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Handling Doubts

Category Articles
Date March 13, 2012

How do we deal with doubts that arise against our faith? My question does not directly include how we answer the doubts of others. Our attempt to answer others’ doubts and objections has its place in the realm of what is called apologetics, but while it is legitimate and necessary at times for us to give to others an account of the hope that is within us, we must avoid becoming obsessed in a quest to vanquish all doubts that others may have. The principle of the log and the speck applies here. We do well to face and deal with our own doubts before we endeavour to help others with theirs.

So, how do we deal with our personal doubts? The first thing for us to do is not to deny our doubts. It is not strong faith or sure knowledge that prompt us to deny our doubts. It is rather a weak faith and fearful ignorance that would motivate us to close our minds to the reality of dubious pressures. The reality is that we all have doubts at times and even for seasons. The Word of God indicates to us that Abraham, the father of faith, was plagued by doubt when God promised that the patriarch would have a son through his barren wife, Sarah. The aged and practically dead body of Abraham as well as the long-term deadness of Sarah’s womb throughout her youthful years and even more in her old age provided inescapable concerns for the patriarch and led him to produce a son through Sarah’s slave, Hagar (Gen. 16). Even when the Lord renewed his promise to Abraham, the father of faith sought to bargain for Ishmael to be the son of God’s promise (Gen. 17:18-22). Furthermore, these doubts all arose after Abraham believed in the Lord and acted on that faith by which the patriarch was justified in God’s sight (Gen. 12:1-4; 15:1-6). So we see that Abraham did not deny these doubts but rather engaged and wrestled with them, and neither they nor his wrestling weakened his faith but rather served to strengthen it (Rom. 4: 19).

While our acknowledgement of our doubts is better than our denying them, we must acknowledge these doubts in a certain way. That way is one of our treating them to an honest assessment. By an honest assessment, I mean that we do well to factor in the reality that our being finite makes us vulnerable to inadequate and erroneous apprehensions. Our being sinful inclines us to some extent to allow our passions and desires to distort our perceptions of data. Here once more, Abraham shows us the way fruitfully to navigate through our doubts. It is clear that once Abraham produced Ishmael he was willing to settle for less than God was determined to give him. Also, the production of Ishmael rested entirely upon the common grace and natural features of Abraham’s life. In that sense, Abraham could obtain and did obtain all that he desired, and the continued insistence of the Lord that he would yet give Abraham a son through Sarah constituted more a pesky complication than a comforting promise to the father of faith. But we see Abraham’s honesty when he refused to deny the existence and the rewarding nature of the Lord. The patriarch considered his doubts but also considered the person and promise of the Lord (Rom. 4:20,21). Such honest assessment considers all data, not just the ones that more naturally appeal to us.

We also do well to treat our doubts to critical assessment. By this I mean that we should be critical first of our own objectivity in our judging capacity. Jesus warned his opponents that only those willing to do God’s will can know the truth and power of the Lord and his will (John 7:17). Our fears and the power of our passions can make us unwilling to do God’s will and that unwillingness disguises itself as our not being able to know God’s will. Our moral determination to live and act in accordance with what is real and right is what removes our blindness to what is real and right. Secondly, we should be critical of both the doubts as well as the things against which the doubts militate. By our being critical, I mean that we should judge all things under our consideration both positively and negatively. What do our doubts offer us positively? Of what do they deprive us? What do the things doubted offer us and of what do they deprive us? Doubts of the existence and blessed provision of the Lord tend to offer us promises of freedom and pleasure. Yet, the entire history of mankind has demonstrated that such doubts only provide fleeting pleasures and lasting misery. On the other hand, the Lord calls us to lives of self-denial – even crucifixion – yet what all who follow him have discovered by their experience is that he provides abundant life and unspeakable joy.

The ultimate test between doubts and the divine, however, can be administered by reality testing. This will take on the character of Elijah’s contest with the Baalites on Mt. Carmel. We call upon our doubts to prove themselves and then call upon our Lord to do likewise. This is the test that our doubts and the deceiving tempter who stirs them up can lest endure and most dread. As the silence of the skies to the cries of the Baalites proved that Baal was no god, while the fire that fell from the heavens and consumed the water-drenched sacrifice on the altar Elijah made proved that the Lord lived and wielded all power and authority, so this kind of testing proves decisive and lasting.

My own employment of this test was something I stumbled into more than thirty-three years ago. I was just about to begin my course of divinity studies in Scotland when I received the news that my uncle had died in a plane crash. He was my mother’s kid brother who was three years older than me and practically my older brother and I loved him dearly. For nearly a year thereafter I was plagued by doubts regarding the existence and attributes of God – especially his wisdom, love, and power. I was driven one night to a point in my growing controversy with the Lord where I determined I would commit to more than doubt and simply stop believing in God. This trial killed my doubts and vindicated my faith in the Lord. In my determination not to believe in the Lord I found myself inescapably surrounded by evidences and telling tokens of his being and of his loving goodness. I had tried to feed upon my doubts and live off of them and found that they were entirely empty and embittering. I had tried to live without God, as I had done before my conversion to him, and found that it was impossible to live without him. I have tasted both doubts and my divine Lord, and I know now and forever which one is true and good and satisfying.

William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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