Why Are Christians Afraid of Doubt?

  • by Philip Long

What if all this Christianity stuff is made up? What if I just believe what I’ve been taught? What if I’m not really saved? If I’m a Christian, why do I still sin all the time? What if there is no heaven, no afterlife, no God?

I pull up the covers, try to get comfortable and roll onto my back. I shut my eyes only to have them spring back open like a couple of broken shutters.

These aren’t thoughts to go to sleep to.

Doubts aren’t part of a good bedtime routine. But I think doubt gets a bad rap. If we look at the history of Christian thought and of Jesus words, we’ll see that doubt often plays a vital role in faith.

I believe that all doubts can land in one of two categories.

There’s doubt that is dismissive that there’s any truth to be had. It’s more of an assertion than a question. It’s smug. “I’m all good,” it says. “God’s not good, now let’s just move on.” It’s the easy kind of doubt.

But there’s another kind of doubt that Christians should learn to embrace.

Mary Unanyan, a student at University of California Berkeley, says “I understand that the way I learn about God is reading his word, [yet] when I’m not seeing any growth or change in me it discourages me from trying again.”

In her frustration she says she wishes God would give her a sign that He is real. But she admits, “[Faith] is never that simple, and if it was it probably wouldn’t be worth it in the first place.”

This second category of doubt is well summed up by poet Khalil Gibran who wrote, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” It’s often painful because it’s questioning a deeply held belief or hope.

This kind of doubt engages the world around us. It takes the assertion of “God’s not good,” and forms it into the question, “Is God good?”

The doubt of the assertion is stagnant, entrenched and frankly, boring. The doubt of the question is interested, curious and engaged. And the second sort of doubt takes humility.

“Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” – Shakespeare

All through scripture, individuals are honored for their doubts: Abraham, Jacob, David. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes ask big life questions.

Then there’s Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me...” (Matthew 26:39). The words are a question, “Father, is there any other way?” And with the question on his lips, Jesus is sweating blood.

“When I speak to college students, I challenge them to find a single argument against God in the older agnostics (Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Lamentations… God seems rather doubt-tolerant, actually.” – Phillip Yancey

So why do so many Christians seem afraid of doubt? My hunch is that we’re afraid of where questions will lead.

We’ve long ago hushed our doubts into a dim lull in the back of our brains.

We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that faith is blind, that doubt is the enemy of belief, or that doubters will inevitably lose their faith.

Yancey goes further, “The church has sometimes chastised people who admit their weakness and failure, and our society has an aversion to suffering. So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they secretly hurt and doubt.”

We as a church believe that doubt is a tenuous position that will only slide an individual into apostasy. It’s a lie.

Barna research shows that one of the six reasons young people are leaving the church is because it’s unfriendly to doubters. Maybe young people get their honest doubts met with statements like “just believe more” which is basically “just don’t think about it.”

Yet we needn’t fear doubt. Look at the poor, much maligned Doubting Thomas. Did you know that this nervous disciple was the first to call Jesus “Lord”? The writer of John recognizes Thomas’ statement as the climax of Jesus’ ministry.

I’m no Thomas the inquisitive, but some of my doubts include:

  1. Am I really God’s child?
  2. Is God really in control of the world I see around me?
  3. Does God really love me?
  4. Does his Spirit really dwell within me?
  5. Will I one day hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
  6. Am I a sham Christian?

To answer the questions above, I can face my personal nightly inquisition by picking up my Bible.

Flipping it open to 1 John, I find:

  • “See what kind of love the father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1 John 3:1
  • “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another...” 1 John 3:23
  • “If we say we have not sinned we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:10
  • “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.” 1 John 2:12

That covers some of my doubts.

Yet reading 1 John also opens up new ones. Namely for me, “Why do I continue to sin?”  

Mary Unanyan describes the struggle well:

“[Sometimes] I don’t understand why God would like or love someone like me. Why would he want to save someone like me when I sin and turn against him. I even knowingly turning against him, knowing he’s going to forgive me.

I repent and I say ‘Sorry God, I’m going to try again.’ But then, since I’m not getting any results from what I’m doing to get to know God better, I think, ‘It’s not like God cares, it’s not like I even deserve Him anyway,’ so I sin again. I call it my vicious cycle of sin. ”

There aren’t simple answers to doubt. Yet it may not be answers we need, but vision.

Tim Keller in his sermon, “Give Me Mine,”says, “[If you see] that an infinitely happy being would tear his life apart for us, if you even get a glimpse of the beauty of that, it will heal the diseases of your soul.”

Keller reasons elsewhere that God’s cross-enduring love will even make Christians feel their own pain better. Yet their pain will drive them more deeply into their relationship with God.

Let’s look in the Garden of Gethsemane once more:

Jesus knew how messed up we are. He knew that we’d be habitually rebellious, selfish and grumbling even after we were saved.

Jesus knew that what he had to do
To rescue us,
To clean us,
To present us
Before his holy Father,
Would absolutely crush him.
He steeled himself for immeasurable pain.

So when we doubt, Jesus isn’t surprised. The gospel is supposed to be preposterously good news. He experienced preposterous pain.

“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him. It is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, 'It is too good to be true.’" – Charles Spurgeon.

So what do we do when the questions pile on when we’re trying to sleep?

Sometimes doubts can come like a torrent and it’s impossible to address them all. Look how King David addressed times like this in Psalm 131. He realized there’s no way to attain all the answers, so he entrusted his heart to God, and then I believe he went to sleep. 

Mary is hopeful for the same things. She says, “My hope (and it’s not just for this season) is that I will get to a place where I don’t have to worry as much about feeling like I am a child of God. I continually remind myself that God is bigger than everything and whatever I am doing right now is nothing compared to what’s to come. My hope is that I fully and wholeheartedly believe that to be true."

Tim Keller’s sermon, “The Wounded Spirit,” draws from Proverbs to illustrate how much God prioritizes our inner struggles and doubt. It’s a fantastic resource for the struggling Christian.

What doubts do you struggle with? Share below.