What Do I Do When I’m Doubting?: Shelby Abbott
Even though it can seem embarrassing or shameful, doubt is something totally natural in the Christian faith. In fact, doubt can lead to a stronger faith in God and the gospel…if you doubt well. In this episode, Shelby will walk you through some simple and practical ways you can doubt well—ways that lead to a richer, more robust faith in Jesus.
About the Guest
Doubt in the Christian faith doesn’t need to embarrass you. And if you “doubt well,” it might actually lead to stronger faith. Here’s how.
What Do I Do When I’m Doubting?: Shelby Abbott
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic, this is Real Life Loading…
I'm your host Shelby Abbott and I found that deconstruction is the name of the game in today's culture. And also I found that deconstruction's predecessor is a thing called doubt. Now, a lot of people struggle and wrestle with doubt nowadays. And they simply don't know how to deal with it appropriately. Today I'm going to share with you four practical strategies to help you deal with doubt when it comes into your life. Not if, but when it comes into your life. My prayer is that these strategies will be helpful for you, drawing you closer to God in the midst of your doubt. But let me start first with a story.
Back when I was about... eight years old or so, I went on a teeter-totter with my step brother. This teeter-totter was on an old military base, and back then, when I was a kid, they made playgrounds, a lot different than they make them now. If you were to go to a playground where kids play now, you'd see that the ground is covered in like shredded rubber. So if someone falls off the top of the monkey bars, they hit the ground and like bounce right back up and they're totally fine. But back then everything was made out of wood and steel and like rocks.
And so we went on this teeter-totter and it was made of wood. But like I said, this was an old military base and it was kind of neglected. The wood had been out in the elements for a long time. So it was a very old piece of wood. Now a teeter-totter is not one of those things you see very often on a playground nowadays, but it's just basically this fulcrum in the middle and this big plank of wood that goes up and down, up and down, you need two people to do it.
My brother and I were like playing on this teeter-totter and eventually being boys, we got bored of doing it normally. We started doing fun little things, we'd grab the end, jump up and grab it and pull it down, the other would slide down or roll down or whatever. But I remember laying on the teeter totter with my face toward the middle with my head kind of up and my feet were where you're supposed to sit.
My brother jumped up and grabbed the other end and pulled it down. And when he did, I slid forward toward the middle of the teeter-totter. And when I did, because of this old wood, a splinter about two and a half, three inches long, slid right into my chest. Now it didn't go like into my heart or whatever, but it slid kind of along the skin and got caught in my chest.
I basically freaked out, probably the way that you're freaking out right now. So I started yelling and screaming, and I was like, “Ah!” And I saw blood, which you know, is the kiss of death for any eight year old. So I ran home. When I got home, I was like crying and screaming. My mom was like, “What, what, what?”
I pointed at my chest, and I was like, “Ah!” And she was like, “Whoa! Okay.” She brought me inside, and then she grabbed the tweezers. And she started to pull out... pieces of wood, little chunks of wood out of my chest and it was painful and I was crying and screaming in that moment, but at the same time that she was doing this and I knew I didn't like it. I knew it was awful. I also knew that my mom loved me. And she was doing what was best for me.
So in the midst of the pain and the pieces of wood, the blood, and all those horrible things, me knowing that my mom was good and that she loved me, I still had my doubts about whether or not what was happening was actually good.
I found that sometimes in life, when things get really difficult, it can seem nearly impossible to trust God both in the big things and in the little ones, too. But regardless of our state of mind, or even attitude of heart, there's one thing that should comfort us when we don't understand the confusing elements of life and that's this: “No matter how great our doubt, God is always greater. The Lord is never repulsed by our doubt. In fact, He's actively willing to pursue us even when we question Him.” So, sometimes in life when things get bad and doubts rise to the surface, the things that are true don't feel true. God's love, His grace, His sovereignty, all those things, even including His existence, and whether or not He's good.
They're more real than we can ever fathom, but it certainly doesn't feel that way from time to time, right? But just because all of those things may not seem to be true, doesn't mean our assumptions are correct. And in the middle of all of that, right there at the center, Jesus says to us, “Blessed are you who has not seen and yet have believed.”
It's encouraging to know that when I just don't get it, God is always greater than that. So, we shouldn't be afraid of the questions that inevitably come up as we wrestle and experience doubt. Questions and doubts that get swept under the rug and met with statements like, “Don't ask questions like that. You just need to believe.” They will come up again.
They might hide under the surface of your life for like a week or maybe a year or even several decades, but they will pop out again with potentially disastrous consequences. I know because I've seen it. We should always welcome wrestling matches with doubt, knowing that God can always handle what any of us might throw at Him when it comes to our questions.
