Doubt: A Personal History

Tucked away in my computer files is a little document named “What to Do with Doubt.” A remnant from a darker time.

The document was a note to self, an effort to look myself in the eyes and practice the soul-talk of the psalmist. Why are you doubting, O my soul, and why are you divided within me?

The suggestions begin fairly predictably. “Seek God,” the first one reads, followed by several verses. Or the fourth: “Don’t trust in yourself.” They begin to range toward the end, though. The sixteenth and nineteenth read, “Think of the prophecies Jesus fulfilled” and “Think of great saints.” Those who walk in the dark are glad for any starlight.

Such a document may seem strange to those who have never dealt with serious doubts — about God, Scripture, the gospel — and therefore have never wondered what to do with doubt. But then there are the Thomases of the world, people who, by some sad mixture of personality, background, and indwelling sin, have found themselves prone to saying, “Unless I see . . .” (John 20:25). We take our place among Christ’s disciples, but our faith can sometimes feel embattled, our souls divided.

We believe, but oh how we need help with our unbelief (Mark 9:24).

In Two Minds

Strangely enough, I never doubted the truth of God’s word during my nearly two decades as a nominal Christian. Only after the first joys of genuine faith, the first rush of deliverance, the first sights of Christ’s glory did I feel the first shadow of doubt. It came with the sudden violence of a mugger, and with similar effects: I lay for a while on the ground, bloody and wondering why.

Where did doubt come from, and why did it pick me? I have not a clue. I only know that one day in college, prior certainties began to shake, seemingly uncontrollably. Unwelcome, unlooked-for questions somehow gained entrance into my mind, and I found myself on the defense. Can Scripture really withstand scrutiny? the strange voice asked. And in darker moments, How do you know God even exists? I would fall asleep, night after night, debating the darkness, and morning by morning the questions returned.

The title of Os Guinness’s 1976 book on doubt captures the experience well: In Two Minds. Doubt divides and doubles you, Jekyll-and-Hydes you, splits you in the most uncomfortable places. With one mind, I only wanted to “trust in the Lord with all [my] heart, and . . . not lean on [my] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), but another mind called that intellectual escapism. With one mind, I read the Bible searching for sights of the Lord I loved, and with another mind I cast a skeptical eye. With one mind I trusted; with another mind I doubted. I was, as James says, “a double-minded man” (James 1:8).

It can make you desperate, doubt can. For almost two years, I burned through notebooks, journaling anguished thoughts and pleading prayers. I listened obsessively to sermons, searching for some voice that could cast away the demon. I contacted apologetics ministries on more than one occasion, once even calling at midnight. In a more charismatic strain, I felt an impulse one miserable night to read the entire book of Proverbs and pray for deliverance (I made it somewhere near the middle). And then, of course, I developed a document like “What to Do with Doubt.”

Desperate men in darkness grasp and stumble wildly. And sometimes, in the kind providence of God, they strike upon a path.

Paths Beyond Doubt

Just as the pathways into doubt are many and mysterious, so too are the pathways out. Jesus, for example, responded to diverse doubts with diverse mercies, as Jon Bloom observes: to John the Baptist he gave a gentle reminder (Matthew 11:2–6), to Peter a questioning reproof (Matthew 14:28–33), to Thomas a painful delay (John 20:24–29). Jesus is, as always, our best and only infallible guide out of doubt.

Nevertheless, doubt carries enough common elements that one doubter may say a few words to another. The following, then, are some of the paths I stumbled upon in the dark. None led me out instantly (deliverance from doubt rarely happens in a moment). But over time, they together became like “the path of the righteous [that] is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18).

1. Normalize doubt as a trial of faith.

Doubt came, as I said, with the unexpectedness and disorientation of a mugger — partly because, during all my years as a nominal Christian and my few months as a real one, I had never heard anyone talk about it. Lust, pride, greed, self-reliance, anger, impatience — these were known enemies, planned for and expected. Doubt was not. I was a bullet-wounded soldier who had never heard of guns.

Much of doubt’s power lies in this ability to dismay and disorient — to make us feel beyond the pale of normal Christian experience. How heartening it was to slowly grasp the truth: doubt, though unique in some ways, is a normal trial of faith, faced by saints throughout the ages. One of the devil’s first temptations (Genesis 3:1), doubt remains a favorite still.

I remember at one point in my doubts reading the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga describe doubt as simply another manifestation of the old self’s ongoing influence (Ephesians 4:22). Our old self is by nature unbelieving, trusting our own words over God’s. No wonder, then, that we who still possess “this body of death” sometimes still deal with doubt and unbelief (Romans 7:24).

Indeed, some of God’s people always have. Doubt may not be the most prevalent besetting sin among saints, but the likes of Moses (Exodus 3:13), Asaph (Psalm 77:7–9), Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:2–4), Zechariah (Luke 1:18), John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2–3), Peter (Matthew 14:31), and Thomas (John 20:25) all battled versions of the dreaded foe. Doubts, then, do not send us beyond the pale. They do not render us automatic unbelievers. They instead rouse us to join the ranks of former saints, who responded to doubt as they responded to all other temptations and sins: with resistance.

2. Find some friends to confide in — dead and alive.

Treating doubt as an anomaly wounded me in more ways than one. Not only did I feel alone, in a dark world beyond the sun, but I hesitated to talk about it with anyone. I expected to find misunderstanding, befuddled glances, wary responses that suggested, “I don’t know what to do with you and I wish you wouldn’t have said that.” Instead, when I finally did share, I found mercy (Jude 22).

