How Should the Church Respond to Doubt?

Whatever their worldview, everyone has doubts. Christians are no different.

Given this pervasive experience, every local church needs to acknowledge the reality of doubt. In preparing to respond to doubt, the church has a responsibility to anchor its approach in solidly Biblical principles. As we’ll see, however, this requires us to develop a wise and contextual understanding for the particular doubts and cultural norms of our friends and neighbors.

Welcome and Explanation of the ‘Dealing with Your Doubts’ series.

Thank you for coming today. This summer at Church of the Cross we are going to have a three session class on the theme of “Dealing with Your Doubts.”

Let’s talk about expectations for a second.

If you are coming into these sessions as a nonChristian, I hope that you will:

  • Experience a strong sense of being welcomed and valued. I want you to know that there’s a place for you at Church of the Cross.
  • Feel safe to share about your doubts and questions about Christianity.
  • Gain confidence that COTC is the kind of church where you will be able to find good answers to your questions.

If you are coming to these sessions as a Christian, I hope that you will:

  • Feel safe sharing your doubts and find that you receive solid answers to your questions.
  • Become more excited about Jesus and your commitment to Him.
  • Gain more confidence in sharing your faith with others.

We’re discussing doubt together today because, ultimately, we want to resolve our doubts – fairly, honestly, and thoughtfully. We want to resolve our doubts because this will give us confidence to live boldly for God.

Ultimately, my desire is that COTC would be a trusted community for answering people’s most profound questions about God. Because, if we develop the ability to resolve people’s doubts about God, we will be a place where disciples of Jesus live bold and faithful lives and those seeking for God and salvation would find what they are looking for.

Given these goals, obviously, these sessions are just the start, and not the conclusion, of our investigation and curiosity about what is reasonable, true, and Biblical. What we are not going to get into today is answers for specific doubts. We just don’t have the time today to try and answer lots of specific doubts. We can’t get to everything in three weeks, but we can get off to a good start.

So those are our overall goals for this series.

Today we want to talk specifically about doubt.

We’re going to look at the topic of doubt from a number of different angles. We’re going to ask a number of questions:

  • “What is doubt?”
  • “Is it okay to have doubts at church?”
  • “What are the effects of doubt?”
  • “How should we respond to doubt?”

And throughout, we’ll see what the Bible has to say about responding to doubt. This will lead us to know how we, as a church, can become a place where doubt is handled well.

What we are going to do today is set up a Biblical framework for doubt. A theology of doubt. A framework for how the local church should respond to doubt.

By the end of this talk, I want you to have one major takeaway: how do we deal with doubt in the local church? How can COTC handle doubt in a way that leads to making strong disciples?

If we get a strong Biblical foundation laid today for dealing with doubt, then we will be in a much stronger position to deal with the specific and pressing doubts that we struggle with.

Let’s start with the most obvious question – what is doubt?

I think there are two basic kinds of doubt: intellectual doubts and emotional doubts. Both kinds of doubt have to do with thinking or feeling that God is not really God. Either we deny that God is really there, or that God is good, or that God cares about us.

One way or another, doubts are denying that God is really God.

Everyone has doubts

I believe that everyone has some kind of doubts. I run a blog called Reasons for God – and I have doubts.

One of the main reasons that I tend to doubt God is the problem of my unanswered prayers. There have been a number of occasions where I have really poured my heart out to God about some problem. Whether it is an illness that a good friend is struggling with or a financial challenge or an unresolved conflict or a problem in ministry, it can be really hard for me when my prayers – for good, God-honoring requests – aren’t answered.

It feels personal. I can feel rejected or ignored by God. I feel confused. It leads to more questions.

For me, unanswered prayer gives rise to intellectual doubts:

  • Does prayer work?
  • Is God there?
  • Is God good?

and emotional doubts:

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Why don’t I feel God’s presence?
  • This is really discouraging.

Everyone has doubts:

What about you? I’m curious: what kinds of doubts do you have?