My friend Sam Allberry once said, “If Christianity can't be questioned, it isn't worth believing. More than that, not only can Christianity withstand our doubts and uncertainties, there's a real sense in which bringing them to the table actually dignifies the claims of Christ.” Sam's right. Questions can be a very good thing. Even providing dignity to what we believe in. Jesus said in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You know, whenever I read this verse, I always thought childlike faith, which is kind of what this is talking about here, was like a dumbed down faith.
But then I had two kids, who started growing up and asking questions all day, every single day. Now, my kids have taught me that a childlike faith isn't necessarily a dumbed down faith. It's a question asking foundation of faith that leads to answers, producing joy in the journey.
Now, I want to pause here and say, you know, let's get some terminology straight.
Doubt is not the same thing as definitive unbelief. They're not equal to one another. Unbelief is a conclusion that someone has reached. As if to say, “There is no God, I have decided this.” Doubt is not the same thing as that. Just like temptation isn't the same thing as sin. Now, temptation can lead to sin, just like doubt can lead to unbelief, as I said earlier, but they're not equal to each other.
Let's make sure that we understand that when we're talking about doubt, we're talking about the wrestling process, not a conclusion that someone has reached. Also, a lot of people will go, “Show me some examples; where is doubt in the Bible?” And so from the Old Testament, as I did some research on this, I found that almost the entire book of Psalms is one long, doubtful struggle, wrestling match. It really is.
In fact, I heard a pastor one time say the Psalms give us permission to beat on God's chest. I love that kind of visceral imagery of being upset with God, crying into His chest, beating on His chest. But we're in the process of doing it with God. Now from the New Testament, a great example, you might think, “Oh, doubting Thomas.” That is a good example.
But I found that John the Baptist is actually a more satisfying example in the New Testament. When you think about who John the Baptist was, he was the precursor to the Messiah. He was the one who leapt in his mother's womb when he got close to Jesus. He was the one who baptized Jesus. And after he baptized Jesus, John the Baptist was the one who saw the sky open up, and the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove. He heard the voice of God say, “This is my son, in who I am well pleased. Listen to him.” So, you would think that John the Baptist would never have any room in his life to doubt that Jesus was who He said He was.
Yet, at the end of John's life, we find him in prison, getting ready to be executed, martyred for the faith. And he sends two of his disciples over to Jesus and says, “Hey, ask Jesus if He is the one or if we should expect another.” Now, some people might read that and go, “My goodness, man, John the Baptist, you like saw Jesus do all these incredible things. You heard the audible voice of God say, “This is my son,” and yet you're still doubting?” But when I read something like that, I am oddly comforted by it, because if John the Baptist who witnessed all the things that he did can still experience doubt, that gives me room to experience doubt as well.
There are a couple of examples of Psalms. And John the Baptist, again, they're all over the place in Scripture. In case you're wondering, are there biblical examples of doubt? Now, I'm a practical person, and I love talking about theology and talking about the Bible, but I also love practical strategies as we're dealing with a certain topic. And certainly I want to give you some practical strategies to deal with doubt when it comes along. I think it's important for me to share a few realistic things with you in order to help you get on the solution side of life, when it comes to trusting God and the battle with doubt. So I'm going to walk you through four things that can act as weapons to help you trust God when you're dealing with doubt.
Number one: Practice thankfulness. The antidote to many of my bad doubts has been an intentional movement toward dwelling on all that I'm thankful for. In a very real sense, thankfulness renews your mind and refreshes your heart in ways that make it nearly impossible to dwell on doubt. Paul Tripp puts this well in his book on suffering.
He says this, “It's exactly at the point when you're tempted to think that you're not blessed that counting your blessings is the most important. A thankful heart is the best defense against a doubting heart.” And I just found that to be true. Just like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we are incredibly forgetful when it comes to remembering the miraculous ways God has worked in our lives.
There are Probably multiple examples of God's provision and presence and care that you've experienced. You could just most likely recall if you simply took the time to think about them. And after you remember, rejoice. Praise God for how He's worked and then watch your focus shift from dark doubt to bright thankfulness and trust.
When I was running a summer mission of college students and Cru® staff for many, many years, one of the things we do with the staff team almost every week was we get together and do what we call the Ebenezer jar. It was this gigantic glass jar that we put in the center of the room. We'd hand out slips of paper to everybody on the staff team, and we would just pause and reflect on what we were thankful for from that previous week.
