In Scripture, it appears that there are two levels of doubt: doubt of the mind and doubt of the heart. Doubt of the Mind manifests as a simple question, “Why?,” and this is a good thing, even encouraged by Scripture. When Paul spoke in the city of Berea, the people “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed” (Acts 17:11-12, ESV). This kind of doubt, which would be better named questioning, is natural, good, and leads to concrete answers.
Doubt of the Heart
Doubt of the Heart, by contrast, is less concerned with the intellect or with facts; this type of doubt crops up in spite of facts. Doubt of the Heart questions sincerity and is at the root of distrust. In the Christian life, it may take the form of doubting God’s judgment about our own circumstances. “Is God really good?” “Does God really love me as his son/ daughter?” “Am I really forgiven for what I have done?” This is the scary type of doubt, which attacks what God has said in the Bible regarding our identity and his own. This is what some might call a crisis of faith.
In the Christian life, doubt is common and natural, something all Christians experience. You should not feel ashamed or guilty for questioning. God doesn’t look down upon you for asking questions. He loves you and doesn’t want you to suffer with distrust. A season of doubt is a chance to grow in your spiritual life, not a reason to despair.
Scripture is filled with believers struggling with Doubt of the Heart. In the garden, Satan asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Gen 3:1, ESV). The tempter’s question rattled Eve’s trust in the character of God and made her think God must be holding back something from her. (This would have been a good time to ask a question!) The Israelites on their way to the promised land doubted God and their identity as his people, grumbling that they would be better off in Egypt as slaves. God reminded Israel time and time again that he is their God, and they are his people.
God’s people are not immune to doubt, and simply telling ourselves or others to stop doubting won’t help. Unfortunately one cannot just wish the feeling away so easily. In the broad scope of Scripture, doubt is a temptation to disbelieve what God has said. In our own lives, doubt isn’t sin, but it is a temptation to sin. So how can we combat our doubt and win the battle over temptation? Let us look to Christ.
What Would Jesus Do?
When Jesus took on the human condition, he became like us in every respect, except without sin, and “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18, ESV). Before Jesus started his public ministry, he fasted for forty days, alone in the desert. Satan came to him and asked questions like the ones he asked in the garden: “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3).
Satan’s questions were designed to attack Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, tempting him to prove it rather than trusting in it. What does Jesus do? He responds with Scripture. He doesn’t play Satan’s game, trying to prove who he is. Rather, Jesus challenges Satan and puts his trust in what God has said (Matt. 4:10).
The book of Hebrews exhorts us to stick to our confession even when we feel unsure, because Jesus is our high priest, and, as a result, we receive mercy and grace in our time of need. (Heb. 4:14-16). But what does it mean to have Jesus as our high priest? In the Old Testament, the high priest was the representative of the people to God and vice versa, and the people didn’t dare to approach God apart from the high priest. But Jesus fulfills the role of high priest for us, going beyond what any human priest could do. Jesus, as our mediator, represents us before God the Father, and, through Jesus’ sacrifice, we are able to come before God clean from sin.
Having to go before God as an unforgiven sinner would be a terrifying situation, because our holy God won’t tolerate sin. But the grace we have through Christ has changed this entirely. When we’re in Christ, God looks on us with grace, and better yet, lovingly accepts us. “And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:21-23 ESV).
The author of Hebrews is challenging us to hold on to what we know is true (aka to live confessionally). Not only do we need to know what we believe, but we must also believe what we know to be true. In other words, we have to believe the facts that we get from Scripture about our right standing before God as beloved cleansed sinners. But do we believe this?
Doubt Meets Truth
At the heart level, we are capable of doubting this truth. We are tempted to believe that we aren’t really saved, that God hasn’t really forgiven our sins, that in order for God to truly love us we need to work harder or be better. These are lies, (see the similarity between this and the questions Satan asked?) and the only tool for confronting them is God’s truth as communicated through his Word (the Bible) and through his Son (Jesus Christ).
How do we know truth? We know the truth because God in Christ has shown us the truth. He showed us who he is, what he is like, and who we are to follow, which can be summed up in the word “truth” (John 18:37). When Doubt of the Heart comes and tempts us with lies about who we are or who God is, we are called to live confessionally.
How does this look on the ground level, in the day to day? An example from my life: in the past six months, my church was shut down, I had to change jobs, a relationship ended, I was forced to contemplate the future concerning graduate school, and I failed my first class. In the midst of this, God doesn’t look too good, too loving, or that he is even in control.
However, I know he is good, I know he is loving, and I know that he is King and in control. Through unfavorable circumstances, God has been teaching me to trust in him. On the ground level, I’m learning to combat my own Doubt of the Heart by believing what I know is true, hanging on to the facts. God was and is teaching me to live confessionally.
What does it mean to live confessionally? Well, here’s what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean that we are to blindly trust in ourselves, in man, or even in the church, pretending human error isn’t a reality. Confessional living does not mean masking our doubt with a smile, hiding our frustrations from others, or telling ourselves that we aren’t allowed to doubt. No, living confessionally looks very different.
First, we have to confess our doubt to God and others. We can talk to the Lord, confessing that we doubt that God is good, in control, or that we are truly saved. We can confess to him our struggles because he knows what we are going through.
Talking it out with other Christians helps too. Letting others in on your struggles allows you to process, but also, it allows others to grow in confessing their own struggles as well. Confession creates community with one another, and this community of believers can help you process your doubts (1 John 1:7).
Second, listen and reflect. As you confess your doubts and struggles to God and to his people, listen to what is being said. God speaks through Scripture (Ephesians 1 has been incredibly helpful to me) and through his people.
In addition to listening, reflect on what God has done in your own life. This will be like looking through old photos of yourself with unfortunate haircuts and asking yourself, “What was I thinking?” It’s just the same in your spiritual walk, realizing that you could have made better choices and that you could have trusted God more. It’s an opportunity to remember the times Jesus has been there, even when you thought he wasn’t.
Finally, confess the truth. This might come as a prayerful response to listening and reflecting. This confessing is a proclamation of who God is and what he has done in Jesus. This is you preaching the gospel to yourself; this is you expressing the truth of your salvation. It can even come in the form of a humble exclamation, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
This confession is a prayer that you can’t do it yourself; you need the Spirit to work in your heart, to give you faith to believe the truth. Despite all of your circumstances, all of your sins, and all of your doubts, you can feel confident confessing the truth before the throne of grace, because Jesus has saved you and he has been loving you. He is much bigger than your doubts, and no amount of questioning will deter him from showing you grace. Like it says in Romans 8:39, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of Christ, not your sin, not even your doubt.