February 07, 2012
Dealing with Doubt
What is your best advice for overcoming "what if" doubts? I find that this is my biggest struggle. I find a compelling argument, and then I ask, "but what if..." This constantly starts me over at square one. I know that this is partially due to my fear of giving into Christianity and then being wrong. It isn't about pride; I would just be devastated. I've experienced that before when my faith has been shaken. No one will ever reach a conclusion if they continue to ask "what if." I know this. So how do I overcome it. It would seem so simple to some. Simply stop asking "what if." But those who have experienced a gripping fear know that it is harder than it seems. So for those of us who suffer from the "what if" syndrome--what do we do next?
Occasionally I like to invite a guest scholar to respond to a question on which he has worked. Michael Licona recently spoke to my Defenders class on the subject of Doubt, and so, Amnda, I asked Mike to tackle your question. I think you'll find that you and he are a lot alike! His response to your question follows:
I can certainly sympathize with this doubter! One of my idiosyncrasies is that I'm a perpetual second-guesser. I seem to question just about everything. I don't want to make a bad decision, even in some very insignificant matters. So, it just makes sense that I often have doubts pertaining to decisions in significant matters. It's not an intentional exercise. In fact, it's downright frustrating to me. But it's the way I'm wired.
As a result, I've doubted my Christian faith many times; sometimes to the point of almost walking away from it. I've asked myself, "Have I been brain-washed? Am I unable to think objectively because I was brought up to believe? What if I'm wrong?" I have the peace Paul describes as being the inward confirmation of God's Spirit that I belong to Christ (Romans 8:16). But Mormons also claim to have a confirming peace from God, as do followers of some other religions. Certainly, we all couldn't be right, since many religions contradict themselves. So, how can I know whether my peace is really from God? That's a tough question. And to be honest, I still don't know the answer to that one.
Thankfully, when I began experiencing doubts in the 1980s, a philosophy professor understood where I was because he had likewise struggled with doubts. I didn't have Gary Habermas for a class at Liberty University, since he taught in the philosophy department, while my graduate work there was in the field of New Testament Studies. But Habermas helped me tremendously in understanding doubt and how to deal with it. In what follows, I combine some of Habermas' thoughts with my own. I have good news for those of you who struggle with doubt: You can successfully deal with doubting by taking four key actions.
Action #1: Recognize that doubting is normal. Abraham met God, who informed him he would have a son from whom a mighty nation would arise. Yet, when Abraham's life was in danger, he lied in order to save himself, although he knew God's promise of a son had not yet been fulfilled (Genesis 12). One would think he would have trusted God to save him. Instead, he lied, and God ended up intervening in order to restore Abraham's wife Sarah to him, who had been taken as a result of his lie. Fast forward eight chapters. Abraham is faced with the same situation. But this time he knew he could trust God to protect him without needing to take matters into his own hands and lie. Well, that's not the way it went. Abraham once again doubted God's promise and repeated his error. He lied to the king who, like Pharaoh earlier, took Sarah into his harem, and God, once again, had to intervene (Genesis 20). However, Abraham would go on to become a man of great faith and is listed in the Bible's Faith Hall of Fame (Hebrews 11). In fact, if there's an MVP in that Hall of Fame, it's Abraham.
John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus. Both had been born of miraculous circumstances. John would later baptize Jesus, see the Holy Spirit descend upon Him, and hear a heavenly voice that affirmed His standing. John was later imprisoned, and, sometime during that period, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He was really the Messiah or whether they should expect someone else. Whoa! How could John ask that question, since he had heard the stories of both his and Jesus' miraculous births and had witnessed divine signs when he baptized Jesus? John's sense of being abandoned while in prison brought on emotional doubt. He knew the evidence. But life wasn't turning out as he had expected. In fact, it was rather unpleasant at that moment. Jesus knew that. He told John's disciples to return to John and report the miracles they had seen Him perform, miracles expected of the Messiah (see the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q521; see also Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:16-21). After the disciples left, Jesus turned to the crowd. All eyes were looking at Him. What would Jesus say to those who had just learned that His wing man was now experiencing doubts?