Take a few answers

Doubts exactly like these can really affect us. As I mentioned earlier, we won’t get into the specifics of these today, but, we do want to talk about them. I would be happy to dialogue with you about those afterwards. Maybe they can be the focus of a discussion at your neighborhood group one week. We might set up a session to talk about each of them. Whatever the format, we want to be sure we engage well with those questions at COTC.

What’s the effect of doubt?

Doubts can affect us in many different ways. Sometimes doubt can be positive. Sometimes it can be a painful and hard experience.

A positive example of doubt

Doubt can be positive when it leads us to growth. For instance, I’ve had serious doubts about whether or not God commanded genocide in the Old Testament. But when I looked into the question more deeply, I learned a great deal about God’s compassion and love. Now, when I was looking into the charge that God is a bloodthirsty sky god who commands genocide, I wasn’t expecting to understand more about God’s love. But I did.

So, in this case, my doubts became an opportunity for me to gain a greater trust in God’s goodness.

Negative examples of doubt:

At other times, doubt can be really painful. Many saints have reported that their doubts about God have been “a dark night of the soul,” challenging them with an intense spiritual loneliness and hunger for God, sometimes for long periods of time.

Sometimes our doubts can lead us to disobey God, to give into various temptations, to stop being evangelistic, and to miss out on a wholehearted commitment to spending time with God each day.

And it is these negative effects of doubt that makes us wonder… Is it okay to doubt God at church?

Church is a place for affirming that God really is God. At church we remember who God is through the liturgy, the music, the sermon, the fellowship, the reading of the Bible, and everything else that we do. Everything about coming to church is connected to remembering and acknowledging who God really is.

So it can feel somewhat inappropriate to come to church with doubts. Does it make sense to say, in one form or another, “I don’t think that God is really God” at a place designed to affirm the reality of God?

Raising doubts at church seems like going to a Democratic Party Convention and saying, “I’m not so sure about Barack Obama. Maybe Ron Paul would be a better president. Can we talk about that?” That is a fine conversation to have, but it is an example of wrong place, wrong time.

And many of you still might be wondering, “Is it okay to have doubts?” Right or wrong, good or bad, it can just be uncomfortable to have doubts at church. Everyone else seems so excited about God, but you’re not so sure. How do you bring that up?

It is like your sister calls you up, “I’m getting married! Will you be my maid of honor?!” and you’re like, “To your drug addicted, unemployed, smelly boyfriend of yours…?”

What can you say? How do you raise your doubts when everyone else seems so excited? Its just uncomfortable.

Maybe we should have started this class like an AA meeting. “Hi, I’m Carson, and I have doubts about whether or not God exists.”

Here’s a tip: if someone asks you, “Hey, did you go to that class on resolving your doubts?” you can just say, “Yea, I have a friend who has some doubts, and I wanted to get some resources for him.”

We feel a tension when we doubt God at church, because doubt seems to be opposed to the purpose of a church.

But actually, churches must be a good place to doubt God. Otherwise we lose effectiveness in both discipleship and evangelism.

To illustrate this point, let’s think about an experience that you may have had: a friend who has lost their faith in God.

We need to think about this: why does that happen? Why do people give up on being Christians? If the church is going to grow, this is a crucial issue for us to think about.

It turns out there is actually research into this question.

Dr. Brad Wright is a professional sociologist at the University of Connecticut. He interviewed 50 people who had recently left the church.

One of his most surprising findings is that 42 of the 50 people who left the church said they left the church because they had a particular kind of frustration with other church members.

It turns out this was a very particular kind of frustration. It wasn’t frustration at bad music. It wasn’t because the food was terrible.

What the study found is that they were frustrated by getting lame responses to their doubts and questions. When they shared their doubts, they were given pat phrases like “just have faith” or “God works in mysterious ways.” One person reported being told that the doubting itself was sinful.

This is a major problem: 42 out of 50 people who left the church did so because their doubts were not handled well!

What this means is, whether we have doubts or not, as a matter of Christian love, we need to be prepared to respond well to the doubts of other Christians.

Superficial answers – and sometimes even the dismissal of their questions – is pushing people away from God.

