When Faith Becomes Doubt

Faith is a wrestle with doubt, for true faith demands reason. Indeed, one of the problems in the Protestant world today is our prideful lack of engaging Biblical & cultural issues with our minds, which ironically is one of the ways our Lord commands his followers to love him. Noted Notre Dame historian Mark Noll addresses this modern shortcoming in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Sadly, in many church circles it has become meritorious not to critically assess and understand Scriptural doctrines and confessions, doctrines and confessions for which many of our forebears (not to mention our Savior) gave their lives. While informational availability is at all-time high, Biblical literacy is at an historic low. Contrary to popular belief, our faith is not "blind.” Jesus made sure there were witnesses who attested to his bodily resurrection. The New Testament authors compel us to “search the Scriptures,” to always be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. It is to our shameful neglect when we do not "desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby."

Yet, even the most reasoned and experienced believers struggle with their faith from time to time. Spiritual discouragement comes to the best of us. Legend has it that D.L. Moody, the world-famous evangelist based out of Chicago in the latter 19th century, was once approached by a woman who smugly told him that she had never once doubted her salvation, to which Moody reportedly replied, “Madam, I doubt you are saved.” Matthew, the tax collector turned gospel writer, records an account of John the Baptist, whom Jesus lauds as the greatest born of women, nevertheless struggling with his own grasp of the gospel. John had preached repentance in the wilderness, letting loose his righteous condemnation of the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers” who should “flee the wrath to come.” He had boldly gotten in King Herod’s face when Herod took his brother’s wife as his own, committing adultery. As a result of his rebuke, the Jewish tetrarch had him thrown in prison. It was from that prison cell that John began to doubt. Much like Christian’s low disposition after encountering the Giant of Despair upon arrival at Doubting Castle (John Bunyan's Pilgrim’s Progress), the voice crying in the wilderness suddenly became overcome with spiritual laryngitis. Finally, he sent word to Jesus through his own disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

I know what it’s like to ask that question. At the age of 15, I underwent the most profound period of doubt I have ever known. I had struggled off and on for years with making sure I had “done everything right” in seeking the Lord’s salvation. Oh, I had seen him work and had known the power of answered prayers, even having the privilege of having led several people to faith myself by that age, but to really know that I could fully trust God was a concept I just had trouble grasping. I suspect others have been there. Did I really confess and repent of my sins, was I trusting in Jesus alone for salvation, and if perfect love casts out fear, why was I still afraid? Dad tried to reason with me from the Scriptures (this John the Baptist passage from Matthew 11 was one of his favorites to teach in the Youth Sunday School class I was in). On the way home from church one night, he said to me in frustration, "Son, you're going to wake up one day and find yourself pleasantly surprised that you made it to heaven." I sure hoped so. I walked in on Mom one time and found her in tears over my spiritual depression. I spent a lot of time in Scripture and prayer during my sophomore year of high school, asking God to deliver me from doubt.

Out of all the circumstances my pastor walked me through during his life (and there were MANY), this one still stands out above the others. He read me numerous Scripture passages, then said something that has stood with me: the only people who really doubt their salvation are those who truly know God or are truly seeking him. Otherwise, why does someone who doesn’t know God or isn’t seeking him have any reason to doubt what they don’t possess and don’t seek? They don’t doubt precisely because they don’t believe. He then asked, “Barry, are you willing to trust God with everything you have, whatever the consequences? Heaven or hell, sing or swim, your faith is in him.” I told him I was. He responded, “Why don’t you tell him that?” So I did. The peace of God overwhelmed my heart, assuring me that I was his child.

Although at times we can more easily sense the working of God than at others, faith is ultimately not dependent on our feelings, but on what we believe, in whom we choose to trust, and it’s not until we believe that we begin to understand. Noble Augustine, in his own struggle with faith, remarked that he used to attempt to understand in order to believe, but he finally came to the point where he believed in order to understand. Despite all the evidence in the world at our disposal, one must still place their visible trust in the invisible God. I love how Jesus doesn’t give John a straight yes or no answer in his response: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The implication: I am the one you are seeking. Trust in me.

After his crucifixion, the disciples of Christ are holed up in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, their leader presumably gone. Jesus miraculously appears to them in bodily form, displaying his resurrected body. But one of them, Thomas, was missing. When the others tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord, Thomas infamously replies, “Unless I see his pierced hands and side, I won’t believe.” The following week, with Thomas in tow, Jesus once again manifests his physical glory in their presence. He invites Thomas to see his pierced hands and to feel his pierced side, to which the disciple replies, “My Lord and my God!” And then, in case we’re also tempted to doubt, Jesus turns directly to you and me: Thomas, you have believed because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.  The New Testament writers summarize it well a few years later: whom having not seen, you love.

