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Do you ever wonder if it’s all true? I know that you’re here this morning to worship Jesus, but do you ever in the back of your mind wonder if there really is anything after death? Could it be when you die, that’s it–you simply cease to exist? Is it possible there really isn’t a God? Or maybe there is a God, but he’s the same god that all the different religions worship?
Do you ever stop to wonder if you are a Christian simply because of your parents or another family member? If you had grown up in a family in Egypt, maybe you’d be Muslim? Or if your family had been Hindu, you would have been Hindu? How do you know it’s all true?
Most Christians have had these thoughts. I’m betting that some of you thought something like this not too long ago–maybe even this week. Doubt is a dirty little secret–we’ve all had it. We rarely talk about it.
There are voices in your head wondering, “Is this really true?” But you’re scared to ask the question. We’re worried what other people will think. When you have thoughts like this, you feel ashamed, you feel embarrassed, you feel guilty. You think that you’re the only one–everybody else seems so sure.
Doubt is kept secret. It is ignored. It is made scary by our silence. Here’s why–in our thinking, doubt is often equated with unbelief. But actually doubt is not the same as unbelief. They are entirely different. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is unbelief. Doubt is the halfway house between faith and unbelief.
Doubt is not something to fear. Doubt is not something that you need to be silent about. The very worst thing to do with doubt is to silence it, ignore it and let it go unanswered.
In college, your professor and classmates mock the teaching of the Bible about homosexuality or creation or the flood. In your home, you’ve doubted the wisdom of God when your spouse says hurtful, hateful things to you. In the hospital, you’ve doubted the righteousness of God when your seemingly innocent child lies on a gurney, lifeless before you. At work, you’ve doubted the promises of God because liars and cheats seem to prosper and you’re stuck without a raise for the last few years.
So what do you do? Do you just suppress your doubts? Do you get angry and stop talking to God? Do you tell yourself to stop thinking about it?
As Christians, we need to know how to deal with doubt–how to defeat doubt. Doubt is not unbelief. It’s different, and it can be a pathway to a stronger faith. In fact, understanding doubt is the key to a quiet heart and a quiet mind. So this morning, we are going to talk about what doubt is, what causes doubt and what cures doubt.
Last Sunday, Austin’s exposition of Psalm 73 hinted at some of these things. This week, we’re going to more fully explore what the New Testament teaches about doubt.
1. What is Doubt?
As I said before doubt is not unbelief. It’s the halfway house between faith and unbelief.
In your Bible, the word used for doubt is often translated as “perplexed” or “confused”. It literally means, “double-minded”.
A. Doubt is being double-minded
We see that usage in James 1:6 to 8, “The one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Doubt is when you are of two minds about something. You’re not sure which is right and what’s true. Both options have some persuasion to you.
You remember when Peter had those great visions from God? Basically, a big picnic blanket comes down from heaven with all kinds of food on it, including lots of things like bacon and cocktail shrimp that had been off-limits to the Jews. And he hears the words, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat”–get up and make some pork ribs. Well, this happens three times in a row, and it says in Acts 10:17, “Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be.”
He was totally confused by what he’d just seen. He had his culture and sections of the Old Testament law telling him to abstain from certain foods. Then he had a vision from God saying that God had cleansed the unclean. He could eat what used to be off-limits. Then we read Acts 10:19 to 20, “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.’”
This is the word for doubt here. It’s the same one used in James 1. God encourages Peter to not be double-minded. God’s preparing the way for Gentiles to be saved, and telling Peter that they are not off-limits.
To doubt is to have misgivings. It’s to be uncertain and unsure about what’s true. The other description of doubt is found in Mark 6:20, “For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”
In prison, John the Baptist would be brought before Herod and Herod would give him the opportunity to talk freely about God and God’s plans for salvation. John spoke with passion and persuasively, but what John said was at such odds with what Herod believed and practiced that Herod was very confused. He didn’t know what to do.
Doubt leaves you uncertain about what to do. You feel confused and perplexed. Sometimes it feels as though the issues are beyond what you can sort out. You are in a halfway house between faith and unbelief, and you’re not sure what path to take. Doubt is to be double-minded.
