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How to deal with doubts

How to handle doubts that challenge belief and faith;
examining and confronting them
on the path to ever stronger faith
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1.    INTRODUCTION

It might seem strange to include an article about ‘doubt’ in this section of the website,  that is actually devoted to assisting people to prove for themselves that God exists (see Section Contents to the left). However, the concepts of doubt and faith are more inter-related than might be considered at first.

T
he need for this particular article was made clear by a reader of this website who forwarded a number of pertinent questions via email. I had clearly overlooked, in my writing, the significance that the process of doubt plays in all our journeys of faith. (Thank you Julie!) It is a fact that every believer has the occasional doubt about his or her faith. Granted that most believers have their own ways of knowing that God does exist, but  the fact that he (God) does not normally have an in your face presence in our lives has to work against that to a degree at times.

The most important thing to remember about religious doubt, as I have already indicated, is that it is not an altogether negative frame of mind at all, unless we choose to make it so. A previous church leader of mine told our congregation from the pulpit, quite rightly, that doubt and faith are not really opposites. In fact, he maintained that they should coexist with each other to assist us to better see. He actually saw the process of human doubt as a gift from God that opens us up to deeper levels of understanding and closeness with him. And as I shall later explain, it does!

Fundamentally then, doubt is a process that should bring us closer to God, rather than the reverse. By actively confronting these types of thoughts, analysing their causes and looking for answers, can provide us with the means for achieving ever stronger belief and faith: in the existence of God; and as Christians accepting Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

On the other hand, by suppressing doubt or not addressing it, we place ourselves in the vulnerable position where faith can unravel when it is needed most, i.e. at the onset of a genuine life crisis. Yes, doubt is an important issue on the road of faith  for both beginners and the experienced alike. I have endeavoured in this article to approach the issues of doubt from the perspective of both. I have also examined doubts that particularly confront Christians (applicable to beginner and experienced alike). 

Answers simply need to be found as and when doubts arise. This requires some work on our part, but those who have enjoyed the fruits of faith will understand that it is definitely worth it. Do not think that it is beyond you! It is common for each of us to be tempted with that thought at times too.

2.    DOUBTS OF BEGINNERS

There are a number of hurdles that can confront beginners on the road to faith. Firstly, we need to really examine those ideas that challenge the very possibility of Gods existence. Once we do have an open mind on the possibility of his existence, we can then start to move forwards in building belief and faith.

Our thoughts and feelings may also need to be confronted during this process. We must also maintain the correct mindset on our importance to God  that is, he would want to enter into a relationship with us.

2.1    Accepting that Gods existence is possible, or probable!

Doubts for beginners are often about broad confronting issues. You probably know what I am talking about. In this day and age too, with our outlook on life, it can be challenging to even contemplate the possibility of something ... well ... as amazing as the concept of God. His existence just does not come into the equation of everyday life for a great number of people. Even though I do have deep belief and faith myself, I absolutely understand these thoughts can arise, so read on please!

Then there are those simplistic or outmoded concepts of God that we may hold, and all those deep, deep questions we have built up over the years: Isnt religion only for those who need a crutch in life? or How come various religions have different views on what God is supposed to be like? or “Why do suffering and evil exist in our world if our creator God is supposedly good? orDoesnt science prove that God cannot exist? I have tried to answer these sorts of questions in the websites section, Faith and reason. The Lead Article for that section, of the same name, lightly discusses the issues. Supporting articles in that section discuss individual concerns to a greater depth.

Once we genuinely evaluate all known challenges to faith I can assure you that we find there is nothing of substance to negate the possibility of Gods existence.

2.2    Gathering evidence of God’s presence

For most of us, belief in God comes through the recognition of his presence in the Church (in the case of Christians) and within our everyday lives. As I have said elsewhere, belief is built on the experience of each and everyone of us, and we need to have accumulated soundly evaluated evidence from within our experiences to support genuine faith, as opposed to wishful thinking.  This whole section of the website is devoted to the task of finding evidence of God's existence, by recognising his presence as defined above. As I have already stated, this particular article resides in that same section. The Lead Article of this section titled, Believing in God  is supported by two other major articles,  God within the Church and “God within our lives. The Lead Article pulls the two articles together to achieve, as I see it, the best possible outcomes for each of us.

However, doubting questions may still present themselves to those who are pursuing new faith, such as, Why cant I quickly find the conclusive evidence of Gods presence I need? or  Why havent important prayers of mine been answered! Again some of these types of concerns have been targeted in the articles mentioned above. 

