Today I am excited to share a guest post from my friend Ed Cyzewski, adapted from his new book, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, which is just $2.99 on Kindle/Nook today through Friday. Ed is one of the wisest and kindest writers I know. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and two sons where they obsess over New York style pizza and organic gardening. Check out his blog, or connect on Facebook or Twitter.
I figured this post might generate some discussion. Enjoy!
“Faith is a way of waiting—never quite knowing, never quite hearing or seeing, because in the darkness we are all but a little lost. There is doubt hard on the heels of every belief, fear hard on the heels of every hope, and many holy things lie in ruins because the world has ruined them and we have ruined them. But faith waits even so, delivered at least from that final despair which gives up waiting altogether because it sees nothing left worth waiting for.”
- Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark
A few years ago I felt like prayer had stopped working. In fact, I began to doubt whether it had ever worked at all.
I was just talking to myself in an empty room. Quieting myself to “hear” God really didn’t work either. In fact, that just made things worse. The longer I waited with nothing happening, the more my anxiety kicked into gear, worrying that God really wasn’t going to respond.
I know that some Christians go through a season of doubt like this and can’t survive. They can’t find God and have to give up. In my own case, I held on. I can’t make it sound like I did something better. I just ended up in a different place after seeking prayer and counsel from trusted friends and family who walked with me through that season.
However, I know that many Christians and former Christians haven’t found the same resolution for their doubts. In fact, admitting your doubt feels like admitting failure, if not giving fellow Christians a reason to condemn and judge us for unbelief.
I’ve been on both sides of doubt, playing the part of judge at one point and doubter at another.
It’s easy to be dismissive toward those who have doubts because we really, really don’t want to have the same problems. It’s disturbing to hear that someone who grew up in the same church as you and attended all of the same Bible studies and prayed all of the same prayers is either doubting God or thinking of leaving the faith altogether. Let’s be honest about the problem here: If this person is about to leave the faith or has already left the faith, why can’t the same thing happen to you as well?
What should we do about doubts?
We don’t want doubts to linger, but we need to address them patiently and honestly. Where do we begin?
The Abridged, Doubt-Free Bible
If we removed from the Bible every person who doubted God, it would be a very short book. At times doubt is presented as a problem that brings about dire consequences, and there certainly are plenty of stories where doubt led to trouble. Jesus told his followers that they should pray with confidence and James wrote that those who doubt are double-minded and will not receive anything they ask for from God.
We get the impression that a little bit of doubt can ruin everything. A lot of doubt is a sure recipe for disaster.
There certainly may be times when doubt can prove extremely problematic for a Christian, but let’s take a look at a few key Bible stories to see what God did when people struggled with doubt.
We read in the book of Judges that Gideon really didn’t want to fight the Midianites. How could God beat such a powerful armed force with “warrior camels”—the tanks of the ancient world? The horseless and camel-less Israelites would get trampled for sure. But God promised Gideon the victory. This promise wasn’t good enough, and so Gideon “fleeced” God—twice. While we may imagine God sending a thunderbolt to smite Gideon, he played along, soaking and un-soaking the fleece until Gideon ran out of ideas for his fleece.
When the entire nation of Israel turned away from God, God still reached out to them through the prophet Elijah. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel while the people stood back watching. We don’t read about the people doing anything beyond toe-tapping spectating. They weren’t willing to offer their allegiance to either side unless something happened. We usually think that faith must precede every act of God, but sometimes God surprised the Israelites with an extraordinary act to win them back.
Moving on to the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament, let’s just say that Jesus wouldn’t have had a single disciple if doubt disqualified anyone from following him. While the women who followed Jesus had a relatively reliable track record, persevering through some of Jesus’ darkest hours, the men he chose were all over the place. We give Thomas a hard time as a doubter, but let’s face it: those guys were all a mess. Jesus’ catchphrase became, “Why do you have so little faith?” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20).
They didn’t know he was the Messiah for quite some time, and even when they started to believe it, Jesus ended up being a completely different Messiah than the one they’d hoped for. When faced with potentially losing their lives alongside Jesus, they all ran for it. Didn’t they have faith in Jesus?
