Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Doubting Thomas

Anonymous said:_Hi there, Steve. I am a Christian, but I could relate to Teresa's experience. Is it possible that a true Christian can sometimes have the "dark night," where God doesn't seem real to him or near to him ... or are such "dark nighters" always reprobate non-christians?

i ask because i struggle with assurance of salvation some times for months...and the struggle itself seems to confirm my fears.


An important question, but difficult to answer in a vacuum. Christians can entertain religious doubts for a variety of reasons:

1.In apologetics, we focus on intellectual impediments to faith.

i) Some people have doubts because they don’t have enough conscious evidence at their fingertips.

ii) Or there may be plenty of evidence, but they fail to recognize the evidence staring them in the face because they have a faulty preconception of what counts as evidence or where to find the evidence.

iii) In case of (i) or (ii), this is due to a real or perceived lack of available evidence.

But doubt may also arise through apparent evidence to the contrary. And yet, the counterevidence is only apparent because they have false expectations or flawed models of what the truth is supposed to look like.

2.Then there are also theological impediments. These are not so much impediments to saving faith, but impediments to the assurance of salvation.

i) Some people doubt their salvation because they place the burden of proof in the wrong place. They fail to distinguish between rational and irrational doubt.

The imaginative ability to question your salvation is no reason to actually question your salvation. That’s an abuse of your imagination.

ii) Some people have a theological belief-system that positively robs them of the assurance of salvation. They may subscribe to a merit system of salvation. So they never know if they have earned enough points to make the cut. And do their bad dees cancel out their good deeds?

iii) Falling into grave sin can be a reason to doubt your salvation. But struggling with sin is not a reason to doubt your salvation. Indeed, if you were dead in sin, you wouldn’t put up a fight.

iv) Falling into imaginary sin can also eclipse your assurance of salvation. Some Christians feel guilty for violating legalistic dos and don’ts that have no basis in Scripture.

v) What does it mean to be a true believer? It doesn’t mean you believe in yourself. Don’t confuse saving faith with self-assurance.

And you don’t achieve the assurance of salvation by starting with the assurance of salvation. Assurance is an effect of something else. Focus on the source of assurance, not the effect.

vi) Are you an orthodox, Bible-believing Christian? That’s a start.

vii) Assuming that you answer (v) in the affirmative, suppose you still have doubts about your own salvation?

Ironically, the combination of (v) and (vi) is a reason not to doubt your salvation. You wouldn’t worry about you lack of assurance unless you cared about salvation in the first place.

So there’s more to your faith than merely believing all the right things. They mean something to you at a personal level.

If you can answer (v) in the affirmative, and if you suffer from self-doubts, then that’s a reason to put your self-doubts to rest. The combination of (v) and (vi) testifies to spiritual life. You have a vital faith. You have a personal and emotional investment in the truth of what you believe.

If you think about it this way, then your self-doubts are actually evidence that your faith is genuine. Your doubts are reason not to doubt.

viii) Remember, I’m distinguishing between doubt and self-doubt. Doubting yourself and doubting the faith are not the same thing.

ix) We also need to foster a realistic expectation of how we experience God in this life. God isn’t close to us or real to us in the same way as your wife or best friend.

And yet this cuts both ways. Time and space can separate us from our loved ones. But time and space pose no barrier to prayer.

3.Finally, there are existential impediments.

i) Some people are temperamentally prone to self-doubt. They second-guess their actions. They question their motives.

And this can spill over into their faith. It’s important to remember, though, that this doesn’t have anything to do with the integrity of their faith. It’s just a side-effect of their personality-type.

And it’s not necessarily a character-flaw. The opposite extreme is the sociopath. He has no conscience.

The church needs a mix of personality-types. Extroverted, self-confident types are natural leaders. Good organizers. Great at open air evangelism.

They’re not so good at the hospital bed. They lack empathy.

Likewise, they tend to be men of action rather than men of ideas. But the church needs both. It won’t do to have creedless deeds or deedless creeds.

ii) Some people are prone to self-doubt because of their upbringing. For example, there are sons who could never please their fathers. So they lack self-confidence.

They are shy. They feel like underachievers because their father never made them feel successful.

Or maybe they were bullied at school. Lousy at sports. The classic nerd syndrome.

Of course, some nerds grown up to be Bill Gates. If they can’t be an all-star, they can buy an all-star team!

Once again, though, it’s important not to confuse this with saving faith. It’s just a side-effect of one’s socialization. Never confound a lack of self-assurance with spiritual assurance. Although these may not feel very different, they are logically independent of each other.

iii) On a related note, if you suffer from, say, chronic pain or chronic fatigue, this will definitely affect your attitude. We are holistic creatures, not brains in a vat.

So how you feel physically will impact how you feel emotionally. And that, in turn, can overshadow your faith. If you’re depressed, you will be a depressed believer.

Likewise, climate can affect your emotional wellbeing. Or a sour love-life.

But don’t equate any of this with saving faith. The shadow is emotional, not spiritual. It doesn’t alter your objective and unbreakable relationship with Christ.

iv) Finally, self-doubt can feed on itself. You should try to break the cycle, where possible, by enriching your social, emotional, and spiritual experience.


  1. This was all God's perfect timing! I needed to read that. Here's a post I put on my blog just last week:

    Thanks Steve.

  2. Steve has given a lot of good counsel, and I would add a few specifics to some of the general principles he discussed. Study the doctrine of justification. Memorize some passages of scripture relevant to the sufficiency of Christ's substitutionary work (for example, Romans 5:1, 5:9-10, 8:30-39, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 8:9, Hebrews 7:25-26, 1 John 2:1). Memorize some hymns with similar themes:

    "He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!" (Mathetes, The Epistle To Diognetus, 9)

  3. Jason, yes, it's true that the wonderful work of Christ just has to produce a joy and gladness in our hearts at some point if we are truly regenerate, but could it be that we fully believe and accept these truths and still find ourselves fighting a terrible depression? I mean, it's a chemical thing, too, right?

  4. By the way, awesome last couple of posts on the subject, Steve.

  5. Anonymous said:

    "Jason, yes, it's true that the wonderful work of Christ just has to produce a joy and gladness in our hearts at some point if we are truly regenerate, but could it be that we fully believe and accept these truths and still find ourselves fighting a terrible depression? I mean, it's a chemical thing, too, right?"

    I was addressing what was said in the quote Steve posted from the person he was responding to. That person mentioned "assurance of salvation". Depression is a different issue.

  6. thanks for answering my question about the dark night of the soul. the strange thing about my 'dark night" is that i never have intellectual doubts about the faith. like, i never doubt the truth of jesus or the bible, but my doubts just come from wondering if im a true christian. right now i really feel like i am. but for two years i ws 100% convinced that i had committed the unforgivable sin. these days, doubts come in when i accidently remember the scary passages of the bible (like 1 jn 5:16) or when i'm in a group and i begin wondering why my christian friends love jesus so much more than i or are more excited about evangelism than i am (is it because i don't have the spirit in me, i wonder). recently it has gotten a little better. anyway, that's my story.

  7. 1.Don't measure yourself by the apparent zeal of your Christian friends. Zeal can wax and wane.

    2.Of course we're supposed to love Jesus. However, in this life, Jesus is not someone we know personally. Rather, we know about Jesus from reading about Jesus.

    So it's not like your mother or father or brother or best friend.

    One has to cultivate a love for Jesus.

    3. I've discussed the unforgivable sin in a couple of places: