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Ministering to Doubting Christians

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1. The Problems of Doubt

Instinctively, we are accustomed to the concept of doubt. Living after the Fall, doubts are the struggles Christians have to believe, or trust, the promises of God in Christ. Doubt is uncertainty – or a struggle to believe – in the heart of the believer. Matthew reports that some of the first followers of Jesus Christ had doubts on the Galilean mountain of the great commission (edistazan, Matthew 28:17). It seems best to understand these doubts not as rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ, in disobedient unbelief, but rather as a hesitancy to respond to the risen Messiah with joyful worship (Carson, 1995, 594).

We will narrow the scope of this paper by distinguishing two possible causes of such uncertainty, namely 'doubt' and 'lack of assurance'.

The latter is a Christian’s struggle to believe that salvation applies to them personally. Despite responding rightly to the gospel command in repentance and faith, the believer still lacks subjective assurance that the gospel promises of justification, reconciliation and adoption are effective for them as an individual. The poem Cowper’s Grave by Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes how the gifted poet and hymn-writer William Cowper endured this kind of fear himself. Indeed, France notes that such subjective assurance fears – fears concerning one’s own personal acceptance by God – may well have been what held those early followers back in Matthew 28:17 (France, 2007, 1112). When we encounter such struggles, we must respond with compassionate, sensitive bible teaching to reassure the sincere disciple of the promises of God.

However, in this paper we are primarily concerned with the former issue - doubts that arise from uncertainty about the objective truth of the gospel.

Such uncertainty is most likely to be connected in the believer with a tendency to drift into the prevailing non-Christian worldview around them. For a 21st Century British Christian, therefore, doubts may well be heavily influenced by the strong rhetoric and aggressive style of new Atheists such as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Doubts of this kind undermine the joy of the Christian in their salvation, as they fear it may be untrue. Doubts undermine the whole-hearted service of a disciple, as the doubting Christian begins to 'hedge their bets', holding back from the radical, rewarding sacrifices the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to make because of lurking concerns that their hope is unfounded and this fleeing earthly life is all that there is. One wonders, therefore, if doubt is in fact far more common than is ever admitted, and underlies many other pastoral problems, because one of the results of doubt is often disobedient behaviour. The will of God is ignored because it is not believed.

Worse still, doubt can cause a professing believer to fall away altogether. The triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards, who professed faith throughout his athletics career, made the following tragic and extraordinary statement in an interview with David Powell in The Times in June 2007: 'Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’, you are already on the path to unbelief. … When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.' We submit that this statement demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it means to 'think rationally' that is heavily influenced by the Atheism and secularism that pervades late-modern Britain.

Before we investigate further the biblical material on faith and doubt, one more distinction must be made if we are to minister faithfully to Christians with doubt. The bible holds together a tension between (i) assurance of God’s sovereignty, and that He preserves all believers; and (ii) warnings that the believer is responsible, and must not fall away. In ministering to Christians with doubt, one must prayerfully seek wisdom about how this tension is to be applied. A Christian may seek help from us with a presenting issue of doubt in a situation where they would be most helped not by hearing the warnings against falling away, but rather by the being reassured with the comforting promise that God finishes what He starts, from passages such as Philippians 1:6 and 1Peter 1:1-2. All ministry of this kind must be sensitively person-specific.

2. The Causes of Doubt

Doubts are often caused by unbiblical expectations of the Christian life. God’s word coheres perfectly with God’s word, but where a Christian has not aligned their thinking with Scripture, that coherence can seem to be undermined, leaving the Christian concerned that His worldview may be untrue. In such situations, our response must be to bring God’s word to bear faithfully upon people’s lives. The Bible is a rich storehouse of material that directly and specifically addresses many common causes of doubt today. Several examples are listed below.

  • Where a believer has doubts because of personal suffering, we can encourage them with 1 Peter 1 and the book of Job. They can be reassured by Psalm 88, the lament psalm that ends on a note of agony and desperate isolation. This lament can resonate powerfully with the experience of the faithful disciple, but wonderfully, we must be assured in suffering that Psalm 88 finds it’s true fulfilment in the experience of our saviour - in his sufferings on our behalf.

