Kristen, a podcast listener, writes in with a question. “Pastor John, I am ashamed to say that my Bible reading is often hijacked by a sense of doubt. It sometimes even feels more like a spiritual battle than an intellectual battle, and it scares me because it attacks my faith at the foundations — the truth of the Bible. Do you have any advice for attacking a spirit of doubt and cynicism when reading the Scriptures?”
You know, Tony, I stop and I pray over every one of these questions as I try to answer them so that in the hundreds of things I could say, the Lord will help me choose the things that might be most helpful. This one made me feel like I needed to pray more, because when she conceded that it is a spiritual battle and not just an intellectual one, I felt that is really true and not just for her, but for all of us.
“Seek in all your reading and praying in the Bible not just to know truth, but to see the glory of Christ.”
The intellectual things that rise up that make the Bible seem problematic are often covering a satanic attack. The devil really hates the Bible. He hates truth. He is a deceiver from the beginning, and he can make things look merely intellectual when, in fact, some pretty heavy, heavy spiritual stuff is going on.
So I will just tell Kristen now the answer is yes. I do have some advice. And I based every one of these six counsels on Scripture, and I will mention the Scripture. So I am praying for Kristen and lots of people who, when they read the Bible, find stumbling blocks that get in the way of their enjoyment and their belief, and maybe one of these (if not all of them) might prove from the Lord for her.
1. Pray for Help
Pray that God would help you. Pray that he would fight your doubts and cynicism with you and for you. In other words, cry out to God: “Fight for me. Help me. Defeat these obstacles.”
We all know where that is coming from: Mark 9:24. Immediately the father of the child who had this epileptic fit that nobody could heal comes to Jesus. Jesus asks, “Do you want me to do anything here?” And the man said, “If you can.” And he said, “What is this if stuff?” And then the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
That is a strange way to say it, right? Help your unbelief do what? Die. That is what. Which means that Kristen and I need to preface our Bible reading every day with prayer. “God, help me with my unbelief. That is, kill it. Destroy it. Get at whatever is causing it.” So pray.
2. See Beauty
Seek in all your reading and praying in the Bible not just to know truth, but to see the glory of Christ. There is a spiritual light shining from Christ that is self-authenticating if you saw it.
“We need to be around people who fight with us, help us, and direct us to things that will strengthen our faith.”
I am thinking here now of “Doubting Thomas.” I am glad he exists and is in the Bible for Kristen and me. Remember, Thomas said, “I am not going to believe unless I put my finger in his side” (John 20:25). And so Jesus shows up and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. And put out your hand and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:27–28).
In other words, he did not touch him. He saw him. Something happened when he saw him. He thought that he would need to do more. He would need more evidence for a ghost, you know. “He is going to be a ghost. I am going to be tricked.” And when Jesus showed up, he didn’t need any more. He didn’t have to push it to the limit of his evidential demands.
Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” (John 20:29). And I think that means “not seeing the way you have seen, but believed by the seeing that comes through the word.”
So, I am saying to Kristen that, when she reads, ask the Lord for this kind of not physical, but spiritual discernment — a spiritual sight of Christ that is different than a kind of argument from evidences drawn with inferences.
3. Mercy for Doubters
Think much about the patience and mercy of God to doubters. Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He is going to walk on water. And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, walked on the water and came to Jesus.
Then it says, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’” (Matthew 14:28–30). And Jesus did not say, “Tough, man. What a jerk. I just told you you could do this, and you were doing it.” No, no. That is not what Jesus said or did. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him saying, “Oh, you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
So meditate on the kindness and the patience of Jesus to doubters. Peter is doubting, and Jesus reaches out his hands. Maybe that is what Kristen would feel as she reads this. “He is reaching out his hand to me in my doubt.”
4. Find Encouragement
Seek out people of strong faith to read outside the Bible and to be around in person, and make them your heroes.
“Meditate on the kindness and the patience of Jesus to doubters. Peter doubts, and Jesus reaches out his hands.”
Hebrews 13:7–8 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” So he explicitly wants us to look to people who are ahead of us in this battle of faith. And take heart from looking at the outcome of their faith.
Here is another text in Hebrews. Hebrews seems to be really big on this communal nature of fighting the fight of faith. Hebrews 3:12–13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving” — or you could say doubting heart — “leading you to fall away from the living God. Exhort one another every day as long as it is called today that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
In other words, we need to be in groups where people fight with us and help us and direct us to things that will give strength to our faith rather than weaken them.
5. Lean on Others
Remember that the body has many members and some are scholars who have thought long and hard about things that puzzle you and have solved many of them. First Corinthians 12:21 says, “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” And vice versa. And it may be that sometimes those of us who are doing foot work at any given time might need to remember, “Hey, there are some heads.” And don’t let this conflict with Jesus as the head. That is what he says here in 1 Corinthians 12:21.
Some are heads and some are feet, and the feet should never say, “I don’t need you, head” when the head has spent ten years solving the problem you are just stumbling over. No, no, no. The point of the body of Christ is that there is an answer to our problems. God is a God of coherence. He is not a God of contradiction. There are answers to the issues in the Bible and the issues of culture. People have gone before us and there is a wealth of wisdom in books, so we should befriend those people.
6. Don’t Stop Reading
Don’t stop reading your Bible because of these doubts and because of a spirit of cynicism. This is one of Satan’s main aims in your doubt and your cynicism. He wants to get you to stop reading when, in fact, the Bible says faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
One last text: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:1–3).
So the seasons come. The dry desert winds blow. And those whose roots are not planted by the streams wither by cynicism and doubt. But those whose roots have gone down meditating day and night on the word of God are like trees that have roots way down by the water so that they are not killed by the droughts of doubt.