Doubt Need Not Be Disastrous

Apologetics requires certainty and confidence. Its basic purpose is conquering doubts cast on the Christian faith. But what about the doubts of Christians? How do we defend a faith that we are not always certain of?

Doubt is not a virtue; it is a serious problem. Doubt is dishonorable. God wants us to trust him, to have faith in everything he has revealed. “Faith, by its very nature, is opposed to all doubt.”[1] In a fallen world we should expect unbelief. But it doesn’t glorify God. Doubt is also uncomfortable. Doubt makes us unstable “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). If left untreated doubt can keep us from trusting in Jesus who is the only lifeline for lost sinners. And doubt is paralyzing. It can prevent disciples from doing great things for God (Matt. 21:21). Doubt can be like a blindfold on our soul. If we can’t see God’s integrity, we won’t dare follow the hard path Jesus blazed.

Doubt is a problem. But it need not be disastrous if we understand it and face it according to the rule of Scripture.

We Need to Understand Doubt

 “Doubt is a form of wavering; it’s to be of ‘two minds’ about something” (1 Kings 18:21).[2] Doubt is ambivalence about who God is or what he has said. It is like the first sin, and a sign that we are not yet completely remade in the knowledge of God. Doubt is so troublesome that God could use it as a threat to warn covenant breakers: “Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life” (Deut. 28:66). In the restored cosmos doubt will be no more.

But for now, doubt will always be a counterpart of faith. Living by faith simply means that we trust what we cannot see. It is a reasonable hope for what we do not yet fully have. The very nature of faith leaves room for uncertainty. God’s thoughts are too lofty for us to comprehend (Ps. 139:6). “God is infinite, beyond our understanding, and He chose to reveal Himself to us in a way that sparks questions rather than settles all of them.”[3] God does us a favor by not telling us everything he knows; we couldn’t handle it! Imperfect knowledge is not the enemy of faith.  

And doubt can be a healthy challenge to thoughtless acceptance of revealed truth. Doubt humbled Peter’s arrogant claims that he would always follow Jesus. And as we grow older it is natural and good to scrutinize the way we had believed certain truths. If you were taught that unbelievers are monsters, that every church member can be trusted, or that Christianity is easy, doubt can be a helpful corrective. In fact, sometimes our faith falters because we have been expecting easy answers our whole lives. “It is more dangerous to live in a safe little world refusing to acknowledge the wild, scary world of unbelief than it is to prepare well and engage it.”[4] Doubt forces us to venture “outside the fabricated safety of an untested faith.”[5]

But doubt can also be a result of excessive self-reliance. We might seek confidence in the quality of our faith and panic when we realize that it is small. If we make our understanding the standard for our security we will worry about how little we know. If we equate our value with our obedience to the works of the law we will doubt the gift of justifying grace. Doubt, even for Christians, is the result of believing that God is too small to be 100% what we need.

Because doubt takes different forms understanding doubt requires thoughtful exploration. Some of our doubts in God express honest disappointment in his providence. Following Christ can be temporarily disappointing. Even for the disciples who remained steadfast in following Jesus Christianity was not as simple as they first thought. Other doubts are the fruit of ungodly patterns of thought and life. “It’s not just belief that affects behavior, but it’s also behavior that affects belief. When we don’t obey God, we can begin to doubt God.”[6] Knowing that can encourage us to repent rather than abandon a faith that doesn’t seem to be working. Even what we might consider to be intellectual doubts—like how science might seem to clash with creationism—can say as much about us as about the problem. Has God revealed enough for us to believe and behave as he wills?

As we study our doubts some might seem unexplainable. Sometimes doubts are closer to malaise, a vague mental uneasiness. We might not feel disagreeable toward God’s revelation but can’t shake our anxiety. To doubt like this is to be human. But some doubt is incomparably worse: full-grown unbelief that signals the need for the new birth. Those who simply aren’t trusting God can’t shrug off their disbelief as honest questioning.

So, doubt is expected in this life and isn’t all bad. But it often is. So we need to examine our doubt to understand how to respond. And we should believe that with God’s help…

We Can Overcome Doubt

Don’t assume that doubt is totally unavoidable and allow it to displace faith. Scripture teaches that doubt can be helped (Mark 9:24).