Now it could have been anything from the weather was great during the outreach, or I was thankful for the food that worked out. It didn't get destroyed during the storm or whatever. But we'd also thank God for deeper things like this person came to Christ, or this person rededicated their life to Christ, or they finally got the gospel in a way that applied to their heart here, or God's been working in my heart as I've been wrestling with suffering here - anything, and everything was available to put in the Ebenezer jar. So, we take time to write those things down. Then we go around the room and share all the things that we were thinking. Then we throw them into this glass jar as an Ebenezer, which is a term used in the Old Testament as a living testament. A stack of rocks is what it used to be, but it was a monument to what God had done. We'd throw them in this big glass jar and we'd all applaud as we did so.
Now the cool thing about this 2005, before I was even the leader of this mission, and all those slips of paper were in this jar leading all the way up to last year. So for over a decade and a half, this jar recorded all the wonderful things that God had done on this summer mission. It was so awesome to see how the Lord used something as simple as throwing paper into a glass jar to remind me that He is faithful.
Practicing thankfulness is incredibly soothing to a life that's agitated by doubts. In thankfulness, we refocus our attention on the giver of all good things, and not on the circumstances that never seem to be... quite good enough for our ever thirsty hearts. When we drink from the fountain of living water, who is Jesus, we worship with gratitude and trust instead of agonize over our doubts. So that's number one, practice thankfulness.
Number two: Get with real and the right people. It's always important to be reminded that you cannot battle your doubts with any amount of success as an isolated island. Despite what our individualistic culture may push, Christianity is not at all a solo thing.
This is why it's so vital to plug in with a body of believers. Without the presence of other believers in your life, you simply stop trusting God, and you become susceptible to a flurry of doubts that could easily be handled if you were in healthy community. Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors, there is safety.”
In other words, if you're getting input from multiple people, you're going to make better decisions than you would on your own without any guidance. When you intentionally surround yourself with the right people who love God, value authenticity, and are bold enough to call you out toward godly living. Your trust in God builds and your doubts don't linger and consume you. They can't because as the saying goes, “There is safety in numbers.” Just make sure those numbers value their relationship with Christ more than anything else.
Now, I know that today everything is so individualized and good community can be hard to find. But I promise you that it's worth it to pursue, especially when you're wrestling with fully trusting God. I also know that it can feel like you're in community simply because you're surrounded by people all the time. When you're studying, or when you're working, or when you're in your friend groups, or even at the grocery store.
But real relationships require depth in a way that proximity alone won't help you grow.
Likewise, don't assume that just because you're well connected in the digital world, that means that you're living in community. Church and authentic Christian camaraderie happen in the context of face to face interaction. If we know a person solely via the veneer of their social media profiles and edited text messages, we don't know that person entirely.
Sure, we can begin to understand who a person is by watching what they appreciate in their videos and what kind of entertainment they enjoy and what restaurant they ate at this weekend. But that's only part of the picture. We're deceiving ourselves if we buy into the fact that we can get to know someone deeply if we only communicate via social media or simply watch someone online.
Why? Because, honestly, you are created for something much deeper than that. The real you is the real you, and you shouldn't want people to only experience the polished version of your real self online. So when you doubt, do it alongside real human beings.
If you genuinely plug in. Others will eventually see through the shine of your edited self. And that's when real change, real help, real hope, and real growth happens. So let's never forget the value of getting with the right people as we struggle with trusting God. There is no good substitute for the real thing. So find your people and walk with Jesus as a group.
So number one, practice thankfulness. Number two, get with real and the right people. And number three: Continually remind yourself of the gospel. This is how you fight doubt.
One of the best ways to trust the Lord and fight back against doubt is to repeatedly remind yourself of the truth. There is a hypnotizing effect that our culture has on us because it's relentless in its attempts to sway you toward unbelief, social media, advertising that pops up YouTube, movies, TV, podcasts, practically everything all the time is pushing you in a direction that leads away from God.
You are being discipled all the time, whether you know it or not. Culture says, “Shh, it's no big deal. Just do your own thing. Look inside yourself and find the real you. Just compromise at school. It's no big deal. Nobody's going to see it. It's not that big of a deal. Hey, calm down. Jesus is enough for the Christian meeting and Sunday church. You don't need him all day, every day.” That's what the culture is communicating to you all the time.
Jesus Christ is not a vitamin supplement that you can add to your life at large group meeting or Bible study and Sunday church service and then ignore him every other moment of your life. He doesn't give you that option. Consequently if you don't spend consistent time renewing your mind with the true north pointing good news of the gospel, you'll give in to culture's push and be taken downstream along with so many others who don't follow after their creator. I know, I’ve been in ministry twenty-four years and I’ve seen this happen time and time again.
