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Dealing with Doubt in a Fallen World
- Martin Ayers is Assistant Pastor at All Saints Church, Preston, and author of two books, 'Naked God', which looks at the evidence for faith, and 'Keep the Faith', which considers the origins of doubt. View all resources by Martin Ayers
This article draws on material from Martin Ayers' new book Keep the Faith which aims to help you shift your thinking on doubt. Click here for more information and to buy a copy.
Cold-blooded Detective Work
When I was an unconverted Undergraduate, I remember once sitting in a room with friends and one of them was reading from a Christian tract he had been given. It had a section inviting you to become a Christian with an ABC that I’ve since seen many times: first, “Admit” you’re a sinner; secondly, “Believe” that Jesus was the Son of God and died for your sins; and thirdly, “Confess” that Jesus is the risen Lord and in charge of your life.
My mate who read out the tract was pouring scorn on this ABC of salvation, and as far as I can remember now we were all basically agreeing with him. Our big beef was with the B for believe. Here’s why: If you don’t “believe”, how can you help it? How can you be judged for deciding that you’ve not seen enough evidence to persuade you to believe this stuff about Jesus? Is it like “make-believe”? Are you expecting me to delude myself so that I can be saved?
Part of the problem here is that “belief” in the Bible is more than intellectual conviction – it’s about trust, or reliance. But that still leaves the issue, if someone isn’t intellectually persuaded that Jesus is who he claimed to be, or even that Jesus existed at all, then how can that person be commanded to put their trust in him?
But behind this objection is a presumption that is all around us, and which must be challenged. It’s the presumption that our minds are neutral and unbiased when we look at facts about God, Jesus, the Bible and everything else.
We’re accustomed to understanding that our hearts are far from neutral. If there is a God who made us to live for him, then it’s fairly clear that something has gone pretty wrong with our desires. We don’t want to do what God wants; we want to do what we want instead.
But what about your mind? If you think that your mind is neutral – and that other people’s minds are neutral – then this will affect your whole approach to the Christian faith.
- If you’re surrounded by people who seem very reasonable and sensible but who are not Christians and say they are unpersuaded about Jesus, then you’ll probably feel unsettled yourself. What if you’ve missed something? What if they’re right and you’re wrong about Jesus?
- If you’re struggling with doubts yourself, you might want to go back to the proverbial drawing board in the Christian life. Perhaps you’ll stop going to church for a while, because you don’t want to “waste time” living out the Christian life, relating to Jesus, and thinking about who he is and what he’s done for you until you’re sure again that it’s really true. In the meantime, you might shift your focus away from Jesus in the Bible and fill your mind instead with intellectual arguments from both Christians and non-Christians, from the realms of science, history, philosophy, archaeology and the like, weighing up the evidence like a good old-fashioned detective and seeing if you’ve changed your mind.
That’s if our minds are neutral, and certainly that’s how we tend to think about our minds. But what does the Bible say?
Heads and Hearts
The problem with this approach is that Jesus is very clear that our minds are not neutral at all. Consider first what Jesus said to Nicodemus about people not believing in him:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. (John 3:18-20)
Jesus knows people inside out, and he says that it’s not that we’re neutral when we come to work out what we believe about him. Rather, people don’t believe in him because they prefer to live in darkness. They do not want to believe the claims of Jesus Christ because of what it would mean for how they live; it would expose their deeds as being evil.
Jesus explained that the desires in our hearts influence the thoughts in our heads, so that as fallen people we just don’t think straight when it comes to questions about God.
As we live surrounded by non-Christians we see a crowd of well-educated people and we hear an overwhelming, thunderous bombardment of well-crafted, fine-sounding arguments, but in all of it Jesus sees and hears only one thing. Rebellion. Rebels steadfastly refusing to accept who he is. Rebels whom he will hold responsible for their response to him.
If we turn to Romans 1, it helps us to understand what’s going on under the surface. Paul begins his explanation of the gospel message by clarifying the awful predicament that the world is in without Jesus:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)
The God of love and light, of grace and compassion, is angry, and he’s revealing his anger against people. Why? Because, despite what we’re told from other sources, God says that the truth about him should be plain to everyone just from looking at his creation.
The world around us declares his glory. It’s as though everything in the universe, from the Orion Nebula to the Mississippi Delta, from the orang-utan to the water vole, from Victoria Falls to Palm Beach, everything is crying out to us, “We have been made by a glorious creator!”
And yet many people look at the world around us, they see “what has been made”, and they say, “There is no maker”.
We are accustomed to thinking that this is a legitimate neutral position. But the Bible tells us that people are suppressing the truth. They would rather reject God and pin their hopes for life on other things than accept that God is there.
Have you ever packed a car for a holiday, only to find that you’ve got too much stuff? You end up with the boot so full you push down on the door and it just keeps springing back up at you. If there are soft things inside, such as clothes and bedding, you can end up pushing down on the boot door with all of your weight to try and force everything inside.
