“I believe; help my unbelief” is my favorite phrase in scripture. It captures so much of what it means and takes to be a follower of Christ, encapsulating struggle, faith, doubt, obedience, wandering, and repentance. It is deeply theological and personal. For these reasons and more I wrote a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith which explores what real belief is and its relationship with doubt in the life of a believer. The challenges of that tension are not unique to me; They’re nearly universal among Christians no matter position, maturity, or church tradition. In the weeks leading up to the release I will share the the thoughts and experiences of several friends of mine – authors, church leaders, writers, thinkers – who honestly answered five questions about faith and doubt.
Tony Reinke is the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their three children, and works for DesiringGod.org.
I see profoundly honest words. This declaration comes from a father newly awakened to the reality that God pours out blessing via personal faith. This prospect for him (and for all of us) is thrilled with all the potential of God, and freighted with all the terrors of self-doubt. The pronouncement combines deep-seeded comfort with newly-awakened desperation.
Jesus’s words on the power of mustard seed-sized faith are reassuring to my soul (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6). His words tell me that saving faith is something analogous to digital TV.
I grew up with analog antennae TV. Some of those stations came in clear, but most of them were plagued by fuzzy snow or horizontal lines (depending on the cloud cover in the sky, the exact position of the rabbit ears, and the crumpled aluminum foil). No channel had the same signal strength. Digital changed all this. With a digital antenna, my TV either displays the channel in full HD color, or the screen goes black. So long as the signal is received, the strength is inconsequential, and the picture is sharp.
Saving faith is digital. While there can be no salvation without faith, the security of my salvation is not determined by the strength of my faith (which is often weak), or the absence of all doubt (which is rare). My security is in Christ, and mustard seed-sized faith connects me to him. In this security, I can face all other doubts and insecurities.
At root, faith is conviction about future events and invisible realities (Heb. 11:1).
Applying that to God, it is the conviction that God is real and he totally acts, and both are hard to see. So faith in God is a perception of him. More than just knowing he exists, faith includes a perception of his attractive beauty. And then it includes a conviction that his actions and promises (past, present, and future) are authentic.
Which means faith seems entirely impossible. I know myself enough to know that true faith in God cannot naturally emerge out of me. Faith must be a gift of grace, and it is (Eph. 2:7–8; Phil. 1:29).
Faith is a gift, but the package comes in different sizes. I once sat at the kitchen table of a very old theologian I admire, for a long and leisurely conversation. At one point he stared out the window and marveled that in decades of marriage his wife had never seriously struggled with doubt. Her faith was childlike. Never making eye contact, he admitted regularly struggling with seasons of unbelief, even after 70 years of following Christ.
The memory of that conversation still stuns me, but faith is like that — a gift that comes in varying sizes and degrees. It’s a gift, but a temporary one. One day we will see Christ, and we will we cross over the threshold from this age of faith and enter into the sweet age of eternal sight. For whatever reason, God has chosen to minimize our sight in the Christian life, and for now, puts the heavy weight of life on the shoulders of our faith.
Doubt and belief coexist in tension. Mustard seed-sized faith can hide in the shadow of elephant-sized unbelief. Hopefully the contrast will change over time, as faith grows and unbelief shrinks. But the two live together in tension, to some degree, for all of our lives on this fallen planet.
The tension between belief and doubt is the battlefield of Christian obedience. The stakes are very high. Faith is called on to direct all our actions (Heb. 11; James 2:18; Rom. 14:23). In the Christian, unbelief leads to timidity, error, and disobedience. A life of faith leads to courage, discernment, and obedience. In that tension we live every day. The fight for faith is the very real struggle of the Christian life (Eph. 4:13–14).
Our initial faith in Christ is very personal, but our ongoing growth in faith is a community project (see 1 Thess. 3:10; 2 Cor. 10:15; Eph. 4:11–16).
My faith grows as I gather with God’s people in a healthy local church. Using our mutual gifts, we sing and speak the truth to one another, which encourages our mutual faith. The New Testament writers bend backwards to ensure the safety of our brothers and sisters with the weakest faith. I think this points to the mutual patience, forbearance, and love that all faith needs to flourish.
In the battle against unbelief, I am not alone. The church is where believers gather, yes, but more accurately it’s a safe place for help-my-unbelief-ers to gather, too.