“Who is Jesus?” I asked my students on the first day of class.
“The son of God”
They concluded drearily between secretly checking their smart phones and staring vacantly at me, as if I were speaking Portuguese. So I ask again, “Really, who is Jesus?”
If you had walked into the classroom, you would’ve assumed we were practicing our awkward silences.
I teach Bible classes at a nice little Christian high school with about sixty students and a fairly conservative culture. They’re good kids. Most of them are remarkably bright and incredible at Bible trivia. But something is missing.
The students, like most students, have been taught to memorize and regurgitate information. They are actually pretty good at it. And my students have had the added blessing of memorizing and regurgitating incredible Biblical truths on a daily basis for most of their lives. But there is, for the most part, a lack of any realization that the Biblical truths they are memorizing are actually true!
I believe their apathy (and all apathy) is rooted in deep doubts about the goodness, practicality, and truth of the information they’re being taught. In high school, I hated math because I doubted its usefulness and I didn’t trust Old Man Marley for the first half of Home Alone because I thought he was secretly a bad guy.
I believe a lot of these students have doubts about who God is, why they have to read the Bible, and what the “good news of Jesus Christ” has to do with anything. Not because they weren’t raised in godly Christian homes, or because they are rebels—but because they are human. Humans doubt truth. We always have.
When we approach the profound truths of God or anything, really, sometimes we just see a black hole—something that seems impossible to comprehend, enjoy, or believe. We doubt every day. Every time we fear the unknown, we practice doubt. We cannot just ignore or write off doubt. We must wrestle with it.
Belief is essential in the Christian life. John wrote his account of the life, death, and resurrection “so that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). Paul says that grace comes to us “through faith” (Eph. 2:8). And Jesus says that the work of God is to believe in Jesus!
But belief isn’t easy. Belief is not simply scoring high marks on a Bible quiz. It’s the pursuit of truth—an investigation into the depths of reality. As Jonathan Dodson says in Raised?,
“Anything worth believing has to be worth questioning, but don’t let your questions slip away unanswered. Don’t reduce your doubts to a state of unsettled cynicism. Wrestle with your doubts. Find answers. If you call yourself a believer don’t settle for pat proofs, emotional experiences, or duty-driven religion. Keep asking questions.”
My students had been catechized well, but they had never wrestled with their doubts, and in turn most have never interacted with the living Jesus. They assume that expressing doubts will get them in trouble —but really, they will be in much deeper trouble if they never ask “what does this mean?” Despite what they may think, their doubts may, in fact, be from God.
Just as God came down from heaven to wrestle with (not to catechize!) Jacob (Gen. 32), doubts may at first seem to be an enemy, but prove to be dear friends. As George MacDonald observed,
Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed”
Our doubts can take us deeper into the knowledge of God—not further away, as many fear. When we wrestle with God, we come away changed.
So this semester, I have decided to encourage doubt in my classroom. While I will be teaching my students the fundamentals of Missiology (the topic of my course), I also want to teach them to wrestle with God. I want them to ask the hard questions—to really ask themselves (and me) “what does this mean?” I foresee a long semester ahead, but as a student wrote on a worksheet last week, “if you don’t ask questions, you won’t get answers.”
Using Doubt in Discipleship
How can we steward doubt—“messengers of the Living One to the honest”—in the already messy process of disciple making? I don’t know exactly, but here are five general thoughts on disicpling amidst doubt.
1. Don’t Ignore Doubt Have the courage to look for doubt. When someone gives a “Sunday School” answer, don’t be afraid to search for the heart behind the answer. Maybe there is a true, orthodox love for God behind that “right answer,” but that isn’t always the case. Jesus didn’t ignore Thomas’ doubt, instead he directly engaged it. Jesus didn’t condemn him for his doubt, but told him,
“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!” (Jn. 20:28)
2. Be Humble Just because you may not wrestle with nagging doubts about the resurrection right now doesn’t mean the doubts of others are not legitimate. Pride is particularly deadly, when you are instructing others. Humbly encourage doubters to draw from the same well of truth you have. This will foster a safe environment for others, as they wrestle with their doubts.
3. See Doubt as an Opportunity Doubt can certainly lead to sin, but doubt can be an opportunity to trust and seek God. Encourage yourself and others to “see doubt as the door to that which is unknown, but must be known.” Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). God can, and historically has, used honest doubts as an opportunity to lead believers to rest, repent, and believe. Doubt is an opportunity to encounter the living truth, and, as Sir Francis Bacon observed, “no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth.”
4. Remember the Gospel The absolutely certain, imputed, and active righteousness of Christ shows us our doubt is not our demise. Doubts do not stop God from saving, loving, and pursuing his people! This means, when a brother or sister in Christ is wrestling through doubts—intellectual or otherwise—God still loves them, and still views them as perfectly hidden in Christ. The cross is doubt-proof—as much as we doubt, we cannot change the glorious, historical truth that Jesus died once for sin. This means that every question is safe to ask and no doubt is too big for the cross to overcome! Jesus’ perfect lack of doubt has overcome our doubt.
5. Remember that God Transforms Doubt Thankfully, God does not leave doubters in their doubt. God has a long record of intervening in human history and radically transforming even the strongest doubters. From Moses (Exod. 3) to Job to Jonah to Thomas, God works through those who have deep doubts about God and their call. Consider Sarah,
The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:9-12)
God promised things that seemed impossible. Our humanness wants to doubt God because, honestly, some of the things God promises are insane. But God delivers. Sarah laughed at the thought that God could ever fulfill His promises, but God answered Sarah’s doubts and through it, glorifies Himself,
“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” (Gen. 21:1-7)
Sarah’s laughter was transformed from doubt to joy. God answered Sarah and God answers our doubts. God replaces our doubt with worship. The burden of proof is on God, and God comes though. This is the only hope I have that my high school students will encounter God in the foolishness of what I teach.
We never “arrive” and we will never know everything. As long as sin wages war against the Spirit, we will struggle with doubts. But thankfully, we are not alone in this struggle. Our perfect righteousness, hidden in Christ, is secure despite our doubts. And God has promised to be with us in our fight with doubt. My students may not “get the gospel” this semester, they may play Flappy Bird in class instead of wrestling with truth, but as Jonathan Dodson rightfully notes in Raised?,
“Those who are skeptical and struggling with belief, Jesus remains ready to receive your questions. He will listen to your doubts”
_ Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously) with his groovy wife, Jenna. He received his B.A. from Illinois State University and currently serves as a deacon and pastoral intern at Charis Community Church in Normal. He writes regularly for Christ and Pop Culture, and is passionate about Americana music, (lower case) orthodoxy, and whatever he’s been reading lately. Connect with him on twitter @nick_rynerson or via email.