Think about this: If Christians are leaving the churches where they get lame answers to their questions… do you think that nonChristians, with their doubts about God, will be eager to join those same churches?

Therefore, it is critical that churches be a great place to express your doubts – and find solid, thoughtful answers to your honest questions.

However, not everyone agrees.

We’ve just seen that, from a strictly pragmatic sense, it is essential that we help people resolve their doubts at church.

But some Christians disagree. There are a lot of different reasons for this. For instance, there are just dogmatically opposed to the idea of doubt. There’s the kind of Christian who would say, “if you have doubts, you are sinning against God. Shape up!” Now, I could be wrong, but I don’t think that is a common perspective in Boston, so I’m going to skip over that for now. But, of course, we can come back to that later if there’s interest in doing so.

However, what I do think is very common in our city is a postmodern set of assumptions that truth is basically unknowable, that arguments are really about gaining and keeping power, and the idea that we can know something is objectively true, outside of what we can prove with science, is an old-fashioned and implausible assumption.

Sometimes these ideas get expressed in more religious language too. For instance, I’ve heard people say,

  • “Faith is believing without evidence.”
  • “If you could prove that God exists, there wouldn’t be any room left for faith.”
  • “Ultimately, believing in God is a matter of faith, and not proving that it is all rational.”
  • “Faith is faith because you can’t prove it.”

Now, there’s a lot to acknowledge and value about these statements. I think there is a desire to not be coercive or pushy. I think there can be a humility and modesty to admitting that we don’t know everything. And it speaks to the power of personal experience.

After all, let’s say you tell me, “Tom is one of my best friends. We have lunch together every week.” And then I say, “I want proof! What does Tom order? Show me some receipts!” Well, it would feel kind of silly to argue with me, right? You would just say, “look, I know who my friends are. You can believe me or not… that’s your choice.”

I think for most of us, the most powerful reason we believe in God is that we have experiences of God. We experience God at church, when we read the Bible and pray, and when we get out into nature and see the beauty of everything around us. With such compelling evidence that God is real, arguments just seem kind of unnecessary, somewhat flimsy, and a little bit of artificial.

The bottom line is that, pragmatic considerations aside, there is some suspicion about the legitimacy of providing reasons for the existence of God.

Therefore, we need to see if there is a Biblical basis for resolving our doubts through the use of reason.

But before we can use the Bible, we have to ask: is that legitimate?

For the sake of time, we’ll have to look at this question very quickly – but maybe some of you, especially if you’re not a Christian, would think that using the Bible to make a point in a discussion of our doubts, is just begging the question. You can’t use the Bible to support your point of view unless you can show that the Bible is true!

That’s a fair point. “The Bible says it, that proves it, I believe it, that settles it!” isn’t a very helpful attitude for having open-minded conversations.

But what I’m trying to do today is give us a Christian understanding of doubt. But to provide a Christian perspective on doubt obviously requires me to use the Bible.

Whether or not the Bible is true, on the other hand, is a different kind of question. It is an important question. And, in fact, it is a topic that we are going to directly look at during our next session. So there’s a shameless plug to come back next time!

But the challenge remains: there is some suspicion about reasoning for the existence of God. I have doubts. You have doubts. People are leaving church because of their unresolved doubts. But bringing our doubts to church feels awkward and uncomfortable.

We seem stuck.

One way forward: what does the Bible say about answering people’s doubts? What wisdom or guidance can it provide for this problem?

The first and most important place to look for answers in the Bible on this question is Jesus’ words in Matthew 22, where he gives the Two Great Commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Notice that Jesus commands us to love God with our minds.

Now, maybe that means providing reasons that God exists, maybe not. But it does indicate that Jesus had a very high respect for intellectual activity. The use of our minds is part of the #1 Most Important Commandment.

So let’s get more specific. Can we find any examples of people in the Bible arguing that their beliefs are true?

The answer is actually a resounding ‘yes!’ We can find dozens of examples from the Old and New Testament, but for the sake of time, let’s look at just one example: the early church.

Imagine with me the problem for the first disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus.

