by C Michael Patton November 4th, 2010
Complete Series (PDF)
Doubt can be one of the most terrifying experiences that a Christian can ever go through. It can challenge and test you at the most fundamental level. It can cause your entire world to fall apart and enter you into a spiritual nightmare—no, night-terror—that does not seem as if it is ever going to stop. There are many different types of and reasons for doubt. Christians can doubt God’s love, goodness, presence, and even his very existence.
This series is meant to help Christians dealing with doubt. This first post will be in bullet points. The next will be a more traditional format. Finally, I will share with you some of my own experiences with doubt.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t suppress your doubts and put them in a closet in the back of your mind. This is very easy to do and common among Christians. In fact, it is common among all belief systems. We seek to sustain our emotional high about whatever it is that we believe. Therefore, when something seems to militate against it, we tend to suppress these doubts. The problem is that the suppression of doubt can actually hinder growth in faith and set you up for a complete spiritual breakdown sometime in the future. It is only through learning to deal with our doubts properly that our faith can grow properly.
- While I don’t think it is good to suppress your doubts, I do think that you should take a “break” from them now and then. Some of us like to deal with every problem, every battle, every adversity head on until it is vanquished. However, this often does more harm than good. It is kind of like problems and stresses in your personal life: you need to take some time away from them. Doubt can be thought of as a spiritual stress or spiritual depression. As I said, many think that they need to ride them until they subside, but I don’t think this is best. Therefore, as best you can, take a break from them every once in a while and enjoy and practice the faith that you do have.
- Recognize that you are not alone in your doubts and struggles. Everyone will experience some sort of doubt from time to time. Sometimes this doubt will be severe, challenging the very foundations of your life and even your sanity. But you are not alone. Such is the Christian life on this (fallen and flawed) side of heaven.
- All doubt will be done away with one day. Enough for now on this.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to others about your doubt. Now this becomes tricky because there are so many Christians out there who will not understand because they have been taught for so long to immediately shove their doubts in a closet in the back of their mind. Therefore, they are probably in denial about them. As well, they may look down upon you for having them and/or question your salvation. However, there are many honest and very strong Christians out there who feel and give permission to express doubts. Seek out those Christians and talk to them about your doubt. This will be very comforting. It is only when you think you are alone in your doubts that you will be quickly overwhelmed though a sort of “spiritual panic.”
- Understand that faith, like doubt, is not a black/white either/or issue. Doubt can be thought of as the bridge that makes up your faith and perfect faith. None of us has perfect faith. Doubt does not mean you don’t believe. Only if you have completely let go of the faith, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, are you to be counted among those who don’t believe.
- Know that there were many biblical spiritual giants that doubted. You may be asking a common question: :How can I know for sure?” Listen to what Abraham said after God had already told him that he was going to possess the covenant: “Oh God, how will I know [for sure] that I will possess it? (Gen. 15:8). Wait, shouldn’t it have been enough that God told him? Listen to John the Baptist after proclaiming Christ with great confidence at Christ’s baptism, John, who was called the greatest of all men: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for something else” (Luke 7:20). Think of what a conflict John must have been going through. He knew for certain at one point that Christ was the one. But after a time of God’s absence in his life (he was in prison getting ready to be executed), he began to doubt. No one will ever know the conflict that John went though at this time, but we cannot fail to recognize how significant this is.
- Remember that not all doubt is the same. There are three different types:
Part 2: We All Doubt
Christians doubt. No, not always. But Christians do doubt. Christians doubt because their faith is not perfect. Christians doubt because we are fallen. Christians doubt because we live in a confusing world that breeds misinformation, impossible expectations, depression, pain, suffering, sin, and skepticism. We doubt all kinds of things from God’s concern and activity to the Bible’s truthfulness. We even doubt God’s very existence.
Thoughts sometimes go through our mind:
“God, why are things falling apart like this? I did what you said. I have always followed you but you are absent from every area of my life. It is not supposed to be like this. Hello? Are you there?”
“God, you say that you will not give us more than we are able to bear, but I passed that point a long time ago. Is your word actually true?”
“I was so sure about everything at one time, now I am not sure of anything.”
“Why did you allow me to believe that for so long? It was false, yet I made it the testimony of my life. What else am I wrong about?”
“The very fact that I am doubting causes me great grief and intensifies the doubt and makes me unstable. I am not supposed to doubt Lord. Where in the heck is this coming from? I thought that if I wanted to believe, it would come. I want to, but it is fleeing from me.”
“I believe—I think—help my unbelief.”
