For the Encouragement of Faithful Doubters
First published 7 April 2010
Some people seem to have rock solid faith. They talk about God, Jesus, and the world, as if they see things with absolute clarity and as if nothing is going to shake them.
This can be disturbing for people for whom things are not so clear. They feel like they only see parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Some things fit together. Other bits are left to the side and don’t seem to have a place. Perhaps they see parts of the Christian message really well – they know that God made the universe, they know they are sinners, they love Jesus for dying on the cross for their eternal salvation, and they pray to God as their Father in heaven. But perhaps other things make them wonder whether they are right to believe. Perhaps they cannot understand why the world seems such a cruel place, or how Jesus could have risen from the dead. Perhaps they wonder how God can continue to love them if they keep letting him down, or how God can overlook their sin without being unjust. Perhaps they can’t see how God can be in control as the sovereign ruler over his creation at the same time as holding us responsible for our wrongdoing. Bits of the puzzle are all over the table, and they seem to suggest that the bits that they’ve already pieced together may not actually go together. Perhaps they should start all over again, they sometimes think. And when they see the confidence of others, they are discouraged, thinking that they can only really be faithful and believe if they have finished the puzzle with total clarity.
If you are in this second group of people, then I am writing this for you. I want to encourage you to press on and not to give up.
There is much that could be said, but I will try to be brief. There are basically four points I want you to understand:
- First, that absolute clarity in our understanding of God, ourselves and the world, is not possible in this life, because of sin and because of our finiteness.
- Second, that many of the great men of faith in the Bible were also struck with doubt and fear at times. We should learn from them.
- Third, the important thing is to have faith, not a certain amount of faith.
- Fourth, that the Bible has been given to us by God as our guide, and therefore greater clarity in life will come from studying it carefully. But we should understand it as a guidebook, and not as a map or Lego instruction book.
So firstly, we should understand that finishing the jigsaw puzzle is not possible in this life, because of sin and because of our finiteness.
Consider what God said through Isaiah. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.'” (Isaiah 55:8-9) The simple fact that we are created, and God is the Creator, means that there are things that we can never fully grasp.
Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” So there are things that we only get to see as a “poor reflection” now, but will be made clear in the future when we meet Jesus face to face.
Sin-tainted, finite, human wisdom is just not cut out for the job of getting to grips with God and the meaning of life. Listen to Paul again. “Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21) He goes on to elaborate – Jews look for miracles, but we present Christ as crucified – apparently powerless! Greeks look for wisdom, but we present Christ as crucified – apparently absurd! In human terms this is the foolishness of what we preach. But to those whose eyes are opened by God, what we proclaim is, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (vv24-25)
Let’s be careful here. This is not saying that the Christian faith is an irrational leap of faith. I argue that the Christian faith is completely rational, and in fact is the only worldview that does justice to the world we experience – the nature of reality, how we know things and the way we live our lives. What Paul is saying is that when human beings try to use their own intellect to understand God without listening to what he says, then the result is foolishness. But people don’t recognize it as foolishness. They have so constructed their worldview that actually the real truth appears to them as foolishness instead.
True wisdom consists in listening to God and seeing things the way he shows them to be. That’s why non-Christian worldviews can all be shown intellectually to be foolishness. I believe that. And I don’t believe that’s arrogant in any sense, since it is founded on the humble assumption of God’s transcendence.
But if the Christian faith is so rational, and the arguments are so logical, why do many more people not believe? Paul gives the answer in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, “if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
The only way we can see the truth properly is if God takes away our spiritual blindness. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
When God brings an end to this present universe, and brings us into the New Heavens and New Earth as he promised, we will see his light with pure, crystal clarity. Now, we see even this glorious light as a “poor reflection” by comparison. In between now and then we make progress, which too is given by God. We, “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
So we should not lose heart because we only see a “poor reflection”, or because other people seem to see things more clearly than we do. We have been given the “light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”, and this will increase in intensity through our lives until it reaches its perfect fulfillment in eternity. That’s why Paul says elsewhere, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12)
Secondly, we need to follow the example of some of the great men of faith in the Bible who had their moments of doubt.
You’ve heard of “Doubting Thomas”, right? Did Jesus condemn him for faltering in his faith?
“Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came [after he had risen from the dead]. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’
“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’
“A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’
“Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
“Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'” (John 20:24-29)
John the Baptist also had a period of doubt, which you can read about in Matthew 11:1-19. Remember John was the one who baptized Jesus at the start of his ministry, and who called out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) And yet in Matthew 11:2, we read that he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Did Jesus’ answer condemn John for his faltering? No, he commends him, but with a serious encouragement – “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (v6) And then he says that, in spite of this faltering, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (v11)
Both Thomas and John were blessed with seeing first hand the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, walking and working on the earth in Palestine two thousand years ago. They both faltered in their faith and yet were accepted by Jesus. But in both cases Jesus pointed forward to those who would be more greatly blessed – the humble people who would believe in him in the future without seeing first hand – you and me!
