I’m a Believer. So Why Do I Struggle with Doubt?

“When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

“Some doubted.” Yes, even when looking at the resurrected Christ.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that while we are still in this world—even if we were to see Jesus with our own eyes—we sometimes struggle with doubt. If this was difficult for the disciples who stood staring right at Jesus, how much more necessary is it for us today!

I came across a helpful discussion of this mingling of faith and doubt in Calvin’s Institutes. I offer it here to encourage those of us who find our faith mingled with doubt—who cry with the father of the demon-possessed child, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). (Note: I’m using Henry Beveridge’s translation. For clarity’s sake, I have updated the language and taken the liberty to paraphrase in some places).

The believer finds within himself two principles: the one filling him with delight in recognizing the divine goodness, the other filling him with bitterness under a sense of his fallen state; the one leading him to recline of the promise of the Gospel, the other alarming him by the conviction of his iniquity; the one making him exult with the anticipation of life, the other making him tremble with the fear of death. These principles are due to the imperfection of our faith. For, in this present life, we are never fully cured of the disease of distrust. We are never quite completely engulfed in perfect faith. That is why we feel those inner conflicts.

But this does not mean that faith is an obscure and confused understanding of God’s will. Even though we may be harassed by various doubts, it does not follow that we are divested of faith. Though we are agitated and carried to and fro by distrust, we are not immediately plunged into the abyss. Though we are shaken, we are not driven from our place.

The certain outcome of this struggle is this: that faith in the long run triumphs over the difficulties which try to bring it down.

Why? Because of the nature of true saving faith. As soon as the minutest particle of genuine faith is instilled into our minds, we begin to behold the face of God—in peace and favor toward us. We behold him, though far off, yet so distinctly as to assure us that there is no delusion in it.

-Adapted from Calvin’s Institutes Book 3, Chapter 2, Sections 18 and 19.

The “Book of Nature” is Not Enough

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” Every day, to each human being, the universe tells us something: There is a creator, and he is unimaginably powerful.

For centuries, people have called this “the Book of Nature,” or, to use a theological term, “general revelation.”

But it is obvious that something has gone wrong with this “Book of Nature,” this story of God’s glory. At the very least, something has gone wrong with our ability to read it right. The words seem to be smudged. Important pages are missing. In fact, the more closely we look, we will notice that there is another story written between the lines—a tragic tale of selfishness, rebellion, despair, and, finally, death.

This is not the story of the original Author. Rather, it was edited by our own sin and rebellion, as we are told in Genesis 3:17-19:

Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Apostle Paul expresses it this way in Romans 8:20: “The creation was subjected to futility,” and is in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21).

This “futility” and “bondage” is part of the reason that on one night we might look up at the stars and say, “What a Creator!” And on another day, we look at the decay all around us, and say, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

It is because of human sin that humans fail to read the book of nature as we should. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:19-21, when he writes,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

There is enough in the Book of Nature to show us that there is a God and that he is unimaginably powerful and glorious. But the Book of Nature is powerless to teach us why we are in such a predicament, why we feel so wretched and still long for light and salvation. It is powerless to teach us how to have a right relationship with God.

And that’s why we need another book, the Book of Scripture.

Fifteen Reasons to Pay Attention to God’s Word

The more I read, study, memorize, and meditate on it, the more I realize that God’s Word is what I need. All the time.

It is the power that brought the universe into existence (Genesis 1:3).

It is the seed that brings you to life (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:21).

It is the truth that sanctifies and sets you free you (John 17:17; 8:31-32)

It is the light that guides you (Psalm 119:105).

It is the mirror that shows you who you are (James 1:23).

It is the joy and delight of the heart (Jeremiah 15:16; Psalm 1:2).

It is the river that makes you flourish (Psalm 1:3).

It is the water that washes you (Ephesians 5:26).

It is the course that educates you (Psalm 119:130).

It is the gold that enriches you (Psalm 19:10).

It is the bread that nourishes you (Matthew 4:4; Job 23:12).

It is the courage that emboldens you (Psalm 56:4).

It is the song that you sing (Colossians 3:16).

It is the sword that arms you for battle (Ephesians 6:17).

It is the breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16).

For these and many more reasons, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (Hebrews 12:25).

How Important Is a Theological Belief?

Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Every believer is assigned at least one guardian angel.

Both statements above express a theological belief. But clearly, they are different in importance. The first statement I would stake my soul on. The second I wouldn’t stake a sandwich on (of course, I believe angels exist, but I can’t find anything in the Bible that says that each believer is assigned at least one guardian angel).

Here’s the question: how do I know to stake my soul on the first statement, but not on the second? In other words, if not all theological statements are equally important, how do I determine which ones are more important than others?

This excerpt from the ESV Study Bible provides a concise and helpful way to answer this question:

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church; (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and (4) questions are currently unsettled issues. These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye.”

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations: (1) biblical clarity; (2) relevance to the character of God; (3) relevance to the essence of the gospel; (4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it); (5) effect on other doctrines; (6) consensus among Christians (past and present); and (7) effect on personal and church life. These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.

 

How Is God Beautiful? An Answer from Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards emphasizes an aspect of God’s nature that most systematic theologies barely mention: the beauty of God. But what exactly does it mean that God is beautiful? This is a question that Edwards explores in his work The Nature of True Virtue.

