Everyone doubts their faith to some degree. If they say they don’t, they are either lying, they don’t take their faith very seriously, or God has had increadible mercy on them. Let’s get that out of the way.
However, there is a type of doubt that is different. It is the type of doubt you can’t really explain to others. It causes great depression and, sometimes, thoughts of suicide. It is one of those things where there is neither a real cause nor a real solution. Once you enter into it, you know you are in it. If you are reading this now and you have never experienced it, you don’t understand. But if, God forbid, you ever walk into this darkness, you may return here and read this with new eyes.
Please allow me to express my understanding of this so you will feel more justified in giving me your time. First, I have been there. I am not there now and I don’t ever wish to return. Ever since I was there, I can look into the windows of that house and feel the fear of what is was like to live there. Second, I spend a great deal of my ministry talking to doubters. I have devoted myself to this. It is, from my perspective, one of the primary callings the Lord has given me. For example, in the last twenty-four hours, the doubt hotline (my cell phone or email) has been ringing off the wall. I have been talking with three people who are finding it hard to even open their eyes in the morning, as they fear this terrible lack of hope will meet them at their bedside. I answer the phone every time they call. Every time. Why? Because my heart is broken for them. I feel I can hold their hand during this time and, Lord willing, put them back on a path towards the Lord. I am also glad that those whom the Lord has sent me over the last couple of years have all recovered in their faith.
And let me just say this as an aside: to those of you who are doubting your faith significantly and you have no where else to go, you can come to me. While I am overwhelmed with writing books, blogging, planting new Credo Houses, filming theology courses, teaching The Theology Program, teaching church history to teens, and applying for my Ph.D. (not to mention taking care of my mother full-time and loving my wife and kids), I will prioritize your call (at least over every other aspect of my ministry). My wife and kids understand and will be on their knees with me. You can write me at michaelp @ reclaimingthemind dot org.
As I have written so much about this before, I am not going to take the time and reintroduce you to everything you need to know to help those who are doubting or get through it yourself. You can find much more here. But I do want to tell you one more bit of advice that you need to know about your doubt (or that of someone you know and love). I am going to add to this list I have made in the past on what to do when you are doubting:
1. Focus only on the issues that make or break Christianity.
2. Doubt your doubts.
3. Make sure you don’t lose fellowship with other believers.
4. Realize that the presence of other possibilities does not necessarily equate to the presence of other probabilities.
5. Don’t think you can ever be an expert in everything.
6. Be careful not to make individual emotional preference a decisive benchmark of truth.
7. Don’t stop living out your devotion to Christ.
8. Realize that doubt is not a bad thing.
Here is my addition:
9. Take a break from apologetics.
Apologetics is the Christian discipline of defending the faith. For this reason, it may sound really odd for me to encourage people who are doubting to stay away from it. And this does not necessarily apply to everyone having doubts. But it does apply to those of you who are in the darkest of the dark and nothing seems to work. In fact, during this time, everything seems to only increase your anxiety. You would think picking up Mike Licona’s book on the resurrection, or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or jumping in to see William Lane Craig make a fool out of whomever he is debating would be just what the doctor ordered. But very often this is not the case; doing these may actually cause your doubts to increase. You see, during this time of doubt (at least the type of doubt which I am talking about right now, what I call “Spiritual Doubt” in other writings), it is just about impossible to believe anything at all. It is not that you find the evidence for Christianity weak, it is that you find all knowledge-based propositions impotent. It is not as if you think the atheist is more rational; it is rationality itself that is irrelevant to your current state of affairs. Everything is worthless and everyone is wrong, duped, or living according to a hope that you feel you have lost. You wish you could put on whatever blinders you had before and return to a state of innocent belief. You have no idea why you are doubting and you have no idea how to make it stop. However, one thing you do know is that reading these books, listening to these debates, and doing apologetics in general only serves to make things worse. Even reading the Bible can be a catalyst, as you doubt everything you read, which makes you feel horrible beyond description.
During these times, even if Jesus Christ himself were sitting right beside you, you would find it irrelevant. You simply cannot figure out what this doubt is all about and, therefore, you don’t know how to fix it. And this type of doubt normally comes to people who, on any regular day, put a lot of weight in the intellectual side of their faith. This is what makes these dark times so much darker. Everything you have done to prepare for this moment is as worthless as a white crayon.
Let me try to give you a bit of advice. The one thing you have to do is the one thing that is almost impossible. You need to relax. A drowning man who begins to panic and struggle brings about his doom much more quickly due to his struggling. During this time of doubt, put away the apologetics books. Don’t think about your doubts. You are not in a state of mind for intellectual activity of any kind. Right now the reason why you can’t believe is because you can’t believe. Forgive me, but this is true. There has been a breakdown in your brain and the belief lobe is no longer functioning. Unfortunately, the emotion lobe is, and it lacks the fuel ration that the belief lobe used to give. Please know that you are still a believer. Please know that you are not alone. Please know that this time of doubt does not define you. You just have to let the intellectual side of your brain disengage for a time.
And let me give you permission to do something else (even though this is about the most taboo heresy there is among us apologists): stand on the faith of others. I know, I know… God does not have any grandchildren . . . our faith cannot be inherited . . . stuff like that. But very often the faith of others is all we have. So I encourage you to listen to other Christians talk about God and their faith without giving a defense for it. Just listen to a sermon of someone you respect. When I was in my own dark night, listening to the sermons of Chuck Swindoll saved me. He is a very confident believer with a strong voice and a deep faith you can feel. I was so excited just to hear him believe. That is right, I could hear his belief. This simple type of “faith fellowship” is what you need right now. Stand on someone else’s faith. I give you that freedom and so does God. It is enough for now.
It is no easy task to get your mind off your doubt right now, but you have to. You can train yourself to banish the thoughts from your mind until a better day comes when your wits are about you and you have the emotional strength to re-engage. But right now your intellect is broken, out of service.
This doubt is the miserable Christian doubt that, God willing, will pass with the restoration of your faith. You will never be the same. You have just wrestled with God and you know you have a limp. God has communicated to you in no uncertain terms that he is the author of your faith and he gives it when and how he desires. I don’t know why he is doing this and I don’t know how long it will last, but I do know he loves you. Take my word for it for now. It will just have to do.
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]