The eleven remaining disciples are a marginalized, tiny, oppressed Jewish sect. One of their closest friends, Judas, has just sold them out. They have to wonder – Who might be the next to betray the others for a little bit of cash?

The Roman and Jewish elite, traditionally at odds, have just plotted together to publicly humiliate and crucify Jesus.

The Romans see Jesus as a crucified, defeated, treasonous criminal.

The Jews see Jesus as a crucified, discredited, heretical blasphemer.

However, the early Christians believe that Jesus is actually alive. And, not only was His body raised from the dead by the power of God, but Jesus is God, and you should repent of your sin and worship Him as Lord. Knowing Jesus is the path to life and salvation.

These are radically different perspectives on Jesus.

Can you imagine arguing with your siblings about something like this?

“Our brother is dead.”

“No, actually, our brother is alive.”

“No, he’s dead. The doctors said so.”

“Yes, but then he came back to life. I saw it with my own eyes.”

That is the kind of disagreement that leads to fights.

For the early church, this disagreement often led to persecution and martyrdom.

So, obviously, given the stakes, people are going to be skeptical and hostile of the early church.

In other words, they are going to have lots and lots of questions and doubts.

That leads us to the question: how did the early church respond to people’s doubts and questions?

Again, for the sake of time, we can only look at one of many examples.

Let’s look at how the Apostle Paul did his ministry in different cities:

  • In Damascus, we’re told that Paul, “increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
  • In Corinth, we’re told that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
  • In Thessalonica, “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”
  • In Ephesus, Paul “entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
  • In Athens, “Paul’s spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.”

What we see is this: Paul was goodvery good – at reasoning for the resurrection of Jesus and the claims of the Christian faith. This was his standard practice. He did it everywhere he went, year after year, to Jews and to Greeks.

Wherever Paul goes, a core part of his ministry is the use of reasons and argument to convince people that his message about Jesus is true.

And it is because others were convinced – because the arguments were good and persuasive arguments, people came to faith in Christ.

So let’s be clear: it is Biblical to argue and reason with people that God is really God.

But how? What does this look like in practice? How can we do this at COTC?

Again, let’s look to Scripture: how do people argue for God’s existence in the Bible?

Are they arrogant? Are they mean? Do they pretend to be perfect? Do they have a showy, know-it-all attitude?

No – not at all. The bad examples of pushy, aggressive, one-upmanship that are all too prominent in our churches is not at all what the Bible commends. The Bible requires followers of Jesus to be marked by kindness, gentleness, humility, and love. These are essential character traits for this entire process.

Let’s look at three key points for how to respond to doubt.

These are all lessons we can draw from across the Bible, including from Paul’s life in particular:

First, we respond to people’s doubts by depending on God.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5,

My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of  the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but  in the power of God.

Paul – who reasoned for the truth of God everywhere he went – ultimately depended on the power of God’s Spirit.

So we have to recognize that nothing works if God is not in it. Not loving people, not praying for them, not even reading the Bible together.

But, on the other hand, any approach can work if God’s power is behind it.

We need to distinguish between the specific methods we use and the universal need for God to be at work.

So, whatever we do to help people grow as Christians or come to know Jesus, we are to do it in dependence upon God, relying entirely upon His power and His Holy Spirit to bring the transformation.

Second, we are to be well prepared.

The Bible clearly teaches that it is right to respond to people’s doubts with reason. Perhaps the most classic explanation of this responsibility is in 1 Peter 3:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

The Bible teaches us that we will need to put in the time to read, study, and think hard about people’s questions in order to give them thoughtful, insightful responses:

  • We need to identify the top questions people are asking in Boston.
  • We need to know good answers to their honest questions.
  • We need to understand how people prefer to discuss these issues.

For COTC to respond well to doubt, we need to be intellectually prepared to do it well.

When Paul went to Jewish synagogues, he explained how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. But he didn’t call it the Old Testament. He would say things like, “as our own prophets have said.”

But when Paul went to Athens, he quoted Greek poets and looked for common ground with that audience.