Edwards realized that there was a kind of beauty in virtue, yet a beauty of such a particular kind that he wanted to designate it true beauty. This kind of beauty, Edwards explains, is essentially harmony at the highest level of reality; in his words, it is “a general beauty” or beauty “in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to everything with which it stands connected.” This highest-order harmony takes the particular shape of “benevolence to being in general”—that is a “union of heart” to the highest and most comprehensive scope of what exists. With this understanding of true beauty, Edwards believed that his quest for the nature of virtue was identical with the quest for what “renders any . . . exercise of the heart truly beautiful.”

Put concisely, true virtue and true beauty are the same thing: harmony (shown in benevolence) with the highest order of reality.

With this understanding of beauty and virtue, it becomes clear why God is beautiful. As the highest order—indeed, the very source—of all reality, God is at perfect harmony with himself, and this harmony is exhibited in boundless love and benevolence to himself: “Divine virtue,” Edwards explains, “Must consist primarily in love to himself, or in the mutual love and friendship which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead.” Edwards also draws the inference that “God’s goodness and love to created things, is derived from and subordinate to his love to himself.”

It can truly be said, then, that God’s love springs from his beauty, since “beauty” describes the boundless benevolence he exhibits within his Triune nature.

As moral agents, we humans can also possess this true beauty, but only insofar as we are at harmony with God. Unlike God’s beauty, ours is limited by our finite capacity as created beings, and it is merely derivative of God’s beauty. In other words, what makes us also truly beautiful is our sharing in this harmony with the highest order of reality—God himself. As Edwards puts it, “True virtue [and by extension, true beauty] must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.” Thus every truly beautiful person “seeks the glory of God, and makes that his supreme, governing, and ultimate end.”

Obviously, as fallen creatures, this beauty does not come automatically. Because of our sin, we have decentered our lives away from God, rendering us mangled in every respect. We need someone who actually lived a perfectly beautiful life–in perfect harmony with God–to stand in our place. This is where our craving for moral beauty meets the beauty of the gospel: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Quotations are from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, ed. Patrick H. Alexander (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1998).

God’s Omnibenevolence and the Problem of Evil

The doctrine of God’s omnibenevolence (God’s complete goodness) raises the problem of evil.

The classic formulation of this problem is the apparent incompatibility of the three propositions: 1) God is wholly God, 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) evil exists. If God is wholly good, he would want to prevent gratuitous evil; and if he were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent gratuitous evil (evil with no justifying cause). Yet evil still exists. Therefore, the Christian idea of an all-powerful, omnibenevolent God appears to be incoherent in a world in which evil exists.

On a philosophical level, this problem is fairly simple to explain. The objector has failed to make explicit a proposition that is unprovable, yet essential to the success of the argument: that is, that there is at least one instance of evil that is gratuitous. In other words, for any instance of evil that appears to be gratuitous, God might have a reason leading to a greater good of which we are currently unaware. Yet to have this knowledge, the objector must have omniscience.

The person who wishes to demonstrate the incoherence of the idea of God based on the existence of evil also faces the problem how where he or she got the idea of evil in the first place. Objectors to Christian theism would like to say that the existence of evil makes the concept of God incoherent. Upon further analysis, however, it becomes apparent that if God did not exist, the concept of evil itself would become incoherent. Therefore, by making his or her argument from evil, the atheist or skeptic has secretly imported some idea of absolute good.

Without God, you can’t have absolute good. And without absolute good, you have no right to speak of evil.

Michael Hill on Educating the Conscience

In the concluding chapter of his book The How and Why of Love: an Introduction to Evangelical Ethics, Michael Hill offers practical steps to living a Scripturally moral life. He divides these steps into the two major categories that comprise morality: decision-making and character-development.[1] For moral decision-making, Hill suggests that we (1) start with the big picture, (2) draw out the principles and values involved and (3) find a place for rules. For developing Christian character, Hill examines several important moral virtues listed in the New Testament and then emphasizes the importance of “educating your conscience.”

I am particularly interested in this idea of educating one’s conscience partially because I hear so little about the role of the conscience in moral decision-making. Hill argues that the conscience is not legislative. That is, its function is not to give a person “the principles and rules of morality.”[2] This view of the conscience would see Scripture and a person’s conscience saying essentially the same thing. Someone trying to be as moral as possible, listening careful to the dictates of his conscience, would inevitably come to the same conclusion about the morality or an action as would a person who was studying Scripture to find out the same thing. In this case, “there is no need to have a knowledge of Scripture if one desires to be moral. Scripture is merely a moral reminder.”[3] Of course, this is the view of the conscience that Hill argues against. In reality, Scripture presents a different view of the conscience: not as a legislator, telling a person what to do, but as a judge, telling a person that what he did is wrong.

The Apostle Paul’s perspective seems to concur with the judicial view of the conscience: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”[4] The actions of the conscience (if the “conflicting thoughts” are an extension or result of the conscience’s activity) are like the actions of a judge—accusing (condemning) or excusing (pardoning).

Hill’s conclusion here is that the conscience must be educated. It is not an infallible guide to morality, for it can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2). It seems that Hill has struck on a point that all Christians would do well to heed carefully. Running a “conscience check” on a particular action is not sufficient to gauge that action’s morality if our consciences are not educated by the Word of God. In a culture saturated by the media, we might be more in danger of conscience-searing than Christians before us. When we engage in excessive eating, trivial spending, lustful lingering, profane humoring, and blasphemous amusing without a shudder of the conscience, perhaps we are well on our way to desensitizing it. Only by restricting the volume of the world’s voice, and amplifying the volume of God’s voice in our lives can we hope to restore our consciences to their proper degree of sensitivity.


[1] Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love: an Introduction to Evangelical Ethics (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2002), 247-60.

[2] Hill, 259.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Romans 2:15.