Dealing with Doubt

“And have mercy on those who doubt.” – Jude 22

I’ll never forget the first time I seriously questioned my faith. I was thirteen, sitting in the back of a Christmas Eve service, and as I looked up at the church ceiling, I thought, “How do I know this isn’t all made up?” Feeling the tears build in my eyes, I rushed out of the sanctuary to collect myself. As I sat in the lobby, a domino effect of uncertainty and confusion set in. I began to question more and more of what I had been brought up to believe. I felt overcome with fear.

My fear stemmed from a view of faith as a binary thing that you either had or didn’t have. Growing up in church, sometimes I’d look around and it would feel like every other Christian had it all figured out, with complete confidence in their convictions. I wanted to be that way too, so I’d act like I didn’t have any doubts. I would hear stories about people who had left the faith after they had started doubting; so at some point, I developed this notion that if I were a real Christian, I wouldn’t experience doubt. Doubt became something to avoid, to push away, or to treat like it didn’t exist. As a result, I came to fear it. Once I grew older and the questions kept piling up without being addressed, eventually, I hit a breaking point. I had all this doubt built up and absolutely no idea how to feel about it, where to go with it, or what my life would look like if I ever made it out.

I know I’m not alone in having felt this way. In fact, it seems to be very common. There are a lot of things in the world that can lead someone to doubt. It could be a family member receiving a concerning diagnosis, a news station describing the latest tragedy, or something as simple as curiously searching a Bible question on Google and being bombarded by dozens of skeptical and atheistic responses. Sometimes, the messiness of it all makes it feel like we just can’t believe what Christianity teaches. This is only worsened by COVID-19, where prolonged isolation and a spotlight on worldwide suffering bring with them a slew of new questions, magnifying whatever uncertainties about Christianity we may have had previously. Christians today need to be prepared to deal with doubt, both in our own lives and our communities, but we can’t be ready if it’s something of which we are fearful.

This is why Matthew 11 has quickly become one of my favorite passages in the Bible. In this chapter, John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus and even baptized Him, has just been put in prison. Likely awaiting death, he has his followers ask Jesus a question on his behalf: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”1

This question still shocks me when I read it because it reveals that John the Baptist had some serious doubts about his faith. I know that if I were in John’s position, I would have been absolutely terrified to ask this question. John, the man who was related to Jesus and witnessed His miracles and teachings, the man who talked about Jesus by proclaiming “this joy of mine is now complete.”2 You’d think if anyone had confidence that Jesus was the Christ, it would be John the Baptist! Yet, there he was, publicly questioning Jesus’ validity, doubting the very faith that he had once championed. 

I’ve noticed that when talking to people about how their doubts have been received, their experiences generally fall into one of two camps. The first is that people feel their concerns are inflated, where the doubter ends up feeling judged or reprimanded for asking questions. The second is to have their concerns mitigated, to be told their doubt will fade away and that all it takes is more faith. Both of these approaches can lead people to fear their doubts, which is why Jesus’ response to John is so amazing. Jesus says, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”3

At first glance, Jesus’ response can seem confusing. John asked a yes or no question, so why didn’t Jesus answer accordingly? However, in this context, His response was really a resounding “yes.” New Testament scholar Craig Evans elaborates by referring to 4Q521, a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment that describes what some of Jesus’ contemporaries thought should be happening in the world when the Messiah arrived. Evans explains that “Jesus has appealed to some of the same passages and phrases that were employed by the author of 4Q521… In answering John’s question in this way, Jesus has clearly implied that he is indeed Israel’s Messiah, for the wonderful things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah appears are in fact happening in Jesus’ ministry.”4 Jesus doesn’t just have an answer; He has evidence that backs up his answer, showing John that there is good reason to keep the faith. By pointing to what He has done in the world, Jesus reminds John that despite the circumstances, Jesus is the One who is in control.

Jesus then goes on to say, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”5 Given how disrespectful John’s doubt would have appeared to be, it would have been easy for Jesus to either attack John or ignore his question. However, Jesus not only takes the question seriously but also builds John’s confidence back up with His response. As American theologian Russell Moore points out, “A narcissistic cult leader or political guru would be offended by this wobbliness, but Jesus was not.”

I think Christians can benefit greatly if we take Matthew 11 to heart when dealing with doubt, both for ourselves and our fellow believers. Doubt doesn’t have to be something we fear, because if even John the Baptist had major doubts in his journey, it’s safe to say that we probably will too. Instead, we can encourage Christians to be open about their uncertainties, knowing that they are a natural part of our faith journey. For most Christians I know, myself included, doubts have ultimately played a key role in strengthening our faith by acting as an invitation to investigate and understand what one really believes and why. If we treat doubt appropriately and make sure to imitate Jesus in building up our brothers and sisters when they’re struggling, crises of faith can turn into catalysts of faith.

In the months following that Christmas Eve service, I was able to work through my doubts thanks to the help of many wonderful Christian mentors. However, I would be lying if I said they didn’t return frequently. Life is weird and messy, and just about anything in a pandemic can cause you to feel uncertain. Remarkably, I no longer fear doubt. Just like with John, regardless of circumstances, I can take comfort in looking to the very real things that Jesus said and did in the world and be at peace knowing that at the end of the day, Jesus still is the Christ. He still died and overcame the grave for us. He still is Lord, and He still loves us.

FOOTNOTES:

1 Matthew 11:3 ESV

2 John 3:29 ESV

3 Matthew 11: 5-6 ESV

4 Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. IVP, 2007. 

5 Matthew 11:11 ESV

6 Russell, Moore. “Real Christian Courage Looks like Elijah at His Most Pathetic.” Christianity Today, 18 Mar. 2021.

Andrew Nachamkin ’24 is a prospective Statistics major at Williams College. From Cold Spring, NY, he enjoys theater, basketball, and reading on his Kindle.

 

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