There are tasks we can’t do and things we can’t change. Life seems to ask too much sometimes, says Christy Britton. We know it’s supposed to be “well with our souls,” but how? How is it well?
Right now I’m tempted to believe that God is holding out on me. There. I said it.
I planned to postpone writing this until I could speak about my unbelief in the past tense. Like most of you I’m more comfortable sharing my struggles when I can see them in the rearview mirror (with a lesson in my back pocket of course!). It feels godlier to say, “Six months ago I was tempted to look at porn or binge shop or cheat on that exam. But now I’m trusting in Christ’s work.”
I can’t help but think that this subtly undermines the gospel. Christ isn’t only sufficient for us when we’re past our temptations. He’s more than sufficient in the midst of them. Thus, Christians are free to share present tense struggles that elevate a high view of Christ even as we walk through real doubt and unbelief.
Present Tense Kind of Doubts
Lately, it seems like nothing falls into place. Nothing comes easily to me. I wrestle. I strive. I fight. And . . . nothing. There’s a little voice within that enjoys pointing out that if God were really in control of the whole universe, then it would be easy for him to change my circumstances. It would take him no effort whatsoever to make a tweak here and there and poof! my life would be fixed. That voice takes my good theology—a high view of God’s meticulous rule—and comes to poor conclusions that God is withholding something good from me.
You understand this feeling, don’t you? Even as you read about my doubts, you’re internalizing your own. Perhaps it looks like one of the following equations:
- God is the Creator of life + You are barren = He is withholding good from you
- God is the Author of marriage + You are single = He is withholding good from you
- God is Owner of universe + You are broke = He is withholding good from you
Scenarios such as these tempt us to disbelieve and distort God’s character. We feel that God’s holding out on us—that he's stingy. We conclude that we’ll just have to make things happen for ourselves. Like Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11), we’re presented with an opportunity to believe the lies and to try and secure our desires apart from God’s provision and perfect timing.
For the most part, we know that these thoughts aren’t rational. God is sovereign, and God is good. There’s nothing in our experience that can change that. Then again, doubt and unbelief are rarely rational. But they sure are powerful! The more we focus on the lies and feed the doubts the more powerful that unbelief becomes. And the more powerful the unbelief becomes, the more convinced we get that we need to go out and make something happen for ourselves.
Choosing to Form Habits of Belief
It’s at this very moment, the present moment when unbelief rears its ugly head, that you and I have a choice to make. We can preach God’s truth to ourselves and allow it to strengthen our belief or listen to the lies and allow it to strengthen our unbelief. Either way, something will grow stronger. There’s no neutral ground. It’s not like we can just wait it out and see what happens. The path of passivity (“maybe tomorrow I will feel like God is good and gracious”) will only deepen unbelief. If we wait until tomorrow to believe God is good, upon waking up, we’ll discover that the unbelief has spread throughout our soul like terminal cancer.
But, if you are in Christ, the temptation to unbelief is not the final word. We can choose a different path! We have One who walked before us and was tempted as we are yet remained sinless (Heb. 4:15), so that he might offer himself as a sinless substitute in the place of unrighteous sinners (2 Cor. 5:21). Through our union with Jesus we can “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Moreover, Christ serves as an example of what it looks like to perfectly trust the Father in the face of temptation by speaking out truth and resisting the Devil in the power of the Spirit (Matt. 4:4,7,10).
As we’re progressively conformed to Jesus’ image, we can choose the path he chose. We’ve been set free from sin so we can pursue righteousness. We are not enslaved to unbelief anymore. You don’t have to keep doing what you’ve always done.
You can form new habits of belief that builds your confidence in God on a daily basis:
You can verbally refute lies (whether personal, demonic, or worldly) the minute they pop into your head.
You can cry out to the Spirit to help you when you feel weak and overwhelmed with unbelief.
You can read, meditate on, and memorize Scripture to renew your mind.
You can confess your doubts to a friend and ask them to pray for you.
You can meet with God’s people on a Sunday or mid-week gathering to hear the truth and worship God.
The point is we have a choice. Jesus’ work on our behalf breaks the fatalistic patterns of sin in our lives and gives us supernatural power to battle unbelief. We don’t have to be resigned to our unbelief. We can be different. We can be like Jesus!
