How Churches Can Respond to Doubt
For many churches, it can seem rather counter-productive, if not outright foolish, to be deliberately setting up environments where people openly and boldly share their doubts about God and church. After all, what if the local atheists come more prepared – and are more persuasive – than the already busy and overworked church staff? Rather than growing the church, an ‘apologetics ministry’ could easily destabilize and threaten the very existence of the community. There are a variety of powerful motivations to not deal with doubt at your church. This article is written to directly address those concerns and recommend a wise course forward.
In particular, I want to convince you of two primary points:
- The church faces a very real problem in dealing with doubt – but it is a problem that must be boldly resolved for both pragmatic and Biblical reasons.
- The Bible offers every church a solid guide for responding to doubt with love and wisdom – a strategy that leads people to faith, strengthens disciples, creates an enduring passion for evangelism, and honors God.
To arrive at these conclusions we will look at, and answer, five key questions:
- “What is doubt?”
- “What are the effects of doubt?”
- “Is it okay to have doubts at church?”
- “Does the Bible recommend we respond to doubt at church?”
- “What guidance does the Bible give for how we respond to doubt?”
Finally, at the end of this article, you will find resources to make it incredibly easy for you to share this material with others:
- A developed, fully written out talk that contains similar material to this article, that you have permission to modify for your own purposes and church setting,
- Discussion questions for small group breakout sessions after the talk, and
- A handout with further resources for your church community.
Let’s start with the most obvious question – what is doubt?
Doubt is a denial, in one form or another, that God is really God.
As a very rough guide, there are two basic kinds of doubt: intellectual doubts and emotional doubts. Often these are blended together in complex ways; at other times, people very clearly have either a set of intellectual or emotional doubts.
Intellectual doubts might come after reading a popular book like Richard Dawkins’ work The God Delusion or as a result of an intense dialogue with some atheist friends. These are doubts like, “What evidence is there for God’s existence?” or “Didn’t God command genocide in the Old Testament?”
Emotional doubts often come during or after an experience of suffering. “How can there be a good God when we’ve experienced so much hardship?” or “How can I believe that ‘God provides’ when I don’t have a job?” Sometimes emotional doubts come from a numbness or dullness to life, expressed in feelings like, “What meaning could God add to my empty life?”
Because people’s doubts get expressed in such a variety of ways, one of the essential relational skills we must develop is the ability to discern what kind of doubt we are responding to. This requires us to ask sincere questions, listen empathetically, be prayerfully attentive to the Holy Spirit, and seek to gain a deep understanding of where the other person is coming from.
Either way, both kinds of doubt have to do with thinking or feeling that God is not really God. We deny that God is really there, or that God is good, or that God cares about us. One way or another, doubts are denying that God is really God.
Everyone has doubts
I believe that everyone has some kind of doubts. I run a blog called Reasons for God – and I have doubts.
One of the main reasons that I tend to doubt God is the problem of my unanswered prayers. There have been a number of occasions where I have really poured my heart out to God about some problem. Whether it is an illness that a good friend is struggling with or a financial challenge or an unresolved conflict or a problem in ministry, it can be really hard for me when my prayers – for good, God-honoring requests – aren’t answered.
It feels personal. I can feel rejected or ignored by God. I feel confused. It leads to more questions.
For me, unanswered prayer gives rise to intellectual doubts:
- Does prayer work?
- Is God there?
- Is God good?
and emotional doubts:
- What’s wrong with me?
- Why don’t I feel God’s presence?
- This is really discouraging.
I imagine that, if you reflect on the question honestly, you will realize that you have some doubts as well, some places where your life shows a lack of confidence that “God is really God.”
It will be to your benefit to pause, take a moment to think, and write your own doubts down. Then, reflect on what difference it would make if your doubts were fully, totally, and satisfyingly resolved.
What are the effects of doubt?
Doubt can affect us in many different ways. Sometimes doubt can be positive. Sometimes it can be a painful and hard experience.
A positive example of doubt
Doubt can be positive when it leads us to growth. For instance, I’ve had serious doubts about whether or not God commanded genocide in the Old Testament. But when I looked into the question more deeply, I learned a great deal about God’s compassion and love. You have to understand that, when I was looking into the charge that God is a bloodthirsty sky god who commands genocide, I wasn’t expecting to understand more about God’s love. But I did.
So, in this case, my doubts became an opportunity for me to gain a greater trust in God’s goodness. What a remarkable experience!
