Doubting God: Why Struggling Faith is Real Faith

Have you ever dealt with doubting God? Most Christians have. In fact, one study found that two-thirds of Christians have questioned what they believe about religion or God. So doubt isn’t weird. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Have you ever dealt with doubting God? Most Christians have. In fact, one study found that two-thirds of Christians have questioned what they believe about religion or God. So doubt isn’t weird. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Doubt is normal. No matter who you are, you’re going to have doubts. It’s a part of being human. Even heroes in the Bible had doubts:

  • Job
  • Abraham
  • David and the Psalmists
  • Jeremiah
  • Jewish leaders
  • John the Baptists
  • Thomas
  • Paul

But for some reason, too many Christians look down on others for having doubts about God.

I think most atheists believe in God in some form or fashion, they just don’t know Him as well as they would like to, so they label themselves as atheists while they try to figure it out. 

Some atheists will openly tell you they’re angry with God, but you can’t be angry with someone you don’t believe in.

In his book The Thomas Factor, Gary Habermas says there are 3 types of doubt:

  1. Factual or philosophical doubt
  2. Emotional doubt
  3. Volitional doubt

Most people doubt for emotional reasons. That’s the largest group of doubters (70-85% of all doubters).

Sometimes doubt is helpful and sometimes it’s not. But doubt in and of itself is not negative. Doubt is also not sin. God can handle your questions.

There are many passages where Biblical believers not only doubted God, but also said some major things about God that weren’t true.

You’re going to doubt no matter who you are, so the question is not do you doubt, but do you know what to do about it?

If you don’t know what to do about your doubts, you’re floating and being tossed around by the latest trends and ideas.

It’s important to know that doubting is almost never solved by evidence. According to Gary Habermas, only about 15% of doubts are factual.

Sure, dealing with factual doubts is important, but there’s more than enough evidence to get you past those doubts.

In other words, good answers are necessary, but not sufficient. They simply serve as the foundation for faith.

Let’s look a little closer at the different types of doubt.

Factual doubt

Doubt is most common from age 18 to early 30s, and 60-90% of young people say they walk away from their faith in a secular school. Many of them come back in their early 30s. That’s approximately a decade of their most productive years of their lives gone. 

A lot of the time, it’s just a professor or someone else dismissing and belittling Christians. They don’t typically give refutations, they just dismiss it and belittle it. They tend to apply peer pressure to young people and make them feel like intellectual people don’t believe those things (Christianity).

The biggest reasons young people doubt are typically:

  1. They’re being pressured by their peers
  2. They’re caught up in some type of negative behavior they either don’t want to address or don’t want to give up
  3. Emotions

The thing is, even though college experiences are known for challenging religious ideologies, college professors don’t typically refute Christianity. If they do, they’ll use a poor refutation.

They might say something like:

“Do you know there were 15 crucified and risen saviors prior to Jesus?”

They might point to people like Dionysus or Ocherous (Ocyrus), who were both born on Dec. 25th and were both crucified and risen.

They might try to make you feel like churches or messiahs are not unique.

But what’s interesting about this is there were no crucified and risen saviors before Jesus. Dionysus never lived, so he couldn’t have been crucified and risen. Ocherous (Ocyrus?) never lived and no account says he was crucified and risen. Even Bart Ehrman says that’s all garbage.

The problem is, many times people don’t separate central vs. peripheral doctrines.

Periphery doctrines are the things that atheists like Bill Maher love to use to belittle Christians over. They focus on the little details like eschatology.

The two most common beliefs Christians lose when challenged is:

  1. Someone tells them the universe wasn’t created in six 24-hour days
    • Answer: And? Your point? Does it really matter?
  2. Someone tells them the Bible is not inerrant (in other words, it’s filled with errors)
    • Answer: Your point?
    • “That means you can’t believe it.” That does not follow. Even if you don’t believe the majority of the Bible is reliable, you can use skeptic’s information (the parts of the Bible even skeptics accept as historically accurate documents) and still show the resurrection occurred.
    • “But it’s not reliable.” And?
    • “Most of the texts are mistaken.” And?
    • “You can’t still hold your doctrines.” I can still hold my doctrines because Christianity is based on the truth of the Gospel data.
    • If all that’s true about Christianity is that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead, then Christianity follows. And it just so happens that the strongest evidence we have is in the area that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead.

Just remember: People will always debate 6-day creation and all these other details in the Bible, but they are simply periphery issues. They’re small details in comparison to the primary messages of the Bible.

You can’t have the mindset that if one thing in the Bible is confusing or doesn’t seem to make sense, then the Bible as a whole can’t be right in any area at all. That’s not logical.

Personally, I’m convinced the Bible is 100% correct, but we as human beings have an overwhelming tendency to misinterpret and argue over things. It’s what we do. 

The Gospel message (that Jesus is the Son of God, He died on the cross for our sins, and He was raised from the dead) is the one thing in the Bible that is absolutely, 100% undebatable. 

It just so happens to also be the most important thing in the entire Bible and it’s the one doctrine that is the most supported by evidence.

In other words, God put the most evidence for the most important thing we need to know.

The Gospel isn’t all there is to the Bible, but in the Bible itself Paul clearly put “first importance” on the Gospel.

So Christians are most defensible in their most important doctrine.

Everything else people love to argue over is just periphery and a distraction from the central information. 

So minimize the importance you place on periphery issues.

Was Calvin wrong? What if he was? And? What follows from that? That Calvin was wrong? So what?

Look to answer the most important central doctrines:

  • That Jesus is the Son of God (Deity)
  • That Jesus died on the cross for our sins (Death)
  • That Jesus was resurrected from the dead (Resurrection)

Then if that’s not working and something is still nagging at you and you’re in pain, then it’s probably emotional doubt.

Emotional doubt is the most painful, yet it’s the least serious.

Emotional Doubt

Emotional doubt is the only doubt that comes with pain. Factual doubt and volitional don’t hurt, but emotional doubt does.

Emotional doubters know the facts, they just have a hard time believing them due to an emotional view of the facts.

They might think it’s too good to be true or they might obsess over all the “what if’s” that they ultimately can’t answer anyways.

When you have the facts on a situation but you still struggle with doubt, there’s probably and emotional, anxious, or obsessive cause to these doubts.

Emotional doubters usually ask similar questions to factual doubters, but they ask for different reasons.

For example, they might both ask for evidence of the resurrection, but one is genuinely looking for facts they don’t have, and the other is asking because they’re really wondering if it could be possible to be wrong.

One common characteristic of emotional doubt is when a question starts with “what if…”.

They usually know the evidence, but they often wonder things like, “What if we’re wrong?”

But you could turn that around and say, “Do you have any reason to think we’re wrong?”

They tend to have general “what if” questions without evidence behind it.

Their doubt is painful. They might say things like it would be “horrible” to be wrong.

They might have fears about Jesus saying He never knew them or that they might still go to hell even though they’re saved.

They might also obsess over questions like “How do I know if I love God” and other questions that can’t be backed by evidence.

Most of the time in our lives, it’s not the facts of the situations around us that are important, it’s how we process those facts.

Similarly, the worst kind of pain in our lives is not from what happens to us, but how we download it or process it.

Emotional doubters might include people who keep getting saved because they doubt whether or not they’re saved.

They just know they’re not saved even though they believe the Gospel.

It’s an emotional response to the data.

For these people, something bad typically happens and they give themselves permission to let those events determine why they have problems.

However, beliefs (i.e. the way we download information) are the things that stand between those events that happen to us and the consequences that come from them.

Events alone rarely cause all the consequences we experience. Events plus our beliefs about those events cause those excessive consequences.

So when we say negative things to ourselves about things that matter to us – things like “What if God doesn’t really love me?” – you have to dispute these things with “That’s not true because …”

It’s all about how you talk to yourself about things, because most of us lie to ourselves without even realizing it.

There are really 3 steps to dealing with these lies:

Locate the lie. There’s a primary and secondary misbelief usually. You might say one lie to yourself, but there’s usually a deeper lie about life beneath that.

Remove & Replace – “That’s not true because …”

Replace the lie with a truth from God.

