ut intelligam, 'I believe in order that I may understand.'

    WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR DOUBTS

    There are four things we can do with our doubts:

    (1) Admit them. If your doubts are real it's stupid to believe they're not there. They won't just run away. They'll continue to lurk in the shadows of your mind. But when we honestly face our doubts, often they're not so terrible; when examined in the light of day, they turn out to be only harmless shadows. To pretend you've never had any doubts is to be mindless (or a hypocrite). I once heard of a preacher who couldn't face his doubts. In the margin of his sermon notes he'd write 'Point weak - shout!'

    (2) Examine them. The unexamined life is not worth living. Christianity is making some remarkable claims, when you think about them. Like, only one human of the thousands of megalomaniacs who've claimed to be God is actually right! His friends claim he came back to life after being truly dead. He will come again to wrap up history...

    There are various books by lawyers and others who couldn't swallow these preposterous claims, and set out to examine the evidence... and were convinced! The strength of Christian evidences may surprise you.

    (3) Discuss them. Don't fight your battles alone. There are some old campaigners around who'd be delighted to help you do battle with your doubts. And in every university there are full professors who are humble Christians - and who have worked through the same doubts you're facing. Read some good books about the Christian faith. There is a book (or website) which answers your questions!

    (4) Suspend them. If, after all your efforts, nagging doubts remain, put them into a little compartment at the back of your head labeled 'To be investigated later.' If you're honest, you won't be bogged down in what you can't believe, but will act on what you can believe. The great philosopher Descartes did that, and worked his way right back to Cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am. Starting with that assumption, he came eventually to believe in God.

    EVIDENCES OF HIS REALITY

    There can never be anything like 'blind faith' for intelligent people. God doesn't expect you to believe without question something outside your experience.

    That's why he invades our history with evidences of his reality. To the Israelites he revealed himself in mighty miraculous works. To us he has come in the reality of Jesus, who lived among us, told us what God is really like, died and was buried, and came alive again.

    When Jesus said to Thomas 'Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe' he was not putting Thomas down for wanting solid evidence. He was simply saying that, when the Holy Spirit comes, the reality of his work in our lives and minds will be different. We can have an inner assurance that is of a different order to Thomas' need for concrete reality.

    Those Whom God Rewards

    Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6.

    Christianity is essentially relational. You don't know all about your spouse when you marry, but the areas of ignorance are overshadowed by a strong, loving faith. The blind man who was healed by Jesus (John 9) couldn't answer all his critics' questions but was able to affirm: 'One thing I know, once I was blind, now I see.'

    Faith, in the biblical sense, does not have to begin every day at the beginning and prove everything all over again. We don't require that of science; why should we require it of religion? In both areas there are certain presuppositions we believe in, and build on. A scientist does not begin a day's research by examining again the law of gravity.

    The faith of which the Bible speaks proceeds on the assumption that Jesus is divine, that therefore God is, and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him.

    And those who live out this faith in God find remarkable corroborative evidences of God's activity in their lives.

    Herbert Butterfield, professor of modern history at Cambridge University put it well: 'Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.' The great biblical scholar, Dr. Lightfoot, said 'My faith suffers nothing by leaving a thousand questions open, so long as I am convinced on two or three main lines.'

    Those who major on their beliefs rather than their doubts, find God to be very real. 'Feed your faith, and your doubts will starve to death' is good advice. 'Cleave to the sunnier side of doubt' advised Tennyson. Live out your beliefs, and your doubts will cease to plague you.


    SCRIPTURES AND PRAYERS FOR DOUBTERS

    It is God alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 1 Timothy 6:16.

    Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. Mark 11:23.

    We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed driven to despair. 2 Corinthians 4:8.

    When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11. Lord Jesus, you said I can't enter God's realm unless I am childlike. But deliver me from childishness in that process. Help me to be simple, without being too simplistic. I ask for the gift of honesty, Lord. And once I am convinced about the basic evidences for Christianity, help me to move on from there. Amen.