“Are you really the one, or should I start looking elsewhere.”
“God, do you hate me? I know I am a sinner, but you seem to really hate me. Just tell me what I did. Give me a remedy. I am willing to do anything, but this feeling of dread is more than I can bear. God? Are you there?” [Repeat every day for a year until you cease due to exhaustion.]
“Do I really have the conviction of the Holy Spirit, or is this a psychological and cultural belief based on my own desires that it is true? I’m so scared.”
Solution: Step one: Take it to your Church. Take it to the community of God. Take it to fellow Evangelicals. Hold on there partner. . . There are three things that you normally don’t have the right to express in Evangelical circles. The three Ds:
2. Divorce (or just marital problems in general)
In Evangelicalism, there are, sadly, more often than not, very few counselors to whom to turn. It is no wonder that many secretly seek shelter and refuge outside Evangelicalism. We feel like Saul going to the witch of Endor when we go outside our own fold for help, but we cannot find God’s representative among our own. It is no wonder people eventually become ex-Evangelicals. Our lack of grace, understanding, and transparency—our pride—often keeps us from representing Christ to those who are most in need. Sometimes it is that we are so afraid of admitting our own struggles because that, to us, would admit defeat. Other times it’s that we have never been able to come to terms with our own doubt. If we cannot admit our own, how do we help others? If we have a blacklist of things that you cannot talk about, why shouldn’t they go somewhere else? Who can blame them?
If you have or are going through any of the three Ds, it is only those who are able to admit that they have been through the same that we want to talk to. Everyone else out of the room! Why? Because, for those brave enough to actually express and articulate such thoughts as those listed above to another Evangelical, there is a trained and rote response. After the initial reaction of horror lifts, the all-to-easy cliché answers begin to emerge from our mouths:
“Are you sure you are really a Christian?”
“Have you been reading your Bible?”
“Memorize these two verses and call me in the morning.”
“What sin do you have in your life that you need to confess?”
“You must not have heard this argument.”
“You need to consider whether you are using your doubts to justify your backslidden life.”
“You are demon possessed.”
The problem is that it is hardly ever so easy.
Doubts come in many shapes and sizes. The solution is often more complicated than breaking out a Four Spiritual Laws tract. There are serious doubts. Lingering doubts. Flies in the ointment of our faith. Imperfections and annoyances. Vortex doubts that are the black holes of your mind. You know, the kind that make you feel like you are a subject in the movie The Matrix. Sometimes there are doubts that cause your world to fall completely apart, your life comes undone, and you, the Christian, even dread life itself. You may consider suicide.
It is on the tide of the reality of these types of doubts that we need to move forward in Evangelicalism with compassion and understanding, not judgment and fear. The first step to dealing with doubt is to admit we have them and provide a safe environment where they can be expressed and worked though. Doubt, belief, and unbelief are much more mysterious than we like to think. But one thing I know for certain: Even if I don’t know the “why?” of your doubt, I do know that God is not scared of our doubts. There is no clichés in his world. We need to feel free to express them. Why are we so scared of them?
Part 3: Emotional/Experiential Doubt
If John the Baptist doubted, I don’t think anyone should feel too ashamed when they doubt. I believe that we as Christians doubt all sorts of things. We doubt our interpretation of the Bible. We doubt our salvation. We doubt that God really loves us. We can even doubt God’s existence.
In this series, I am focusing on the more fundamental type of doubt which asks questions concerning the truthfulness of Christianity. When a Christian begins to doubt their faith, it can issue a warrant for our hope, purpose, foundation for living, and even our sanity. In part one and two of this series I have attempted get past the fear of admitting doubt. I even put a poll up which eventually showed that the majority of Christians who visit Parchment and Pen do experience doubt, some of them significant. Now I want to begin to talk about the three types of doubt which can rob you of your faith:
It is important to realize that these are not mutually exclusive. Almost always, if someone experiences one, the others will contribute to some degree. However, one of these normally serves as a catalyst for the others.
For now, I am only going to define them one at a time. In following posts, I will offer suggestions on how to overcome the various types of doubt.
This type of doubt evidences itself through our feelings. Normally it is brought about by some type of experience which enacts a tailspin on our faith. Unmet expectations: That is a good way to put it. This type of doubt essentially comes when God is absent in ways you believe he should be present. This causes emotional turmoil, fatigue, and despair. God’s silence in what we believe to be important situations can cause us to wonder if he is really there.
