A Bout with Doubt: When Faith Has Lost Its Fizz
I am the quintessential questioner. My questioning does not stop at my faith. I’ve lobbed many questions God’s way. I’ve questioned and expressed doubts about my Christian faith, about the Bible, about many issues of faith. About now, some of you are elbowing your neighbor and saying, “Can you believe he said that? Can you believe this pastor expressed the fact that he sometimes has bouts with doubt? Wow!”
A lot of you right now are breathing a big sigh of relief. “I thought I was the only one! Man, that frees me up. You mean a man of the cloth deals with doubt?” The answer is “yes.” Yes, I do.
Whenever you talk about doubt, it’s interesting to think about the demographics of it, because there are three specific doubt demographics. The first demographic would be those who are pre-doubters, those who say, “Well, I’ve never really had a doubt but, you know, maybe one day I will doubt.” If that’s you, let me tell something—you definitely will doubt one day. You are going to doubt. You might have not doubted so far, but you are going to.
Another slice would be those here who are doubters. Now and then you have those nagging questions, those issues, those statements that you really ponder, that you grapple with, that you turn over and over on the rotisserie grill of your mind.
The other demographic represented are those who are dead. The only way you will never doubt is if you don’t have any brain waves anymore, if you are dead. Author Philip Yancey said it best. He said, “God’s invisibility guarantees I will experience times of doubt.” In other words, we all are going to get involved in bouts with doubt. It’s going to happen.
Maybe you are asking this question: “Does God really love me? Can this huge and sovereign God really show his desire for me?” Some of you have questions like that. Others of you are saying, “Can God forgive me? Can he really wipe the slate clean? Can he really turn his back on the stuff that I have done? Can God forgive me?” Others of you are saying, “How can a good God allow all the pain and the suffering and the turmoil to go on? How? I have a hard time with that one.”
Maybe you are asking, “How does evolution square with creation? I have a hard time reconciling the supernatural in this rationalistic world.” Maybe you are asking this, “Is the whole Christian thing just where you were born?” Maybe you are saying, “If I was born into a Muslim household or a Buddhist household or a Hindu household, I would probably be a committed Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu like I’m a committed Christian. I mean, is it just where you are born?”
It’s okay to doubt. Express your doubt. Talk to others about them. If you don’t face your doubts squarely, you are going to be in a heap of trouble. If you cower, or you say, “Whoa, I’m having a doubt. I’m having a question. I’m having an issue,” your doubts can dominate you and lead you into trouble…into defeat.
Conversely, you can face your doubt. That’s what we should do. Face them squarely. Punch them. Look at them. Call them what they are, because that is how we will have victory. That’s a goal—to lift the question quota.
Strengthen your faith. A lot of us right now, if we were honest, have flabby faith. It’s just not happening. Dealing with doubt will make us stronger and tighter, with more energy and a deeper, wider faith than we ever thought possible
Doubt and unbelief are different animals.
A lot of people think, “I doubt, so it must mean I don’t believe.” That is not true. Doubt and belief are similar; you need them both. But doubt is different than unbelief. The word doubt comes from a Latin term dubatere. Dubatere comes from a root Arian word meaning two. When I doubt, I am ambivalent over certain issues. I am between one and two. I’m kind of hanging there in the air.
The word believe means to be in one mind about something that we trust. That’s what believe means. To disbelieve, to not have belief, means to be in one mind about something I reject…something I turn my back on. Doubt is between the two. So, just because I doubt does not mean I don’t believe. However, doubt can lead us to unbelief if we don’t do the right stuff with our doubt. That should be a surprising and shocking statement because the evil one likes to whisper to us, “Oh, you doubt! That means you don’t believe. That means you are not a Christ-follower. That means you don’t have any faith.”
Doubt and belief go hand in hand. If every single question were answered, there would be no faith.
Not only are doubt and unbelief different animals, doubt is not a cosmic crime. You might think, “I’ve committed the unpardonable sin because I’ve doubted. I have really messed up.” Doubt is not the cosmic crime.
