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When I Doubt

June 28, 2016 No Comment

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by Mathew Block

The thought arises unbidden and unwelcome. Maybe it comes on quickly. Maybe it comes on slowly—so slowly, in fact, that you never even suspect it’s coming, until one day you wake up and there it is in the back of your mind. But sudden or gradual, the question is real and it strikes to the heart of your faith: do I really believe all this?

There are many kinds of doubt, and we do not all experience the same kinds. A woman watches her husband slowly waste away due to the ravages of cancer, and she asks “Could a good God, if He really exists, let him suffer like this?” A young man reads of the miracles Jesus performed, and asks, “Could such things, so different from my everyday reality, really have happened?”

Another struggles with far darker doubts. She knows she is sinful. She knows the things she has done—terrible things, evil things, things she would never tell another human being. And she hates herself for it. “Maybe there is a God,” she says. “And maybe Jesus really did die on the cross. But even He couldn’t forgive me. I don’t have enough faith to believe that.” And she despairs.

All these doubts could be solved, we think, if God would just appear to us in person and give us some answers. If He would just demonstrate His power, explain why He lets us or our friends suffer, tell us clearly that He loves us, then we be could be confident. But He doesn’t show up the way we want. And we’re left wondering: do I believe, or don’t I?

We can be afraid to tell others about such doubts when they come. We look at our neighbours sitting in the pew beside us and they don’t seem to have similar problems. So we smile and nod, tell them we’re doing fine. We go through the motions. But on the inside, we’re aching. In our heart of hearts, we hear only the voice of doubt.

Don’t believe it. Don’t believe the voice inside that tells you you’re living a sham. Doubt is a common struggle for many Christians, and God can use even this to draw you closer to Him. You may, in the end, come to the same conclusion that the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky did: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,” he once wrote. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

Faith in the Midst of Doubt

When faced with the question of how we know if we really believe, we are tempted to look inside—to assume, as our culture does, that what is true must feel so in our hearts. But the Prophet Jeremiah wisely warns us that “the heart is deceitful above all things… Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

In a world broken by sin, not even our hearts have escaped unscathed. If we are going to seek answers to our doubts, then, we must look outside of ourselves. We look, in faith, to Christ. We look to the Scriptures which bear witness to Him, which record the miraculous signs He did in the presence of thousands, which record His promises of mercy and compassion to all—even to those who struggle with doubts.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a father who brings his terribly ill son to Jesus (Mark 9:14-29). The boy, we are told, is afflicted with “a spirit that makes him mute.” He suffers dreadful seizures which have sometimes thrown him into open fires, burning him, and into bodies of water, nearly drowning him. The father of this child brings him to Jesus where he begs for aid. “If you can do anything,” he cries, “have compassion on us and help us.”

“If you can!” Jesus exclaims, noting the man’s doubt. “All things are possible for one who believes.”

Faced with the paucity of his own faith, the father replies, “I believe. Help my unbelief!”

Christ subsequently heals the boy—a great miracle, we are told, that even his disciples had not been able to accomplish. But the miracle in this story isn’t just that the boy was healed. It’s that the father, weak in faith and full of doubt, received an answer to his other prayer. “Help my unbelief!” he cried. And Jesus did.

In this story, the father didn’t know if he really believed in the power of Christ. But it could have been any other doubt. He could have doubted the mercy of God. He could have doubted the very existence of God. But despite those doubts, there was just something about Christ, something that called out to him to want to believe—to silence his doubts and just believe that Jesus could do something.

And that’s the crux of the matter—the desire to believe is itself an expression of faith. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). In other words, you can’t want to believe unless God has first kindled faith inside you. Your desire to believe, even in the midst of doubt, is evidence that the Holy Spirit, aflame with the fire of Pentecost, is already at work within you.

You can’t want to believe unless God has first kindled faith inside you. Your desire to believe, even in the midst of doubt, is evidence that the Holy Spirit, aflame with the fire of Pentecost, is already at work within you.

That faith may seem weak. It may seem small. But our Saviour has promised that “a bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:20). It might seem impossible to you that your faith can survive your doubts, but God is in the business of doing the impossible. Faith may be tiny, small as a mustard seed. But mustard seeds grow up to be trees in their own right (Mark 4:30-32).

