When Waves of Doubt Rock Your Faith, Don’t Panic
Three steps to take if the Scriptures seem like a dry textbook and you’re no longer sure Jesus is real.
I (Peter) used to teach a class for college seniors called the “Philosophy of Christian School Education.” It ran for three intense weeks every January and was specifically designed for those students who would spend the rest of their final semester as student teachers around the globe.
Students had to write a paper in which they articulated what they believed now—at the end of their four-year Bible college career. Of course, many of them wrote straightforward essays. Their beliefs lined up with the teachings from their theology courses: God was still God, people were born into sin, and salvation was offered by grace through Christ alone.
However, over the years, I also engaged with a stream of students who arrived at their senior year with doubts. Sometimes those doubts centered around the deity of Christ, or the character of God, or even His very existence. I appreciated it when these students let me know exactly where they stood, rather than write a paper with which they didn’t fully agree.
And rather than force them to be inauthentic, I always gave those students an extension on the assignment. Time for further inquiry and thought. In response, many of them launched into a cathartic conversation with me that lasted until they graduated, and sometimes beyond.
Take Christine, for example. She was visibly upset the first time she came to my office, trembling and on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. When I probed, she told me that she had come to Bible college after serving in a camping ministry for a couple of years. At camp, she said, her faith had seemed so simple. She had prayed with campers and some had been saved. She had read the Bible with other counselors, and it had changed her life on a sometimes daily basis.
Now that once-beloved Word seemed like a dry textbook. She regularly felt anxious because she didn’t know anymore if the Bible was even God’s Word. And because she was no longer sure she could trust the Scripture to be true, she was no longer sure that Jesus was for real.
My own doubt
I empathize with those who come to me with doubt, because I have been there too. My faith started simple and small when I was very young. I accepted without question that the Bible was true and that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I believed that real faith showed in good behavior and that my own behavior was good (enough).
When I got to high school, though, my peers started asking questions. If God created everything, then who created God? How can we know the Bible is true? How do we know God exists? Each time I fielded one of these questions, I went to the adults in my church, and they gave me ready answers—which I, in turn, passed on. These answers seemed to satisfy, and several of my friends even gave their lives to Christ. As a result, I must admit, I got cocky. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Bible and Christianity. I had no idea that I had only scratched the surface.
When I was in my twenties, my faith really came under attack. While I was serving in Pakistan, other missionaries—who seemed much smarter and more experienced than I was—questioned the reliability of the Bible. They challenged me regarding the age of the earth. And they quoted Karl Barth and others to reinforce their ideas.
In Pakistan I also saw more of the effects of evil on the world. Children crippled by their parents so they could gain more money begging. Drugs and guns sold freely over the counter in a lawless northwestern town. And as most of us do at some point in our lives, I asked, Why, God? If You are all-powerful and You are good—why?
Then the attacks on my faith seemed to get more personal. When I was younger, there had been a friendly air of inquiry when my friends and I talked about what we believed. But as I moved through my twenties, people of faith were more frequently marginalized—called morons, backward, or just plain ignorant. I didn’t want to be any of those things, so it seemed safer to doubt.
A common phenomenon
Sean McDowell, son of the renowned apologist Josh McDowell, has also been open about his season of doubt. At a recent conference for Christian educators, I heard the younger McDowell give an energetic presentation on worldview. Listening to him that afternoon, I assumed that he had been carefully groomed by his father. I imagined that, growing up in such a family, he must have been handed a nicely packaged, well-reasoned—and consequently unquestionable—faith. I was surprised to later discover that this was not the case.
In “When Kids Question Their Faith,” Josh and Sean McDowell describe the awkward conversation that had to happen after Sean went away to college. He took a class called “Authentic Manhood,” which challenged him to honestly address his father’s shortcomings in order to love him more fully. Simultaneously, Sean discovered several websites that challenged the arguments of his father’s book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Together these attacks on his worldview unsettled him. He said, “I hit a point in my life—as many young people do—where I was asking deep intellectual and existential questions. And it wasn’t enough for me to believe something because my parents did. I had to find the truth for myself.”
When doubt comes
People like Christine still come to me, and I often begin by just letting them unwind. They may have to cry and release the many levels of fear that can accompany their doubts: fear about what other people will think—of rejection, of wasting a Bible college education, of not being able to discern what is right. Fear about their identity and losing their faith altogether.
I assure them that I will accept them no matter what they believe. I also tell them that the essay they are writing for my class is an academic assessment, not a religious one. And if they express disagreement with our school’s doctrine, they can still pass the course. It’s interesting how even the removal of that simple obstacle helps give students permission to doubt. Suddenly, their shoulders relax, and they start to reflect.
Our faith needs to catch its breath sometimes. Sometimes we receive so many truths in quick succession that we don’t have time to sort them out. When this happens, it is common for doubt, or even outright rejection, of the beliefs to occur—simply because truth can take time to properly digest. Of course, during a reflective process, we may realize that we have been taught something in error and we do have to reject it.
In the case of my students, though, they sometimes simply haven’t processed their faith deeply enough. They have been told too much, so rapidly, that they are suffering from spiritual indigestion. My role, in part, is to give them permission to break down and absorb what they have been asked to consume.
Three things to do with doubt
So the first thing I encourage people to do with their doubt is to pay attention. Don’t ignore it or hide it or try to pray it away. Acknowledge your uncertainty, own the process of investigation, and prepare to give your faith the time and thought it deserves.
Second, clearly articulate your concerns. Give voice to your doubt. Perhaps begin by journaling. But, sooner rather than later, bring your questions to people you can trust. Some of my students who express their doubts in my office continue the conversation with me.
Many talk with their pastors, mentors, parents, or reliable friends. Some actually watch their doubts dissolve when I simply help them process and release the related negative emotions—shame, anger, resentment—that have built up over time.
Others are pleasantly surprised when they share their doubts with their elders. They are surprised by the gracious reception, open conversation, and helpful advice.
How do you think Josh McDowell handled the news when his son Sean came to him? Josh was not particularly surprised. He assured his son that he loved him very much, no matter what he believed, and he gave Sean his blessing to question his faith. Then Josh had two pieces of counsel for his son. “First, I told him that if he honestly sought the truth, he would find it. Second, I told him not to reject something simply because it was part of his parents’ faith.”
Which brings me to my third point. Dig deep. Search for truth. Find well-reasoned resources that stretch your thinking and answer your questions and fairly address the opposing views. When I was in my twenties and my faith was under attack, I was largely on my own. My questions had become too complex for the elders at my church. And I was completely unaware of the wealth of resources that are available to Christians who want to understand and defend a more conservative faith.
I had never heard of Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, or R.C. Sproul. As a result, my twenty-something life with Christ was riddled with doubts like a poorly kept field is strewn with weeds. And I didn’t have the tools to dig up the weeds so my faith could grow in any healthy fashion.
It wasn’t until I came to America for graduate school at the age of 28 that I met people who had more thorough ways of expressing doubt. They engaged wholeheartedly with the process, they sought out others who had insight, they found good books that dug deep, and they encouraged me to do the same.
I believe that the truth of a biblical faith can withstand the growing pains of a reflective mind. I’ve seen it happen for students like Christine. I’ve heard how it happened for Sean McDowell. And I have experienced it myself.
Taken from 20 Things We’d Tell Our 20-Something Selves, copyright © 2015 by Kelli and Peter Worrall. Used with permission of Moody Publishers.