I think that the two greatest obstacles to faith, with beginners, is trying too hard to gain faith or maybe just expecting too much too quickly. And when sound evidence, with absolute clarity, does not appear as quickly as hoped, then the old original doubts rear themselves again. What is needed is an element of patience in our initial approach. The term hasten slowly could never be more true than in the case of faith. St Paul was referring to faith when he said, But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently [Romans 8:25]. My advice is not to worry, it will come!

Please do not forget to pray about the matter either. Bear in mind though that God may wish to lead you towards some source of evidence that may not initially sit well with you. If you feel you are being nudged in a certain direction by God, e.g. attending a particular church or church group, then go with it. I speak from my own experience here. In my late teens I began to have severe doubts. I prayed for help with them. In answer God gave me a leading to attend a particular church (not the one that I already attended at that time). Because having fellowship within a different church was outside my comfort zone at the time, despite having a friend in that congregation, I did not follow through on it. I subsequently became agnostic and eventually went on to become a hardened atheist. It took me some fifteen years to find my way into that same type of church environment that God had previously wanted me to enter, and reap the benefits of palpable evidence of his presence there. You can read about some of my experiences within differing areas of the Church in the article I mentioned above, God within the Church.

In a beginners sense, building faith is usually about taking one little step at a time into unknown territory. Countless millions of people, over thousands of years, have built a case for Gods presence in their lives, i.e. not through wishful thinking. They, by necessity, have worked through their doubts and, building on their experiences, developed sound faith. I am sure too that it well pleases God when we start on the road to faith, but he knows that the road may be bumpy for us at some stage.

2.3    Thoughts, emotions and feelings

In the article, Faith and reason I mentioned that all of us humans are somewhat cynical these days ... and probably out of necessity! A commonly heard adage states that, If it seems too good to be true, then it probably isnt.” This saying is born out of the prevalence of scams that abound in this time of ours. Therefore, none of us should be surprised when our mind tells us that what is shaping up before us, on our search for faith, is all just too incredible! I know that I experienced that feeling a few times myself along the way, and I still do on rare occasions despite the significant amount of evidence resting in my grey matter. We must confront such thoughts, feelings or moods with intellectual reasoning, i.e. yes, things that are happening really do indicate there is something in this. 

I have written elsewhere that proof of Gods existence should appear to us beyond reasonable doubt if we are to build faith that will serve us effectively, and that is what I meant earlier in this article by soundly evaluated evidence. But, it is to be expected that the term itself, beyond reasonable doubt will mean different things to each of us, bearing in mind that no two individuals think exactly the same way. Emotions and feelings definitely play a role in this decision making. For an atheist, who has his or her mind set on absolute negativity for this subject, no amount of evidence will ever be enough. It is most unlikely that God will ever actually appear before us, in this lifetime at least, to change such a view (and that it is what is expected by many an atheist). God has chosen to be invisible for good reason, and that is explained under Heading 6 in the Lead ArticleBelieving in God

Unfortunately, I also know that some people who actually want to believe in God, maybe badly, seem unable to relax into a comfortable faith. Their minds continue questioning, what if? or why? long after others would have accepted the likelihood of Gods existence. Often this is a result of our genetic inheritance, we can be just born with a questioning nature. Sometimes too, it stems from an emotional or psychological state that affects all areas of life and not just religious faith. And some people have suffered considerably in life, to arrive at that state of mind, not the least being those who have done so at the hands of others that they trusted. The questions ringing in the minds of those particular folk are, If God exists, where was he during those times? or Why did he let it happen to me? Counsel may need to be sought in such cases from someone who will not use indoctrination or fear as tools of coercion, but would rather apply required healing practices.

Above all else, if you find yourself in this frustrating position of not being able to accept that you do have enough evidence to fully allow God into your life, please do not hesitate  to invite him to assist you. And somewhere along the line we all must acknowledge that enough is enough, then just flow with faith! It is within the application of faith  i.e. walking with God by following his guidance, asking for and receiving his assistance, attending church services etc  that, as I have already said, we find genuine evidence of his presence in our lives. 

What I have stated under the heading, Christian Doubt later in this article, will apply to the beginner as much as the experienced believer. Christianity itself has a high degree of believable substance. Understanding the high probability of fact within its scriptures, and the application of their guidance to life, helps to deliver a self proving religion to us.