    • When ministering to suffering Christians who are surprised by the issues they face, it is also striking to notice that Paul chooses to begin and to end his magnificent section in Romans on 'living under grace' with passages on the reality of present suffering: Romans 5:1-11 and Romans 8:18-39 (Moo, 1996, 293-295).

  • A believer may have doubts because they are failing to feel emotionally engaged with the gospel, and would benefit from a study of Psalms 42 and 103.

  • A believer may have doubts specifically caused by the apparent prosperity of the wicked in this life, an issue directly addressed by Psalm 73 and Habakkuk.

  • The ongoing battle with sin, and experiences of apparent failure to address besetting sins, can leave a Christian with doubts about whether they are really saved, and whether the Spirit is really dwelling in them to empower them to change. Galatians 5, however, encourages us that it is normal for Spirit-filled Christian to experience inner conflict in the fight for godliness.

What we will turn to for the remainder of this paper, is doubt caused by intellectual objections to the Christian worldview. These can be exacerbated in the believer by lack of gospel fruit in evangelism, as they encounter objections to their faith in dialogue with non-Christians, often accompanied by unsettling levels of anger at and mockery of their faith.

3. The Evidence for Faith

The Christian worldview is founded upon eye-witness testimony. Throughout John’s gospel, evidence is provided that leads to belief, and belief leads to life (John 20:30-31). Our ministry to doubting Christians must therefore include reassurance that the Christian worldview is true, based as it is upon reliable evidence.

In John’s prologue, either side of the breath-taking promise that those who receive Christ are given the right to become children of God, are two references to John the Baptist (John 1:6-8; 15), the witness who testifies concerning the light. Luke begins his Gospel with assurance that his account is based upon eye-witness testimony and careful investigation (Luke 1:1-4). John appeals to his own eye-witness testimony when he seeks to assure believers of their salvation (1 John 1-4). Peter seeks to persuade his readers that the day of the Lord will certainly come by appealing both to the prophetic word and to his own eye-witness testimony of the transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-21). Throughout Acts, Paul seeks to evangelise through reasoning and persuasion. His reminder to the Corinthians of the gospel is rooted in the historical facts of the death of Christ, the empty tomb, and eye-witness testimony of the resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15).

The Christian worldview is perfectly consistent, in that the Bible reveals the one unfolding plan of God, the depths of which we could never exhaust. It is perfectly coherent with reality, in that only Scripture makes sense of the world. And it is perfectly compelling, in that only the gospel can make sense of the human heart, meeting humanity’s deepest needs and providing unrivalled hope and joy.

In ministering to Christians with doubt, we call them back to the evidence for faith. Where they have sincerely held, specific objections, we give an answer, challenging uncertainty in the believer just as we would challenge unbelief in the questioning unbeliever (1 Peter 3:15).

However, in our experience, Christians often do no more than resort to this kind of evidence when confronted with doubts. The doubting Christian is given a book on evidential apologetics, but nothing more. The danger of this is that it presents an inadequate view of the nature of thinking and intellectual conviction. At its worst, such an approach invites the believer to accept the secular assumption that there is a neutral place from which one can assess the claims of the Christian worldview – an intellectual fence to sit on, where Jesus is not Lord but we can still agree upon reasonable standards of evidence and proof, argue the case for and against the Christian faith, and draw correct conclusions. This approach is so pervasive in 21st Century British education, it can be readily accepted almost as 'common sense'. But it is not true, as we will see, and it is therefore very dangerous indeed.

4. Idolatry and Faith

When we come to the Bible’s material about faith and doubt, we meet a paradox. While providing us with all the evidence we need for faith, Jesus is also very clear that, in weighing up the evidence about him, our minds are not neutral at all. Consider his words to Nicodemus about unbelief:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. (John 3:18-20)

Moreover, Jesus declares in John 7:17 that it is those whose will is to do God’s will who will know the truth about him. For all the intellectual argument and conjecture, fundamentally people do not believe in Jesus Christ because they prefer to live in darkness. Belief would expose their deeds as being evil.

