Reflections on Doubt, Uncertainty, and God

I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts on the subject of doubt, specifically as it relates to the Christian experience. Most people go through times of doubt and uncertainty, questioning the ways of God, wondering when he will come through for them. I’m no exception myself. So, I thought it would be a good exercise to write out some reflections on the issue.

I remember talking to a friend (a Christian friend) who, after the sudden death of a loved one, began to have serious doubts about God’s goodness. I remember him telling me how this became a rather big struggle, an agonizing time when his life became full of fear, distress, and unbelief as to whether God truly was good. After all, how could a good God allow such nightmarish pain to come upon him? His was an honest question.

And it’s a common question, I’ve learned. Christians like my friend above experience doubts like these all the time. (And if you are a Christian who doesn’t, then count your blessings. You are quite blessed!) Unfortunately, though, many believers who do go through dark nights of doubt are simply too afraid to admit it. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because we see it as an abnormality, something unique only to us. Something must be wrong with me, we think to ourselves. After all, Christians are to trust in God at all times.

I was talking to another Christian friend once who told me there was a period in her life when she dedicated a lot of time in fervent prayer on behalf of an ailing, very sick child. Even though the young kid was suffering from a terminal illness, my friend was absolutely convinced that God would heal her. And her prayers of faith matched her confidence. She, along with many other sincere believers, prayed with all their heart, pouring their souls out to God on behalf of this young life. The child died a few days later.

My friend told me her prayer life has never been the same even though this event occurred decades ago. The reason, she supposes, is because there’s an implicit fear deep inside that, were she to commit herself to pray like that once more, she might walk away disappointed…again. She has a lot of doubts about prayer–perhaps even about God. She hasn’t lost her faith, but she has lost something. Doubt, at some level, has taken up residence in her heart, and there are no signs of it leaving. Of course, it’s easy for others to hear my friend’s story and come up with endless platitudes like, “Well, it must not have been God’s will to heal the child,” or, “The reason she has doubts now is because she was too presumptuous about what she thought God would do to begin with.” (People are quick to come up with quick-fix remedies, aren’t they?) I’m well aware of all the different possibilities as to why my friend has lost faith in prayer–maybe she did presuppose a little too quickly about God’s will to heal the child. But none of this concerns my point. The fact is, she is a committed Christian who has doubts. And no, she’s not what you would call an “immature” Christian. If you knew her like I do, you would quickly see just how much she loves Christ, cherishes his work on the cross, and believes in his resurrecting power. She’s even a dedicated leader of a ministry that helps struggling people every single day. Many people look to her for spiritual strength and comfort.

That said, my friend, perhaps like so many other Christians who struggle with doubt, is hard-pressed to find the energy and motive to pray for certain things. She’s not unique.

Although, when I stop to think about it, there is one thing about my friend that is actually quite unique, something that sets her apart from most Christians I know (myself, even): she’s upfront and honest about her doubt.

Most Christians I know (again, I’m not excluding myself from this group) are simply too afraid to admit doubt like my friend does, especially if they are a leader in the church. Fear, mostly, keeps us from such confessions. We don’t want to appear “weird” or “unstable” or “spiritually immature.” But as I search through Scripture, I discover the many godly leaders who, likewise, went through dreadful moments of doubt. The Bible records their wonderful stories, narratives that speak to how they played a central role in the divine drama; “heroes of the faith,” we call them. We often look at these heroes–Abraham, Moses, Elijah–as existing on a sort heavenly pedestal that served to keep them from struggles common to normal believers like you and me. But that’s unfortunate, for even these people, much like my friend above, had struggles too.

I was reading about one of those heroes of the faith this morning. Genesis 15 records the story of Abram’s covenant with God (actually, it’s better to say God’s covenant with Abram). At any rate, there’s a part where God speaks, telling Abram that his “reward shall be very great” (v.1). Despite not having a son of his own, he receives the promise that one day he will, in fact, have a son (v.4). This son, God told him, would be the beginning of a multitude of people, as numerous as the stars in the sky (v.5). After this, the Bible says that Abram “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (v.6). This story about Abram’s faith would later go on to be the cornerstone, one of the central pieces, of Paul’s argument in his letter to Rome (see Rom 4). For Christians, Abram (later, “Abraham”) has always been the exemplar as to what it means to trust in God. And verse 6 (above) tells the result of such faith, namely, the declaration of a righteous status before God.

But what happens immediately after v.6? We read the following:

And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he [Abram] said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 

This is striking. Abram just received the declaration of “righteous” from God himself, who recognized in Abram a faith that would go on to be an example for us all. And now Abram, the great hero of the faith, begins to… doubt? “How am I to know?” asks Abram. Is he struggling to take God at his word? I think so.

