“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 (releases July 1 – Available at BarnesandNoble.com & Amazon.com) 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.
Danny Franks is the Connections Pastor at the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. He blogs at dfranks.com and also speaks, trains, and consults with churches. Danny is married and has three sons and a daughter.
There will always be outposts of doubt that spring up in my heart. For the Christian, the initial trajectory of faith has to be belief. If we are to have faith in Jesus’ completed work on the cross, we must believe that Jesus went to the cross. We must believe that his substitutionary death and resurrection was enough for our sin and our shame. That lies at the heart of our belief.
But while we start well, we eventually find it too easy to stop believing. “I believe in your sovereignty…but you can’t heal my marriage.” “I believe that you are good…but I hate the suffering I’m enduring right now.” “I believe you have redeemed me…but don’t touch my career plans.”
There are plenty of pockets of unbelief that still exist – and constantly spring up – in my heart. I believe in Jesus; I just don’t act as if I believe everything he said.
All of my “belief and doubt” passages can be encapsulated in Leviticus 20:22: “Remember all my laws and rules, and obey them. I am leading you to your own land, and if you obey my laws and rules, that land will not throw you out.” (NCV)
Here’s what I know about me: I’m hard-wired to work towards my salvation. And when I read the Old Testament, I get downright depressed. “Obey all the laws and rules? I can’t even remember all the laws and rules. I failed the first word of the verse; how can I achieve the rest?” I want to be be good, but when I try to be good I realize I can never be good.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the truth. I know that Leviticus was written under the old covenant. I recognize that Jesus forever sealed us in the new covenant. He remembered and obeyed the laws and rules perfectly. Our perfect acceptance is not based on our perfect obedience. But that doesn’t stop me from (a) gravitating towards keeping the law and (b) falling into despair when I fail to (which is every single time).
My desire is to believe in Jesus, not myself. To look at the cross, not my performance.
I think that many of us mistake belief in God for a belief in something beyond ourselves. In our politically correct society we talk about appealing to a higher power, we channel our “thoughts and prayers” during a time of tragedy, we do everything possible to sanitize and marginalize the ruler of the universe and the author of our lives.
But while belief in God might start there, it cannot stop there. God’s omnipotence and omniscience doesn’t allow for someone to give a casual nod to his existence or to toss out a perfunctory prayer during a moment of crisis. No, if God is God, then just acknowledging his presence will never be enough. If God is powerful enough to condemn us to hell but loving enough to crush his son on our behalf, that demands a response. As the hymn writer said, such a love demands our soul, our life, our all.
Charles Spurgeon said that doubt is a foot poised to go forward or backward in faith. My goal is to look at my doubt through the lens of my belief, and not the other way around. When I proposed to my wife, I had no idea what the decades ahead held for us. I could never have predicted the joys, the sorrows, the challenges, the adventure. You could say that I had doubts about the future, but I had no doubt in her. I knew that she was the “her” I wanted to go through life with. When those challenges arose in the coming years, I could question the challenges, but I should never question her, because she was the “her” that I chose.
On an infinitely larger scale, it is the same with God. His performance on our behalf in the past should be an indicator of his faithfulness in the present and his reliability for the future. If we can trust him with our eternity, we should be able to trust him with our present day. If my “foot of doubt” is poised to go forward in faith, I find that it usually does. If I start with the assumption that God is right, it minimizes my doubt and increases my belief.
I believe we start with who God says he is and what he says he can do. Mark 1 recounts one of my favorite stories in this regard. A leper asked Jesus for healing, and he started with what he knew to be true: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” (v. 40) Not “If you can…” but rather “You CAN.” The leper believed Jesus could, he just asked if Jesus would.
Our doubt often stems from such small things. But in the same regard, our faith can stem from small things. The Red Sea didn’t part until Moses lifted his staff. Goliath didn’t fall until David picked up the stones. And we will not see God move until we take a small step of belief. That is the “mustard seed faith” that Jesus calls us to. God doesn’t match our faith with his work. No, he more than overwhelms our tiny acts of faith with his reward.