B. Doubt has competing beliefs
We saw this with Peter in Acts 10. There was the competing belief of culture and Old Testament law weighing against the new revelation from God. But even among later believers we see doubt springing from competing beliefs. In Romans 14 we see that Peter struggled with eating what was unclean lingering in the Church.
Romans 14 tells mature believers (the strong) who understand that all food is now okay–he tells them how to live with immature believers (the weak) who aren’t sure and struggle with guilt about eating previously off-limits foods. In Romans 14:23 Paul speaks directly to the weak, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.”
Here’s the issue–the weak had two competing beliefs in their hearts. They weren’t certain about what kind of meats were acceptable to God. They knew that steak was okay. They weren’t so sure about the lobster. They knew that meat from the Jewish temple was okay. They weren’t so sure about from the Roman marketplace. There were competing beliefs in their hearts about what was acceptable. When you doubt you have two competing beliefs in your mind and you’re torn deciding which one is true.
Do you ever go out to dinner with your spouse? (Valentine’s Day is in two weeks!) You’re having a great time, you place your order, you talk some, and the food arrives. You start to dig in and your food is good, but you keep looking over at the other plate—that food looks so much better than yours. You’re not even really enjoying yours anymore. And you drop subtle hints like, “Wow, I should’ve ordered what you got.”
You are having doubts that you ordered what you really wanted. You have competing beliefs about what’s most delicious. You thought it was the carne asada, until you saw the carnitas.
When you have doubts about God, the Bible and salvation, that means that you have two or more beliefs competing for #1 in your heart. So you doubt what God says because your experience tells you otherwise. This was the case in Matthew 14. The disciples are on a boat. A great storm begins to blow, and they see a man walking on the water towards them. After a bit of terror on board, Jesus calls out and says, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” And Peter responds by saying, “Lord if it’s you, let me come and walk with you.”
Matthew 14:29-31, “And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
Peter believed in the power and work of God until he saw the wind (verse 30). He had two competing beliefs–two competing faiths. He had the clear evidence of himself and Jesus, both walking on water. And he had the clear terror of a great storm around him, and as a fisherman, he would know the power of that.
He became double-minded and uncertain. He moved away from his faith in the power and character of God, and he began to sink. Most often doubt revolves around the character or work of God. Even doubts about the Gospel often go back to doubt about God and his character. Doubt has competing beliefs, and reassuringly…
C. Doubt is used almost exclusively for believers in the Bible
The reason why doubt is so rarely talked about is that Christians tend to think that doubt is a mark of unbelief. We tend to think that we’re the only ones with these thoughts. We worry about what others would think, or how they would respond if they knew that we were uncertain about some issue of faith. But get this–doubt is used almost exclusively for believers in the Bible.
One that you should love is Matthew 28:16 to 17, “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.” There’s some debate over whether more than the eleven were gathered on this occasion. But for sure the people who were there are those who’d spent some years living with Jesus, hearing him teach and seeing him die. And now, seeing Jesus resurrected, some are still uncertain. They’re doubting.
They know that Jesus is standing in front of them, but nobody comes back from the dead. They struggle to reconcile those two beliefs, and these are Jesus’ original followers! Didn’t you ever think, “It’d be so much easier to believe or obey if I had been there then”? It wasn’t–they struggled with doubt too.
Doubt is almost the unique problem of believers. When the New Testament talks about doubt, it primarily focuses on believers. That’s very important. Essentially you have to have a level of belief in something before you can doubt it. Doubt is not unbelief, but is a place in-between faith and unbelief.
Doubt looks different in every person’s life. For some, it makes you feel anxious. Others just feel like there’s a hole–something unresolved. One person thinks a question and then it’s gone. Another person thinks the same question and it is of enormous importance to them. The philosopher is puzzled by something that the businessman blows off. The mathematician has different questions than the medical professional. We all experience doubt in different ways, and part of the reason is that the causes of doubt are so different, so let’s talk about . . .
2. What Causes Doubt?
The Bible presents a number of different causes for doubt on the part of believers. Let’s walk through the most common:
A. Your Past / Present Experiences–Mark 9:21 to 25
We saw this already with Peter, as he tried to walk on water with Jesus. His past experiences in storms on water and the sight of the wind whipping up the storm all around him caused his faith in the power of Jesus to give way.