The suffering of this world can lay a heavy burden on anyone’s shoulders. When this is not relieved, our emotional reaction can cause us to enter into the process of adjusting our most fundamental beliefs. The death of a loved one. A debilitation. Deep depression. Financial suffering. A miscarriage following a long battle of infertility. Most importantly, any situation that causes pain that seems meaningless and causes our emotions to cry out “Why?” If we can find hope and meaning in the suffering—if we can discover a reason why it is happening—then it is not so bad and the doubts will be overshadowed. However, when bad things happen and there does not seem to be any reason for them, this can cause us to doubt God.
Unanswered prayer. Now that is a loaded saying. Suffice it for now, let us continue to frame this in the category of unmet expectations. Here though we focus on the aspect of the Christian life where God does not seem to be “coming through” with regard to your petitions. You are single and you desperately want to find a mate. You pray and pray for years with no result. You are out of a job. At first you attempt to see this as the hand of God making needed adjustments. But now, more than a year later with bills unpaid and a family to take care of, you still have nothing. You pray and pray for God’s “perfect will” and provision, yet he does not seem to care. Is he really there? Or how about when you pray and pray for something that you know God wants from you? How about patience, love, joy, or peace? Yet after years of prayer, these things are still not a part of your personality that you can claim. Is God really there? The emotions produced by this experience can definitely turn the rudder of your faith.
As well, emotional doubt can be onset by severe depression or any other “handicap of the brain.” The mind is a funny thing that we don’t understand too well. When depression sets in, it can cause us to be very irrational believing all kinds of things that don’t make sense. The clouds of the mind can deny access to the more rational faculties. People can see things that are not there, devise irrational conspiracy theories, and become uncontrollably angry for very little reason at all. On top of this, people can doubt things that they would otherwise know to be true, including God’s love, concern, and existence.
In short, emotions are very powerful. They can mislead us and bend us in directions that we don’t want to go. This fact alone can cause doubt!
I believe that John the Baptist’s doubts while in prison as he was about to be executed were very emotional (Matt. 11:2-5). His circumstances caused him to begin to question what he formally knew to be true. At the Baptism of Jesus he proclaimed that he was the one who needed baptism from Jesus. He even heard the voice of God from heaven proclaiming Christ to be his son (Matt. 3:13-17). John knew that he was not even fit to tie Christ’s sandals. However when God did not pull through for him the way he expected (unmet expectations), he sent his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you really the one, or should we look for someone else.” If your circumstances have caused you to cry out to God, “Are you really the one?” “Are you really there?” “Do you really care?”, take heart. You are in the company of one of the greatest men of God who ever walked the earth (Matt. 11:11).
Questions to ask yourself to see if your doubt is emotionally initiated:
Have you recently experienced a tragedy?
Are you in serious financial difficulties?
Have you been disturbed as of late by the suffering of others?
Does everything seem meaningless?
Are you going through chemical depression or anxiety?
Do you feel as if your are acting irrationally in much of your thinking?
Are you experiencing doubt in other areas (marriage, economy, job security, loyalty of friends and family, etc.)?
Part 4: Intellectual Doubt
“Ninety-nine percent truth and one percent error amounts to one-hundred percent error.” This is what I was taught when I was nineteen-years-old. And I believed it. It sounded good. It sounded full of conviction and assurance and that is what I liked to hear. For many years I lived under the assumption of this powerful statement, believing that everyone who was in the slightest bit of error was completely deceived by the evil one. Oh, and one important note, my understanding and interpretation was the standard against which all others were judged.
I understand differently now, but I learned the hard way. Of course, I still recognize that this can be true when it comes to certain issues that are of cardinal value, but my studies have made me much less ridged than I was before. I guess the primary thing that did this to me was the realization that the “standard”, my own doctrine, was flawed and in need of change. The first time I realized this, I went through a period of intellectual doubt. Most specifically, I doubted my own ability to be correct.
Previously, I talked about doubt that is brought about for emotional/experiential reasons. Now I want to focus on doubt that is brought about for intellectual reasons.
The mind is a very powerful thing. As one writer put it (I think Jonathan Edwards), “The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” Of course this does not happen overnight for most. It comes with questions, concerns, and small doubts here and there. As children we have the tendency to believe what we are told. Whether it be Santa Clause, storks and babies, the tooth fairy, or God, children are very trusting. It is not until we become adults that we go through a time of critical analysis, but even then, our tendency is to root for the “home team.” In other words, we want mom and dad to be right, therefore, we attempt to see things through the lenses we were given. When something challenges our childhood assumptions, our emotions fight to keep us at the bays with which we are familiar. However, our emotions only have so much vitality and traditions become nuanced and redirected slowly. Sooner or later, adjustments begin to be made and we find ourselves in an intellectual crisis of faith. This is natural and this is good. However, many Christians are completely unprepared for this crisis and it eventually does great damage, even to the point of sinking their ship.
