A Letter to Somebody Struggling with Doubt...


[April 4, 2009]


Somebody wrote in on the issue of doubt, and I replied in-line... so see my remarks, interspersed in BLUE:

Hi Glenn,
 
First off, I would like to say thank you for everything you have done for me in my walk with God. When I first started university I was very skeptical of Christianity, but after taking a class on an introduction to New Testament studies I began to ask a lot of questions. With the help of two websites(yours and J.P. Holdings), by reading people like C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Bruce Metzger, N.T. Wright, and many other Christian scholars I decided to put my faith in Jesus Christ.
 
Now, three years later I find myself as intellectually fulfilled as ever. This year I will be doing my final year of a double major in philosophy and religious studies in the hope to move onto graduate work in philosophy.

[I assume you have student memberships in the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers, right? If not—stop reading this and join NOW! (smile)…]

 

Throughout my 4 years of doing my work in these two areas all of my professors have been skeptics (with the exception of one who is my thesis advisor this year). Constantly they are attacking Christianity from a intellectual perspective and I would not have it any other way.

[and I don’t think our heart-shaping God would have it any other way either—he is trying to grow our hearts into truth-lovers, and the only way to do this is to ‘exercise’ our abilities to discern and determine truth…]

 

I think I have dealt with every major intellectual issue one can deal with. This is not where my problem lies. The problem I have is that I do not think that I have enough faith. What I mean by this is sometimes I doubt and this puts me through some major guilt.

[one aspect of your answer is in your very word choice here, friend—‘have ENOUGH faith’. You have implicitly stated that faith is not a yes/no thing, but rather a ‘more/less’ thing… you will always be able to have ‘more faith’ (as a human), and faith can shrink in the ‘less’ direction. Consider your faith in the other drivers on the road, specifically those who drive 70mph toward you and miss you by only 4-6 feet. How much faith do you have that these drivers will not hit you? Does it grow with experience? (even though you must always be prepared for the one ‘counter-example’ that can kill you).

[After all is said and done, ALL faith is based on evidence: either directly perceived evidence, or the evidence that some other person’s testimony about evidence is trustworthy. Faith cannot be ‘ex nihilo’—there has to be some initial set of evidence to start the analysis. Faith is perhaps too nebulous a word—I like ‘confidence’ or ‘conviction’ better, because those are more precise words to describe biblical ‘faith’. Faith is confidence in someone or some fact; it is the conviction that something is true; it is trust in the factuality of a proposition or the reliability of another’s testimony.

[doubt, on the other hand—of the kind you mention—is a fairly straightforward, God-given ability to test truth-claims… it is SUPPOSED to be working all the time, raising questions of self-honesty, questions of another’s reliability, and/or questions about evidence scope and quality… God uses this to CONSTANTLY refine us toward truth and beauty… you are supposed to have ‘doubts’ of the kind you mention next…]


 
When I pray sometimes I think to myself, is he listening? is he even there? Even after my prayers are answered time and time again, I still think like this and it causes me so much guilt that I stay up until 3 in the morning writing emails haha. When I am reading my bible strange thought creep inside my head like, maybe this is all false, maybe I'm wrong. This is not an issue of not trusting the gospels, or the authors who wrote them.

[one thing that might help you to see the difference between your faith and your doubts is to ‘test the texture’ of the feelings. Your faith in the accuracy of the Word, for example, is a conviction—you are living your life DEPENDING on them to be true (in spite of doubts)… That is confidence/trust/conviction/faith. Your doubts, on the other hand, do NOT affect your major life stances (other than perhaps your sleeping and email praxis…smile). They remain ‘theoretical’.

[If your doubts were determinative, on the other hand, then your current faith-beliefs would become your ‘doubts’. If you decided that your doubts (which, you should notice, never actually offer any evidence of their suggestions—they only ‘state’ them…smile) were more accurate descriptions of reality (e.g. god doesn’t exist, my prayers have not been answered, the bible is not credible/defensible, etc), then you would switch to ‘believing them’. They would become a series of convictions and beliefs, and all the contrary data you CURRENTLY HAVE (e.g., evidence supporting the Christian worldview) would become doubts (although doubts which actually offered evidence, since you have actually studied them).

[In other words, EVERY POSITION is a mixture of convictions/doubts, but the difference is that the convictions are ‘life-grounding’ and the doubts are merely ‘theoretical’ in substance, more or less. Doubts are normal, generally healthy, and praxis is supposed to be based on how clear one’s convictions are. For example, the bible talks about not ‘asking while doubting’ (James), because you cannot in good conscience expect the desired result. Elsewhere, we are not supposed to engage in practices which we are not ‘sure’ are good (e.g. Paul on eating meat sacrificed to idols)—but this is a matter to be resolved by learning more truth. Doubt cannot be eliminated (its suggestions are supposed to keep appearing, in that heuristic mechanism of honesty-refinement I mentioned earlier), but its influence on the conscience can be reduced/eliminated by experience and by learning (i.e., rubbing our noses in the data of our experience—such as your answered prayers).

 

I guess what my problem is that I am not 100% sure. I put my faith in him but because I have doubts I think that maybe I'm not really saved. If I was, if God really was walking with me, why do I still doubt sometimes.  

[Actually, I suspect that you really are 100% sure inside, but don’t know that yet because you are (incorrectly) assuming that your doubts are as fundamental as your obvious faith. You sense the beautiful truth of this glorious story of love and incarnation, but haven’t understood that ‘oppositional propositions’ theoretically created by our natural truth-testing facility are NOT on the same level with your convictions. Your doubts are not ‘convictions’ to the contrary—they do not have the epistemic ‘substance’ and personal weight of faith-propositions. You do not trust your doubts, you do not have confidence in their truthfulness. They are gossamer, ‘bait and switch’ advertisements (smile)…


 
I'm not even sure where this doubt comes from. Maybe from the skeptic side of me that says can we really ever be 100% sure of anything. I want nothing more than to be 100% sure in my faith with God but is this ever going to be possible for me? I pray over this daily.

[I have already commented on where the ‘function of doubt’ comes from—a gift of God. The ‘content of doubt’ simply comes from linguistic negation (i.e. putting a negative in front of a proposition… (Not) God exists—all theoretical). The ‘emotional/psychological impact of a doubt’ comes from many sources:  insufficient data, lack of experience in the subject matter, etc… I routinely doubt that some position I am taking is true—simply because I am out of my research area… but the FEELING of doubt only comments on MY LACK of immersion in the complete set of data—not that I am wrong in my basic position.

[and you really have to divorce the issue of ‘psychological certainty’ from the ‘content’ of doubt… I can frame theoretical doubts that have ZERO emotional ‘weight’ (I can doubt whether or not the Vikings were the first explorers of North America or not), and I/we live in constant uncertainty over whether something is the will or God for us, or not…

Some doubt MIGHT be culpable, but most of it (for a Christian) probably is not… Thomas was not rebuked by the Lord, actually, but He remarked that those who had more confidence ENJOYED it more (the ‘blessed’ word). Our doubts can impede our growth—if we do not deal with them—but eventually they become almost comical in how inane they sound later…smile… Our sin nature doesn’t really ‘doubt much’—it KNOWS the truth and just encourages us to REBEL and/or IGNORE the truth!  Sin deceives us, for sure, and this can lead us into sin-justifying rationalizations – but again, these are not really doubts per se—they are ‘rebellion justifications’ (smile)… we are temporarily 'CERTAIN' of these positions (smile), as opposed to the theoretical doubts that fly through our heads CONSTANTLY…

 

So, I think you should first relax inside and thank the Lord for His patience with our epistemic morass, and for His ultimate victory over falsehood, and then start a discussion with Him about how to categorize the VARIOUS doubts you ‘see’. You will not be able to stop the emergence of a doubt-proposition, but you will be able to judge/dismiss/evaluate it more quickly over time.


 
Anyways, I don't even think I asked a question in this whole email lol. My main question is, can someone doubt and still have faith? If not, can someone like me ever hope to have the complete assurance that they are hoping for?

You will have doubt until you die—not only is it a God-given gift, but—as all gifts of God—it can be twisted for destructive purposes. And psychological assurance can grow deeper and deeper, but it will still ‘emotionally vary’ with physiological status (e.g. when I have a head cold, I am less ‘assured’ about ANYTHING…smile)

[you obviously already know that the evidential side of Christianity creates the moral obligation to ‘give God the benefit of the doubt’ anyway! That means that doubt can exist, but it doesn’t stop you from trusting God anyway… the evidential trend line not only justifies this ‘leap’, it creates varying levels of obligations to ‘extrapolate across any gap’… make sense?

 


 
I realize how busy you are and if you takes weeks, years, or never write back I understand completely. Thanks for helping me and no doubt countless others in our walk with God. I have no doubt you are one of his favorites.
 

[I hope this helps some—but you might check out a couple of the other discussions of doubt on the Tank—use the keyword search… I just looked at it and I remember some sections that might be useful to you… especially section 2 of http://www.christian-thinktank.com/sh5approach.html , and http://www.christian-thinktank.com/hnoblood1.html , but also search for words like “confidence’ and ‘uncertainty’.. etc..

[this was hastily written—and I can tell that from how ‘all over the map’ it is… but hopefully it will get you started with some additional perspectives on this… once you work through the implications of this stuff, and the links immediately above, let me know how the question ‘morphs’… does it get more focused on a certain area, or more diffuse or what…

[warmly, glenn




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