Similarly, in Mark 9 we have Jesus meeting the father of a demon-possessed boy. The father appears to have been a believer and had already been seeking help from Jesus’ disciples. The disciples were unable to do anything so Jesus approaches to heal him.
Here’s the conversation in Mark 9:21 to 24, “And He asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22 It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’ 23 And Jesus said to him, ‘”If You can?” All things are possible to him who believes.’ 24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief.’”
While the father had some faith, he was plagued by doubt. On coming to the disciples, he had believed that they would be able to cure his son. But they had failed–nothing had happened, and we learn here that this was not a new issue. His son had been this way since childhood. The past experiences of the father–the current failure of the disciples combined together to raise serious doubts in his heart so that as he asks Jesus for help, we hear the uncertainty. “IF you can do anything, take pity and help us.”
Jesus heard it too and identifies it as the problem . . . “IF you can? You need to get over your doubt.” And the father cries out and admits his double-mindedness and pleads for help. It’s not in the notes, but Jesus proceeds to heal the boy.
Some of you are like that father. You have had trials that made you question God’s ability to change things. You have seen suffering in this life that should not be experienced by anyone. You are no longer certain that God can do some of the things we think He can. You are not sure God is really involved in this world and in your life.
Circumstances in the past–recent experiences all testify that you’re on your own. You have some doubts. Let’s be honest–our experiences in life often cause doubt.
B. The Influence of Culture and People–Acts 10:19 to 20
We saw this with Peter in Acts 10, right? Though he experiences direct revelation from God and he is told the same thing three times in a row, he is greatly perplexed. He’s confused about how to respond to this. So much so that the Spirit of God speaks directly to him in Acts 10:19-20, “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, ’Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 But get up, go downstairs and
accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.’”
He has to be told to forsake his doubts– “Stop doubting what you just heard.” Why did Peter have trouble? For at least twenty-some years of his life Peter had lived as a Jew, following their dietary guidelines and following strict separation from Gentiles. For all the years with Jesus, he had never set foot in a Gentile house. He had never eaten Gentile food.
Your culture and the people you’re with influence what you believe. They don’t determine it—there are too many atheists from Christian homes and Christians from atheist homes to say that. But they can make you second-guess and have doubts about what you believe. We see this happen all the time with collegians. When students leave home, they are forced to figure out what they believe. For the first time they are set free to live how they want. They can go to church, they can sleep in. Certain classes they take will have a strongly non-Christian bent. They will have to study, wrestle with and respond to people who think Christianity is foolishness. Doubts are raised and wrestled with. It’s one of the reasons that I love college ministry.
And it’s one of the reasons why we say to find a college with a good church nearby. Turn down the scholarship if you can’t find a solid church nearby. Don’t choose the college and then come asking if there’s a church we know of. Make that part of the selection process. Here’s why–the church will not protect them or counteract what they hear. The church will help them work through the questions that are raised. The church will help them sort out their doubts.
Whether it’s education or music or television or the latest Time magazine article–our culture and the people around us will introduce doubts about what the Bible says.
C. Competing Beliefs and Emotions–Luke 24:36-43
We’ve already touched on this as part of defining what doubt is, but this is also the cause. What causes doubt is to have two competing beliefs, or a competing emotion. Really, we could even say competing faiths. When you have been put through the wringer, when it seems that everyone you thought was a friend has become an enemy, when you feel like you’ve been deceived and scapegoated by people you trusted, when you’ve been hurt more than you could’ve ever imagined, you start to ask God why? You begin to doubt yourself, and you wonder why God would let this happen to you. Here’s what happened–you had one view of God, and now it seems like it’s not true.
God will keep me safe But you’re not safe
God will provide for me But you lost your job and you’re losing your house
God is Creator. But there’s scientific evidence for an old earth
God is my friend But He does not feel near to me
I’m innocent But I’ve been forced to take the blame
I’m a nice guy But Christians have hurt me
Doubts are caused by competing beliefs–we see this when Jesus appears to the disciples after his death in Luke 24:36 to 43. “While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be to you.’ 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; 43 and He took it and ate it before them.”