This series is primarily for those who struggle with doubt, so I am going to continue to talk directly to you. However, I think it is something that all Christians need to hear.
The category of intellectual doubt is large and varied. However, ninety-percent of the time I do notice one central theme that threads people’s intellectual problems with Christianity: the assumption of systematic indubability.
I have never been much good at building houses out of cards, but I have seen many that are tremendous. Each card is interdependent. They are all connected in such a way that the house would not exist if one were to be removed. The weakest link will cause the whole house to crumble upon removal or even the slightest movement.
Many people have their understanding of the Christian faith built in such a way. For so many Christians, their theology is a house of cards. Doubt, in any area, is like tampering with one card. If something happens to this card, all is lost. Therefore, doubt, in any area, is an incredibly fearful thing.
However, when it comes to Christianity, intellectual doubt is nothing to fear. It is the other side of the coin to intellectual growth. As long as we don’t see our faith as a house of cards, we can begin to rearrange, question, doubt, wrestle with, and engage issues with much more confidence. I often tell people that I have less faith in the reality of one’s faith when they say they have never had any intellectual doubts at all. I will distinguish this from what I call “spiritual doubt” in the next chapter of this series, but what we must realize is that any type of true intellectual engagement—any time we seek to love God with our minds—this requires an assumption of some doubt. Think about it. If you approach your studies simply seeking to confirm what you already believe, you are not studying at all. Your mind is absent as your heart’s ambition is to take your prejudice and have it affirmed. However, when you are pursuing truth first, you begin to release yourself of obligations to serve what you already know. Otherwise, you are your own master, not truth, and certainly not God.
Systematic indubability is when we see things in such a way that any challenge to our certainty makes everything fall since they are systematically connected in a precise manner.
Is the Bible reliable? Why can’t I see God? Why doesn’t God act today like he did in biblical times? What about evolution and the big bang? Why are so many scientists atheists? Is there something I am missing? Did Christ really rise from the grave or was this made up by well-meaning followers of Christ? Is Christ God? Why is it taking so long for Christ to come back? How can we claim to have the truth when there are so many alternatives?
These are all questions that, while having emotional drives and implications, have a strong intellectual component to them. Many of you are experiencing doubt that is intellectual in its foundation. If you have your theology built as a house of cards, your faith is going to respond accordingly. To even entertain that you might be wrong about this or that doctrine, this or that interpretation, this or that belief, causes you to fall apart inside.
A few points here concerning intellectual doubt:
1. The Christian faith is not a house of cards. Most assuredly, there are foundational issues of the faith that, if taken away, will destroy Christianity. Issues like the existence of God (there is no such thing as a “Christian atheist”), the resurrection of Christ, the reality of God’s judgment and grace through Jesus Christ, and Christ’s atoning death on the cross. However, there are many details of the Christian faith that can suffer adjustments without destroying the entire faith. I have seen many people leave the faith and the catalyst of their departure was a rejection of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible does not have any errors, historic, theological, or scientific). I have seen others leave because they felt they had to adjust their view of the early chapters of Genesis, creation and the flood. I have seen others who thought that if there was any redacting (editing by the authors) of the Gospel narratives, their faith was destroyed. Still, I have seen some who come to believe that the flood was not global. These are issues to be sure. But they are not issues which can cause any harm to the essence of Christianity in any way.
It is normally those who are brought up in rigidity who are susceptible to letting this kind of doubt crash their faith. This is why you see so many who are “former fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism feeds on unnecessary rigidity and therefore, unfortunately, is quite a seedbed for graveyards of Christians.
While I believe strongly in many issues that are of non-cardinal value, I don’t hold on to these too tightly. This is a fundamental philosophical precursor to dealing with many intellectual doubts. The inability to identify, isolate, and distinguish between essentials and non-essentials often causes the entire house of cards to fall.
2. While there are people out there that are more educated than you who are not Christians, there are also many people out there who are more educated than you who are Christians. Don’t forget this. It will help you to realize that the cultural assumption that the more educated you are the more likely you will become an atheist is simply not true. While education is of immense value to the truth, as we will see in the next contribution to this series, in a Christian worldview, there is something far more powerful at work bending our wills.
3. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are the only one to ask these questions and entertain these doubts. Feeling alone in a time of doubt amplifies the power of the doubt unnecessarily. Christianity has two-thousand years of history and I guarantee that your questions have not escaped the notice of great people of the past. Christianity is littered with intellectual giants who have wrestled with the exact same questions you are and come to the conclusion that Christianity is true. That is why it is so important to become a good student of church history. While we live in an age of scientific discovery and technological breakthroughs, don’t assume that people are philosophically more enlightened than before. We are not. In fact, an argument could be made that we are falling into the greatest intellectual and philosophical slumbers since the dark ages due to our preoccupation with high speed technological and scientific breakthroughs. We don’t have time for wisdom anymore.
4. Answers are available. Simply put, I do not believe that there is any objection or even the accumulation of objections to which there are not reasonable and sufficient answers. This does not mean that anyone will be compelled to agree with the answers (as that is a different spiritual matter), but it is important to realize that there is simply no objection out there that is detrimental to Christianity. Of course, there will always be possible alternatives, but this does not make them probable alternatives. And this is an important thing to realize: possibility does not mean probability. Yes, there is the possibility that (as you might hear from an accredited scholar on one of these documentaries), that the followers of Christ went to the wrong tomb, but when considered in light of all the evidence, you will quickly realize that it is not a probability.
There are some incredible, balanced, and well-respected scholars in Christianity. There are thousands of books, lectures, and even full courses of study that are broadly available. Make sure that you are committed to studying these issues. Bring your doubts and concerns to the table and I am certain that you will be presented with answers that are intellectually satisfying concerning the central issues of the Christian faith.
I said before that I don’t give much credence to the faith of those who have never really wrestled with their beliefs, but I also don’t give much credence to those outside the faith who act as if the Christian answers to their objections are not intellectually possible and sustainable. This tells me that they have either not studied the issue well enough or are too biased to admit the sustainability of the Christian faith. Because of this, in my opinion, they are somewhat intellectually irrelevant in the market place of ideas.
Intellectually, when we come of age, Christians should intellectually challenge all their beliefs. God is certainly not afraid of questions and doubts. And it is not sin. In fact, this is the bullseye of obedience. “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes.” The diligent Christian searches all things to “find out whether these things are so.” The Christian faith is intellectually sustainable. There are answers to the questions and doubts we have. Whether or not we can accept these answers is another issue all together. We will take this up next time.
Questions to ask yourself to see if your doubt is intellectually initiated:
- Do you believe that Christianity is a house of cards?
- Do you think that there are questions and doubts that cannot be sufficiently answered which will destroy the essence of the Christian faith?
- Are you convinced that really smart people are less likely to be Christian?
- Do you believe that there are people out there that are smarter than you who are Christian?
- Do you only believe what you can understand completely?
- Have you studied any cardinal issue of Christianity, thoroughly examining both sides of the issue in a balanced manner with the best minds each option has to offer, and come to the conclusion that the Christian view is unsustainable?
Part 5: Why Some People Believe and Others Don’t
Why do some people believe and others don’t? Some of the most intelligent people I know, who understand the faith as well or better than myself, are unbelievers. Others are believers. What is the difference? In both cases the information is the same, so it is not a lack of knowledge. Of course, there are all kinds of issues tugging war for their allegiance, but these do not always explain why one person believes and another does not.
It has been well said that unbelief, not doubt, is the opposite of belief. Doubt is the bridge from our current faith to perfect faith. It expresses some degree of a lack in certainty. It can be said that no matter what you believe, you are probably going to experience some doubt. Christians can doubt God. Atheists doubt their atheism. In both cases, the lack of certainty does not mean that you don’t believe. It just means that in some sense you lack perfect belief. Faith, doubt, and belief are all in the same philosophical semantic domain. They are all more of a mystery than we like to think.
Belief in God is not something that comes natural for people. The Bible teaches that our natural inclination toward God is not favorable. Ephesians 2:3 calls us “children of wrath.” According to Romans 3:10, there is not even anyone who seeks for God. Psalm 53 is even more explicit saying that God looks down from heaven to see if there is anyone who seeks after him and can find no candidates. In other words, according to the Christian worldview, our nature is not simply a nature of doubt, but complete unbelief. We are born unbelievers. This does not mean that we don’t know about God, but that we don’t turn to him in acknowledgment and gratitude (Rom. 1:19; 21).
Orthodox Christianity has universally believed that we cannot overcome this unbelief on our own. We settled this in the great Augustine/Pelagian battles of the fourth-century. No amount of evidence, tactics, or manipulation of our mind can cause man to turn to God in true belief on their own. About this, Paul tells the Corinthians (2:14-15) that the truths of Christianity are “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.” He goes on to talk about the disposition of man in his natural state: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” It is not that the “natural man” cannot intellectually grasp truth about God, but that he cannot accept this truth without God’s radical intervention.
