Don’t Face Unbelief Alone
We all very much need other trusted Christians to help us fight for faith and against unbelief — and most of us know this. The problem is, the truth has a tendency to lose its obviousness to us when we most need to trust it. What we very much need, we often very much want to avoid.
Sinful desires, irrational or exaggerated fears, the discouraging and anxiety-producing pall of doubt, and the blanket-darkness of despair all have great power to distort our perceptions of reality. But when we are experiencing them, they appear and feel very real to us. Sin’s promise can look very alluring, the threats of fear and doubt can feel terrifying, and the temptation to despair can appear compellingly inevitable. When we’re in these states, we really need the help of trusted, wise brothers and sisters to discern what’s real and not real.
But when we’re in these states, that’s often when we least want to expose what’s going on inside. We know Scripture teaches us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). But when our need for this is most acute, we often experience the most acute internal resistance to pursuing it or receiving it.
And so, we must take hold of another truth: trusting in the Lord with all our heart and not leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) is not something we merely do on our own; it has a communal dimension. We need our trusted brothers and sisters to help us trust in the Lord, even when we’d rather struggle alone.
Resistance from Within
Why can we feel such resistance to pursuing or receiving the help we really need? Three major contributors are typically pride (e.g. my perception of what’s true is more trustworthy than I believe yours will be), shame (e.g. I don’t want you to see my evil or weakness), and fear (e.g. you may reject me, or I may yield some control to you that I want to keep).
“It’s when we’re on our own that we are most likely to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Whenever the sin of pride is present, its trajectory is destruction (Proverbs 16:18). But shame and fear are usually complex emotions, fueled partly by various sinful and/or weak tendencies in us and partly by external factors, such as damaging painful past experiences. The net effect is that these responses distort how we view those who might help us, undermining our trust in them and producing instead resistance toward them.
If we listen to the resistance, you can see the confusing, dangerous place this leads us. Sinful desires, misplaced fears, doubt, and despair undermine our trust in what God has spoken to us in his word, and pride, shame, and fear undermine our trust in our brothers and sisters. Unbelief can become a vicious cycle, leaving us isolated and increasingly vulnerable to more and more deception.
Distrust Your Inner Resistance
You can see how crucial it is, when it comes to unbelief and resisting the wisdom of other trusted Christians, that we really take seriously the biblical command to not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). The Bible’s warnings about this could not be clearer.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:7)
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)
The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise.
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
and humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 15:31–33)
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future. (Proverbs 19:20)
Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. (Proverbs 28:26)
Those who lived in the time these proverbs were written weren’t fundamentally different from us. They were subject to the same temptations to disbelieve God and felt the same kinds of resistance against seeking the sound counsel of others, whether out of pride, shame, or fear. And the proverb writer(s) calls giving in to those impulses foolish.
We are not made to lean on our own understanding. We are made to fear the Lord and listen to the counsel of those who have proven themselves trustworthy. Which means we must cultivate a healthy distrust in our resistance to trust wise brothers and sisters.
Trusting the Lord by Trusting Others
Eighty years ago, in the dangerous, disorienting, distrustful days of the Third Reich’s reign of terror, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his fraternal Christian community:
God has willed that we should seek him and find his living word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. (Life Together)
“We need the help of trusted, wise brothers and sisters to discern what’s real and not real.”
This is true. A Christian needs another Christian to speak God’s word to him. We need it more than we know, and we especially need it when we’ve become disoriented regarding what’s real and true and we feel strong internal resistance to sharing it with another Christian. Because trusting in the Lord with all our heart is not something we merely do on our own; we also do it with others, in the community the Lord provides for us.
When We Are Most Vulnerable
There are graces the Lord provides to us only through our brothers and sisters. As Paul wrote, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). And “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:4–6).
Therefore, the Lord requires us to humble ourselves and confide our sinful desires, irrational or exaggerated fears, the soul-shaking doubts, and dark despairing thoughts in trusted members of our community of faith, distrusting the resistance we feel to doing this. Because he has ordained that we receive the Spirit’s help through them. For it’s when we’re on our own that we are most likely to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.