“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.
Jon Nielson serves as the lead pastor of Spring Hill Presbyterian Church in Illinois and served previously as Ministry Director at Princeton University for Christian Union. He is the author of Bible Study: A Student’s Guide and The Story: The Bible’s Grand Narrative of Redemption, One Year Daily Devotional for Students. Jon and his wife, Jeannie, have three daughters.
In the context, I think the man who makes that statement to Jesus is genuinely affirming his belief in the power and person of Christ. But, he’s asking for help; he wants Jesus to enable him to believe even more whole-heartedly in him…without any doubts. As I apply that to my life as one who does believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I think it becomes a worthy prayer. For those of us who have thrown ourselves at the mercy of Christ for salvation, and who still struggle with sin and doubt in this fallen world, we ask our Savior for more faith, love, and belief toward him every day.
I love Jesus’ words to Thomas, who has just declared his belief in him as “Lord” and “God,” after touching the wounds of the risen Lord. Jesus tells him, in John 20, that he has believed because he has seen, but those who believe without seeing are greatly blessed. That includes us today! I take these as Jesus’ words of hope and blessing to those who will place their faith and trust in him – today – without yet seeing him face to face. We’re called to believe the witness of the Word, and be sure that our Savior lived, died for sin, rose, and now lives…to one day return and rule.
Belief in God is, quite simply, taking him at his Word. It’s placing our complete trust in everything he tells us in his Word, and “leaning” on him completely for our hope, happiness, significance, security, and, of course, our salvation. This is going to involve a mental assent – accepting as full truth everything that we read in the Bible as God’s very words. But, it’s also going to be a heartfelt commitment – a giving of ourselves over to God completely through repentance of sin and trust in him as our Savior and our greatest eternal good.
I think that any Christian who hasn’t struggled with doubts – at least at some level – is probably guilty of not thinking deeply enough about his or her faith (or just not telling the truth). But, for those who are truly in Christ, I think that the object of our belief – Jesus Christ himself – is the sure foundation that keeps countering and defeating every doubt that arises (and doubts will arise from time to time). In times of doubt, we go back to the sure witness of God’s Word, the Bible. We remember his promises. We see his faithfulness to his people throughout the generations. We encounter again our Savior – promised in the pages of the OT, and presented to us and proclaimed in the pages of the NT. Our doubts can be dealt with, as we keep returning to our Savior, who is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.
If you want to get a tan, you’re going to put yourself regularly – and probably for extended periods of time – in the path of the sun. I think that, generally, if you want to grow in belief in God, you’re going to put yourself regularly – and for extended periods of time – in the places where God normally chooses to do his work. In the local church. Under the preaching of the Word. In personal study of Scripture. In prayer – privately, and with other Christians. In evangelism, service, and witness, alongside brothers and sisters in Christ. The old Westminster divines would call these things the “ordinary means of grace,” by which Christians most often grow up to maturity, faithfulness, and strong belief in their Savior.