Some call this intervention “prevenient grace” and some call it “saving grace.” This is not the time for that discussion. The point is that no matter what your theological persuasion, all Christians believe that we are at the mercy of the grace of God to come into our hearts and change our unbelieving disposition. Paul tells the Romans that faith it is not dependent on “human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Christ does not give Peter accolades for believing in him when everyone else was fumbling on his identity, but he tells him that his belief is based on a merciful blessing of God, not his own power. “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’” (Mat 16:17).
We could go on and on with this. My point is that belief in God is not something that comes naturally. We must recognize this in our quest to understand and overcome doubt. Belief is a very spiritual thing. So is doubt.
While there is a doubt that can be attributed to the emotions and one that can come from our intellect, there is a spiritual doubt as well. And no amount of intellectual engagement or emotional manipulation can overcome spiritual doubt. Of course, when I say that there is spiritual doubt, I am assuming that there is a very spiritual side to belief.
Notice from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man dies and goes to a place of torment. While here, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead and warn his five brothers so they would not share his same fate. What Abraham says is very interesting and telling concerning the nature of belief, unbelief, and doubt. He tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them give ear to what they say.” Abraham first appeals to the sufficiency of revelation already given. The rich man responds, ”No, father Abraham, but if someone went to them from the dead, their hearts would be changed.” Notice that the rich man is attempting to provide his brothers with something that he believes would be sure to change their hearts. The rich man believes that if his brothers actually saw and heard testimony from a dead man they would surely believe. We must pause here and consider what the rich man is asking. Have you not ever asked something similar? I have. In fact, I appealed to God in such a way just recently. I wanted God to do something so supernatural, so miraculous, that I would be compelled, intellectually and emotionally, to rid myself of all doubt. ”If God would just write his name in the sky, I would believe.” “If God would simply break his auditory silence and speak to me, I would believe.” ”If God would just raise someone from the dead, I would believe.” I have heard all of these. The point is that from a biblical worldview, we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence. Notice how Abraham responds to the rich man: “And he said to him, If they will not give attention to Moses and the prophets, they will not be moved even if someone comes back from the dead” (31). In other words, if they don’t believe now, they won’t believe no matter what happens.
Belief takes a mighty work of God in our hearts and this work transcends all human endeavors.
When we have doubts, these can be emotional and they can be intellectual. But we dare not fail to recognize that God is the one who gives us a portion of faith (Rom. 12:3). Ephesians 2:8 tells us that faith is a gift of God so that no man can boast. We are what we are because of the grace of God (1 Cor 15:10). Often times I see people attempting to overcome their doubt by filling their heads with more information. While I am certainly not against learning and mongering for truth with the mind that God has given, we all have to understand the spiritual dimension to our faith. We must have the gift of faith and this only comes from God.
Ultimately, spiritual belief is not something we can buy or sell. It is not available in any market of man. Doubt is often the same. Doubt can transcend all the knowledge, books, reason, and arguments you encounter. Often times you might find yourself in a circumstance where you have every reason to believe, but you simply cannot. Smart people don’t disagree about the validity of Christianity based on the information or lack thereof, but because of the spiritual battle that is going on. Doubt can be a very spiritual thing. There comes a time when we must lay the books down, cease to ask for further signs, and turn to God with pleadings for his mercy.
Do you doubt God? Are you riddled with skepticism and the inability to believe? Do you find that you are always one “sign” away from belief? This I can assure you: you will always be one step away no matter how many steps you take. In these circumstances the only thing we can do is call upon God to change us. God’s mercy is ground zero for our faith.
Part 6: The Day I Quit Believing in God
I have not talked about this publicly before. I have not bogged about it. I have not used it as a sermon illustration. And never spoken of it before while I was teaching. It took me long enough to tell my wife about what happened. Like so many other things, it takes some time to process. I am always timid about events such as these. I don’t really know how to take it. So often, the interpretation that you come up with about the meaning of your experiences turns on you and places mud in your face (or here in Oklahoma, red clay).
It was a Wednesday afternoon when it happened. There was no real reason for it that I know of. In fact, this event was about the furthest thing from my psychological barometer. I was about to teach my classes in The Theology Program. The day before, I had responded to someone who had left the faith, attempting to do my best to restore confidence in this lapsing believer. This was certainly not atypical. There were no lingering doubts that had been surfacing. No new arguments that I heard that made me pause. I had every reason to be as confident as ever in my faith in Christ and the Christian worldview. However, this day would be like none other I had ever experienced. It was the day I quit believing.