As we live surrounded by non-Christians we see a crowd of well-educated people and we hear an overwhelming, thunderous bombardment of well-crafted, fine-sounding arguments, but in all of it Jesus simply sees and hears rebellion against his rightful rule.

How, then, does this love of darkness manifest itself in our society as intellectual unbelief – an unbelief that influences Christians and leads them towards hesitancy and uncertainty in their faith? The biblical language of idolatry is very helpful in making this connection for us.

As mankind rejects God, he turns to idols (Jeremiah 2:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Ovey provocatively describes British Christians, therefore, as Atheists in a polytheistic society. British unbelievers have replaced God with a plethora of idols, and Christians are Atheists in the sense that they are seen and heard to deny the divinity of those false gods. Ovey writes, 'Tertullian … points out that an idol stands pro Deo (‘for God). Something can substitute for God either by passing itself off as God and trying to look as much as possible like the real thing (Aaron’s golden calves fall into that category) or simply by distracting and obscuring our view of the real God so that we look at the idol and not at God. I suspect many of our culture’s idols fall into that latter category. … For our time, we have many gods, some crass like wealth and sexual pleasure, others not ignoble in the right context, like equality before the law and freedom of speech – ideological idols. … This means that as Christian Trinitarian monotheists we are deeply at odds theologically with a culture that is polytheist but does not know it.' (Ovey, 2013, 202-203).

A society such as ours, which is unknowingly polytheistic, will also fail to appreciate the far-reaching effects of its idolatry. In Romans 1, Paul clarifies the awful predicament that the world is in without Jesus Christ, setting out two revelations of God. First, God’s eternal power and divine nature are revealed in creation; and secondly, God’s wrath is revealed in his giving up of unbelievers to their own godlessness and wickedness:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

When we observe wickedness, it is not simply a cause of the wrath of God. Rather, it is a revelation of the wrath of God. Why?

The world around us declares the glory of God. It’s as though everything in the universe, from the Orion Nebula to the Mississippi Delta, from the orang-utan to the water vole, from Victoria Falls to Palm Beach, everything is crying out to us, 'We have been made by a glorious creator!' And yet many people look at the world around us, they see 'what has been made', and they say, 'There is no maker'.

We are accustomed to thinking that this is a legitimate neutral position.  But the Bible tells us that this is a suppression of the truth about God. People would rather reject God and pin their hopes for life on other things than accept that God is there. So they continuously reject the revelation of God’s invisible qualities, suppressing it as we might push down on the boot of a full car that keeps springing back up at us whenever we let go.

What is essential for our current discussion of the causes of doubt, is that this idolatry affects, not just our desires, but our thoughts as well. As fallen people our hearts are turned away from God, and so our thinking follows suit.  Paul goes on to say as much in the next verses:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:21-23)

Do you see the way things progress from bad to worse?  As fallen human beings turn away from the truth about God, our thinking becomes futile.  And so we choose to build our lives on other things – on false gods - rather than turn back to the God who made us.  Here is a great irony in the Fall of man. We stole the fruit, seduced by the offer that we would gain knowledge, and the ensuing idolatry changes our thinking so that it becomes futile. We sought wisdom and became fools. This is the noetic effect of the Fall.

In the 1990s the singer-songwriter Brian May wrote a song called, 'Let your heart rule your head'. The singer tries to persuade a woman, for one night, to stop thinking so sensibly and carefully about their relationship and instead to rush in and trust her feelings. Do you see the assumption? Our heads are neutral, and cautious; our hearts are open to being seduced, jumping in and making decisions we might regret in the cold light of day.