Negative examples of doubt
At other times, doubt can be really painful. Many saints have reported that their doubts about God have been “a dark night of the soul,” challenging them with an intense spiritual loneliness and hunger for God, sometimes for long periods of time.
Sometimes our doubts can lead us to disobey God, to give into various temptations, to stop being evangelistic, and to miss out on a wholehearted commitment to spending time with God each day.
You can probably think of or remember other experiences where doubt has sidetracked someone’s walk with Christ or prevented someone from entering into fellowship with God.
Is it okay to have doubts at church?
If everyone who had doubts experienced supercharged growth as a Christian, there wouldn’t be much of a debate about this. But because doubt so often leads to negative, unwanted effects, we become hesitant to welcome open conversations about doubt at our churches.
Why is this? Let’s look at three reasons why doubt seems inappropriate at church.
Doubts seem opposed to the purpose of church
The main reason is that church is a place for affirming that God really is God.
At church we remember who God is through the liturgy, the music, the sermon, the fellowship, the reading of the Bible, and everything else that we do. Everything about coming to church is connected to remembering and acknowledging who God really is.
So it can feel somewhat inappropriate to come to church with doubts. Does it make sense to say, in one form or another, “I don’t think that God is really God” at a place designed to affirm the reality of God?
For this reason, there are some Christians who are dogmatically opposed to the idea of doubt. They who would say, “if you have doubts, you are sinning against God. Shape up!” To doubt is to offend God – and must be rebuked.
Raising doubts at church seems like going to a Democratic Party Convention and saying, “I’m not so sure about Barack Obama. Maybe Ron Paul would be a better president. Can we talk about that?” That is a fine conversation to have, but it is an example of wrong place, wrong time. (You may need to substitute other examples for your cultural context – just imagine supporting a candidate from one political viewpoint at a political gathering on the other side of the ideological spectrum).
Right or wrong, good or bad, it can just be uncomfortable to have doubts at church. Everyone else seems so excited about God, but you’re not so sure. How do you bring that up? Its like your sister calls you up, “I’m getting married! Will you be in the wedding!?” and you’re like, “You’re getting married to your drug addicted, unemployed, smelly boyfriend…?”
Doubts lead people to lose their faith and leave the church
Let’s think for a moment about an experience many people have had: friends who have lost their faith in God.
We need to think about this: why does that happen? Why do people give up on being Christians? If the church is going to grow, this is a crucial issue for us to think about.
It turns out there is actually research into this question.
Dr. Brad Wright is a professional sociologist at the University of Connecticut. He interviewed 50 people who had recently left the church.
One of his most surprising findings is that 42 of the 50 people who left the church said they left the church because they had a particular kind of frustration with other church members. It turns out this was a very particular kind of frustration. It wasn’t frustration at bad music. It wasn’t because the food was terrible.
What the study found is that they were frustrated by getting lame responses to their doubts and questions. When they shared their doubts, they were given pat phrases like “just have faith” or “God works in mysterious ways.” One person reported being told, as we noted above, that the doubting itself was sinful. (http://bit.ly/NSC6kA)
This is a major problem: 42 out of 50 people who left the church did so because their doubts were not handled well!
Think about this: If Christians are leaving the churches where they get lame answers to their questions… do you think that nonChristians, with their doubts about God, will be eager to join those same churches?
Doubt fits our cultural mood
What is very common in my city, Boston, is a postmodern set of assumptions that truth is basically unknowable, that arguments are really about gaining and keeping power, and the idea that we can know something is objectively true, outside of what we can prove with science, is an old-fashioned and implausible assumption.
Sometimes these ideas get expressed in more religious language too. For instance, I’ve heard people say,
- “Faith is believing without evidence”
- “If you could prove that God exists, there wouldn’t be any room left for faith”
- “Ultimately, believing in God is a matter of faith, and not proving that it is all rational.”
- “Faith is faith because you can’t prove it.”
Now, there’s a lot to acknowledge and value about these statements. I think there is a desire to not be coercive or pushy. I think there can be a humility and modesty to admitting that we don’t know everything. And it speaks to the power of personal experience.
After all, let’s say you tell me, “Tom is one of my best friends. We have lunch together every week.” And then I say, “I want proof! What does Tom order? Show me some receipts!” Well, it would feel kind of silly to argue with me, right? You would just say, “look, I know who my friends are. You can believe me or not… that’s your choice.”
I think for most of us, the most powerful reason we believe in God is that we have experiences of God. We experience God at church, when we read the Bible and pray, and when we get out into nature and see the beauty of everything around us. With such compelling evidence that God is real, arguments just seem kind of unnecessary. However, this often means that we aren’t particularly ready or motivated to carefully reason when our friends express having doubts.