In 1 Corinthians 15, after Paul provides a historical argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he tells the Corinthians,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary,  I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Because Paul was filled with a great love for God, and a great love for those he wanted to reach, he invested time and energy to understand their perspective so he could better persuade them that Jesus is truly Lord.

So Paul worked hard. He knew the stakes. He wanted to bring others to faith.

We have to ask: where’s the pain point for us? Does it grieve us more that we have to read and study to be intellectually prepared – or are we more concerned that our friends and neighbors are struggling with challenging doubts and questions?

Because he know the vastness of God’s love and grace, and because he loved his neighbors, Paul was prepared. We should be too.

Third, we respond to people’s doubts in a comprehensive way.

Like we see in the book of Acts, all of the reasoning and debating activity goes hand-in-hand with God doing miracles, with exceptional stories of generosity, with the church loving the poor, the development of cross-cultural friendships, and inspiring acts of sacrifice and service for the glory of God.

The example of Paul’s life is a whole one. In every matter he was dedicated to honoring God.

So the point is this: these priorities aren’t meant to compete with each other but to complement one another.

We’re to love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Not heart or mind. Not neighbor or God. Both-and. All together.

The Biblical perspective is for an integrated, restored, fully human life and community.

When people have emotional doubts, about whether God loves them, or Christians care about them, we should respond in kind – by listening well, praying together, being present, and meeting their needs with a joyful and self-forgetful spirit.

But when people have intellectual doubts – is the Bible true, did Jesus rise from the dead, etc. – then, again, we should respond in kind – loving them by providing reasoned answers in a friendly and genuine manner.

Conclusion: Jesus and doubt

Ok, I’ve saved the best for last. How does Jesus respond to doubt?

Let’s look at a great story on this – we could also look at how Jesus provided a rational response to John the Baptist, who had some serious doubts about his belief that Jesus was the Messiah when he was in prison. After all, John was about to be beheaded for this, and he didn’t want to die for a fraud!

There are so many stories of Jesus responding well to doubt, but my favorite story is how Jesus responded to his disciple Thomas after the resurrection.

This account is recorded for us in John 20. Let’s read it together:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Now that’s doubt! Every single one of his closest companions is testifying that they have seen Jesus alive. But Thomas absolutely refuses to buckle under peer pressure.

Imagine what a week that was. “Thomas, man, I’m telling you, we saw Jesus!” “Peter, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have to see it for myself. I saw the guy die. If he’s alive, then he should set up a meeting with me. It’s that simple!”

So back to the text:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said to Thomas, “HOW DARE YOU DOUBT ME, SINNER.” Then Jesus sent Thomas straight to hell and had a good laugh with all the other disciples.

Ok, it doesn’t say that, does it? Here’s what it says:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said to Thomas, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Here’s the point: Jesus responds to Thomas’ doubt with evidence. With answers. With reason to believe. By satisfying his intellectual curiosity.

And, according to some early church traditions, Thomas ended up going to India to share the good news about Jesus, and after a very fruitful ministry, was martyred for his faith in Christ.

Here’s the point: if Thomas’ doubts were never resolved, he wouldn’t have given his life for the gospel. It didn’t matter what experiences his closest friends had. He wanted proof for himself.

But because his doubts were resolved – and in a dramatic way – Thomas became a very loyal disciple of Jesus.

That’s what’s at stake for our church – for every church.

If we are a community where doubts go unresolved, where we don’t make space for people’s questions about God, this will hinder the formation of strong disciples. It will undermine our evangelism. It will lead people to leave the church altogether.

But by contrast, if we depend on God in everything, if we are well prepared to respond to doubts, and if, by God’s grace, we maintain an integrated witness for God, then we will be far less likely to leave the church, far more confident to live for Christ, and far more prepared to bring our friends to faith.

What we’re going to do now is transition to small group discussion in groups of 3-4. I have some discussion questions to get your conversation started or you can just begin by talking about whatever you think is most relevant.

In about 10-15 minutes, we’ll come back together for large group discussion.

If you’d like, you can download the Dealing with Doubt Resource Page.

You can also download the small group discussion questions.