Jesus appears and totally violates everything they understood about life and death. They have competing beliefs about what’s true. It looks and talks like Jesus, but it can’t be Him because He’s dead. And so He seeks to reassure them. He invites them to physically touch Him to dispel the competing belief. But even so, there are competing emotions.
In verse 41, doubts come due to their joy. Essentially they felt like this was really too good to be true–I’ll wake up and the dream will be over. A few days before they had seen their leader and their friend crucified. Today Jesus has showed up–still got the marks but looking good. Their emotions are competing with each other. Competing beliefs and competing emotions cause doubt to invade our hearts. Another cause of doubt is:
D. False Teaching–Jude 22
Here is the most common form of doubt from false or bad teaching that we see at FBC. I hear this one a few times a year easily. Many people have been falsely taught that they are saved because they professed Christ at one point, walked an aisle or signed a card–and though their life was moral, there was never any genuine love for Christ or Spirit-enabled transformation. They made a confession then lived how they wanted to, or even more often, they made a profession of faith and then lived a good life desperately trying to earn God’s love each day. Then they hear and by God’s grace begin to understand the true Gospel.
GOSPEL–we are utterly sinful, rebellious to God in mind and action. Our self-powered morality is actually hated by God. The only thing that pleases Him is a perfect life, and we will suffer His horrible wrath forever because our life is not perfect. But God knew that your life would never be perfect–so He sent His Son to live a perfect life for you and to die and bear His wrath for you so that if you believe and hope in Him you will be saved. And God will look at you and see Jesus’ righteousness, and His Spirit will come into you and transform you and make you want to live like Jesus–and you’ll fail, but you’ll want to. And that struggle towards a righteous life will bring glory to God.
So they knew the false gospels of “confess Jesus, then live how you want” and “obey to be accepted.” And then they hear the real gospel of “Jesus is both Lord and Savior, and acceptance by God makes you obey.” And in that transition from one to another there is struggle, and there is doubting–doubt about what’s real and what the Bible teaches, doubt about whether they’re saved, doubt about what they’ve heard in the past and what they’re hearing now.
I talked to a man just last Sunday who told me that for the past decade he had been calling himself a Christian and was self-deceived. It was not until coming to FBC, he and his wife hearing the Gospel regularly and his wife asking him whether or not there had been genuine transformation of his own heart that he realized he had been unsaved all those years. This is not a young man, but a retiree who for the first time is being changed by God after a period of doubt and wrestling about whether he was saved. Bad teaching and false teaching can raise doubts for true Christians. Biblical teaching will cast doubt on false teaching that you’ve heard before.
Jude tells believers how to interact with those caught up in false teaching, verses 22 to 23, “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”
False teaching causes doubting. We’re to have mercy on them and help them. The last cause of doubt is:
E. Lack of Maturity–Romans 14:23
We talked a bit earlier about Romans 14 and the weak and strong Christians who struggled over what meats they could eat. A lack of maturity is what Paul identifies in Romans 14 as the cause of their doubts. The weak do not eat because their understanding of God’s Word is deficient. They are not yet convinced about their freedom in Christ.
Romans 14:23, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin.” Now understand, I don’t mean that spiritual immaturity is behind ALL doubt. If you come across someone who’s struggling with doubt, don’t automatically label them a weak believer. That’s really not what’s in view here.
You’ll remember that the disciples themselves doubted. Peter doubted. I think it’s safe to say that all Christians at some point will struggle with doubt in some form. But I can remember long ago when I served in sound ministry at a fairly large church where a few of us on the sound crew would stand and talk to one person who struggled with doubt about the Bible, about her salvation, about God. She was a young, immature Christian who had been saved from a strongly non-Christian home. The stronger she grew in the Word and in personal time with God, the less doubts plagued her.
Lack of understanding and lack of maturity can be a cause of doubt–and that struggle naturally diminishes as a Christian grows in their understanding and experience of God and His Word. Now listen to me–I’m already starting to move into the next point . . .
3. What Removes Doubt?
The temptation of Christians in churches like ours is to ignore their doubts. This is one of the worst things you can do. You have doubts–your children have doubts about God and the Bible. The worst thing you can do is to ignore them or shut them down. Do not leave serious questions about the reality of God and the truth of His Word unanswered. Doubt is defeated by answers, not ignorance.