    Lord God, if ever I am in bondage to self-doubt, and am fearful about knowing the truth which would set me free, please release me from this burden, so that I may be uncluttered in my search for your reality. Amen.

    Help me Lord to figure out where my doubts originate, and to move in my thinking towards integrity. Thank you that for so many over the years the Christian good news has pierced their darkness and mystery with a convincing ray of light. Amen.

    Lord Jesus Christ, if I doubt, at least help me to be an honest doubter, seeking truth rather than merely trying to be clever. Amen.

    Lord, I continue to ask all sorts of questions to which I find no answer. The light given to me is not nearly all I could desire. But perhaps it is all I really need. Lord, I have not seen you physically, but I believe. In all of life I operate by faith - when I sit on a chair, or take an elevator, or drive in a car, or eat a meal. So help me Lord in the realm of the spirit to live by faith too. Amen.

    Lord, you have given me your Spirit to confirm your reality within my spirit, to teach me your truth, to lead me in your way, and to generate faith hope and love in my life. I surrender! Amen.

    Today, Lord, I echo the words of Martin Luther's 'doubter's prayer':

    Dear Lord, Although I am sure of my position, I am unable to sustain it without You. Help me, or I am lost. Amen.

    Inscrutable, mysterious and wonderful God, I trust you! Amen.


    FOR DISCUSSION

    Select some or all of the following:

    1. Share with your group some of the real issues about the Christian faith and life that have caused you to doubt the reality of God's existence or his love.

    2. Jesus accepted Thomas' assessment of who He was - 'My Lord and my God'. It's the only time in the New Testament anyone says this of Jesus. Why is it hard for us - or others - to make this 'exclamation of faith'?

    3. 'Faith and doubt are not polar opposites. They are consecutive steps in the one process.' What does that mean?

    4. On the John Mark Ministries' website there is a three-part review/summary of the book 'Why Some Eminent Philosophers Believe in God' (http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/aasi/aasi0002.htm). Why do these highly intelligent people find God through their experience, rather than via their rationality? Is it true that most of us will never believe in God through reason, but through emotion. Why?

    5. 'Personal desires shape our understanding of truth, rather than our understanding of truth shaping our personal desires' (John Claypool). Is that your experience?

    6. Do you agree with this statement by William Barclay? 'If someone fights their way through their doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, they have attained to a certainty that the one who unthinkingly accepts things can never reach.'

    7. 'Resolving our doubts is not the same as finding answers.' Do you agree?

    8. A teacher of Religious Instruction in a high school in Sydney said (in frustration) to a teenager who was asking lots of questions 'Don't ask so many questions, just believe.' Five years later, that young person said that comment was the main reason he was not a Christian. What comments would you make on that?

    9. How about this: 'Real faith isn't about becoming totally convinced and having all the evidence or that it all makes perfect sense. Real faith is believing the evidence you do have and then making a choice to risk trusting it by putting your life down on it: choosing to live by God's principles, truth, and values and remembering that all of life is about relationship with God and learning to love and follow Him.'

    10. Why believe in the existence of God?

    11. What do you say to the person who says 'I don't believe in God because if God existed there wouldn't be all the suffering that exists on this earth'?

    12. When an American Fundamentalist leader was asked (on an Australian radio program): 'Do you believe Noah's flood was universal? If so, how did he get Australian koalas across to the Middle East 4,000 years ago - and back here again - when everyone knows there wasn't a land bridge then between Australia and Asia?' The preacher got angry and accused the interviewer of atheism and lots worse, and didn't respond to the question. Why, do you think?

    13. 'It is almost impossible to feed your faith if you are a solitary Christian.' Do you agree with that?

    14. In most cases of depression, one's faith in God is dying a steady, slow death. Many feel that God no longer cares about them. They find it difficult to read their Bible, to pray, and to attend church. People who experience loss and unfairness, and then depression, often feel they have a strong case against God. One woman who was struggling through her own doubts about God said, "If God can take away my husband and my health, why can't He take away my depression? I have a difficult time believing that He's on my side considering all that has happened to me." How would you help in this situation?


    Written by Rowland Croucher, July 2001.

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