I know not everyone shares this experience. Not everyone gets to confide in friends so sympathetic. Yet I imagine that many silent doubters would be surprised at what they find should they speak. The shoulders of the saints, built to bear burdens (Galatians 6:2), are not too weak to carry our doubts. And either way, the risk is worth it, for doubt is too disorienting, too deceiving, too mind-darkening to escape on our own.

Alongside saints alive and nearby, we might also search for some dead or far-off. For me, the hymns of Red Mountain Church, the music of Andrew Peterson, the poetry of George Herbert, and the books of C.S. Lewis kept me company when others could not. These were kindred spirits, friends who knew how to articulate doubt’s inaudible agony (when I could not), and also how to apply God’s fathomless grace (when I dared not). They helped me imagine a life beyond doubt.

(In our social-media age, a brief caveat may be in order: confiding in face-to-face friends is far better than indiscriminately posting online. Doubts are not for hiding — but neither are they for publishing in real time. In all likelihood, our own perspective is too distorted, and social-media counsel too unreliable, for public sharing to be fruitful.)

“Doubt is inherently isolating. It can feel especially shameful, and sometimes impossible to explain.”

Doubt is inherently isolating. It can feel especially shameful, and sometimes impossible to explain. But seclusion does us no favors — and fellowship can work slow wonders.

3. Take time away from doubt.

Because doubt wraps its fingers around the very throat of faith, it has a way of demanding attention. A man being throttled struggles to consider other matters. Ironically enough, however, one of the worst things we can do — one of the worst things I did, anyway — is focus obsessively on doubt. For doubt, like some other enemies, often dies slant.

Of course, finding direct answers to our most vexing questions can bring relief, sometimes great relief. I can remember finding several solutions to my doubts, in books or sermons or conversations with friends, that pried a finger or two off the throat. But direct answers were only part of the solution to my doubts — and not, I would venture, the most important part.

Looking back, I can see that many of my attempts to overcome doubt were like a man trying to change his appearance by staring harder and harder in the mirror: they only curved me more deeply inward. I needed to pray about more than my doubts; I needed to read and watch more than apologetics resources; I needed to journal about more than my own internal afflictions. Doubt needs sunshine, full and clear, and my grapples with doubt often took me to the cellar.

What then can doubters do beyond seeking answers? Sit long under the sky of God’s glory, breathing deeply creation’s soul oxygen (Psalm 19:1; Psalm 104:24). Escape self by weeping and rejoicing with God’s people (Romans 12:15). Sit in the gathering and sing of glories far above you and problems not your own (Colossians 3:16). Find mind rest in the hard labor of a worthy vocation (Colossians 3:23). And above all, slowly, prayerfully, and longingly consider Jesus (Hebrews 3:1).

4. Keep seeking God.

Doubt for long enough, and you may begin to despair of ever escaping doubt. This is just who I am — the way I’m wired, you may think. I can remember days or weeks in my deepest season of doubt where a kind of fatalism set into my bones. Fighting felt like little use. The deep internal division seemed unbudgeable. I began recasting my future in terms of doubt.

Mercifully, God always roused me after a time, reminding me of a simple truth that doubt — or any long struggle — easily overshadows: God saves. The living God is a rescuing, delivering God, who enters in from the outside and shatters the bars of our expectations. He is a Pharaoh-crushing, sea-parting God; a sky-splitting, earth-shaking God; a Christ-giving, tomb-emptying God — and his hand cannot be stayed. For him, the impossible is only a word away.

And therefore, Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:7–8 put an end to all fatalism:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

“In defiance of the darkness, ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking.”

Doubt may feel too entrenched to dig out. Its shadows may seem to cover too much of the soul. Even still, in defiance of the darkness, ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking. For at one time or another, in one place or another, with one word or another, the threefold promise will come to pass: “It will be given to you . . . you will find . . . it will be opened to you.”

5. Wait patiently for deliverance.

We may, however, need to wait a while. “Ask, and it will be given to you” — but he doesn’t say how much time may separate the first asking from the final giving. And for some, the time may linger long.

How instructive to remember Thomas’s story:

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later . . . (John 20:25–26)

Eight days later. Why eight days? If locked doors couldn’t keep Jesus from reaching Thomas (John 20:26), surely time was no obstacle. The risen Lord was not hindered. He tarried on purpose, allowing Thomas to wait not for an hour or an afternoon, but for eight anguished days.

He has his reasons, as always. We don’t know all of them. But we do know that when Jesus waits to rescue his people, mercy governs his waiting. For doubt not only tempts and tortures; it teaches. Here in the waiting, we learn, with Thomas, just how fragile our faith is unless God upholds it. We learn the necessary virtue of self-distrust (Proverbs 3:5). We learn to sympathize with others’ weaknesses. And we learn to seek God in the face of the despair that says, “You will not find him.”

My Lord, My God

The delays of Jesus toward his people are merciful delays, ever and always. And in time, those who wait faithfully will feel the truth in William Cowper’s hymn “Jehovah Jireh — The Lord Will Provide”:

Wait for his seasonable aid,
And though it tarry, wait:
The promise may be long delay’d,
But cannot come too late.

For those who stay near Jesus while they wait, we have good reason to hope they will eventually say with Thomas — knees bent, heart awed, doubts hushed — “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

In all your questions, then, bend your ear to hear the voice of Jesus. Strain your eyes to see him. Pray that he himself will come, speak peace, and lead you to the land of light, beyond all darkness and doubting.