So doubt seems to be inappropriate at church: it is antagonistic to the very purpose of church, it leads people to leave the church, and it fits a cultural mood that doesn’t particularly value the pursuit of objective truth, or even of logic and reason very highly, especially when it comes to religious questions.
What does the Bible say about answering people’s doubts?
The first and most important place to look for answers in the Bible on this question is Jesus’ words in Matthew 22, where he gives the Two Great Commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Notice that Jesus commands us to love God with our minds. Now, maybe that means providing reasons that God exists, maybe not. But it does indicate that Jesus had a very high respect for intellectual activity. The use of our minds is part of the #1 Most Important Commandment.
Can we find any examples of people in the Bible arguing that their beliefs are true?
The answer is actually a resounding ‘yes!’ We can find dozens of examples from the Old and New Testament, but for the sake of space, let’s look at just one example: the early church.
Imagine with me their problem after the crucifixion of Jesus.
The eleven remaining disciples are a marginalized, tiny, oppressed Jewish sect. One of their closest friends, Judas, has just sold them out. You have to wonder – Who might be the next to betray the others for a little bit of cash?
The Roman and Jewish elite, traditionally at odds, have just plotted together to publicly humiliate and crucify Jesus.
The Romans see Jesus as a crucified, defeated, treasonous criminal.
The Jews see Jesus as a crucified, discredited, heretical blasphemer.
However, the early Christians believe that Jesus is actually alive. And, not only was His body raised from the dead by the power of God, but Jesus is God, and you should repent of your sin and worship Him as Lord.
These are radically different perspectives on Jesus.
Can you imagine arguing with your siblings about something like this?
- “Our brother is dead.”
- “No, actually, our brother is alive.”
- “No, he’s dead. The doctors said so.”
- “Yes, but then he came back to life. I saw it with my own eyes.”
That is the kind of disagreement that leads to fights.
For the early church, this disagreement often led to persecution and martyrdom.
So, obviously, given the stakes, people are going to be skeptical and hostile of the early church.
In other words, they are going to have lots and lots of questions and doubts.
How did the early church respond to people’s doubts and questions?
Let’s look at how the Apostle Paul did his ministry in different cities:
- In Damascus, we’re told that Paul, “increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
- In Corinth, we’re told that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
- In Thessalonica, “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”
- In Ephesus, Paul “entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
- In Athens, “Paul’s spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.”
What we see is this: Paul was good—very good—at reasoning for the resurrection of Jesus and the claims of the Christian faith. This was his standard practice. He did it everywhere he went, year after year, to Jews and to Greeks. Wherever Paul goes, a core part of his ministry is the use of reasons and argument to convince people that his message about Jesus is true. And because they were convinced – because the arguments were good and persuasive arguments, people came to faith in Christ.
What this means is, whether we have doubts or not, as a matter of Christian love, we need to be prepared to respond well to the doubts of other Christians. Superficial answers – and sometimes even the dismissal of their questions – is actively pushing people away from God and the church.
The answer is clear: when the local church answers doubt well, there is a huge response of people coming to faith, growing in faith, and becoming excited to tell others about Jesus.
What guidance does the Bible give for how we respond to doubt?
So how do people argue for God’s existence in the Bible? Are they mean, arrogant know-it-alls?
No – not at all. The bad examples of pushy, aggressive, one-upmanship that are all too prominent in our churches is not at all what the Bible commends. The Bible requires followers of Jesus to be marked by kindness, gentleness, humility, and love. These are essential character traits for this entire process.
With that in mind, let’s look at three key points for how to respond to doubt.
First, we respond to people’s doubts by depending on God.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Paul – who reasoned for the truth of God everywhere he went – ultimately depended on the power of God’s Spirit.
So we have to recognize that nothing works if God is not in it. Not loving people, not praying for them, not even reading the Bible together.
But, on the other hand, any approach can work if God’s power is behind it.
We need to distinguish between the specific methods we use and the universal need for God to be at work.
So, whatever we do to help people grow as Christians or come to know Jesus, we are to do it in dependence upon God, relying entirely upon His power and His Holy Spirit to bring the transformation.
Second, we are to be well prepared.
The Bible clearly teaches that it is right to respond to people’s doubts with reason. Perhaps the most classic explanation of this responsibility is in 1 Peter 3:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
The Bible teaches us that we will need to put in the time to read, study, and think hard about people’s questions in order to give them thoughtful, insightful responses
We need to identify the top questions people are asking in our context.
