In the January 2022 edition of ET, Stuart Olyott dealt with the question of doubts faced by Christians.
His response resonated with me, and I would like to share my own story of facing doubt in the hope that it may help others.
I wish I’d seen an article like Mr Olyott’s when I went through my own protracted experience of doubt. How it would have comforted me to know that even ‘the great and the good’ in the Christian world can be assailed by uncertainties.
My own period of doubt came upon me unexpectedly when I was in my mid-fifties. It grew and grew until I felt that all I could be certain of was that there is a God. Somehow that remained.
Everything else was open to question. I couldn’t open the Bible without seeing ‘problems’ of every kind – factual, ethical, and everything in between.
I desperately felt the need for someone to talk to who would understand, even if they couldn’t answer all my questions.
Nonetheless, I did want my questions answered. In actuality they were too numerous and complicated for any one individual to answer to my satisfaction, so I resorted to reading well-known apologetics books, supplemented with commentaries and internet articles.
In the process, I inevitably came across atheist/sceptic sites that made matters worse. I eventually learned to keep away from those.
Nearest and dearest can’t always help, much as they would like to.
Spiritual doubts are so deep and personal that it’s almost beyond another person’s ability to enter into them unless they’ve gone through them and come out the other side.
Doubt is such a lonely, isolating experience. On the one hand, you long to share what you are experiencing, but on the other hand, you don’t want to ‘infect’ others with your doubts and cause them to stumble.
The most natural thing should be to share it with your pastor. I did this, albeit very hesitantly. I received the response, ‘You do surprise me.’
That was it. My pastor didn’t get back to me after further reflection. It was as though the encounter had never happened. Maybe the problem was too big for him. I don’t know.
He was a good man (now deceased), whom I esteem greatly for many things, but I think he failed at that point.
I spoke sometime later to a retired pastor (also now deceased) who said the most helpful thing that could possibly have been said.
As I sat at his table, weeping and recounting my story and my fears that I had committed what I thought to be the unforgivable sin by having doubts, he looked at me and said, ‘If you had committed the unforgivable sin, you wouldn’t be sitting there weeping. You wouldn’t care!’
That was a lightbulb moment for me.
I can honestly say that I had no intention or desire to walk away from the faith. As Mr Olyott says, ‘Our convictions, although sometimes seriously unsettled, remain. We keep coming back to them. We can’t give them up.’
That describes me perfectly at that time. I found myself praying frequently, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24). I’m very grateful for that verse of Scripture.
I found consolation in the psalms of lament, and took comfort from the psalmist’s declaration of God’s deliverance. Many of his prayers became mine, as he cried out to God for help.
I also found comfort from the account of John the Baptist’s question to Jesus from prison: ‘Are you he that should come, or do we look for another?’
This passage popped into my head when I was at a particularly low point, feeling that God must be against me because of my doubts and would never answer my prayers for help.
I know that commentators differ on this passage, some arguing that the man who had cried, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ couldn’t possibly have expressed doubts later on.
But I don’t see why someone as great as John the Baptist couldn’t have had a ‘wobble’ when he was unjustly in prison and awaiting a death sentence. That’s how I took it.
Be that as it may – whether it was John the Baptist’s own question or that of his disciples – Jesus’s response was to do many more miracles ‘at that very hour’ and send a gracious message back to John, followed by a public affirmation of John’s greatness as a prophet.
For me this knocked on the head any thoughts I had that God is against those who have honest doubts and cry to him for help.
Gresham Machen’s doubt
I also had in the back of my mind an article I’d read in ET some time before about J. Gresham Machen, which referred to the theologian’s long period of intellectual doubt.
I desperately wanted to know more, but this was at the very beginning of the internet age, and I didn’t know anything about Google searches.
However, in the goodness of God, a book came into my possession in a remarkable way that recounted his severe ‘trial of faith’ and his eventual recovery and subsequent ministry.
I could identify very much with him in the letters he wrote to his parents. It’s interesting to note that Machen’s experience made him enormously sympathetic to others going through similar doubts. Such people are in short supply. I wish I’d known him.
Thorn in the flesh
So where am I at now? Am I walking in the sunny uplands of having all my questions and difficulties resolved? I have to answer in all honesty, ‘No.’
Am I eaten up by them, teetering on the edge of unbelief? Again I can answer, ‘No.’
All I can say is that, just as my long period of doubt came upon me suddenly, so it left me suddenly.
After years of waking up to questions swirling around in my mind and occupying my thoughts for much of the day (and night), I woke up to find, for reasons that I couldn’t and still can’t explain, that they didn’t seem to matter anymore.
And so it has remained, years later. I still do some research from time to time on difficult or contentious theological subjects (I do have a very enquiring mind!), but it’s more out of interest than to quieten doubts.
My tentative analysis of my ‘dark night of the soul’ (as I think of it) is that, for reasons of his own – and ultimately for my spiritual benefit – God allowed Satan to attack me in this particular way; and then, at God’s bidding, Satan withdrew.
I agree with Mr Olyott that it is ‘an attack by the father of lies on what is going on in the depths of the soul’.
Job can’t have been the only believer to have been attacked in this way, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens to any one of us.
Let us be wary of Satan’s devices, and let us extend sympathy and kindness to those who are suffering under such an attack.