At some point, many Christians experience unsettling doubts regarding their professed beliefs. Some Christians experience this more than others.
The areas of our individual doubt struggles are as diverse and complex as our Christian faith claims. Some battle doubts about the genuineness of their conversion (“Have I truly been born again?”). Some battle doubts about the character of God (“Is God truly good?”). Some battle doubts about the validity of their theological framework (“Does Calvinism truly represent the biblical revelation of God’s nature, purposes, and actions?”). Some battle doubts about the authenticity of their spiritual experiences (“Was my remarkably fast health recovery after receiving prayer truly a divine healing?”). Some battle doubts about the veracity of the Christian faith itself (“Does God truly exist?” or “Does another religion or belief system more truly reveal the nature of ultimate reality?”). Some battle a hodgepodge of these and still other kinds of doubts.
For most Christians, the intensity of their doubts falls into the mildly to moderately troubling range. In relation to faith-health, these battles with doubt are like battling a bad cold or flu — they require care, but they are not faith-threatening. However, a minority of Christians (though I’d say a substantial minority) endure one or more seasons of doubt so intense we’ve given them a special term: faith crises.
When Doubts Become Crises
To call these experiences crises is not hyperbole. When a confluence of factors moves us to question whether our fundamental understanding of reality is indeed true, it can feel like our world is on the verge of collapse. In relation to faith-health, this kind of doubt is more like a heart attack or stroke.
“I know the oppressive spiritual darkness, the agonizing fear, the confusion, disorientation, the sense of isolation.”
I say this from experience. Like everyone, I occasionally battle some doubts that are like a cold or the flu. But more than once in my forty-year sojourn as a Christian, I’ve also endured doubts more like a heart attack. I know the oppressive spiritual darkness, the agonizing fear, the disorienting confusion, the sense of isolation.
Since I am part of the substantial minority of Christians who have (or will) experience this, I thought it might be helpful if I briefly describe the emotional and psychological state a person often is in when such a crisis hits. My goal is to increase awareness in Christians — especially those who have not experienced a faith crisis themselves — of the destabilized state someone enduring a faith crisis can be in. Such awareness can help us extend the most needed kinds of initial “crisis care” when ministering grace to beloved brothers and sisters who are reeling.
Stage 1: The Build-Up
A person’s faith crisis often appears to happen suddenly. Someone you know (perhaps you) seems to have a strong, sturdy faith. Then, all of sudden, it looks like their faith is falling apart. And you wonder, “What happened?”
Although that’s the way it often appears, rarely do such crises come out of nowhere. Almost always, destabilizing elements have been building up under the surface, even if the person wasn’t fully aware.
All of us experience and observe realities that don’t seem to make sense within our Christian worldview or our theological framework. Often, we’re able to mentally file these under Scriptural categories such as:
Proverbs 3:5: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
Or Isaiah 55:8–9: My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
But some people, over time, gradually accumulate sufficient, seemingly incoherent experiences and observations that their faith becomes destabilized, often more than they realize. Each experience or observation on its own likely causes them only mild to moderate confusion or unsettledness — it looks and feels much like the doubt common to all believers, which may be why they don’t more urgently address them prior to the crisis moment. But if enough faith-destabilizing elements build up, such people, even if they don’t consciously realize it, become vulnerable to a faith crisis, only needing the right (or wrong) catalyst to set it off.
Stage 2: The Catalyst
Sometimes a catalyst moment is a significant life event, like a betrayal or a tragedy. But often, it is an apparently and surprisingly insignificant event, like an offhanded comment someone makes in an ordinary conversation.
Whatever the catalyst event, when it occurs it ignites a kind of chain reaction. It’s as if the various destabilizing elements that have built up now psychologically fuse together into a sudden awareness that the person’s belief system — Christianity as ultimate reality — might not be true, but might instead be, like other belief systems, a human construct. This awareness produces a kind of internal explosion: a faith crisis (which nowadays some might refer to as a deconstruction).
What’s important to keep in mind when ministering to someone experiencing this, especially in the early stages of the crisis, is that the catalyst event, whether extraordinary or mundane, is frequently not what’s only, or even mainly, fueling the person’s crisis. Often, well-meaning friends coming alongside a person in faith crisis can focus too much on the catalyst and give too little attention to the doubts and experiences that built up over months or years.