We need to know good answers to their honest questions.
We need to understand how people prefer to discuss these issues.
For your church to respond well to doubt, it must be intellectually prepared to do it well.
When Paul went to Jewish synagogues, he explained how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. But he didn’t call it the Old Testament. He would say things like, “as our own prophets have said.”
When Paul went to Athens, he quoted Greek poets and looked for common ground with that audience.
In 1 Corinthians 15, after Paul provides a historical argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he tells the Corinthians, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
Because Paul was filled with a great love for God, and a great love for those he wanted to reach, he invested time and energy to understand their perspective so he could better persuade them that Jesus is truly Lord.
So Paul worked hard. He knew the stakes. He wanted to bring others to faith.
We have to ask: where’s the pain point for us?
Does it grieve us more that we have to read and study to be intellectually prepared – or are we more concerned that our friends and neighbors are struggling with challenging doubts and questions?
Because he know the vastness of God’s love and grace, and because he loved his neighbors, Paul was prepared. We should be too.
Third, we respond to people’s doubts in a comprehensive way.
Like we see in the book of Acts, all of the reasoning and debating activity goes hand-in-hand with God doing miracles, with exceptional stories of generosity, with the church loving the poor, the development of cross-cultural friendships, and inspiring acts of sacrifice and service for the glory of God.
The example of Paul’s life is a whole one. In every matter he was dedicated to honoring God.
So the point is this: these priorities aren’t meant to compete with each other but to complement one another.
We’re to love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Not heart or mind. Not neighbor or God. Both-and. All together.
The Biblical perspective is for an integrated, restored, fully human life and community.
When people have emotional doubts, about whether God loves them, or Christians care about them, we should respond in kind – by listening well, praying together, being present, and meeting their needs with a joyful and self-forgetful spirit.
But when people have intellectual doubts – is the Bible true, did Jesus rise from the dead, etc. – then, again, we should respond in kind – loving them by providing reasoned answers in a friendly and genuine manner.
Whatever their doubts, your church is guided by Scripture to depend on God, to be well prepared, and to offer a comprehensive response to their questions.
Conclusion: Jesus and doubt
Ok, I’ve saved the best for last. How does Jesus respond to doubt?
Let’s look at a great story on this – we could also look at how Jesus provided a rational response to John the Baptist, who had some serious doubts about his belief that Jesus was the Messiah when he was in prison. After all, John was about to be beheaded for this, and he didn’t want to die for a fraud!
There are so many stories of Jesus responding well to doubt, but my favorite story is how Jesus responded to his disciple Thomas after the resurrection.
This account is recorded for us in John 20. Let’s look at it together:
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
Now that’s doubt! Every single one of his closest companions is testifying that they have seen Jesus alive. But Thomas absolutely refuses to buckle under peer pressure.
Imagine what a week that was. “Thomas, man, I’m telling you, we saw Jesus!” “Peter, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have to see it for myself. I saw the guy die. If he’s alive, then he should set up a meeting with me. It’s that simple!”
So back to the text:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said to Thomas, “HOW DARE YOU DOUBT ME, SINNER.” Then Jesus sent Thomas straight to hell and had a good laugh with all the other disciples.
Ok, it doesn’t say that, does it? Here’s what it says:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said to Thomas, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “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!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Here’s the point: Jesus responds to Thomas’ doubt with evidence. With answers. With reason to believe. By satisfying his intellectual curiosity.
And, according to some early church traditions, Thomas ended up going to India to share the good news about Jesus, and after a very fruitful ministry, was martyred for his faith in Christ.
Here’s the point: if Thomas’ doubts were never resolved, he wouldn’t have given his life for the gospel. It didn’t matter what experiences his closest friends had. He wanted proof for himself.
But because his doubts were resolved – and in a dramatic way – Thomas became a very loyal disciple of Jesus.
That’s what’s at stake for your church – and for every church.
If your church is a community where doubts go unresolved, where you don’t make space for people’s questions about God, this will hinder the formation of strong disciples. It will undermine your evangelism. It will lead people to leave your church altogether.
But by contrast, if your church depends on God in everything, if you are well prepared to respond to doubts, and if, by God’s grace, you maintain an integrated witness for God, then people will be far less likely to leave the church, far more confident to live for Christ, and far more prepared to bring their friends to faith.
My prayers is that you will look to God for the courage and the wisdom to begin immediately.
You are welcome to turn this article into a talk appropriate for your context.
If you’d like, you can download the small group questions.
You can also download the handout.