You must understand. I have never been an “unbeliever” in any sense. There is not a time in my life that I can remember not believing in Christ. Sure, there were those doubts. Doubts about many things. But the serious doubts always ran out of gas very quickly as they were murdered by a few silver bullets that pulled back the curtain of their weaknesses. But this time was different. It was not any simple doubt that I was experiencing, but unbelief.
Like so many other things, I can tell you where I was when it happened. When Angie died, I was driving with the family on 635 in Dallas. When my mother had her stroke, I was sitting on the loveseat eating cereal. When Will busted his head open, I was playing Spiderman upstairs by myself. When I quit believing, I was beginning to sit down on my couch at home. By the time I pulled my legs up beside me, the terrible and foreign realization came to my mind that I didn’t believe. I don’t know why, but as I began to think about God, Christ, prayer, and all those things that form the normal spiritual backdrop to my thoughts, they had been robbed of their primary fuel—belief. I simply did not believe. There was this sudden realization that it was all false. Covering my life like a dark coroners blanket was a new belief: the belief that my whole life I had fooled myself into believing in something that was not true. I did not believe that God was real.
First, there was a sudden sense of betrayal that overwhelmed my thoughts. This betrayal was concerning my former life: my upbringing, my church, my seminary, and all of those people who were my heroes in the faith. They had betrayed me. Well, not them directly, but their foolish commitment to something that was false. They caused me to be emotionally committed to something that was not true in reality.
Second, in panic and terrible fear, I tried to stop the spiritual bleeding. I knew there would be a scar from this injury unlike any I had ever seen and I need to recover as quickly as possible. So I began to think through what I would tell someone who came to me with this testimony of acute apostasy. My thoughts turned toward good theology and apologetics. I turned to the silver bullets that were normally on automatic pilot, but were strangely absent. So I forced it. I thought to myself “If God is not real, why is there something rather than nothing?” It did not work. Then I went into the prophecies of the Old Testament. How could they be there if God was not real? Finally, I went to the resurrection of Christ. How do I reject that without committing a thousand overrides to my intellect? However, none of them were effective in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong. It was not as if rival arguments were persuasive either. It was simply that I could not access rational thought at all. Everything was overwhelmed by this deep feeling that we believe these things only to make us feel better and have purpose. These feelings controlled, influenced, and short-circuited my ability to intellectually engage the issues.
This went on all day.
Emotionally, the former believer was fighting. I cried out to God saying, “Don’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me. I can’t take this type of trial. Whatever you are doing, stop!”
My kids came home from school and I looked at them in despair. I felt like they were rocks. Yes, that is right—rocks. My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another. I wanted to die, but I was way too scared.
What are my wife and kids going to think? What about my ministry? I have to keep this a secret. These were my thoughts all day.
That night, I did not sleep at all. My wife knew there was something wrong, but she did not know how to respond since I was unwilling to express my fall. I went out to my car in the garage and sat by myself on the passenger side. I called out to God again: “No, not me. Not me. I am not going to be one of those who walk away from the faith. Please don’t let me. Do something. This hurts way too bad.” I began to ask for signs. I just wanted the Lord to do something. However, I knew that even if he did, the problem was not down that road. It was something different.
The next day nothing changed. I went to work (what else was I supposed to do?). I avoided everyone. I did not want to look anyone in the eyes, fearing that they would see my unbelief. But who cared, they were rocks as well. This went on the entire day.
There way no one to talk to. Who was I supposed to call? What was I supposed to say? Should I have called a board member and told them I have lost my faith? Should I call my pastor? I was simply too scared about what people would think. The only ones who I thought would understand where those who had walked a similar path away from God and never returned. I know a lot of these people, but that would have been waving the white flag, and I was not ready for that.
Somewhere deep down I believed that the Lord was taking me through this. Emotionally, I needed to hang on to this. There was that small and weakened part of me that that was playing tug-a-war with a giant.
The next morning after another sleepless long night(mare), I was driving to work praying. I said to the Lord, “Lord, if you are trying to teach me that you are the only one who holds the key to faith, I get it! I GET IT! Now stop. Test over. I fail. I cannot believe on my own. Faith is a gift. Please give it back.”