Each of us must gaze into the beauty of the gospel if we're going to have a fighting chance to live in a way that honors God and shuns unbelief. But what does that mean? To gaze into the gospel. That's one of those phrases that Christians use a lot. That doesn't really mean anything if you don't understand it. Well, it's a good question. Let me attempt to answer it. The fact that God Himself came down in the form of a human being, lived a life of perfection, was executed unjustly, and then conquered death in the resurrection for you? That's incredible. It's just astounding.
There's so many people who grew up in church that go, “I know this. I know this. I know this. I've heard this before. Yes, I know it. I can repeat this to you. I've heard it from the time I was a baby all the way up till now.” But listen, just because you may have gone to church your whole life, you were involved with youth group in high school, and you immediately got involved with a campus ministry when you got to college, all those are good things. Great things, in fact.
But none of that makes you a Christian. Standing in a garage doesn't make you a car. Rushing onto the field and standing on the turf doesn't make you a football player. Becoming a Christian is an act of God who regenerates your spiritual DNA. The old is gone. The new has come, and you're a different person because of Jesus Christ.
The resurrection of the son of God is the linchpin of reality and history of the universe. His resurrection is the sole reason all of humanity isn't doomed to destruction forever. Even though we may have heard this over and over and over again, we should never grow tired of how magnificent the message of the gospel is. When we truly grasp the lengths God went to in order to rescue us from our own rebellion, it fights back and snaps the binding ropes of doubt that have tied up our hearts.
The gospel is everything, and in it we wield the most powerful of all weapons to be used against doubt. Show me a heart forgetting the gospel, and I'll show you a life that's swallowed by the crushing effects of doubt. But show me a life that continually reminds itself of the truth of who Jesus is and who we are as a result of Jesus's work and I'll show you a life of joy that is overwhelmed with God's goodness and love. Preach the gospel to yourself at all times. Use words, use actions, drink deeply from the Scriptures and break free from the oppression of doubt.
So number one, practice thankfulness. Number two, get with real and the right people. Number three, continually remind yourself of the gospel, and number four, share the gospel.
Now don't tune out here. Don't roll your eyes either. So, not only do we need to regularly preach the gospel to ourselves, but we also need to engage with others about the gospel too. Now I'm, I'm deeply convinced that one of the best ways to place your trust in God and counteract the attacks of doubt in your life is to proactively communicate with others about the message of the gospel. When we're ushered into God's family, we're given a purpose that's beyond us, and this purpose involves us being proactive about communicating our faith with others, who need to hear about it.
The late great Tim Keller once said, “You're never drawn in by God without being sent out by Him.” It's very true. Sure it's scary, and sure it's risky, and every single time it involves us killing the default comfort setting that seems to be so powerful inside of our hearts. You know, personally, I have never been one hundred percent comfortable when I share my faith. Never. Maybe some other people have, but not me.
I'll tell you this though - I never feel more alive than when I do. When I communicate the gospel, I'm excited, and scared, and happy, and nervous, and warm, and intimidated all at one time. My mouth is usually dry, and my armpits are usually wet, and my heart beats way faster than normal. For me, it's never easy to do, but regardless of how the conversation turns out, I always seem to walk away with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. In fact, on more than one occasion after I've shared my faith, I've walked away and verbally said, “Man, I feel so alive right now,” because I do. It's what I was made for.”
Several years ago, I was at Panama City Beach, Florida on an evangelism conference. I was learning how to share my faith. And when I was at Virginia Tech as a student, I'd run across several people who I knew on campus, or just seen on campus, and then I saw them down in Panama City Beach, and Garrett was one of those guys.
I walked into a Waffle House, and I recognized him immediately from campus at Virginia Tech, so I walked over to him. I was like, “Hey man, you go to Tech.” He's like, “Yeah.” And it turned out later on I found out he was super high when I had this conversation with him. But I talked to him a little while, and I was like, “Hey, I'd love to get together back on campus and grab lunch sometime. You up for that?”
He was like, “Sure.” We exchanged information and when we got back to campus after spring break, I got in touch with him and we got together at Taco Bell and had lunch. And when we did, I shared the gospel with Garrett and I went through it and found out later on that he had been thinking that God was following him wherever he went.
Now he didn't become a Christian right then and there at the Taco Bell, but a couple weeks later he did on his own in his room. And, you know, I have never seen anyone have a life transformation the way that Garrett had. So, he immediately broke up with his girlfriend who he'd been sleeping with. He stopped drinking altogether. He cut out drugs that he was taking altogether - cold turkey. And he made a distinct effort to communicate the gospel to everybody he knew. He was sharing the gospel with all of his partying friends. All the people he came in contact with on campus. He just couldn't get enough of talking to others about Jesus.