As a young teen, I struggled sometimes with believing in the forgiveness of God. The gravity of my sin often hit home to me. Would God forgive me yet again? Had I finally gone too far?

In hindsight, my childhood sins were minor compared to some I have since committed. And though I pray to be kept from sin, it is likely I will do worse again before my earthly life is done. But Christ has promised in the Bible forgiveness for those who repent of their sin. He has died for us. And He has risen again to new life, that we too may live. One day we shall be join Him where He is and the shadows of doubt will be destroyed in the brightness of His presence. In that day we shall know him “face to face,” as the Apostle writes. But for now, we “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The Tangible God

Nevertheless, God has not left us alone in the darkness. We may not see Him yet in His glory the way we might like, but He is nevertheless present among us. “Where shall I go from Your Spirit?” David asks, “Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139: 7-8).

God is always with us, no matter where we are, no matter how dark our doubts might be. But He knows it can be difficult for us to remember this essential truth, and so He has given us tangible reminders of His presence, places where we can reach out and touch Him.

Word-and-Sacraments-iconsHe gives us the Scriptures, the very Word of God. And while the Scriptures do not find their authority in the word of man but rather in the promise of God, it can nevertheless be comforting to know that the historical claims of Scripture are supported by independent sources. The archaeology of the ancient world, the writings of ancient historians, and the testimony of the martyred apostles all bear witness to these things. In so doing, they increase confidence in the spiritual claims of Scripture: namely, that it is God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16) and that it can create faith in those who hear (Romans 10:17). When you listen to the readings proclaimed in church, when you open your Bible at home, you can be confident that God is there with you, speaking His own words into your life.

We see that in a special way in confession and absolution. There we are invited by God to speak our sins aloud—to recognize them for what they are—and then hear God’s word of forgiveness, spoken by our pastor on God’s behalf and at His command (Matthew 16:19). God doesn’t leave us wondering whether He really forgives us. He sends someone to tell us directly. It’s a proclamation of love spoken into the very heart of our suffering. It’s a message that helped me when I as a young teenager wrestled with my own doubts about sin. As the pastor says “I forgive you,” God is present, assuring you of His mercy.

And God is with you in baptism too. At that moment, God reaches down and declares you to be His own, just as He did when Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17). The Father claims you as His child. The Holy Spirit descends upon you. You die with Christ beneath the water and rise again to new life in Him (Romans 6:4). And that gift of faith is always there, ready to be turned to again, ready to be seized anew by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you.

Finally, God is with you in the sacrament of the altar. In that place, Christ invites you, as He once invited a doubting Thomas, to reach out and touch God—and not only to touch, but to actually take God’s body and blood into yourself. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were forbidden to eat meat that still had blood in it “because the life of the animal is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). But in the New Testament, God invites us to eat His own flesh and drink His own blood—to take God’s life into ourselves. Christ becomes part of you, renewing you, and giving you strength to resist the temptation to give in to doubt.

In all these places—the words of Scripture, the proclamation of forgiveness, the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion—God comes to you, creating and sustaining faith. For those who have ever struggled with doubts, like me, the Word and Sacraments are a blessed gift. They are a refuge and a hiding place in the storm. If my heart tells me “you don’t really believe” or “you don’t have a strong enough faith,” I can counter: I have been baptized. I am fed with God’s holy body and blood. God speaks to me in His Holy Word and sends pastors to proclaim my forgiveness clearly and audibly. Through these things He has promised to create and sustain faith. And His promise is stronger than the feelings of my heart—stronger than any doubts this world or the devil can throw at me.

“Help my unbelief!” we pray. In the Word and Sacraments, God does.

In all these places—the words of Scripture, the proclamation of forgiveness, the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion—God comes to you, creating and sustaining faith. For those who have ever struggled with doubts, like me, the Word and Sacraments are a blessed gift.

If you struggle with doubts of any kind, please share them with your pastor. God has called him to be a shepherd and spiritual support for you. He can pray with you and for you, and can point you to resources that might help you as you wrestle with your doubts.

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Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council.