John the Baptist saw Jesus Christ and he said, “There is the lamb of God. John baptized him. John saw the Holy Spirit descending upon the Lord in the form of a dove. I can hear the organ. Can’t you hear it too? Later on, John the Baptist was thrown in prison. It was crunch time. What did he do? He had a bout with doubt. John the Baptist! The baptizer of Jesus, the forerunner of our Lord who witnessed all these miracles, had a bout with doubt.
Check it out, Luke Chapter 7, Verse 19: “John, while in prison, dispatched some of his friends to go to Christ and ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else.’” Look at Christ’s response, Verse 22: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
Check out Verse 28; here’s what Jesus said. He gave John the Baptist, during a bout with doubt, the ultimate compliment. He gave him a high five. He said, “I tell you among those born of women, there is no one greater than John.” That’s refreshing. That puts wind in my sail. That gives me a snap to my punches in my bout with doubt. Jesus said, “John, you are a great man of faith even though you are in the midst of a bout with doubt.”
God is our perfect heavenly parent. He doesn’t want us in some pseudo-relationship with him. He doesn’t want us to dumb down to become a Christian. He wants us to express our doubts, our issues, our concerns to him. Are you doing that? Doubt and unbelief are different animals. Doubt is not a cosmic crime.
Thirdly, doubt has great potential. I am going to open my mouth. I warn you, I have a humongous mouth. My dentist told me, “Ed, your mouth is the size of a condo.” Okay, in the back of my mouth, there is a little piece of skin hanging down around the soft palate. That’s called your uvula.” Say it with me, “uvula.” It’s kind of insignificant. We don’t think about it. We don’t wake up in the morning and wonder how our uvula is doing.
I had some problems with my uvula, though, two weeks ago. I got sick and I was out of town speaking when my uvula began to swell. This little thing was four to five times its normal size. It felt like it was choking me. It was so big that I thought I had two tongues. I didn’t do anything about it. I let it go on day after day after day. I spoke at a conference in the Southeast. I could barely speak. Finally, I flew home, did the Saturday evening service, and I talked to my doctor who attends Fellowship. I said, “Doc, my uvula is messed up. Look at this thing.” He goes, “Wow! Ed, why didn’t you call me earlier?” He called in some medication. I went to pharmacy, picked it up, took it, and now my uvula is back to its normal size. Man, it feels good!
Doubts are a lot like uvulas. They start out small and they kind of just hang there. They are not that big of a deal. But if they get infected with the germs of disbelief and our faith gets rocked, or maybe we have read an article by some scientist that takes the wind out of our faith, it can begin to swell our uvulas. And they can slowly choke out our faith. We don’t need to walk around with our doubts unchecked. We need to go to the great physician, Jesus Christ, and say, “Lord, I’m having these doubts. Give me assistance. Give me the medication. Help me.”
But doubts can lead us into a deeper connection and a deeper walk with the Lord. Remember, it’s what we do with our doubts. It’s what we do with them.
Sometimes when I am going through a bout with doubt, I’ll feel like there is a distance between myself and God caused by my doubts. So often, God will use this distance for me to concentrate on his character and to appreciate his presence even to a greater degree. I think David felt this when everything was kind of falling apart, he said this in Psalm 22, Verse 1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Our doubts distance us from God, yet God can use them to develop a greater hunger for him.
What are you doing with them? Are you letting them get you against the ropes and knock the wind out of you? Are you letting them defeat you? Or, are you using them and allowing God to use them to deepen your faith?
A bout with doubt is all about punches. Some of the punches that sting and hit us and way-lay us are punches that we know are there, but we have never really pin-pointed them. One of the punches that really hurts a lot of us is the INTELLECTUAL UPPER CUT. You’ve got some nagging questions.