He appears to have a moment of doubt, and he’s needing reassurance. God does go on to make a covenant with him, assuring him that the promise will be fulfilled (vv.9-21). All the same, Abram shows himself to be much like me: a mortal, who, at times is full of faith-receiving righteousness, only to fall into doubts a moment later.

But if there’s one thing we can learn about the topic of doubt from this story, it’s that Abram exhibited honesty.

I’m a pastor, and every week I gather together with a sanctuary full of people. Sunday mornings are always fun, a family reunion of sorts. More often than not, everyone shows of a rather happy and joyful demeanor, sharing their “amens” and echoing each other as to how “God is good… all the time.” It really is encouraging to be together; one of my weekly highlights.

But I wonder about something. I’m curious how often it is the case that, on any given Sunday at any given church, there are people whose smiles are, well, fake. I mean, I wonder how many people walk through the doors of the church, wearing smiles and sunshine, talking about their faith in a good God, yet all the while suffer deep inside from things like fear, uncertainty, and doubt? I reckon there are more than a few, though I imagine most would be reluctant to admit it. I understand such hesitancy.

This is one area, though, where we can all learn from Abram. When his own heart became sprinkled with doubts and questions, he did the most logical thing there was to do: He told God about it. I can’t help but think he was able to do this because, deep down, he truly knew God was, for lack of a better word, “safe.” God, he perhaps thought, was a safe person to whom his own doubts and uncertainties could be shared.

I once heard a story from a Christian who, decades ago, went through a time of depression, uncertainty, and deep questions. He needed a safe person to share these things with, so he went to his pastor. For him, this was going to be a time of spiritual transparency–a gut-wrenching, even sacred, moment of vulnerability. Unfortunately, the story turns out that the pastor showed himself to be anything but “safe” to share such soul-searching questions with. Upon hearing about the struggling Christian’s story, the minister shamed him, essentially, for falling into such a low state of mind. He said his pastor told him that, “Christians don’t go through things like this,” implying that he was somehow sub-par as a Christian. Ouch. (Isn’t it funny how it’s often safer to share your uncertainties with God than it is before some pastors?)

At any rate, the Bible records many righteous folks who experienced doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. And these people were anything but “sub-par” believers. For example, there’s Moses who once bluntly questioned God, accusing him of mistreatment (Numbers 11:10-15). Elijah ran away one time, depressed and wanting to die (1 Kings 19). Jeremiah struggled too, cursing the day he was born (Jer 20:7-14). Habakkuk offered his own complaint, questioning God in the process (Hab 1:2).

These are some of our heroes of the faith. (Notice how I said, “of the faith“?)

I’m not saying we should always imitate these heroes, how they complained to God, doubting and questioning him. Far from it. Make no mistake: It’s a struggle, not a virtue, to doubt. What I am trying to say, however, is that our heroes struggled with… doubt. They struggled frequently, more than we realize (have you ever read the Psalms, for instance?).

Abram, like us, had his moments of doubt. But like other biblical heroes (though often unlike us), Abram wasn’t afraid to voice his doubts to God. Why is this so important?

Here’s a thought: Is it not true that those who can confess their doubts before God–knowing that he is a safe person to approach–are actually those who, in their confession, exhibit the most purest form of faith? I mean, think about it. If a person believes God is safe and loving enough to hear their doubts, then doesn’t it follow they actually do, despite their moments of doubt, trust him? Isn’t that what “faith” is all about, trusting God enough to come to him, to run toward him?

Abram’s doubt never proved detrimental. (His faith allowed him to receive “righteousness,” after all.) But, as one commentator put it, Abram did indeed have “misgivings.” [1] But such misgivings don’t have to do violence to faith, if (and only if) those doubts are expressed to God in honesty and transparency. [2] It’s important to remember, I think, that to go through periods of doubt isn’t to automatically fail to have faith in God (otherwise, our so-called “heroes of the faith” fail to be heroes at all). Rather, it’s when we experience doubt, yet never run to God–that’s what constitutes unbelief. That’s failure.

I say, let’s take our cues from our heroes. They weren’t flawless, nor were they immune to doubt and questions. They often showed times of faithlessness. Nonetheless, they remain true heroes of the faith. How so? Because they knew something we often forget: One way to show your faith is by running to God with, and in, your doubts–even when those doubts concern him. The most valiant act of faith one can perform is to be honest with God concerning their doubts about him.

Is this ironic? Quite so! Is it safe? Most definitely.

I want to reflect on this subject more in the days ahead. There’s a lot more to be learned and considered, for sure. But presently, I have come to realize that in the Christian worldview–not least in Scripture itself–there is room to accommodate fledgling mortals like you and me.

Let’s run to Christ, praying in doubt with faith: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Amen.

Notes:

[1] Pulpit Commentary, Gen 15:8.
[2] Ibid, quotes Calvin, saying that “questioning…God ‘is rather a proof of faith than a sign of incredulity.'”

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