So take heart, believer, because it’s not nearly as important how much faith you have, as who your faith is in that moves mountains. Thanks be to God for granting childlike faith to the least of these, including me.

Ain't Gonna Study War No More

Ain't Gonna Study War No More

I took some time to tour Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn). I walked down to the East Side and came across the easily recognizable UN building along the riverfront. The entire area was blocked off by barricades and security, which I expected. What I did not expect was the inscription engraved across the street, taken from Isaiah 2:4:

And He Went Out, Not Knowing Where He Was Going

"And he went out, not knowing where he was going." The writer of Hebrews 11 uses those words to describe Abraham's journey of faith, the patriarch lauded in Biblical history for believing God, even when every possible circumstance told him not to. He left his homeland as a senior citizen, journeyed to a barren desert, and lived as an upper class camper for the rest of his life. He was an heir of the promise, but a promise that went beyond earthly terrain, "For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." His family didn't even see the completion of that promise, instead dying in faith, "having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth." Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). God called him to go to a foreign land, to believe in a foreign promise, to have a child at a foreign age, to die a foreign death, and to do it all by a foreign faith.

"And he went out, not knowing where he was going." I wonder if that phrase doesn't describe every believer's life, including my own. Yesterday, I took a young pastor in the area to lunch. We met several years before in Louisville when he was a student at Boyce College and I was working on my master's at Southern Seminary. He told me he was from Hawesville, KY. I had gone 22 years of life without hearing of that town, and really didn't think much of that conversation until 5 years later, when I received a call from a pastor search committee there. That was 3.5 years ago. I now know where Hawesville is.

The same was true for my previous pastorate in Buffalo (KY, not NY). The only times I had traveled through Buffalo were for our family's annual Thanksgiving trips to my aunt and uncle's house, in which we inevitably got lost. We really didn't know where we were going. I ended up preaching there nearly 5 years. 

"And he went out, not knowing where he was going." In my case, I would add to that phrase, "And he went out, not knowing what he was doing." I remember wondering how in the world I was going to be able to preach consistently week after week. It was stressful enough just to prepare one message, much less one every 7 days. Yet, the Lord provided the study and the words. How would we pay off the building debt inherited with few people and with little financial support? Then I watched God miraculously reduce that debt by more than $100K in the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression. I thought under my leadership the church would die, but God grew it. A few years later, under different circumstances and a new location, how would we build a building that kept literally shifting ground on us, and how would we pay for all the extra costs? Then God gave us the largest one day offering in the 177 year history of the church (almost $90K). Would our congregation ever consider worshiping in that multipurpose facility so that we might have an opportunity to reach more people? Then we did.

I used to drive all over Tell City, Indiana, praying that God would open a door for ministry in Perry County, not having a clue how to go about finding that open door. Finally, we put a post-it note on an actual door, when God led us to a congregation that desperately needed help, and he has since sent many new people and is changing lives in demonstrable ways. In 8.5 years of pastoral ministry, I've seen families reconciled that I never thought would be reconciled, I've seen people come to Christ who I wasn't sure would ever come to faith, and I've seen God use people I had no idea he would use, least of all me.

I think if people asked me to nail down the one overarching burden I face as a pastor on a regular basis, they would probably be surprised at my response: the sheer inadequacy I feel daily in serving as an under-shepherd of God's flock and attempting to lead his people in the direction he would have us go. Yet, that seems to be exactly his way of training his disciples. Some use 1 Corinthians 10 to say that "God won't give you more than you can handle." I believe the opposite to be true: God will give you more than you handle to cause you to utterly and completely depend on him. It's what the Apostle Paul describes as strength in weakness, the power of God working in jars of clay.

I could not have imagined knowing where I was going when I committed to follow the will of God, especially the darker parts of the journey, from watching my family be destroyed, moving to rural areas for the past decade and losing the immediate comforts of city life, to an engagement that I thought was the will of God that ended up not being the will of God, to relationships gone unreconciled, to seeing people suffer but feeling helpless to comfort them and to ease their afflictions, to pleading with others not to fall away: if I knew where I was going in this earthly life, I'm convinced I wouldn't make it. The writer of Hebrews makes a similar argument with Abraham and the others mentioned in his 11th chapter: "if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God..." All I know is that the Lord has prepared for me, and for every other follower of Jesus, a city, a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

So take heart, believer, if you don't know where you are going or what you are doing in this earthly life, because as long as you know who you are following, he will make your paths straight.