The catalyst is more like a lit match dropped on an accumulated pile of tinder, or like the last Jenga block pulled that suddenly brings the weakened structure down. And when it happens, the person usually finds himself suddenly caught in a raging spiritual tempest.
Stage 3: The Storm
For those who haven’t experienced a faith crisis, it’s hard to capture in words what it feels like. As I have tried, I have found a storm to be a helpful metaphor.
The human brain is a remarkably, even incomprehensibly, powerful and complex creation. The speed at which it can process, especially in a state of alarm, is incredible. And people in the initial stages of a faith crisis are typically in a state of alarm. The brain is processing in overdrive — and not only processing the Christian claims in question, but the possible implications of those bedrock claims proving untrue. And they’re trying to resolve those overwhelming questions in a storm of anguishing emotions.
If those who have taken their faith seriously suddenly and unexpectedly experience the kind of internal faith explosion I described above, resulting in intense doubts regarding their fundamental beliefs, these are the sorts of implications crashing in on them:
- That God — the Person they have most profoundly trusted, most deeply loved, most passionately worshiped, the one they believed they have experienced and been led by, the one they’ve oriented their whole life around and taught others about — might not be real.
- And if God’s not real, much of what they’ve found meaningful in life would either be a delusion or built on a delusion.
- And if they’ve been deluded, what is real? What does everything mean? They wonder, “Who am I?”
- And if they were to lose their faith, they’d grieve and confuse believing family members and friends they love deeply, and lose a priceless dimension of relational connection they have shared with those loved ones.
- And they would lose the church community that has been integral to their lives.
- And if they’re in vocational ministry — because pastors, missionaries, and vocational Christian workers of all kinds are not immune from faith crises — then they’d lose both the missional purpose that oriented their lives as well as gainful employment. And what would they do, or even want to do, next?
- And most frightening of all, if they were to lose their faith only to discover too late that their doubts had deceived them, they would be condemned to hell, and may cause others to stumble and end up there too.
Hopefully you can see why this experience is so often psychologically disorienting and emotionally distressing.
What I want to stress here is that when we are ministering to those who have recently entered a faith crisis, it’s important to get as clear a sense as possible of their state of mind before attempting to seriously engage the faith questions they’re wrestling with. Because for some, their inner turmoil, their internal storm, is overwhelming. I like to say that when a faith crisis hits, it’s like trying to think and discern clearly in a hurricane. It’s wise to assume strugglers’ anxiety and fear levels are running high, that they’re depressed, and they’re in need of rest, since this experience often robs them of sleep at night.
At this moment, what a person in faith crisis often needs most is not immediate answers, but shelter.
Providing Shelter in the Storm
Shelter is what anyone caught in raging storm seeks. A shelter doesn’t end a storm, but it does provide a storm-tossed struggler a measure of needed respite, safety, and peace.
Jude instructs us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). Providing merciful shelter for a Christian in the tumultuous throes of a faith crisis is one way to show mercy, and one of the most important initial ways we can extend “crisis care” to him.
“Faith crises are complex, and God’s mercy is many-faceted.”
But what does it mean to provide spiritual shelter for someone in this kind of spiritual storm? Like most parts in the Christian life, there’s no simple formula. People’s faith-crisis experiences are unique. Their doubts are unique, their contexts are unique, their histories are unique, their temperaments are unique, their spiritual-maturity levels are unique, and so on. Therefore, the kind of merciful shelter each person needs will be unique. Faith crises are complex, and God’s mercy is many-faceted.
But we know what people experience when they find a storm shelter: their fear reduces, they breathe easier, and they’re able to rest. In a spiritual shelter, a person can be open and honest about their doubts and fears, release pent-up emotions, and God willing, gain some much-needed, Spirit-granted perspective and guidance.
Providing this kind of merciful shelter for someone requires discernment. And discernment requires a listening ear. Which means, while God hasn’t given us a one-size-fits-all formula for how to do this, he has given us a governing principle we can apply: “Let every person [who wishes to have mercy on those who doubt] be quick to hear [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19). This is crucial because we won’t know what (or if) to speak unless we have first carefully and prayerfully heard.
So, as we seek to care for those in a faith crisis, we’re wise to remember that (1) the crisis is often the sudden explosion of doubts that have accumulated over time, (2) the crisis is often ignited by a catalyst event that may itself not be fueling their doubts, and (3) their most pressing initial need may not be our immediately addressing their doubts, but experiencing through us the sheltering mercy of Jesus, who extends this invitation to all strugglers: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).