My last example is one of my favourites, because it is such a great picture of how we feel in times of doubt.
In Matthew 14:22-33, we have the account of when Jesus walks on water. The disciples had gone on ahead of him in a boat, across the Lake of Galilee, and they got hit by a storm. In the midst of the storm, Jesus came walking out to them on the water! To say they were a bit startled is slightly understating the reaction!
Peter, always the hothead, says, “Lord, if it’s you… tell me to come to you on the water.” (v28) And Jesus tells him to come.
“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?'” (vv29-31)
Sometimes we doubt because of stormy situations – maybe hardship, maybe the criticism of others. We should simply cry out, like Peter, “Lord, save me!” And he will reach out his hand and catch us, and then he might just give us a gentle ear-bashing for doubting!
Thirdly, the important thing is to have faith, not a certain amount of faith.
Admittedly, it is a bit imprecise to talk about having a certain size or amount of faith. But Jesus talks like that. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus tells his disciples that great things can be achieved, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed.” I mentioned above one of the many occasions when the disciples were rebuked for being of “little faith”.
Theologians have tied themselves in knots over the implications of this. How much faith is necessary to be saved? Does that mean there are some things that are essential to believe for salvation, and other things are optional? Or rather, are there some things that it is ok to disagree about, or have doubts about, without calling into question the salvation of a person? But the problem with that way of thinking is that it can give us excuses to avoid repentance. If we say that only certain core truths are necessary to believe for salvation, then it may give us the mistaken impression that we can just choose those and believe whatever we like about everything else.
I don’t want to go off here into a huge tangent about the nature of saving faith. There is a necessary place for that, but probably not here.
At the risk of over-simplifying, however, we should see saving faith more as an attitude worked out in actions, rather than intellectual agreement with a set of propositions. Intellectual agreement is part of the story, but not all of it. The attitude of faith is one of trust and love, and this is worked out by persevering in holiness and loving other people.
You may be worrying that your faith is not strong enough to carry on and see you through to salvation. But friend, thankfully the strength of our faith in our own perception is not what is important. Jesus Christ already went to the cross and achieved your salvation. And it is that that assures you of eternal life, even though you are a sinner. We ought to learn that faith is not something that exists within a vacuum. Faith is a belief and hope in someone. And our faith is in Jesus Christ, who bought our salvation for us with his blood on the cross on a particular Friday two-thousand years ago.
As an illustration – and all illustrations have limitations – picture several life rafts floating in the middle of the ocean after a big cruise ship has sunk.
In one of the boats, the occupants lost hope the moment they got into the water. They managed to salvage a few crates of vodka into the dinghy before the ship went down. And they set about drinking themselves into a stupor so that they don’t have to think about their predicament. They don’t know about the international coastguard, and they can’t be bothered with the distress beacon that they can simply switch on. Very soon they are unconscious and dehydrated and they die before the helicopter arrives.
However, the people in some of the rafts have started their distress beacons, sending out signals for someone to come and rescue them. They have recognised their need, and they have called out for help.
In one of those boats, the occupants are experienced sailors and know what is happening to the distress beacon, who is hearing it, and whereabouts they are in the world. They know that the beacon is being picked up, because they have some knowledge of the international coastguard and something about the technology of the beacon. They know what will happen when the distress beacon is heard. They know the sort of helicopter that will arrive, and roughly how long it will take it to reach them. And they’re planning their consumption of food and water in preparation for their rescue. They have such confidence that they immediately set the distress beacon going and set about planning for the arrival of the rescue helicopter.
In another of the boats, the occupants are scared and sea-sick, tired and irritable. They have started their distress beacon because they saw the people in the other boat do it, and it seems like the right thing to do. But they keep arguing with each other over when the helicopter is going to turn up, and what it’s going to be like in the helicopter, and some days they feel like they are never going to be rescued. Some of them are not even sure that anyone is hearing this distress beacon – I mean, it’s a mysterious radio wave that they can’t even hear, so how do they really know anyone is picking up the signal, hearing it, understanding it and acting on it. But most days they continue to watch the sky for signs of rescue.
And yet none of them were aware that a satellite had already seen and transmitted all the events of the ship sinking, and the rescue ships and helicopters had been sent out before the life rafts had entered the water! Did the strength of faith of the people in the life-rafts affect whether they were rescued or not? No! The rescue had already been assured before the life rafts even entered the water, to all those who would recognise their need of rescue and call out with the distress beacon to the one who could rescue them.
