Even Pastors Doubt

Counsel for Faith Crises in Ministry

What might you say to a church leader who’s experiencing a serious crisis of faith?

“It’s not mainly about belief in God,” Joel explained to me. “I know he still exists in some abstract way. I still pray and read my Bible — but the vertical stuff feels less real than before. What feels real is the horizontal chaos. It’s how people in the church treat each other; it’s how we’ve been treated! Never did I think ministry could look so ugly. It’s made me question things I never thought I’d question. I’m facing doubts I never thought I’d face.”

Maybe you know a church leader like Joel. Maybe you are that church leader. You feel phony. Ashamed. The pretending feels too hard. You’re supposed to be the guy with answers. But you have questions — big questions. And doubts too — growing doubts. Doubts begetting more doubts.

You know James 1:6–8 calls the doubter “double-minded” and “unstable.” So you stare in the mirror, saying, “What am I supposed to do?” A mind maze with no exit has formed between your ears. To resign is to concede the ground to your doubts, as well as to confuse and hurt people you love — maybe even causing them to stumble in their faith. But to continue as a pastor feels pointless and miserable — maybe even impossible with your conscience screaming, “Hypocrite!”

What might you say to a Joel? What might you do if you are a Joel?

Here’s what I say: when in doubt, remember.

You Are Loved

When doubt visits, or even becomes a squatter aiming for long-term residency, remember, in Christ, that you are loved by God.

It’s tempting to breeze past this point. I get it. Talk of God’s love can feel too generic. Stay with me. There’s more to say and much more you need to hear. But you need more than my words. You need God’s words,

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 145:8)

Can I suggest you read that again? But slower this time. Not as a familiar doxology, but like it was written to you. For this very moment.

Are you wondering how God feels about you right now? It may not be what you think. When God sees you in Christ, he is moved with grace and mercy. He’s not rolling his eyes because you are perplexed. His love for you is steadfast and abounding. Yes, you — the struggling pastor. God has an unquenchable, unrelenting, unflappable affection for you.

Remember when Thomas expressed doubts over Christ’s resurrection (John 20:24–29)? He waited eight days, but then Jesus did not ghost him to retaliate. No, Jesus appeared to Thomas and moved toward him. He engaged him, spoke to his doubts, drew him forward and upward. Jesus was gracious and merciful, abounding in love.

Christ has already satisfied God’s wrath for the ways our faith falls short. He moves toward us and meets with us. God is so determined that we know his heart, he repeats the essence of Psalm 145:8 again and again throughout the Old Testament.

Why is this important? You may doubt God, but his heart toward you in Christ is never fickle. His love is steadfast. That means that even when our love loses traction, his love sticks, and in turn, reinvigorates our affections for him. We love him because he has first loved us.

You Are Not Alone

Only one person ever walked the earth with perfect faith in God’s promises. It was the God-man, Jesus. The rest of us live in homes where doubt knocks. Sometimes loud and often.

I get it. I’ve entertained questions about whether God really cares, or if my prayers really matter. More than a few times, I’ve needed to cry out with the words of the desperate dad who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This is a pathway leaders sometimes walk as we navigate ministry in a world of faith without sight.

I’m not trying to make light of your doubts or convince you they are inconsequential. I’m merely pointing out that some Christian leaders have had grim stays in Doubting Castle. But many of those same pastors will testify that, even when stumbling alone and dazed through those dark corridors, God was faithful. In Christ, Doubting Castle is not your permanent residence.

Satan Is Real

Remember Satan? Well, he’s real. And you are serving in a church situated on his turf. You think he’s ambivalent about what you’re up to? Not for a minute! Scripture calls him an “adversary” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). His food of choice is church leaders; his favorite dish is our faith. Satan loves to devour our awareness of God’s existence and our anticipation that “he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). By attacking faith, Satan incubates doubt within the soul.

It’s for good reason Paul calls us to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). For in that armor we find an essential defense: “the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). Satan has a full quiver of darts, with each barb cunningly customized. He consistently fires two doubt-darts directly at the pastor’s soul: “God is fake” and “So are you.”