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: "Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you." I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. (Matthew 11:7-11 NET; cf. Luke 7:24-28)
Notice that Jesus did not rebuke John for doubting. Instead, He provided evidence, encouraged him, and complimented him, saying there's none greater-all while fully aware that John was struggling with doubt.
If Abraham and John the Baptist can experience doubt while enjoying God's favor, then it appears that God understands our emotional makeup and is patient with us. Many Christians never experience doubt. However, for those of us who do, it is comforting to know we are in good company with others like Abraham and John the Baptist. Doubters are not second class citizens in God's kingdom!
"Dude! That may work for those who heard from God and who saw Jesus' miracles. But it doesn't help me much, since I didn't see His miracles." I understand. All I've said thus far is the first action in dealing with doubt: Recognize that doubting is normal.
Action #2: Recognize that good evidence exists supporting the truth of Christianity. Although we can't climb into a time machine, travel back in time, and witness Jesus' miracles, we have very strong historical evidence that the greatest of His miracles actually occurred: His resurrection. Gary Habermas knows more on that subject than anyone. One could say, "Among those born of women, no one has more knowledge of the evidence for Jesus' resurrection than Gary Habermas."
Now, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is certainly true. "But," you may think, "His resurrection is reported in the Bible. How can I know the Bible is true? Must I just accept it purely on faith?" During that first visit with Professor Habermas, he gave me a brief tour of the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. I was comforted to know there was actual evidence. But, admittedly, the case wasn't airtight. The evidence didn't give me 100 percent certainty. This didn't faze Habermas. Science can't provide that degree of certainty, either. Scientific and historical investigation can only take us so far. We must look for the best explanation of the available data and settle for reasonable or adequate certainty, just as we do with other major life decisions. The rest is faith and that is true of any worldview, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist. However, Jesus' resurrection is unparalleled in terms of strong evidence for confirming any other worldview.
Action #3: Recognize that absolute certainty is an unreasonable expectation. Some live with faith without ever doubting. That's great. But some of us are so wired that we are incapable of that. A few years ago, I had one of those "Ah-ha!" moments that has been life-changing. I realized that my faith is just one of many things I second-guess. I doubt many decisions lonnnnngggg after I've made them. This is an idiosyncrasy I've possessed from childhood, and I hate it. We're not just talking about important decisions, such as whom I married. I sometimes find myself reconsidering, re-reconsidering, and re-re-reconsidering unimportant decisions, such as items I've purchased: a watch, a car, a bottle of cologne. This recognition alone has been a tremendous help to me in understanding why I doubt: It's the way I'm wired. For me, absolute certainty is an unreasonable expectation. So, I'm learning to live contently with reasonable certainty.
Action #4: Recognize that faith is more than a feeling or being without doubt. It's a commitment. A man once came to Jesus and asked Him to heal his son who was demon-possessed. He believed (after all, he came to Jesus for help) but asked Jesus to help him with his unbelief (Mark 9:24). He was relying on Jesus to heal his son. Peter walked on water and began sinking when he became frightened by the waves and doubted (Matthew 14:28-31). Yet, it was Peter who was out of the boat while the others watched from inside it. For the Christ follower, faith is entrusting oneself to Christ alone for salvation. There's no hedging the bet by also being a Muslim and a Hindu. Being a Christ follower means that when I'm faced with a moral decision, I choose the route taught by Jesus. I know that I could take the other route if Christ was not raised. But I obey Jesus because I believe Him. I may still have lingering doubts. But the faith I have wins and determines my behavior in the life of faith. As Jesus' brother wrote, "Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works" (James 2:18 [NET]).
In summary, here are the four key actions for dealing with doubt:
- Recognize that doubting is normal.
- Recognize that good evidence exists supporting the truth of Christianity.
- Recognize that absolute certainty is an unreasonable expectation.
- Recognize that faith is more than a feeling or being without doubt. It's a commitment.
For more on dealing with doubt, readers may greatly benefit from the free online book by Gary Habermas titled The Thomas Factor: Using Your Doubts to Draw Closer to God.
For a comprehensive historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, see my recent book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.
— Michael Licona