Now he was a good looking and popular guy, and he was in high school as well. He was from this little town in West Virginia called Berkeley Springs. So after the end of that school year, in the summer, he decided to go back home and throw what he called Christ Night, which is not a super, creative title for what he was doing. It was kind of like an old school Billy Graham crusade. He invited like everybody out in his hometown to the high school where he rented out the gymnasium and he invited me to come too. So I drove to Berkeley Springs and I went there. I'll never forget that night. They had worship and Garrett got up front and he just preached the gospel. He talked about what it was like to be in a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus and have Him be not only your Savior, but your Lord, your Master.
At the end of that, he offered an opportunity for people to say yes to Jesus, to turn from their old ways and ask Him to come into their life. And it was an incredible sight, when hundreds of people had shown up to this revival Christ Night, but dozens of people came up to the front and said yes to Jesus.
Garrett walked around and put his hands on top of everybody's head as they were praying, and he prayed for them. He got to lead so many people in his hometown to Christ. It was incredible. I'll never forget it.
Now Garrett ended up going to seminary and eventually got married had several kids. I think five, he's got five kids now. He's now the pastor of a large church in Northern Virginia And he sits on the board of the ministry the Gospel Coalition, and we regularly keep in touch today. We text pretty regularly.
See, when I look at doubt and then I look at someone like Garrett and how Jesus changed Garrett's life by not only the gospel being shared with him, but him sharing the gospel with others. Doubt has no match for that. Because sharing the gospel is what we were made for. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is not just a charge for the quote unquote “special Christians.” It's a charge to anyone who follows Christ. There is no junior varsity in the Kingdom of God. If you're a follower of Jesus Christ, all of your life is not meant to be lived in the comfort of remaining silent about your faith.
The discomfort that could come as a result of sharing your faith is a fantastic weapon against doubt. As we preach the gospel to others in a loving and caring way, we're reminded of God's love and care for us, pushing doubt out of our lives and awakening worship within our hearts. How often are you regularly sharing the gospel with others?
It doesn't have to be strangers that you walk up to, but how many people in your life would look at your life and see the difference that Jesus has made in you? You have opportunities to communicate the gospel to people. Through your words, yes, but also through your actions, through your love, through your care for other people. Share the gospel at all times. Use words, use actions, and give the glory to God.
Four things to battle doubt. Number one, practice thankfulness. Number two, get with real and the right people. Number three, continually remind yourself of the gospel. And number four, share the gospel with other people.
Doubt is a battle worth fighting. Now, there's a wild and somewhat bizarre story in Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestles with God. You might remember this if you're familiar with the Old Testament. Jacob engages in this wrestling battle with God all night long until the sun comes up. And at one point, Jacob's hip is touched by God during the wrestling match, and that throws it out of socket. Jacob then clings to his opponent, the Lord, and God blesses him.
What has always interested me in this story is that verse 24 says that they wrestle, but then verse 26 says that Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So Jacob goes from wrestling with God to clinging to God, from struggling to embracing, from fighting to cherishing. It's an obvious process right there in the text, but it's also easy to miss if you aren't looking for it.
Since it's an odd story, we can let an important lesson slip through our fingers if we aren't careful. Jacob has moved from battling with God to grasping onto Him in the hopes of receiving His blessing. When we live with doubt, it quite often feels as if we're in the throes of a wrestling match with God. It could feel strange and embarrassing, sometimes even hopeless.
But like Jacob's story, our life's narrative should shift from wrestling to clinging. And that shift will often come via some sort of hip socket moment initiated by God. The wrestling match cannot go on forever. So, instead of allowing your doubts to consume your faith, cling to God's legs and refuse to let go. We need not focus on the gloomy, dark center of every silver lined cloud that comes our way. But trust that the Lord can use our doubts to transform our lives and make us stronger than ever before. So I encourage you when your doubts arise, and they will, don't run away from the Lord, cling to His feet. It's a battle worth fighting.
Why? Because it's not just this battle that's at stake. It's also the battle for our future. If we aren't diligent to proactively trust the Lord and take the fight to our doubts in an intentional way, the ripple effects can be disastrous. Our God is a God of action. He is constantly moving and working in our lives in a way that's very much up in our business.
We're created in His image, so when it's difficult to trust Him and doubts flood your heart and mind, fight! We shouldn't just sit around and wait for the doubts to subside on their own. Get proactive and passionate because it's about way more than just this battle.
God is good. He cares about us deeply, and even though there may be pain in the process, we can trust Him because we know the lengths He went to in order to be with us. He died so we could live.
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For more on this topic checkout Shelby Abbott’s book: Doubtless: Because Faith is Hard
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