Greg answers a listener’s question about why Christians doubt and shares how he responds to his own misgivings.
Because we’re not omniscient, our knowledge is, to some degree, compromised. Now, knowledge is justified true belief. There are things that we know, and we know that we know them because there’s so much justification for them. We have no good reason to deny them. However, that does not mean that there couldn’t be occasional—even in the person who’s the most confident—doubts. And doubts happen for reasons, and they happen, generally, when somebody gets discouraged about something. Things are not going the way they expect them to go.
The classic example here in the Scripture is John the Baptist. Jesus identified John the Baptist as one of the greatest of all prophets, and, in fact, he was the one who Isaiah had predicted would be the voice crying in the wilderness, and he grew up as a Nazarite and was told by God that he would see God’s Messiah, and not just that he would see God’s Messiah, but God would give a sign, and that happened at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit descended upon him, and then John the Baptist heard God say, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” That’s a lot of what you would call hardcore evidence that somebody like John the Baptist would receive.
But John ran into trouble. He got thrown into prison. Now, things aren’t going the way he expected them to go. So, he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one we are to expect? Or should we look for another?” Now, I think it’s pretty fair to say that John was experiencing doubt. Did he have a good reason to feel doubt? I think the answer is no, because all the reasons—if you want to say, the factual matters—were all still in place. He knew what the Father had told him. He heard the revelation at the baptism of Christ. He had all that information. Certainly, after John began to decrease and Jesus began to increase, John was aware of what was going on, but he was in a hard place now because now he’s in prison, and it doesn’t look good for him, and, in fact, he was beheaded soon after. So, because he is now discouraged and depressed, the doubts have a foothold emotionally in his life.
What’s interesting is the way Jesus responds. Jesus did not upbraid John’s doubt. He didn’t say, “Hey. Shame on you for doubting.” He said to the messengers, “Tell John what you have seen. That the lame are healed. That the blind see. That the dead are raised. That the demons are cast out. That the poor have the gospel preached to them.” These are Jesus’ calling cards. These are his bonafides from the text of Isaiah that he read in the synagogue when he said, “Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
But then he said, “Blessed is he who does not stumble over me.” I do think that’s a little chastisement to John, but I don’t think he’s being chastised for doubting. I think he’s being chastised because Jesus is not following the path that John had expected, and this is true for his disciples, too. Jesus kept telling them that he would be crucified and then raised from the dead. They couldn’t figure it out. “What are you talking about? Die and raise? What does that mean? We don’t know what that means.” So, Jesus is his own person, as it were, and he follows his own agenda.
Now, everybody is different, in terms of their emotional makeup and their profile, and some people are just given to more dark thoughts than others. But, I think, when I have my own doubts, I go back to the facts. It’s my apologetics that strengthens me and gives me confidence. I also go back to this other thing that Jesus said to John: “Blessed is he who does not stumble over me.” Jesus is not going to jump through my hoops. He is not going to fulfill my expectations for what I think is best for him to do in my life. That’s sometimes hard for me to accept, because a lot of times, in my personal life, things aren’t going that well, and I want him to change it. I’ve been praying about some things for years and decades, with no relief yet, but I’m not unique in that regard. So, I go back to the promise, and the promise is that if I put my trust in him, then I’m saved. I’m rescued.
The Scripture also identifies a sense that we have from the Holy Spirit. This is Romans 8. We belong to him. We cry out, “Abba, Father.” And even though that’s subjective—it kind of comes and goes depending on our moods—that’s another thing that encourages me. I know I belong to him. I fulfilled my end of the promise of the requirement for the promise to be enacted, and that is, I put my trust in Christ—put my faith in him, and therefore, I’m not going to be separated from him. The grace of God is reliable, even when we’re not reliable.
I think of what John the Baptist encountered, and that doubt is real, and it’s normal. And the way to address the doubt, in my view, is to return to the truth and remind ourselves of the truth of God’s promise, the truth of who he is, and the reasons why we’re convinced that God is there and that Jesus is his rescuer.
I do not think the Christian life is an easy life. In this world, you have tribulation. It isn’t like that Jeremiah passage: “I know the plans I have for you, for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope.” That was a promise for them then. It wasn’t for us now. We get a different promise. In this world you have tribulation. If we misunderstand and misapply Jeremiah 29:11, the way most people do, then when it doesn’t work out like that for Christians, then they start to doubt. “What happened? Where’s God? What’s going on?” That happens to everybody. We all run into difficulties and hardship, and if that’s what we think God’s promise is, we’re going to be discouraged.