Is doubt a good thing? Well, it’s certainly not God’s ideal. However, the consistent theme throughout Scripture is that God can work with people in the midst of their doubts. Doubt is not a deal breaker. God is patient and powerful enough to wait out our doubts and to win us back, although we should be wary of holding onto our doubts instead of the promises of God. The key for my faith has to do with the math of doubt.
The Math of Doubt
If you’re struggling with doubt, then you’re in a place where your belief and unbelief are held in conflict with each other. It’s not a comfy place to be, but, as we’ve seen over and over again in scripture, Jesus can work with it. While we are warned against “doubting” Jesus, doubt does not disqualify us.
We tend to think that a little bit of doubt can erase a lot of faith. Is a little bit of faith wiped out by a lot of doubt? All of that doubt must be stronger, right?
That’s not how the math of faith and doubt works.
When a man brought his demon-possessed son to be healed by Jesus’s disciples, his faith was certainly wavering. Everyone had failed him. Perhaps Jesus was his last shot before giving up. His doubt and frustration came through loud and clear to Jesus. When Jesus rebuked him and told him to have faith, the father said one of the most honest things ever in the history of humanity, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
He knew that he was struggling with doubt, but some part of him still believed. He had brought his son to Jesus after all, so he wasn’t completely lost in apathy or despair. He had a tiny bit of faith left, even though he felt overwhelmed by unbelief. You could say this little faith was like a mustard seed. It’s comforting to see how Jesus honored the father’s small, faltering faith.
I used to think that the mere mention of doubt was the end of prayer time. Who could “believe” in Jesus or ask Jesus to do anything while still harboring doubts? That guy! Jesus healed his son even though he confessed doubts.
The math of faith and doubt goes like this: A little faith > a lot of doubt.
Doubt does not necessarily cancel faith. There may be times when doubt will hold us back from God, but there is a process and a tension to faith and doubt.
What would James say about this?
James wasn’t a big fan of doubt. He wrote this about prayer: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6–8).
Perhaps this is too fine a line, but there is a huge difference for me between someone who is completely convinced that God doesn’t exist and the person who prays and confesses struggles with unbelief. The mere mention of our doubts to God shows that we are at least admitting there’s a chance God can do something about them.
Sometimes the most faith-filled thing you can do is to tell God about all of your doubts, even if you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next.
What if we let God become a part of the process of our believing? What would happen if we spoke with complete honesty to God about everything we don’t understand or struggle to believe? Doesn’t it take faith to just admit to God that we can’t pray in the first place?
It’s not like faith is a commodity that someone can buy and own—something that you either have or don’t have. Faith isn’t instant all of the time. Faith is often a process. Perhaps we overemphasize dramatic conversion stories to the detriment of those who have struggled for their hard-won faith over a series of conversations or after years of struggling with Scripture.
My current pastor has seen so many people come to faith in Jesus because he gave them space to process their beliefs. He welcomes them where they’re at, pointing out the common ground between them and Jesus and then welcoming them to look into the details further. Perhaps we’ve overemphasized the importance of making sure everyone is on the exact same page or has prayed the same prayer.
We all find God through different questions and processes. The end result is that Jesus saves. The catch is that sometimes faith comes in an instant, sometimes it takes years, and sometimes it’s lost and only found many years later.
As serious as we need to take doubt as a long-term threat if it’s allowed to grow and overshadow the voice of God in our lives, doubt also simply comes with the territory if you’re living by faith. Doubt is the dark side of the coin for Christianity. We won’t have 100 percent perfect faith all of the time. Have you ever worried about God’s provision or doubted God?
You’re in good company.
Nearly every person who followed Jesus in the New Testament passed through a time of doubt and even struggled with doubts after discovering that Jesus truly was the Messiah. If you haven’t ever doubted something about God, you will eventually. It’s a good thing we know that God answers prayers that confess, “Help my unbelief.” The tiny seed of faith in that prayer is more than enough to help us survive when doubts threaten to upend our faith.
Don’t forget to check out A Christian Survival Guide, just $2.99 today.