Use Your Doubt to Seek God
- Teresa Turner Vining Guest Author
- 2001 17 Sep
Every time there was a sermon on faith, I would listen intently, hoping the speaker would actually tell me what to do if I found myself lacking in faith. Unfortunately all the sermons I heard concentrated on the importance of faith, which, in my opinion, any child in Sunday school could have told me. They never explained how I could muster faith if I already knew I needed it. Apparently faith was something either you had or you didn't, and I obviously didn't because I was constantly hounded by doubts and questions.
That kind of reasoning led me to a riddle I couldn't solve. It seemed that either faith was something God granted arbitrarily at some magic moment to some people and not to others or faith was something some people just had naturally from birth, just as some people naturally had dimples or blue eyes. In either case, it didn't matter how much I wanted faith; if I didn't have it, there was nothing I could do. And this left me back staring at the wrong side of a rock-hard wall.
Cracks in the Wall
Around this time I stumbled onto Jeremiah 29:13, which says, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." At this point my doubts were so strong I couldn't have said for sure whether I even believed the Bible to be true. However, this verse gave me a glimmer of hope that if it was true I wouldn't be stuck on the wrong side of the wall forever, as long as I was willing to search for God with all my heart.
I found the same promise in Matthew 7:8: "For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." And as I looked closer, I began to see it threaded throughout the entire Bible.
I also found the Bible mentioned some surprising instances of people who seemed to suffer from doubt -- people Jesus didn't send away empty-handed. When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent a delegation to Jesus to ask Him if He was the Messiah or if they should look for another (Matthew 11:2-3). That sounded like doubt to me. And of course Thomas, one of Jesus' own disciples, didn't believe the others when they told him about the resurrection (John 20:25). Another man who brought his son to Jesus to be healed said, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us" (Mark 9:22, emphasis added). That sounded like the kind of pitiful statement I might have made. Later this same man cried out to Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24), echoing the contradiction I found in my own heart.
In none of these cases did Jesus turn the doubter away. Jesus told John the Baptist's friends to go tell John about all the miracles people were experiencing as evidence that He was the Messiah. To Thomas, Jesus stretched out His hands and let him feel the nail prints. And to the man with the sick son, Jesus showed His power by healing his child.
Based on Jesus' response to these doubters, how do you think He would respond to your doubts?
The Nature of Faith
These examples of New Testament doubters helped me begin to see three things about faith.
1. Strong and weak faith. Faith isn't some magical substance that we either completely have or completely don't have. And the existence of doubt doesn't necessarily mean the absence of all faith. If the man with the sick son had had no faith, he would not have brought his son to Jesus. And if I had had no faith, my doubts wouldn't have bothered me and I wouldn't have been scouring the Bible and listening to sermons trying to find the remedy.
2. Seekers welcome. God doesn't arbitrarily turn people away for flunking the faith test. We may have faith at differing levels at different times, and as long as we are committed to seeking God we can trust Him to give us what we need to strengthen our faith. Faith is a gift from God, but the Bible indicates it is a gift freely given to those who seek it. That doesn't necessarily mean we can expect God to appear physically to us or show us an obvious miracle when we doubt, but it does mean that somehow, though perhaps in a different way than we expect and in different timing, He will give us what we need for faith.
3. Not just a blind leap. I had heard faith defined as belief in something you have no reason to believe, and I couldn't understand why God would value such a leap against the intellect. To hold that kind of faith seemed comparable to my randomly choosing some stranger off the street to put in charge of everything I own -- or worse yet, my family's safety. Who in their right mind would do that? And if faith was like that, how was I supposed to decide which religion to blindly follow? Under the blind leap system I could just as easily follow Buddha or Mohammad as Christ. How could I know which was true?
But the accounts of doubters in the Gospels helped me see that faith taught in the Bible is actually rooted in fact. Each time doubters came to Jesus, He gave them something to help their unbelief. To John He gave the evidence of His miracles. To Thomas He gave the evidence of the nail scars. And to the father of the sick son He gave the evidence of a healed son.
The Reason in Faith
You may be surprised to hear that the Bible teaches that faith is grounded in facts. Many people characterize faith as being both illogical and anti-intellectual. However, the Bible depicts its message as something that can be supported by evidence and understood by the mind.
In Isaiah, God invites the Jewish people to come and reason with Him (Isaiah 1:18).
Jesus instructs His disciples to love God with all their heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27).