An Exercise In Trust
Today, in my present struggle, I’m going to choose to follow Jesus by refuting the enemy’s lies and speaking God’s truth out loud. Sure, nothing’s coming easily to me. Life feels hard. But I refuse to believe God’s being stingy. I know he’s not stingy because of the gospel:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things. – Romans 8:32
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 1:3
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:16-17
When I meditate on these truths, my doubts are obliterated. Our God is a good God who gives us good gifts. There’s no way he could be stingy towards me—he’s given me his very own Son! Any feelings regarding my current circumstances simply cannot hold up in the face of the cross. I’m choosing to exercise trust in God because he is 100 percent trustworthy.
What about you? As you stand at the intersection of belief or doubt, what choice are you going to make to feed your faith in God? What Scriptures are you going to use to refute the lies of the enemy? Who are you doing life with that can help you fight the fight of faith? How will you exercise trust in God during moments of unbelief?
Whitney Woollard is passionate about equipping others to read and study God’s Word well resulting maturing affection for Christ and his glorious gospel message. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Masters of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. Whitney and her husband Neal currently live in Portland, OR where they call Hinson Baptist Church home. Visit her writing homepage whitneywoollard.com.
Christians do a lot of back slapping when it comes to belief in the gospel. It’s like we’re afraid to ask hard questions, struggle through difficult times, and doubt the faith. Jenny is a new Christian. She’s well educated, thoughtful, terribly excited about the gospel, and acquainted with suffering. As we talked about her newfound faith, she explained to me that she tried church in the past. She’d had a “bad experience.” I braced myself for some church trashing, but quickly realized Jenny had something to say to the church. Jenny recounted story after story of her difficult questions being turned away by Christians and pastors. She was told, “All the answers are in the Bible. Just read it and have faith.” Her doubts were dismissed as undermining skepticism. Eventually, despite her admiration for the church, she left. Why? She wasn’t allowed to question the gospel.
The Bible Invites Doubt
Non-Christians aren’t the only ones that need to question the gospel. On the other side of faith, our discipleship should be suffused with doubt. Many of us run from it. We look down on doubt. In contrast, the whole Bible presupposes doubt. The Bible is largely written by believers to believers who doubt their beliefs. Many saints were adept at questioning God, asking questions like:
- “Will you put to death the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:25)
- “Oh, Lord, will you please send someone else?” (Ex 4:13)
- “Why do the wicked prosper?” (Ps 73)
- “How long Oh Lord?” (Ps 79)
- “Have you not rejected us, O God?” (Ps 60)
- “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34)
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)
- “Why do I do what I do not want?” (Rom 7:20)
These men and women questioned God, to his face. Thomas was incredulous when told about the resurrection. Facing Jesus, he still doubted. Just prior to the ascension, with the risen Jesus standing in their midst, we’re told disciples “…worshiped but some doubted” (Matt 28:17).
Recovering the Practice of Doubt
Christians have lost the practice of doubt. Instead, we often reinforce blind faith. We gather like-minded people around us to reinforce our beliefs, while isolating ourselves from genuine questions about God, Scripture, and life. Non-Christians see this and are put off. Some assume that Christianity is pure indoctrination. Others believe that you have to check your brain at the door of church. So they remain, on the outside of the church, with important, authentic questions about the gospel, with no one to hear them out.
We need to learn from our skeptical friends and neighbors. We need to be more honest about how bizarre our faith sounds. Have you ever considered that Christianity sounds like a cult? We purport that our leader died and rose from the dead, but that he is now, conveniently, invisible. We believe that he will reappear one day to set all things right. Do you really believe this? Why? Can you account for it in a believable way? Many of the gospel teachings are slipped onto the shelf of our mental library, where they gather to collect dust. Sure we “believe” them, but don’t pull them down often enough to doubt them.
