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“Have We Taught You How to Doubt?”

by Deborah Detering

If you’re not sure of God’s existence, tell him so.

Dear Elizabeth,

Now that you are away from us, your Daddy and I keep thinking of things we should have talked to you about while you were home. We think that you have absorbed some of these things by growing up with us, but we can’t be sure. Right now we are wondering if we have taught you how to doubt. The secular, sophisticated college which will be your world for the next years will have an effect on your faith; in fact, we would be surprised if you didn’t have doubts about Christian doctrine and your relationship to God. So, there are some things we want to say to help you deal with doubt in a healthy way.

1. The first thing to do about doubt is to admit it–to yourself, and to God and, if possible, to other Christians. Just as you can’t solve an equation without setting it up properly, you cannot find the answer for a doubt you have not acknowledged. If the virgin birth has become a stumbling block to you, admit it. If you are not even sure of God’s existence, tell him so. It is a contra-diction, of course, to talk to someone you don’t believe in, but by doing this you refuse to deny God and allow him to answer you.

If you can discuss your doubts with a good Christian friend or counselor, do so. Don’t share your questions with anyone who condemns you for doubting. That kind of judgmental attitude is immature and will only frustrate and confuse you more. Our Lord often answers through one of his people, but sometimes finding supportive friends is more important than having our questions answered.

2. Do not fear doubt will end your relationship with Jesus. Doubt does not have to be the end of commitment; it certainly is not the end of God. His existence is not dependent on your belief; neither is his love for you dependent on what you feel. He helped Daddy find work when both Daddy and I were discouraged about it. He did not insist that we feel optimistic first. Doubt is only what we think or feel, but commitment is what we will. You can pray, “Lord, I can’t see you, I can’t feel you, I’m not even sure I believe in you any more, but I will still base my actions on the premise that you are not only out there but right here, and I will follow you.” Remember that he sometimes draws us closer to himself by seeming to withdraw for a while so we can learn to trust him more deeply.

3. Remind yourself of the things you do not doubt. You can say, “I don’t understand how you, God, could become human, but I see the stars and know something of your creative power,” or “I don’t know what purpose you have for my life, but I do know that your love called me to commit myself to you in baptism.” Build your confidence with positive statements.

4. Be patient. If you do not expect to know everything about the chemistry of the body, how can you expect to know much about God? If you spend twelve years learning to be a doctor, shouldn’t you spend even longer learning to be the person your heavenly Father wants you to be? Look at his long-term creative work: his building of mountains and carving of rivers; his Word from Genesis to Revelation; his plan for your development from infancy to adulthood. He will be patient with you as long as you are seeking him. He demands that you obey, not that you understand everything he does and is.

5. Learn from other people’s experiences with doubt. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that real saints live without doubt. Moses doubted that God could use him to speak to Pharaoh; David wondered whether God had forgotten him; John the Baptist had to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah; Thomas wanted proof of the resurrection; in his own life, John Bunyan met the Giant Despair; Corrie ten Boom relied on Betsie’s faith in the concentration camp.

We have also doubted. In the past few months you watched us put our house up for sale, knowing our Lord wanted us to move, but sometimes we panicked because we did not know where he was leading us. We have discussed Christian doctrine with you enough so you know belief has not always come easily to us, but that we have learned to live with doubts even while we live for our Lord. You can do the same.

6. Let doubt be the beginning of growth and not the end of it. Some college students decide, “I have grown up and I know that the religion of my youth is a fairy tale. Because I no longer believe, I am mature,” You know better. We have not fed you any fairy tales. Some of your classmates will lose their faith because they toss out grains of truth along with the mythological baggage. It is tragic when the resurrection is confused with Easter baskets. Any learning is a process of replacing imperfect knowledge with more correct and complete understanding, and growth in faith is no different. For example if you find, when you study atomic physics, that what you had believed about atoms was incorrect, you won’t (you’d better not) just drop out and claim that atoms aren’t real. Instead you will study the text and talk with your professor until your misconceptions are cleared up. Discovering that God does not answer all prayer with immediately satisfying miracles should not lead you to stop praying, but instead to discover how he wants you to respond to him, and what prayers he wants you to offer. Growth comes not by saying, “Lord, I quit,” but by asking, “Lord, what’s next?”

7. Maintain a regular routine of prayer, Bible study and fellowship. If you don’t, you won’t hear God because you are not listening. Just as a doctor reads medical journals to grow in medical knowledge, a Christian needs regular Bible reading to grow in his or her faith.

Meet with other Christians in informal fellowship and regular church attendance. Don’t, however, confuse good habits with rigidity. You can refresh your faith by changing your patterns of Bible reading, prayer, worship and fellowship. Try reading and pondering one verse instead of an entire chapter; find an open chapel for private prayer away from your dormitory room; visit another denomination for a more or less formal worship service; explore different fellowship groups to find one that meets your current need, whether a social group, an intimate prayer group or an intellectual Bible study. A large college community offers plenty of options.

8. Check your physical condition. Satan makes use of the physical and mental exhaustion caused by a rigorous schedule and the barrage of new ideas to breed doubt and despair. If you are losing sleep, drinking too much coffee, fretting over difficult assignments or fighting off a sore throat, then doubt will be more a condition of body than of mind. You need to take care of the physical problem first. Remember that Jesus became tired and discouraged, too. Exhaustion is not sin, it is simply part of being human.

We let you go into the world knowing that there will be doubts, expecting that Jesus will lead you through them and hoping that we have taught you how to doubt so that you will not be overwhelmed. Remember that what you don’t know or can’t be sure about is not so important as following Jesus, believing that he does have the answers.

You are precious to us both as the daughter God gave us to rear for him, and as a sister who follows Jesus along with us. As long as we travel together in his care, you are not far from us.
Love, Mom

DEBORAH DETERING has had more than one hundred foster children in her house over the past six years. She also has a husband, three daughters and one son. [Reprinted by permission from HIS magazine.]

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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10