2.4    God wants a relationship with YOU !

An area of thought that can prevent the growth of faith, and therefore increase doubt for beginners, is related to comparisons of ourselves to God. That is, viewing ourselves as insignificant specks of life in comparison to God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. Maybe you know these nagging thoughts, Im too insignificant to be bothering God? or Will God really have time to help me with my small issues? or again, How could God love me, let alone forgive the bad things I have done in my life? The truth actually is that each and everyone of us is just as special and important to God as anybody else on Earth, or anything else in the universe for that matter. God is all powerful (i.e. absolutely without limits) and can readily deal with each and every one of us, on a one-on-one basis, at any one time.

Always remember that God wants us to invite him into our lives. So we must not hesitate to involve him there. Also remember that he loves each one of us deeply, whether we love him back or not! By becoming involved with us, in any way that he can, allows God to demonstrate his existence to us through his love. And that folks is what building faith is all about! We must therefore allow ourselves a degree of self importance in the greater scheme of things. If we do not approach him, or otherwise let him into our lives, then we cannot truly discover his presence and enter into that all important two-way relationship with him.

Please never think that you are not important to God!

3.    DOUBTS OF THE EXPERIENCED BELIEVER

It is okay to have doubts, no matter what our stage in faith or life might be. As I have said it is never uncommon for us to occasionally think that this is all just too incredible to be true! Yet, as I also stated above, if we challenge doubts when they arise then faith will endure and grow. Indeed it is useful to actively challenge our beliefs at times, to identify or pre-empt flaws that may trip us at a later date, and then subsequently eliminate them through research and logical evaluation. This is particularly applicable when we reach major stages in our lives and journeys of faith, e.g. adolescence, old age, fresh faith, mature faith.

3.1    Doubt affects us all

It does not matter how long any of us have had faith, doubts will still arise. The initial response to doubt, from us, might be one of annoyance. That is, we thought we had it all together and now here comes some new question to challenge our views. When it does happen, whether due to emotions and feelings or a question raised by an external source, the mature believer knows better than to shirk off the new doubt allowing it to fester in the unconscious mind, to periodically surface and undermine faith.

Doubts need to be analysed rationally, i.e. why? or how?, when they occur. My own experience has actually verified my church leaders advice, provided earlier, in that questioning of doubt has only ever led me towards a deeper understanding of God and a closer relationship with him. And I have had to accept some significant shifts in my thinking over the years I can assure you. Also, when I am extremely vexed over a doubt I admit to praying for assistance in seeing why things appear to be as they are.

From my experience too, serious religious doubt more often strikes when I have, through selfishness, left God out of my life for a little too long. I think this happens to most of us at some time or other. When we turn our minds back to him again all manner of doubts flood our thoughts. My own antidote is to just fast forward my memories, revisiting past experiences of God, and then reopen my mind to recognise him in my life again. Obviously it is best to continually walk closely with the Lord, rather than allowing a gulf to grow between us. To my mind again, the more we involve ourselves with him, the more evidence of his presence will occur thereby regularly reassuring us. So, it is best to talk to him regularly, and to best live our lives as he guides us to do.

Importantly, it is  useful to keep our knowledge of God growing; maturing by regularly reading the Bible. There are many publications available to assist us in understanding the Bible's big picture for us etc.

3.2    Re-examining faith when life circumstances change

It is also true that beliefs require a serious re-examination at different stages of life. There is a real risk that serious doubts may occur as a result of challenges arising at these times. For example, adolescents views and beliefs change as powers of reasoning, knowledge and social interactions grow. Simple views of religion learnt from parents, Sunday School etc during earlier years may no longer support faith during the approach to adulthood. Additional learning and a new informed, more mature commitment to faith may be necessary. As in my case, explained above, look for Gods leadings to assist you.

Those approaching old age, or those suffering from debilitating illness or injury, may also need to re-examine their faith to understand how it fits within a life where independence and so-called quality of life may have been lost. The article, Suffering and Evil found in the last major section of this website certainly examines related issues and Gods role within them.

4.    DOUBTS ON CHRISTIAN FAITH

It is a fact of life that we Christians will occasionally have our core beliefs and/or personal values challenged by other people who are ill informed or simply have alternative outlooks. Even our own minds may throw up such doubts. Either way, we need to be prepared to face these assaults on our belief and faith.

