t is not uncommon for a believer to go through seasons of doubt. In fact, almost every major character in the Bible encountered a significant faith crisis at some point. John Bunyan depicted this in the beloved allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. After Christian and Hopeful foolishly diverged from the King’s Highway, they found themselves in the dark, dank, dungeon of Doubting Castle. The Giant Despair beat them mercilessly while his wife Dissidence encouraged them to end their lives. They were trapped by doubt.
But not all doubt is the same. There seems to be two different directions that doubt can move a person. On one hand there is the seeking, hungering, desiring doubt that longs to be lifted up to the rock that is higher than the murky, foggy mire of what the world calls reality. On the other hand there is the dismal, despairing, despondent doubt that sinks ever deeper, unwilling to believe in the existence of unseen rocks that could be used to gain higher ground.
On one hand there is the seeking, hungering, desiring doubt that longs to be lifted up to the rock that is higher than the murky, foggy mire of what the world calls reality. On the other is the dismal, despairing, despondent doubt that sinks ever deeper, unwilling to believe in the existence of unseen rocks that could be used to gain higher ground
Since there are two very different types of doubt, we must be cautious in our reactions to friends and family who express doubt. Rather than launching into a carefully planned apologetic debate designed to erase all traces of doubt, we need to take time to discern what direction the doubt is pushing our brother or sister. If we sense that they are wrestling with the longing, searching, hope-grasping doubt, the best thing to do is encourage their quest. But first, how can we identify healthy doubt? Here are three characteristics:
- The person is willing, and even desperate, to ask for help. Remember the anxious father whose son was demon possessed, “I believe, only help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)
- The person is willing to seek the answer he needs. John the Baptist, in prison, facing execution, at the lowest point of his life, sent his disciples to Jesus in an effort to fight against the gnawing fangs of doubt the devil was digging into his soul. “Are you the One who was to come, or are we to look for someone else?” (Mt 11: 3)
- The person is ready for radical commitment when the missing pieces fall into place. “Doubting” Thomas’ response of absolute surrender seemed to go beyond the responses of the other disciples who, upon seeing the risen Jesus, exhibited both fear and doubt. However, Thomas the “doubter,” upon seeing Jesus, fell to his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)
If those characteristics are in a believer’s life who is wrestling with doubt, we can encourage them and pray for them with joy, knowing that those who ask will be answered, those who seek will find, and those who knock, the door will be opened. Their doubt is moving them in the direction they need to go.
Conversely, if a church member or relative is caught in the grips of despairing doubt, an entirely different approach is needed. But first, we should look for the following characteristics:
No amount of human logic can repair the crumbling foundation. A new foundation needs to be constructed. One made on the bedrock promise that God saves sinners.
- The person has little to no desire to pray. He is like the faithless Israelites, who, after being delivered from Egypt, would rather resort to pagan revelry than wait for God’s word through Moses.
- The person is not really interested in answers to the objections he raises. The Pharisees and Sadducees fired a barrage of theological questions at Jesus, hoping to catch him in his words. They weren’t interested in the answers, and wouldn’t believe even if the questions were answers. The questions were smokescreens to hide their own unbelief.
- The person is not interested in any significant change in his life other than slowly slipping away from the discomfort that a life of faith requires. The “rich young ruler” seemed to have a spark of faith in that he put forth enough effort to do what the Jewish religious law required. Yet he was plagued by doubt. Deep in the recesses of his heart he knew that he didn’t possess eternal life and he knew that he was unable to acquire it by his own efforts. Then, when Jesus told him what faith required, he turned away in despair of the fact that his possessions owned him. He was unwilling to let go of the chains that bound him.
If those characteristics are in a person’s life, they are suffering from the deadly type of doubt that is pushing them away from the life they need. Several failed attempts have taught me that an apologetic approach with airtight logic is not the best way to help this person. Despairing doubt implies that some semblance of belief once existed, but is being eroded by false beliefs or feelings. No amount of human logic can repair the crumbling foundation. A new foundation needs to be constructed. One made on the bedrock promise that God saves sinners.
It is the gospel that needs to be communicated over and over in a variety of ways, through word and action, in truth and love, with faith and hope. They need to understand that we all are hopeless to save ourselves, but God is mighty to save. Jesus died to forgive us, and rose again that we too might live. He alone can cause light to shine in the darkness of despair and bring new life to the dungeon of doubt.
To quote again from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: On the last night of their captivity, Christian exclaimed to Hopeful, “What a fool am I, to thus lie in this stinking dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that, I am persuaded, will unlock any door in Doubting Castle.”
And that promise is the Good News that God saves sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.