“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.
Joe Rigney serves as Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He is the author of The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts and Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons, and he’s convinced that he’s descended from King Lune of Archenland on his father’s side. Follow him on Twitter: @joe_rigney.
Three things come to mind when I read those words. First, faith and unbelief can coexist. The same person can both believe and not believe. This is profoundly encouraging, because it means that we don’t have to be undone by the presence of doubt in our minds. The fact that unbelief arises in our hearts doesn’t mean that we’re completely cast off. At the same time, this coexistence is not peaceful. Unbelief is something that needs to be “helped,” to be overcome. So the fact that faith and unbelief can in some sense coexist shouldn’t lull me into complacency about unbelief. In a sense, the desperate father plants his feet on faith (“I believe”) and then pushes back against the unbelief in his life (“help my unbelief”). And then finally, unbelief is not something we will conquer ourselves. Deliverance must come from outside, from the God who overcomes unbelief and gives us the gift of faith.
“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:3. As I’ve written elsewhere, this verse helped to anchor me during a season of doubt in college. It (among other things) helped me to realize that I wasn’t alone, that even biblical authors experienced the despair of God’s felt absence. So you could probably add any passage in the Bible where the psalmist essentially says, “Where are you, God? Help me!” Those are helpful precisely because they combine the three elements I mentioned earlier: faith can exist alongside unbelief; faith and unbelief are at war; and God is the only hope for deliverance.
At its most basic, faith is coming to the God who is for the reward he offers (Heb. 11:6). It’s coming to Jesus so that your soul doesn’t hunger or thirst anymore (John 6:35). It’s having your eyes open to the beauty of Christ in the gospel, so that you embrace him. It’s knowing that Christ is real in the same way that you know the sun is up: because you see him as glorious with the eyes of your heart.
I’d distinguish between doubting and questioning. Questioning can easily and peacefully co-exist with faith. In fact, questioning is what faith does when it encounters the mystery and wonder of God and his world. Questioning is faith reaching out (even with nervous and fearful hands) to try and lay hold of something not yet seen. Doubt, on the other hand, is unbelief existing in a person who believes. It’s what the father experiences in Mark 9. It’s hostile to faith, and if left unchecked, it will swallow up more and more of our faith. You know you’re sliding down the hill of unbelieving doubt when your questions jump around with a panicky voice that doesn’t care if it contradicts itself. That incessant voice in your head, the one that won’t let you eat or sleep without working you into a tizzy, the one that grabs any weapon to hand in order to undermine the truth—that guy is not your friend, and it’s best not to get in an argument with him.
Fundamentally, our belief in God is the result of God’s unbridled grace. He must open our eyes to see the wonder of Christ. But, he often uses means to rekindle the flame of faith when it grows weak. So I always encourage people to cultivate secondary supports of their faith in God. For me, I find that good literature, clouds and sunsets, enjoying my kids, playing sports, and performing concrete acts of love strengthen my faith. I regularly quote George MacDonald’s words to myself: “Obedience is the opener of eyes.” Don’t withhold obedience until God restores faith; As Jesus said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17). Doubt has a way of paralyzing us, and the paralysis simply darkens the doubt. Instead, we should cultivate our love and obedience when in the light, and then refuse to forget what we’ve known when we pass into the valley of shadows. (Readers interested in further thoughts on doubt can consult the chapter on Tirian in my Live Like a Narnian).