And so it is with Christ. He will certainly save all those who call out to him in faith, recognising their need and asking to be rescued, whether their faith is strong and fully knowledgeable or weak and sometimes doubting. The critical work of salvation has been done by Christ alone – the rescue helicopters have been sent out.
The attitude of faith is that we trust the Saviour, and we cling to his words. We may not understand everything God says, but we trust everything he says. We may not have fitted the entire jigsaw puzzle together, but we trust that he is showing us the picture bit by bit. We trust that even though we falter here and now, we see only the “poor reflection”, and we will indeed see clearly later.
That’s why I addressed this article to “faithful doubters”. There is no irony really. All of us will have some doubts at various times. None of us will be able to fit all the pieces of the puzzle in place and see everything clearly this side of Christ’s return. But we are called to be faithful and trust him.
Finally, the Bible has been given to us by God as our guide, and therefore greater clarity in life will come from studying it carefully. But we should understand it as a guidebook, and not as a map or Lego instruction book.
There is a great prayer in the first chapter of Colossians. Paul says to the Christians in Colossae that, “we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…” (Colossians 1:9ff) There is an excellent full exposition of this in A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson. For my purposes in this (not very) short article, I want to point out only one thing.
One of the things that is involved in living a “life worthy of the Lord”, and in pleasing him, is “growing in the knowledge of God.”
Peter ends his second letter with a similar exhortation: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)
Growth is a necessity. It is part of living faithfully. Jesus also likens his disciples to the branches of a vine. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit…” (John 15:5) We must be branches that grow and bear fruit (see also the full passage, vv1-8).
Two of the main things that God has given us to help us to grow in our knowledge of him are prayer and the Bible.
To grow and be stronger in the faith, ask God: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)
To grow and be stronger in the faith, use what God has given you already! “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
My final point on this is just a word of caution on how the Bible works in teaching us about God, ourselves and life. I would say that the Bible is more like a travel guidebook, rather than a map or a Lego instruction book!
In our pilgrimage through this life sometimes we wish we had a map. We wish that we had the satellite navigation version of the Bible. In other words it would give us the step-by-step guide to being saved and then a virtually flame-proof route from conversion to heaven. We could then switch off from everything else around us and just follow the voice.
Or we may wish that we had the design drawings for the universe and life, like a Lego instruction book. We want God to lay out before us how everything works, how everything fits together, step-by-step, brick-by-brick. Then we would know how to live in the right way and know what to believe.
But the Bible is not like that. It is full of letters, laws, songs, history, poetry, prophecy, parables, biographies, and so on. Some things we are told explicitly. Some things we are left to work out by implication.
The reason for that is that our lives are not all about getting to the end of the journey, but about the journey itself. We are assured that we will get to the end of the journey, and that the end of the journey will be fantastic. But God has things to show us in this life, while we are on the way – things about himself. He doesn’t want us to know about his love in the way that we know Anthony’s love for Cleopatra! He wants us to experience it. He doesn’t want us to know his glory and greatness in the way that we know the Himalayas and a tidal wave (i.e. remotely). He wants us to experience it. He doesn’t just want us to know his forgiveness in the way that we know that King David was forgiven. He wants us to experience it and delight in it.
So the Bible is given to point things out to us, to make us work at understanding God, to show how it has been done before. So it acts more like a tour guide. It helps us to appreciate what we are going to see and experience, and then confirms what we have seen and experienced in the context of God’s creation, his love, grace and providence. It is multi-dimensional, showing more than a map or a design drawing could ever do. It works with our experiences and with the Holy Spirit to keep us growing. And therefore it is never a dead book of ancient texts. We will never get bored of it or grow out of it, as it keeps working through our souls day by day, year by year. Sometimes studying the Bible is hard work, but it is always worthwhile. As John Piper says sometimes, “Raking is easier than digging, but you only get leaves. If you dig you may get diamonds.” (When I Don’t Desire God, Crossway Books, 2004, p126)
OK, so as usual I’ve made this longer than I thought it would be! I apologise, but I hope that it has helped you and strengthened your faith and trust in our great and loving God. I wanted to encourage people who, though Christians, often see themselves as doubters.
Don’t be put off by people who seem to have things “all sewn up”, who see things clearly and who seem so confident. I know that I can come across like this sometimes. My confidence is real, but it has not arrived overnight. Neither is it based on exhaustive knowledge or wisdom, or a perfect life. I don’t know everything. There are many things I don’t understand. I fail time and time again. But “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12)
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)
God bless you.