4.1    Knowledge and faith

Research and study will demonstrate that belief in the Christian scriptures can be based on the very high probability of events they include. The New Testaments complex and interwoven information is self supporting. Important historical facts within it are also supported by written records from secular sources of around that time. The final section of this website provides an understanding of Christianity and its Lead Article is titled, Christianity explained. One of its supporting articles, titled, Evidence of Jesus evaluates the credibility of Christian Scriptures. Understanding the scriptures themselves, and knowing that evidence to support the historicity of major events portrayed within them does exist, is the way to address these types of challenges to our Christian beliefs.

Talking with people, or reading works, from other religions can also raise challenging problems for the experienced Christian. Knowledge from another persons faith may simply conflict with our own beliefs. We need to know how to deal with this, so that our own faith is not compromised. As I have written elsewhere, most religions contain some Truth. As a Christian I obviously believe that Christianity holds more Truth than others, or I would not be committed to it. But, when in tolerance of other religions and I talk to people with different views, I expect to be occasionally confronted with opinions which just do not fit with doctrine that I have accepted through faith alone, e.g. an afterlife with God as opposed to say reincarnation of the human soul. Obviously I cannot receive evidence of eternal life until I die myself, but because other things stated in the Bible are well evidenced in writing, or are proven out through everyday life and church experiences, then I feel confident when accepting the promise of eternal life with God after physical death. The article, So, What is God? includes an attempt to reconcile differing religious beliefs.

Do not forget either that regular attendance at church, and as much involvement with its events and mission as possible, can make the reality of Christianity very clear to us. Again I recommend you read the article, God within the Church. Contact with the Church assists each and every one of us to better make the quantum leap of accepting Jesus (the Word) as genuinely alive and intimately connected with us, rather than just an identity existing within the Bible.

Continued communication with God is also essential, i.e. prayer. As Christians, it is not sufficient to just to believe in God, but to have a personal and intimate relationship with him. As Christians we must also commit ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. Such a relationship really helps when the chips are down, be it when a life crisis occurs or when a serious doubt confronts us. We can soldier on through Gods grace, as it were, until a state of emotional recovery occurs.

4.2    Conflict from the pulpit

Bear in mind that what follows is my opinion only, and not necessarily accepted by all others. I really do feel a bit uncomfortable in challenging the views of other committed Christians, but I obviously feel the need. So.....

Depending upon where we have fellowship (which church we attend) it is possible to hear statements from the pulpit that can actually create doubts within our minds. This can occur for example when clergy, particularly those with fundamentalist views, insist on doctrine being exactly this way or that when, as I see it, it is not necessarily essential to Christianity and that doctrine unreasonably conflicts with deeply felt ideals or knowledge held by church goers. 

These stringent views can be based on a single verse here or there in the Bible and to my mind may not reflect the full context of related issues presented elsewhere in it. We can hear all sorts of  narrow opinions on: how one is savedor not saved; whose prayers will be answered or not answered; odd statements in the Bible (Old or New Testament) that have to be taken absolutely literally no matter what the cost, even when as I say they are unrelated to the essential teachings of our religion.

However one particular area of concern to me, that also occasionally occurs within fundamentalist churches, is the denial of doubt itself, i.e. considering it to be wrong, and maintaining that it seriously compromises our relationship with the Lord. Doubt itself thus can become a source of fear for lay people in this environment. (Of course this is the opposite view to the one held by my own church.) As much as I respect my fellow Christians, my belief is that such a view misses the very basis of Christianity. It is a religion of love, not fear! In fact, its God – i.e. the God that most Christians attest to believing in so loved humanity that he became human and painfully sacrificed himself for us all. I think most Christians would accept that we will be saved if we commit ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. A few doubts along the way, in our journey of faith, will surely not deny us the outcome of that promise made by our loving God.

Essentially then, if the views or doctrines of our church interfere with the very basis of our faith, then we need to think rationally, pray about the issues and then seek advice from other credible sources. I am not suggesting that we should leave our churches in all such circumstances, especially if we feel largely fulfilled there, but we do not have to accept every word that is spoken from the pulpit either. The Lord himself will guide us to what is right and proper in our individual journeys of faith. 

4.3    St Pauls advice

Finally, the following verses, written by St Paul to the church in Philippi, can be applied to guide us when faced with doubt [Philippians 4:6-9] 

        Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,
        with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

        And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
        will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

        Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
        whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable  if anything is
        excellent or praiseworthy  think about such things.

        Whatever you have learned or received or heard  from me,
        or seen in me  put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

The lessons from these verses when applied to doubt and faith are: don’t be stressed and duly pray about those issues; remember what holds us to faith; put the scriptures into practise with that faith; God will protect our faith in both our emotions and reasoning; and the God of peace will therefore always be with us.