Doubt left unanswered will build up over time. If doubt is the halfway house between faith and unbelief, then what will happen when there are no answers provided which are compatible with faith. Question after question will build up. Doubt after doubt will pile up. And doubt will move from sincere questioning to an unbelieving skepticism.
Doubt is defeated by answers–for every doubt there is a good answer. So what do we do? How do we remove doubt?
A. Crying out to God for help–Mark 9:21 to 25
You remember Mark 9 about the father with the demon-possessed boy? When Jesus points out his doubt, the man cries out to God for help. Mark 9:24, “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief.’”
If you have doubts, don’t stay silent about them. Don’t ignore them, don’t silence them–acknowledge your doubts. Tell God that you’re struggling–ask for his help. You say, “But it’s God who I have doubts about.” That’s okay–He can handle it. Tell him. Ask Him to answer your doubts if He’s real. Our God, our Bible, our faith–it’s able to handle any question you can throw at it. The worst thing is to let questions go unanswered, which brings us to the second step of removing doubt.
B. Careful Study of Scripture–Acts 17:11 to 12
The best thing that you can do to answer doubts is to turn to the book that contains the very words of God. Whether you have doubts about creation or the flood or the existence of Jesus or the existence of God, seek out your answer from the book which claims to be written by Him. In churches, we sometimes exalt the Bereans for their efforts at Bible study, but what’s interesting is that their study was motivated by doubt.
Look at Acts 17:11 to 12, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.”
Paul and Silas were teaching the Jews in Thessalonica every day in their synagogue. The truth of the Gospel was raising questions. The Thessalonians had doubts–they were of two minds about what was being said. So they turned to the Scriptures each day to see if what was said was true. A careful study of the Word of God will be the best answer to any doubts you have. The Word of God will lead you toward faith and away from disbelief. The Bible provides the answers to your doubts, and being nourished by the Bible will slowly dispel your doubts.
In that way, faith is similar to health. You are not healthy because you fight sickness with drugs and fevers. Your health is maintained by growth, nourishment and exercise. You fight sickness by staying healthy and staying clean. Likewise faith does not come from fighting off every doubt you may consider. Faith is the result of nourishment and exercise. You fight sickness by living a healthy lifestyle. You resist doubt by growing in your faith. A careful study of the Word of God is a prime means of that growth. The third tool that God gives us to remove doubt is:
C. Talking to Others–Luke 7:18 to 23
We see this with John the Baptist when he’s in prison–he’s been there for some amount of time. He’s already baptized Jesus. Some of his followers have left and followed Jesus. But now watching from a distance, John begins to have doubts.
Luke 7:19 to 22 says, “Summoning two of his disciples, John the Baptist sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’ 20 When the men came to Him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?”’ 21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind. 22 And He answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you have seen and heard.’”
From prison, John calls a couple of friends and tells them his doubts. He says, “I’m not sure that Jesus is the Messiah. Go find out.” So the friends go and talk to Jesus.
And notice Jesus’ reply. He doesn’t slam John for his doubts. He doesn’t remind John that they’re family, or that John had seen the Spirit of God descend on Jesus, or that John himself had said that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Jesus understands and has compassion on his doubts and provides answers. He does things prophesied of the Messiah and tells John’s friends to go tell him what they saw and heard. And get this–John’s doubts are answered by what others tell him about what they have seen and heard about Jesus.
Sometimes when the Scriptures are unavailable, or when you can’t figure them out–at that point, then talking to others is one of the best things you can do. You tell them your doubts, you ask for their help in getting answers. And together you look at what God says. You don’t stay quiet about it. From this day forward you know that you are not alone. You know that others have struggled with doubt. And friends of yours seated here today have asked some of the same questions.
God can handle your questions. The Bible can answer your questions. Answered, your doubts will result in a stronger faith. Unanswered, lingering doubt dissolves faith. Don’t let your doubts control you–don’t let them be suppressed–don’t let them eat at you. Get answers . . . defeat your doubt through prayer, the Word and the help of friends.