Well, that image of a guy trying unsuccessfully to close his over-filled boot is a picture of what God tells us people are doing with the truth about him. It’s jumping out at us everywhere, from everything we see. But people are pushing it down, keeping their weight on it so that it won’t spring out at them.
That’s why God can blame people for not believing in him. It’s not that the evidence for God has been measured and found wanting. It’s that people refuse to accept what should be obvious to all of us, because they do not want to honour God.
And the consequence is a downward spiral in our thinking. As fallen people our hearts are turned away from God, and so our thinking follows suit. Paul goes on to say as much in the next verses:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:21-23)
Do you see the way things progress from bad to worse? As fallen human beings turn away from the truth about God, our thinking becomes futile. And so we choose to build our lives on other things – on false gods - rather than turn back to the God who made us.
I’m showing my age when I say this, but I remember back in the ‘90s Brian May had a song called, “Let your heart rule your head”. It was all about a guy trying to persuade a girl to stop thinking so sensibly and carefully about their relationship, and instead to rush in and trust her feelings. Do you see the assumption? Our heads are neutral, and cautious; our hearts are open to being seduced, jumping in and making decisions we might regret in the cold light of day.
What the Bible tells us though is that you can’t separate our hearts from our heads like that. The truth is much more complicated. Our hearts already influence our heads – all of the time. We can’t help it. If we really don’t want something to be true in our hearts, then our minds will look for reasons to avoid thinking it’s true.
And the problem we all have, when it comes to God, is that as fallen human beings we really don’t want him to be there. We don’t want there to be a God who can rule over us. We certainly don’t want there to be a judgment day. Even subconsciously we’ll look for any reason we can to avoid the notion that we’re accountable to a perfectly good creator for how we’ve lived.
This connection between our hearts and our heads is something all of us has, whether Christian or non-Christian, and from which none of us can escape. So if our minds aren’t neutral after all, how should this change the way we deal with our doubts? I think there are a number of really important applications, but let me briefly outline two of them here: we can handle our doubts better by taking courage, and by getting focused.
Will we allow this truth to encourage us when surrounded by unbelievers? It’s not easy to keep going when our faith in Jesus Christ is dismissed with mockery and abject scorn. But God’s word can help us enormously in these situations, because it tells us that this is not just an intellectual battle. Something spiritual is going on. We live in a society united in suppressing the truth about God, so standing up against that united opposition takes courage.
We shouldn’t feel so unsettled when people around us don’t believe in Jesus. He assures us that we’ve got all of the evidence we need. Everything around us declares the glory of the God who made it. It’s just that rebellious, fallen humanity is doing whatever can be done to airbrush God out of the picture so that his rightful rule can be ignored. Remember this and take courage when you feel surrounded by opposition and unbelief.
And what about the connection in our own lives between our minds and our hearts? Will we resolve that, when faced with doubts, we will get focused on Jesus Christ, instead of drawing back and shifting our focus on to intellectual arguments?
Sometimes, of course, we can have genuine intellectual objections to the Christian faith that nag away at us. This is very common. It’s what makes websites like bethinking.org so helpful, as we address our concerns. Evidence still has a key role to play.
But what we’ve seen here is that doubt is also a spiritual matter. Our heads are influenced by our hearts. The more we shift our focus away from Jesus because of our doubts, the more that we’ll risk becoming infatuated by other things – turning good things around us into “god-things” and worshipping them instead. The more that happens to us, the less we’ll want the Gospel to be true, and that will affect our thinking. Our doubts will get worse.
When Jesus was teaching at the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem, the Jews were wrestling with the question of who he was. But Jesus didn’t target their intellectual faculties. In John 7:17 he said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” Later, in John 8, Jesus said to Jews who had begun to believe in him, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The solution to doubts about Christianity isn’t less Christianity, it’s more Christianity. Following Jesus Christ is an all-or-nothing experience, and it’s as you go for it with the whole of your life that your conviction grows. It’s the only worldview that makes perfect sense of the world around us.
If you respond to doubts by drawing back from the Christian life while you ‘work out where you stand’, you’ll grow in your confusion and uncertainty. But if you live out the Christian world view in everything you do, and nurture and develop your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, reminding yourself of the gospel message that he died for you, loving and serving him wholeheartedly, then you will grow in your confidence that it’s true and your doubts will dissipate. If we worship straight, we can think straight.
In my experience, it is all too common for Christians with doubts to retreat into what they think is an intellectually neutral position. They spend less time reading the Bible while they spend more time listening to the arguments of non-Christians and weighing up the evidence. I hope that this article encourages you instead to listen to God’s word on issues of faith. In doing so, while praying that God would graciously help us with our doubts, we might get the help we need to keep the faith in a fallen world.
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