Tell God Your Doubts

God gives us the book of psalms as a manual for expressing doubts and concerns as an act of faith. Roughly 60% of the psalms are laments, complaints about why things aren’t going how we want them to. And the psalms teach us how to doubt. Child-like faith knows that no question is off limits, but asks out of expectation, not skepticism. Every child comes to realize that their parents don’t know everything. We never have that experience with God. He doesn’t tell all but he knows all. So we can ask him anything. And he is tender with the doubting. The doubt of Jesus’ disciple Thomas is amazingly flagrant—without adequate proof, “I will never believe” (John 20:25). Yet Jesus honored Thomas’ sputtering faith by guiding the disciple’s hand to his tender wounds (John 20:27). He commands us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22) because he is merciful to doubters.

Doubt Your Doubts

Remember that “Feelings are great liars.”[7] And doubts are often nothing but untrustworthy feelings. “In fairness you must doubt your doubts.” If you identify “the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based,” and if you seek reasonable proof for those beliefs—“You will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.”[8] Do not give doubts privileged status. They are not more right just because they are sometimes more nagging or more fierce than faith. And even if you don’t know the answer to your doubts, the questions aren’t new and have probably been amply answered.

Be Humble

Some Christians are “absolutely convinced that nothing can shake their faith—they are mature enough, wise enough, and theologically astute enough to handle whatever comes their way (so they think).”[9] So did Peter. We should be confident in God and in his word, but not in ourselves. And we should treasure the moments when God humbles us. In the most belittling circumstances, when we come face to face with our folly and sin, we can be the most convinced of God’s mercy. David’s psalms of confession are the clearest proof of his sincere walk with God.

Face Doubts in Community

The impotence of our faith is partly “caused by our common loneliness and estrangement. …we have become used to living as solitary beings. …In our attitude toward God we are self-contained; we keep to ourselves …we do not allow another to look into our problems. We do not share our defeats” and, struggling alone with our troubles, “we become deadly tired.”[10] God’s plan for doubters like us is that we become “bound to a community” that “upholds us each time we threaten to stumble and fall. The cloud of witnesses that surrounds us cheers us on in the struggle,” challenging us to think and act like Jesus.[11]

Feed on God by His Word

Meditating on God “provides our souls the confirmations we need to fill in the spaces our minds can’t fill.”[12] C.S. Lewis nails it: “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.”[13] By feeding on truth we will find the only consolation for our doubts. Listen to John Owen’s searching question and unparalleled advice:

“Do any of us find... deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, and a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? ... [T]here is no way for our healing and deliverance [other than] obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith ... contemplation of Christ and his glory … is the only relief.”[14]

Certainty “is grounded in the promises of God, not in changing experiences or imperfect good works.”[15] We never overcome doubt by looking at ourselves, but only by looking away from ourselves to Christ, who is the sole pledge of God’s love to us.[16]

Read the previous posts in this series here.

William Boekestein is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reforming Apologetics"

"Nature and Apologetics" by Arthur Hunt

"Covenantal Apologetics," review by Stephen Myers

"Reforming Apologetics," review by Ryan McGraw

Defending the Faith by Gabriel Fluhrer

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker 


[1] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 228.

[2] Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 220.

[3] Barnabas Piper, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015), 33.

[4] Piper, Help My Unbelief, 92.

[5] Piper, Help My Unbelief, 141.

[6] Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 224.

[7] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 1980), 50.

[8] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008), xix.

[9] Michael Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 29.

[10] J.H. Bavinck, Faith and its Difficulties, 82.

[11] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, 517. But for churches to be effective in combating the doubts of her members it is high time “for a new doctrinal-theological-intellectual awakening in which the church recaptures her rich heritage of the Christian mind—and then considers various ways to pass that heritage down to the next generation.” Kruger, Surviving Religion 101, 13.

[12] Piper, Help My Unbelief, 76.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Collins, 1958), 14.

[14] The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 1, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth, 1965), 395.

[15] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 131.

[16] Cf. Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7.