God has created a world filled with irony and incongruity. We are redeemed but we aren’t. We are perfect in God’s sight but not in real time. Jesus has defeated death and evil, but people die and suffer every day. Then, there’s the everyday struggle to believe. We possess the promises of God, but fail to believe them every single day. Instead, we believe in the fleeting promises of the world. We believe the approval of co-workers is better that the enduring approval of God the Father. We believe holding a grudge will bring more satisfaction than giving away Christ’s forgiveness. Suffering through a trial, we believe God in unjust or we are awful, instead of seeing God’s grace and goodness to purify misplaced faith in ourselves or in the comforts of this world. O, how we disbelieve.
Blind Faith is Blinding to the World
We disbelieve the gospel because we fail to doubt the gospel. We don’t interrogate it to find better promises. We don’t question God, asking him for greater joy than the fleeting satisfaction we have in comfort. We don’t query the gospel to make better sense of suffering. Instead, we place one hand over our eyes, and point upward: “Just have faith.” This is unbelievable. It is shallow.
Blind faith is blinding faith. It masks the light of the gospel, covering up the perceptive truths of Scripture that must be queried to be uncovered. People like Jenny need Christians who welcome, not stomp, doubt. An unbelieving world needs to see why the gospel is worth believing. They need to see what atonement has to do with pluralism, what regeneration has to do with environmental stewardship, what propitiation has to do with humility, what adoption has to do with sex trafficking, what justification has to do with self-esteem, what new creation has to do with the Arts, what union with Christ has to do with longings for significance. Our colleagues, coworkers, and neighbors also need to hear us doubt the gospel in face of: literature, homosexuality, racism, women, technology, pluralism, hypocrisy, evolution, and atheism, to name a few. The gospel must be questioned if we are to uncover its riches, not only for ourselves but also for the world.
Blind faith reroutes a detour around God’s design in suffering. Peter reminds us that trials are meant to make us question, reflect, and refine our faith. When we suffer the loss of a friend, job, or dream, we are meant to question the gospel. We are meant to discover, through trial, how Christ is better, not just affirm that he is better. Suffering can show us how God is sufficient and the Savior is sublime. But we must doubt. We must take our hands off our eyes to stare our troubles in the face. Only then can faith become precious and perceptive. We’ve failed to realize we are meant to doubt our way into faith every single day. When we doubt the gospel, in God’s presence, we find Jesus standing up in our circumstances, flooding them with hope.
Doubting for Joy
Standing in front of the risen Christ, “they worshipped but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). The disciples are skeptical. They possess the facts, the proofs to believe, but still don’t have faith. Or maybe they believed but lacked faith? Making a distinction between belief and faith Harvard Religion scholar, Harvey Cox writes: “We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.” If we don’t see the gospel as vital, then we will restrict it to the realm of belief. In other words, we can believe the gospel with it making very little difference to our lives. We can believe without faith.
The way forward from belief to faith is through the path of doubt, down the road of inquiry. We must question what we believe in order to increase in faith. For Christ to become vital, we must see how essential he is, in everything. We need the vital organ of faith. Belief cannot live without faith, the animating power of actual trust in a trustworthy gospel. This comes through testing our faith, asking how God is good in our pain, what Jesus has to do with Science, how the Holy Spirit changes on culture. We need to get in front of the face of God and ask the hard questions with humility. We need to pull the gospel off the shelf and doubt it for joy.
Seeing the resurrected Jesus, some disciples “disbelieved for joy” (Lk 24:41). Doubt arose in their hearts. Jesus patiently revealed his hands and feet, scarred from his crucifixion. This was no spirit. Touching his body, they tested their beliefs (that the resurrection wasn’t plausible), and considered the immense promise this belief held if it were true. They leaned forward into faith. The closer they got to the risen Lord, under scrutiny, the more belief gave way to faith. They even watched Jesus perform an experiment, eating to prove he wasn’t an apparition. The prospect of the gospel became more compelling as they questioned the gospel in the face of Christ. They disbelieved for joy. Like the wonder we feel when we hit a homerun, ace the test, or win someone’s affection, they disbelieved for joy. Stunned in awe, they couldn’t believe it, but they were jumping up and down for joy inside. Disbelieving for joy, they fell headlong into faith.
This month marks a new series of articles at GCD following the theme of: Questioning the Gospel. We hope you’ll come doubt the gospel with us and disbelieve for joy.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship andUnbelievable Gospel. He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others.