An hour later I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. I was hoping that some exercise would help. While sweating away, I was reading a book about faith. The book did not really help, it is just part of my memories because of what was about to happen. After 35 minutes of elevated heart rate, suddenly, in a moment of time, it was like I could access the part of my brain again that was responsible for belief. Like a foot is awakened due to renewed blood flow, I felt the same relief in my brain (odd to say, but it felt like the right side) and in my soul. One minute I did not believe, and the next I did. My faculties returned to me and my faith was completely restored as if it never left.
Since my “two days as an atheist” experience, I have had a lot of time to contemplate on what happened. I don’t have all the answers, but I am firm in my conviction that God was teaching me something through experience that I already believed in theory: Human effort is not ultimately responsible for faith, God is. In my ministry, I suppose this is important.
As I mentioned before, I had been discussing the reality of the Christian faith with someone who was a former Evangelical. This conversation was particularly frustrating for me as I could not figure out what the problem was. I felt as if I was saying all the right things. The arguments I was giving were extremely persuasive in my opinion. He knew enough. There was no more “silver bullets” for me to give. It exhausted me. There was nothing more I could do and I was mad about it. Through this experience, I think that God was letting me know who was ultimately in charge. He demonstrated to me more vividly than I would have ever desired that there is only so much I can do. It was like he said to me, “Michael, all the theology you teach is good and necessary, but don’t think it is the least bit effective without my presence. Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle. You are in the fight, but I have the weapons.
“It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Rom. 9:16)
I think that it is important to mention in closing that I have come to find out that this is more common than you might think. In fact, I talked about this with a prominent Evangelical author and pastor (whose name I will not mention). This guy is the very last person I would have thought would have a story like this to tell. He has never spoken about his experience publicly, but he described the exact same experience, only his lasted for three months! I would not have made it that long.
by C Michael Patton January 29th, 2014
1. What are you doubting? There are three primary things people doubt: 1) Their salvation, 2) God’s love for them, 3) fundamental issues of the faith. Included with the doubt of salvation is a sub-catergory: belief that they have committed the unforgivable sin. Which one do you find yourself doubting?
2. If it is a fundamental issue of the faith that you are doubting, which one is it? The reliability of Scripture? The reality of Hell? The exclusivity of Christ? The existence of God? Etc.
(This is important as, more often than not, people are having an emotional struggle, not an intellectual one, even if they don’t identify it as such. For example, ninety-nine percent of the time, people doubt hell and Christ’s exclusivity not because they have found some compelling logical argument against it, but because it does not square with them emotionally. This does not speak to the legitimacy of the doubt, but to the source of its genesis.)
3. Tell me about this aspect of your personality: Would you describe yourself as an intense person who tends toward compulsiveness or a laid back person with a lot of patience? Here is another way, though at first glance it may appear to be odd, to put this [and this will be more relevant to some of us who remember the commercials]: “How many licks does it take for you to get to the center of a Toosie Pop?” If you are old enough, you remember the commercial with the owl. The owl took two licks and then could not contain himself. He then bit straight into the middle. So it took him three. He was intense! If you have to bite into the pop, you might be an intense person.
(Why does this matter? Sometimes, more intense people experience times of extreme doubt, often coming on acutely without any warning. This is especially the case when people have [or at least believe themselves to have] more intellectually based doubts. Ironically, I find this most among young men who aspire to be apologists, believing that they must immediately and completely immerse themselves in every debate, book, and argument that exists, both those for and those against Christianity. Eventually, this type of personality is prone to be a “spiritual emotional breakdown.”)
(In case you were wondering, there have been studies done on how long it takes to get to the center of a Toosie Pop. It appears to take anywhere from 144-411 licks to get to the core.)
4. Are there any medications that you have recently started taking?
5. Are there any medications that you have recently stopped taking?
(As much as some Christians would like to think differently, your brain drastically affects your mind. In other words, brain chemistry—affected by many medications—can deeply affect your beliefs, perceptions of reality, and confidence in your faith. When one starts or suddenly stops some medication, doubts may soon follow.)
6. Are there any books or teachings that you have recently been reading that might have contributed to your wavering faith? If so, which ones?
7. Do you believe that faith and doubt can exist at the same time?
(Some people have been brought up believing that everything is black and white. If one has faith, they have no doubt. If they have doubt, they have no faith. I have often found that the alleviation of this falsehood coupled with the introduction and application of the idea of the tension between faith and doubt is all that is needed to reintroduce bloodflow to the soul.)
8. Is there any persistent and unrepentant sin in which you are involved?
(This is sometime the first and only question that people ask. Conversely, for some, it is anathema to suppose that sin might be the issue. While it is not the first question I ask, it is, nevertheless, very important and sometimes the cause of people’s doubt.)