Say it hard and stern to yourself and it will work faster.

Most emotional doubters are anxious doubters. They’re being anxious or obsessive compulsive.

Change your perspective, pray, celebrate God, and see things from His perspective instead of the negative perspective of the lie.

Emotional doubt is not rational.

An example of emotional doubt might be someone who has no problem believing that God exists, but emotionally they can’t come to grips with why God would allow evil to come into their lives.

They’ve seen the facts, and the facts make sense, but they let their emotions dictate what they’re willing to believe.

A lot of times, this type of person has moved past the intellectual stage of doubting and into emotional doubting. They see the world the way it is, they’ve heard the explanation of why it is that way, yet they don’t want to believe it.

The emotional doubter might say, “But what about hell? What is it and who goes there? And how can it exist with a loving God?”

These are questions that go beyond available human knowledge and therefore require faith. So the bigger issue is this: 

You need to get your emotional doubts straightened out before you give up and completely turn off to God. That’s what we’re going to call volitional doubt.

Volitional doubt describes people who know Christianity is true, but they’re mad at God and they’ve turned away from God completely.

We have to step in and help people before they get to this hardened stage.

What should we do with doubt?

First of all, remember that the most damage that occurs in our lives is not from what happens to us, but how we download it. That’s why saying or thinking negative things to ourselves is a very poisonous thing to do.

But where does faith come into all of this?

In scripture, the word for “hope” is a grounded hope, not a hope in something you don’t know about.

Faith does what reason can’t do. Faith is not a weak sister that you add to the heavy stuff – science, history, philosophy, etc.

Faith says, “this can be trusted.” Faith says, “quit asking ‘what if ‘about stupid questions when you already have good answers. Otherwise you’re going to be hurting.”

Reason says here are good responses. Faith says those are good enough, you can trust those. Faith says walk in it. Walk a mile in Jesus’s sandals. Faith comes along and says belief is warranted.

Faith, essentially, is trusting the evidence.

Guys tend to say “what if” about everything.

But we have something to learn from women. It’s okay to keep reading to build on good answers, but not because you have to keep answering the same question every day.

You have to train the habit of faith. 

Faith is not going to stay there if you ignore it. That’s why people who follow Jesus read the Bible, worship, fellowship with other Christians, etc. Because that reinforces our faith when we hang around people who don’t think they have to answer the same questions every day.

Bottom Line on Doubt

Faith is a process. It’s not something you instantly gain once you hear all the facts.

It’s important to hear the facts first, but the facts can’t answer every question for you. So once you have all the pertinent facts, you have to choose to move past your emotions and trust in something outside of your understanding. That’s what faith is.

After all, isn’t that what we do with every area of our lives anyways?

You don’t know for a fact that every single component of your vehicle is in tact and working properly, yet you drive it anyways.

You don’t know for a fact that every single piece and part holding your house or apartment together is in good shape and capable of carrying it’s load, but you still go home and walk inside.

You aren’t certain that when you go to sleep your body will continue working flawlessly, yet you still fall asleep.

Many doubts we face about God simply come down to the fact that our worldviews have a hard time changing. For some of us, that’s a much larger stretch than for others. But it’s 100% possible to get there.

The important thing to remember is this:

  1. Get the most important facts on God, the Bible, Jesus, and the resurrection
  2. Once you have those facts, decide to take the leap of faith. To do this, you have to reach a place where you understand the most important facts well enough to know that they’re compelling at the very least and are therefore worth the leap.
  3. After you’ve decided to trust God, the process of aligning your worldview to God’s begins. Doubts will periodically come in, and when they do, go back to your facts, your truth you wrote down. Your mind will forget them, so constantly remind yourself of them. Then – and this might sound strange – but pray to God and ask Him for help. He WILL help you.

So prepare for doubts about God. They’re normal, and the good news is they’re irrational. Knowing that, then replacing irrational lies with factual truth about God is what helps you get past the doubts and into a place of hope and joy.

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike Taylor is a proud husband, father of 4, and author from Nashville, TN who communicates God's love in a way that makes sense.