The Bible is clear that we cannot separate our hearts from our heads like that. The truth is much more complicated. Our hearts already influence our heads – all of the time. If we do not want something to be true in our hearts, then our minds will look for reasons to avoid thinking it’s true. In fact, the contemporary distinction between the heart – as the seat of our desires – and the mind – as the place of our thinking – is unbiblical. When Paul talks about the 'mind' in Philippians, for example, he is referring to something more than simply our cognitive reasoning. The mind in Scripture is the control centre of the self – an overlapping concept with that of the heart. This biblical use of the terms is much more helpful, in that it identifies for us the close connection between our affections and will, on the one hand, and our thinking and reasoning on the other – a connection that modern language about hearts and heads obscures.

The problem we all have, when it comes to God, is that as fallen human beings our sinful nature simply does not want him to be there.  We don’t want there to be a God who can rule over us. We certainly do not want there to be a judgment day. Even subconsciously, we will be attracted to any reason we can to avoid the notion that we might be accountable to a perfectly good creator for how we live. 

This connection between our hearts and our heads is something all of us has, whether Christian or non-Christian, and from which none of us can escape. So, notwithstanding the invaluable role of evidence we have discussed in Section III, if our minds are not neutral, how should this change the way we minister to one another when struggling with doubt? It is to that question that we now turn.

5. Application to Ministry among Doubting Christians

First, it is vital that we encourage one another to remember the noetic effects of the Fall in the world – the world, that is, in rebellion against God. Very often, doubts in the believer are influenced and exacerbated by the opinions and arguments of non-Christians around them. They are affected by the sincere concern of non-Christians they love and respect, who seek lovingly to reason with them that their faith is simply not true and that they are wasting their life. In the midst of that, they are exposed to the public ridicule and condescending dismissal of their faith, by people they know and by respected people in the media who treat the Christ of the Scriptures with mockery and abject scorn.

But thinking in line with God’s word helps enormously in these situations. Scripture tells us that this is not just an intellectual battle. Something spiritual is going on. We live in a society united in suppressing the truth about God - a world that is so devoted to its idols, it is absolutely determined to reject the revelation of the true and living God.

In rare moments of candour, this inherent bias is even admitted. The renowned atheist writer Aldous Huxley wrote, 'I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning, consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption' (Huxley, 1969, 270). The Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel shares that his work had a similar foundation. In his book The Last Word, he admits the following:

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. (Nagel, 2001, 130-131)

We must encourage those to whom we minister to think theologically about unbelief – to remember the noetic effects of the Fall. Doing so should leave us far less unsettled when people around us do not believe in Jesus, and even when arguments are raised against our faith to which we do not yet have a response. The Bible assures us that everything around us reveals and declares the glory of the God who made it. The Bible gives us perfectly sufficient revelation of God in Jesus Christ for us to believe and to have life in his name. It is just that rebellious, fallen humanity is doing whatever can be done to airbrush God out of the picture so that his rightful rule can be ignored. We do well to remember this and take courage when we feel surrounded by opposition and unbelief.

Secondly, we should encourage one another to remember the noetic effects of the Fall not just in the world, but also in ourselves. We can and should nurture a healthy self-suspicion. We must not be guilty of making our own rationality into our saviour. When we – or those to whom we minister – complain of feeling consumed by lingering doubts, it is entirely appropriate to consider whether those doubts are being nurtured and developed beyond any appropriate perspective by a sinful, unbelieving heart.

We should encourage doubting Christians to doubt their doubts. Every doubt about the Christian faith presents a different worldview. We need to get better at subjecting our doubts, as rival belief systems, to the same level of intellectual scrutiny as we do the Christian worldview. For example, if Jesus were not the only way to God, and salvation could be found through other world religions, what sort of a god must there be? And on what grounds and evidence ought you to give up on the biblical worldview in order to believe instead in a 'god' like that?

Moreover, as we recognise doubt as a spiritual – not just an intellectual – issue, it should encourage us to pray to the giver of faith. Faith in Christ is a gift, and we, like the father of Mark 9:24, ought to have the humility to petition the Lord Jesus Christ to help us with our unbelief.

Finally, the noetic effect of the Fall should encourage us to tackle doubts by seeking to diagnose and challenge personal idolatry. As Thomas Chalmers made clear in his influential sermon, 'The Expulsive Power of a New Affection', we can only displace idolatry in our hearts by replacing it with a renewed and greater love for Jesus Christ. By proclaiming him, and renewing our gaze upon him in the Bible we can smash the idols of the heart that threaten to draw our worship away.

Again, wisdom is required here. This is not to say that Christians who have genuinely held intellectual obejctions should be rebuked and called upon to repent of unseen idolatry. It is very common to have sincere intellectual objections, and quite right to seek appropriate evidential answers to those objections. We must not hide them away, because the Christian worldview is true, and so the answers can be found.

However, we have seen that our minds are influenced by our hearts. This can only be compounded by the way doubts are sometimes addressed in practise by Christians, who retreat from the centre of church life on to the fringes, feeling the need to withdraw from Jesus Christ while they weigh up intellectual arguments about competing worldviews. The more we shift our focus away from Christ because of our doubts, the more that we risk becoming infatuated by other things – turning good things around us into 'god-things' and worshipping them instead. The more that happens to us, the less we will want the Gospel to be true, and that will affect our thinking. Our doubts will get worse.

No, the solution to doubts can never be to withdraw from Jesus Christ. The solution to doubts is to focus more upon him. Following Jesus Christ is an all-or-nothing experience, and it’s as you go for it with the whole of your life that your conviction grows. As Jesus promised in John 8, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'

Those who respond to doubts by continuing to invest whole-heartedly in living out the Christian worldview in everything they do, nurturing and developing their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, reminding themselves of the gospel message, and responding with lives of love, tend to grow in their certainty. If we worship straight, we can think straight.

In conclusion, when ministering to Christians with doubt, we do keep going back to the evidence. We do not shy away from asking tough questions and exposing our faith to intellectual scrutiny. The Gospel is still true. We remind one another of the many sound reasons why Jesus Christ of the Scriptures is worth trusting with everything.

But we do all of this while listening to God’s word on issues of faith and doubt, so that we remember the effects of the Fall. We recognise that there is no neutral space in which to weigh up the claims of Christ. We interpret the unbelief in the world around us – and any uncertainty in our own thinking – using the biblical material on idolatry and the warning that sin affects one’s ability to reason. From this insight we must draw great encouragement and comfort not to be swayed from our own convictions by an unbelieving world, and we must also be challenged not to drift away ourselves because of an unbelieving heart.

Hebrews 13:20-21.

 

Bibliography

Ash, Christopher. (2009) Teaching Romans volume 1: unlocking Romans 1-8 for the Bible Teacher. Ross-shire: Christian Focus.

Ayers, Martin. (2012) Keep the Faith. Sydney: Matthias Media.

Ayers, Martin. (2010) Naked God. Sydney: Matthias Media.

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Beynon, Graham. (2008) Mirror, Mirror. Nottingham: IVP.

Carson, D. A. (1995) Matthew Chapters 13 through 28. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: with the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Ed. Gaebelein, Frank E. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1995.

Frame, John. (1994) Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed.

France, R. T. (2007) The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Huxley, A. (1969) Ends and Means. London: Chatto and Windus.

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McGrath, Alistair. (2006) Doubt in Perspective. Nottingham: IVP.

Moo, Douglas. (1996) The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Nagel, T. The Last Word. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, Randy. (2004) Questioning Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Kregel.

O’Brien, Peter. (2010) The Letter to the Hebrews. Nottingham: Apollos.

Ovey, Mike. 'From Moral Majority to Evil Disbelievers: Coming Clean about Christian Atheism' Themelios 28 (2 2013): 202-2-4. Cited 18 February 2014. Online: http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/themelios/Themelios38.2.pdf.

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Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (2008) Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  

Martin Ayers

Martin Ayers is curate of All Saints Preston in England. He is the author of Keep the Faith: Shift Your Thinking on Doubt (Matthias Media, 2012).

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