“Ed, are you expecting me to buy into the deal that there are angels, that there is a resurrection, and there’s a heaven and hell? You’re expecting me to buy into all that? You’re expecting me to think that this is a rational deal, that I can really use my mind and my intellect and I can be a thinking Christ-follower? You’re expecting me to believe that? I’ve got some really intellectual questions, concerns, doubts and issues.” Good. What are they? “Well, they are just some concerns. I’ve got some problems and some vague stuff.” Pinpoint them. You’ll be prolific when you are specific. Write them out. Articulate them. Then say, “God, help me. Lead me to answers.” He will.
Another punch that really knocks the wind out of our faith is the PSYCHOLOGICAL HEAD BUTT. Sometimes we are head-butted by this psychological stuff. Some of us here are damaged due to our past. Some of us here had struggles with our earthly father. Some of us here think about the concept of the fatherhood of God and we choke down on it because our earthly fathers were so bad. And we project our earthly father’s character quality on our heavenly father. No wonder you have doubts. No wonder you have issues. You say, “Man, I don’t want anything to do with some heavenly father.”
This father pain can hurt our faith. It can damage us. New York University psychology professor, Paul Vitz, in his book, Faith of the Fatherless, studied the childhoods of several well-known atheists, and saw strong evidence that their rejection of God is directly related to father pain—the death of a father or abuse or abandonment by their fathers.
Vitz points out that Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who declared that God is dead, lost his father at age four. Samuel Butler, a skeptical British writer, was often brutally beaten by his pious father. Sigmund Freud said his father was a pervert and built much of his psychological theory around father hatred. John Paul Sartre, French existentialist, lost his father when he was a baby and later deeply resented his stepfather. Joseph Stalin’s father beat him unmercifully. So, Vitz suggests that it should not surprise us that a communism which rejected authority figures, including God, appealed to Stalin. Hitler received terrible beatings from his father. The father of China’s Communist leader, Mao Se Tung, was a tyrant. Madeleine Murray O’Hare once tried to kill her father. The list goes on and on.
There is a big issue here. A family of origin deal. If you had problems, if you’re trying to process pain from your past and it’s a psychological situation, it can mess up your faith. It can knock it out for the count. Maybe, just maybe, you have gone through a trauma, maybe a death or an illness. Maybe you’ve been burned in a relationship and that trauma is causing doubt.
I think about media mogul, Ted Turner. Turner made a decision to follow Christ at a Billy Graham crusade when he was a young guy. Later on, his sister died an excruciating death, and from that day forward, Ted turned his back on the faith, never to look God’s way again. An intellectual deal. A psychological deal with our family of origin or with trauma.
It could be a sinful situation. I call it a “sinful combination.” Sin can usher in doubt because, when I’m involved in sin, sin sequesters me and separates me from God. I live at war, so to speak, with him. And because I am separate from him, doubts can begin to dog me and dominate me and really begin to win the battle. Maybe it’s a sinful situation. Maybe it’s a pride issue. Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I’m just not going to bow the knee to anyone. I’m a self-made man. I’m a self-made woman.” Maybe it’s that. I don’t know. Only God knows.
Ask God, “God, show me what is driving most of my doubt.” Is it an intellectual situation, a psychological one, or a sinful one. What is it? Or maybe, just maybe, you are experiencing doubt because you have never accepted Jesus Christ into your life. That is a natural thing. But what is it? Pinpoint that. Be very specific. God will lead you to the right path.
Apply the 9:24 principle. There was a father who was dealing with a traumatic situation. His son was possessed by a demon. He came to Christ, and here is what he said in Mark 9:24: “I do believe. Help me, Lord, overcome my unbelief.” What a prayer. What a statement. It’s a statement and prayer that many here need to pray. The 9:24 principle. I believe. Help me, though, overcome my doubts, overcome my unbelief, overcome my issues, my questions. Help me, God. Help me.
Don’t doubt in isolation. Leave the island and doubt in community. That’s what the church is for. Doubt in a small group. Doubt in weekend services. Get into dialogue with those who have a more mature and a deeper faith than you.
You can and you will win your bout with doubt because you can be a deep Christ-follower without having all the questions answered. You could be on your way to heaven and still have some issues. It all centers on faith.