After explaining salvation through Christ to King Agrippa, Paul pleads with him to seriously consider his words and adds, "What I am saying is true and reasonable" (Acts 26:25).
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his job as "defending and confirming the gospel" (Philippians 1:7).
Peter instructs Christians to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15).
The Trust in Faith
But saying that the faith taught in the Bible is based on fact does not imply that faith ends there. It is as if fact is the root system for faith - the basis - and the spiritual working out of that faith is the tree.
Having faith isn't really like putting a stranger in charge of everything I own; it is more like what I did when I married Erik. He gave me a good reason to believe I could trust him as my husband, but it was still a matter of faith for me to make those vows. On our wedding day I could not prove to myself or anyone else that Erik would fulfill his part of the commitment. I just had to trust him to do so based on the integrity and love he had demonstrated in the three years we'd dated.
As Clark Pinnock says in A Case for Faith, "Faith ... does not involve a rash decision made without reflection. ... It is an act of the God who confronts us with His reality and gives us ample reason to believe that He is there."
So Why Do Christians Struggle So Much with Doubt?
I used to have a disturbing suspicion that the very existence of doubt in my life and in the lives of other Christians was surely a strong argument against Christianity. Why would committed Christians continue to question the very basis of their faith? Why would God allow doubts to cripple Christians even after they have decided to follow Him? The only reason I could think of was that perhaps God is truly not there and we are just attempting to convince ourselves of some extravagant fairy tale.
Needless to say, many skeptics would agree heartily with this reasoning. But since that night in the chapel I have stumbled onto another possible explanation. I couldn't see it at the time, but looking back I am amazed to discover that it was actually my doubts and questions that drove me to become more serious about my faith and led me to a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God.
I suspect that if God had simply revealed Himself to me during my experiment in the chapel, I would not have begun seeking Him wholeheartedly, as I did in His silence. Things that come easily are too easily taken for granted. I never spent more time praying or prayed more sincerely than when I faced the true implications of believing God did not exist.
"A twice-born faith, a rebuilt faith," a Quaker pastor named Rufus Jones wrote, "is superior to an inherited faith that has never stood the strain of a great testing storm. If you have not clung to a broken piece of your old ship in the dark night of the soul, your faith may not have the sustaining power to carry you through to the end of the journey."
Doubt actually can work to drive us toward God if we let it. It can motivate us to reexamine our foundation to make sure it is not faulty, and it can be a doorway to new insights that we never would have unlocked otherwise.
This is especially important for those who have grown up in the church as I did. Since my earliest awareness I had accepted Christianity based on the faith of my family. If I was going to take my faith seriously, it was inevitable that a time would come when I would have to examine Christianity for myself to see if I actually believed its claims. This is a more difficult process for some than for others, but all of us must go through it if we are to develop a mature faith. And this testing of our faith will continue throughout our Christian experience to nudge us out of our comfort zone and challenge us toward continued growth. ...
But the power for good that doubt can have in our lives comes only in the strength and insight we gain in confronting it. If we are wrong about what we believe, doubt can be the agent that drives us to discover our fallacy. If we are correct, doubt can be a catalyst compelling us to confirm our beliefs and gain an even greater understanding of them. But if doubt is left unaddressed, any benefit goes unrealized, and it can become a destructive force. ...
We can choose to face the challenge our doubts bring, we can live in denial pretending as if our doubts do not exist, or we can give up before we give faith a chance. Only in the first of these options can true resolution and peace be found.
The first step in overcoming doubt is to earnestly commit ourselves to seeking truth. As mentioned earlier, the Bible makes it clear that God wants you to seek Him with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and that when you do, He will reveal Himself to you. This is a spiritual attitude of making the search for truth a priority in our lives and committing ourselves to accept truth when we find it.
This attitude makes sense regardless of whether you believe Christianity is true right now. If we really want to know if Christianity is true, it is only reasonable to try doing the things the Bible indicates will help us in finding God. And even if Christianity is not true, it only makes sense that if there is any god out there and if there is anything we can do to discover that being, it would begin with committing ourselves to the quest.
The second step is to roll up our sleeves and begin firmly establishing what we believe about spiritual things and why.
Excerpted by permission from Making Your Faith Your Own: A Guidebook for Believers with Questions, copyright 2001 by Teresa Turner Vining. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com, 1-800-843-4587.
Teresa Vining, a professional writer and speaker, is the coauthor (with Brad Humphrey) of This Thing Called Christianity. She is also the director of Kansas City Christian Writers Network, and lives with her husband and their two sons in Kansas.
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