‘God Is Fake’

Satan’s first appearance reveals much about his ongoing tactics. His first recorded words are, “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1). In a nutshell, Satan schemes to undermine the truth of God’s word and the goodness of God’s intentions. When Satan hurls this doubting dart at you, the defense God supplies is the shield of faith.

“The best antidote to doubts about God is to draw near to God.”

The best antidote to doubts about God is to draw near to God. This includes reacquainting us with the realities of how God portrays himself in Scripture. “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Do you hunger to draw near to God? He invites you to do so by remembering not only that he is real but also that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.

If you fear heights, you don’t climb a ladder looking downward or looking inward. You look up. When you focus upward, you leave downward doubts behind. You gain confidence to move ahead. So, raise the shield of faith. Look up.

‘You Are Fake’

Satan wants to undermine your confidence in your standing before God. He knows your condemnation means your silence. The gospel does not ring forth from leaders who wonder if they believe it themselves.

Don’t let Satan lie to you. Listen instead to the wisdom of Spurgeon’s grandfather.

Once, when the tempter had grievously assailed me, I went to see my dear old grandfather. I told him about my terrible experience, and then I wound up by saying, “Grandfather, I am sure I cannot be a child of God, or else I should never have such evil thoughts as these.”

“Nonsense, Charles,” answered the good old man. “It is just because you are a Christian that you are thus tempted. These blasphemies are no children of yours; they are the devil’s brats, which he delights to lay at the door of a Christian. Don’t you own them as yours; give them neither house-room or heart-room.” (Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, 1:160)

What a wonderful grandpa! Though dead, he still speaks by reminding us that condemnation is the devil’s child. Don’t own his blasphemies about you. Give them neither head-room nor heart-room. The cross has spoken; you are forgiven. Flee to the promise that says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Mission Marches On

Close your eyes and imagine the scene. Jesus is resurrected; the days are electrifying. Before his departure, Christ gathers the eleven remaining disciples. He wants to leave them with a commission — a Great Commission. Then Matthew adds, “When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Can you see it in your mind? There stands the resurrected Savior — nail prints still visible in his revived, renewed, glorious body. And what’s the faith temperature of the group? Some are doubting. And what does Jesus do? Bang some heads together over their dippy inability to connect the dots? Nope, not even close. He goes on to deliver the Great Commission anyway.

One of the reasons I love this passage is because it’s so easy to paint myself into this picture. I’m a born fretter. From my earliest memories, my mom used to caution me about worry. So I can see myself standing there among the disciples, fussing over the future, fretting over logistics and provision. But Jesus just carries on. It’s like he’s saying, “You have doubts and worries. Let me show you your path forward: go — do the gospel work I’m giving you to do.”

This confidence must be connected to Jesus’s final words, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus was saying to them, “I know you don’t have all the details. I’m aware of your doubts and misgivings. I can sympathize with your weaknesses and temptations (Hebrews 4:15). But I’ll be with you. Now let’s get on with it. Your doubts will be resolved in good time as you follow me and obey my commandments.”

When in Doubt

Are you tempted with doubts about whether God is or will keep his promises to you? Or whether the church is worth serving? Or whether you’re failing Jesus in your ministry? Remember, Christ is still with you and will be till you cross the finish line.

Do you doubt whether God can use a doubt-laden disciple? Remember Hebrews 4:15, John 20:24–29, and Matthew 28:17: Christ both knows and sympathizes with what you’re experiencing; you’re not damaged property to him, nor does he pause the mission program until you have everything all together. Sure, your soul may be cut on the jagged edge of broken people and a broken world. But the Great Commission includes a great promise: the Savior knows our temptations and is with us in our going.

The next time you feel uncertain, skeptical, or cynical, when you feel the doubts begin to pull the plug on your faith, remember: you are loved by God, you are not alone, Satan is real, and the mission marches on. And remember too that once-doubting disciples changed the world.