Over the years, I have written much about Christian doubt. One of my life-verses is Jude 22, “Have mercy on some who doubt.” Christian doubt is a terrifying plague. Today while reading some of the life of Martin Luther, I came to the conviction that he suffered with debilitating bouts of doubt leading to depression. For him, these doubts were battles with Satan that he handled in his own very peculiar way, but he worked his way through them and was a better theologian as a result.
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The Terror of Doubt
From Abraham to Martin Lloyd Jones, from John the Baptist to C. S. Lewis, from the Apostle Thomas to William Cowper, Christians who seriously doubt their faith are in good company. It is hard to express the magnitude of the need to come to the aid of and have mercy on those who doubt. They are scared. They feel alone. They are groping in the darkness. Some despair their own lives. Most keep their doubt hidden in the horrid chamber of their heart doing everything they can to keep it secret and buried.
When these doubters feel like outsiders to the Christian community; when they feel like they are the only ones; these doubts end up devouring all hope and joy. They so desperately want to feel what they perceive others are feeling . They want to return to the faith that came so easily before. But something broke within them and the panic escalates into severe depression. This depression seemingly has no outlet and no end. They are afraid that they are on the path to becoming unbelievers. They are afraid no one would understand. They are afraid that saying it out loud, “I am doubting my faith” is going to be received as “I love sin more than I love God.” So silence and loneliness gives way to an escalating hopelessness.
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Suggested Reading: The Miserable Christian Doubt
I write this to let you know how so many people sitting in the pews feel this way. I write this as a plea for Christians, pastors, elders, and friends to have mercy on those who doubt. I write this to beg you to provide a safe place where doubters can begin to find healing.
Why People Are Doubting
We live in a hostile world. I know that the world has always been hostile to Christianity. But the hostility today comes in a different form that breeds opportunities for new kinds of doubt. It is not so much that there has been some new intellectual front that has made the Christian faith less viable than it was before (the intellectual case for Christianity is as strong as it has ever been), but it is the proliferation of unbelief that brings about emotional breakdowns. Sure, apologetics can help stabilize the mind (and is very necessary for the strengthening of peoples’ faith), but it is the heart that has become unstable.
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Before, we heard about unbelief from a distance. Now we see it on our computer screens every day. Why are people still faithless? Why hasn’t Christianity convinced the world of the truth? Why are atheists swaying so many people? Why, if our arguments are so strong, do people still reject God? What do people know that I don’t?
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The Humility of Doubt
Doubt is often birthed in humility. I know this sounds odd, but most people (contrary to how they may come across) do not think they are that smart. With all the changes going on in medicine and science, with all the new paradigm shifting theories in cosmology and physics, maybe we humans don’t know very much. Maybe I don’t know very much. Maybe we are all wrong about everything!
The Breakdown of Certainty
These thoughts don’t have to be wholesale. They can just be little gnats gnawing away at our certainty. And once many people’s certainty has been cracked, in comes the panic. We have just been so used to having this emotional conviction that led the charge of our faith. We were once one-hundred percent certain that our faith was true. Now, in all the confusion, we are only ninety-nine percent sure that it is true. And it is this one-percent drop that throws us in a tailspin. Soon, emotional certainty takes a nosedive and our spiritual compass spins in all directions and we don’t know where it will stop.
My Plea to Christians
I could talk about all the problems we have created due to our felt need to have perfect certainty (what Descartes called indubidibility), I could talk about all the various components that build our faith (knowledge, intellectual conviction, contented trust), I could talk about steps to take to help people rebuild others’ faith (all of which I have done before in dozens of articles), but that is not what this is about right now. My plea to so many out there is to recognize the problem of doubt. I want you to be open about your own doubts. I want you to speak about it from the pulpit. I want you to create ministries that care for those who feel so alone in this black hole. I want you to have mercy on those who doubt.
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There is hope. There is a way out. Over the years I have talked with so many people (too numerous to count) and walked with them through this darkness. I know what it feels like because I’ve been there before. Learning to deal with doubt is learning to live a life of credo ut intelligam (“faith seeking understanding”). Learning to live with doubt is no different than learning to live as believers in a fallen world where our faith will never be perfect this side of heaven. But it all starts with recognition. It all starts with you and I opening our arms to those who are terrified that they are all alone, letting them know that their plight is one that is common to all Christians.
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C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]