Rooted 2021 Sneak Peek: Ministering to Students Who Wrestle with Doubt
“How can I be sure that God is real?” Kyle asked me. “And if he is, why does he let so many horrible things happen every day?”
“Yeah, and aren’t there a ton of errors in the Bible?” Ben cut in, before my mouth even opened to answer Kyle. “How can we trust that it’s actually the Word of God?”
Ben and Kyle were two college students I worked with who were battling some serious doubts. A couple of professors had challenged their beliefs and, as a result, they were clearly wrestling with their faith.
Watching students struggle isn’t fun. My constant temptation as I met with them was to refute the things their instructors stated, point by point, and, in a sense, “win” any arguments between me and people who weren’t even in the room. But by God’s grace—and despite the fact that I was incredibly angry at their professors for the amount of distress they’d caused—I resisted that temptation.
“I’m so proud of you both for seeking truth and honestly inquiring about eternally significant things,” I said to them. “These are the healthy steps to take when you’re doubting.”
In the end, I typed up a resource guide for each of them and encouraged them to read about our faith. I told them they shouldn’t be ashamed about their doubt, but I stressed that where doubt could lead was, spiritually speaking, a matter of life and death.
Working in full-time college ministry over the last two decades, along with seeing family and friends abandon the faith they once proclaimed, I’ve noticed that doubting believers are growing more and more common. And, for many, doubt becomes unbelief.
All doubters aren’t the same though, nor are all doubts.
Some are working through what I call “foundational doubts”—the kind of doubts that rock your faith to the core, and, if left unchecked, can lead to unbelief’s doorstep. I’ve talked with several students, often new believers, who’ve had difficult questions they were unwilling to ask publicly for fear that their friends would think they weren’t “good Christians.” They saw their questions as signs of weakness or immaturity, so they dealt with them privately, only causing their doubts to fester and increase in strength.
But doubt doesn’t differentiate. Non-believing students have plenty of doubts that hold them back from faith. Even mature Christians can begin to have foundational questions. Factors in every season of life can toss someone into the stormy seas of question-inducing foundational doubt regardless of age, experience, or even spiritual maturity.
Christian community should be the place where questions are welcomed and worked through together.
We take our cues from the Bible, and Scripture is full of honest questions. Consequently, the church can invite sincere questions from men and women who are wrestling as well—not only so we can point them to resources and pray for them, but also so we can be godly friends and encourage them through the struggle. All of us need Christlike friends to lean on when the storms of life shake us up.
It can be difficult to embrace “doubters” knowing we may not have answers ourselves, but we needn’t be afraid of the questions. Christianity has existed for 2,000 years and has never collapsed on itself because of curiosity. A Christian community, like a church or Bible study, can be a free and vulnerable environment where believers continue to experience God’s grace, and non-believing people can feel safe to be skeptics and in turn see the love of Christ shine brighter than anything they’ve ever seen before. If non-believers in your life experience this kind of atmosphere, we will see lives transformed and people coming to Christ on a regular basis.
A secure place to question isn’t only important when it comes to those “foundational” issues; it should also prime the pump for healthy dialogue concerning intimate doubts that will inevitably come up as life goes on. These doubts, personal doubts, sound more like, “Where are you, God?” than “Does God exist?”
A young Christian, for example, may not have experienced life’s heaviness the way an older person has—heaviness like intense marital strife, miscarriage, a loved one walking away from Christ, financial loss, or declining health. Life can be incredibly difficult and, when challenges arise, human beings naturally ask questions about God in ways they hadn’t before. And that’s okay and normal.
A Christian—young or old, mature or immature—should never feel like he is above asking questions that plague the heart. Our security in Christ means that, even if you’re unsure about certain elements of your faith, He will always stand firm and give you room to wrestle.
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken said, after the untimely death of his wife, “To believe with certainty, one has to begin by doubting.” Truthfully, someone who asks questions and brings their doubts to God might likely have a stronger walk with Him than someone who knows all the right answers during Bible study.
I’VE GOT QUESTIONS
This is the atmosphere we should cultivate as we work with young people who are experiencing doubt. Questions and doubts that get swept under the rug and met with statements like, “Don’t ask questions like that; just believe,” will come up again. They might hide under the surface of a young person’s life for several decades, but they will pop out again with potentially disastrous consequences—I know because I’ve seen it. We should always welcome wrestling matches with doubt, knowing that God can always handle what any of us might throw at him when it comes to our questions.
My friend Sam Allberry once stated, “If Christianity can’t be questioned it isn’t worth believing. More than that: not only can Christianity withstand our doubts and uncertainties, there’s a real sense in which bringing them to the table actually dignifies the claims of Christ.”
Jesus said, “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, ESV). I always thought childlike faith was a dumbed-down, naïve faith. Then I had two kids, who started growing up and asking questions every single day. My kids have taught me that a childlike faith isn’t a dumbed-down faith. Aquestion-asking foundation of faith leads to answers, producing joy in the journey.
There is joy in adventuring to find something we value.
Like a hunt for buried treasure, our search for God when He seems hidden can be an extraordinary experience, depending on our perspective. When God appears to be veiled from our senses, He wants us to find Him; and when we search, there can be great joy in the hunt. The questions young people may have about God imply interest in Him, so why not pursue Him alongside them as they ask and doubt? God can certainly handle it. And there just might be buried treasure on the other side of the doubt.
Please join Shelby Abbott at Rooted 2021 for his workshop How to Minister to Kids Struggling with Doubt. You won’t want to miss his other workshop, How the Gospel Frees Teens from the Pressure to Perform. Register today!