When I was a college freshman, it was downright depressing how many of my Christian friends had left their faith behind by the end of the year. It is not uncommon for many college students to go through a phase known as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” where they question everything they’ve known to be true up to that point. It can be an extremely scary time. The irony, though, is that the very thing that has the potential to kill your faith also has the potential to take it to the next level.
One of the worst things you can believe about being a Christian is that doubting equals sinning. This is simply not true. Doubting is not dangerous; in fact, it is often a sign that you are moving to a deeper level in your faith. Think of your faith like sedimentary rock. Each layer builds on the next, and the layer beneath forms the foundation for the next layer until you have a beautiful piece of rock.
Or imagine your faith like the houses of the three little pigs. The first house you build is made out of straw. It’s a functioning house, but all it takes is a little huffin’ and puffin’ and it comes down. This is the point where many young Christians walk away. They say: Look, if this God thing was real, my house would still be standing. The other alternative is to say: you know, the house of faith that I was building was adequate for a time, but it’s not strong enough anymore. I need to build a stronger house, with a firmer foundation and better materials. And so you build again, this time out of sticks. It’s a better house, but it might take four or five puffs to bring it down.
You are once again at a pivotal time, and you can either leave the house destroyed or build another one, this time out of bricks. You learn from your mistakes, and the newer understanding of God that you find each time your previous house gets blown to the ground brings the wisdom to build a better house the next time. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that doubt can appear.
Doubt from Poor Decisions
First, doubt can sometimes enter our lives simply as a result of our own foolish decisions. Tony Campolo relates how he responded to a certain Christian college student who came into his office to talk about his doubts. Tony asked him: How long have you been shacking up with your girlfriend? Sure enough, Tony had read the situation accurately. The student knew what he was doing was wrong, but didn’t want to stop, so was walking away from the God who he believed was restricting him.
If you are simply enjoying your sin too much to stop, you will find it difficult to have a strong, vibrant faith. Others of you may have a genuine desire to follow God, but because your struggle against sin is getting the best of you, you doubt that He is real because your struggle is too intense.
Something you should keep in mind if you’re in this category is that as a newer Christian, you are not yet fully the person that God wants you to be. While it’s true that as a follower of Jesus you are a new creature, that doesn’t mean that you automatically start behaving like one.
We read in
You must give yourself the grace God wants to give you until your spiritual maturity catches up with your desire to please him. Even a mature Christian like Paul confessed his own struggles with sin in Romans 7: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (
So while our decisions can increase doubt, our steps toward spiritual maturity can strengthen our faith.
Doubt from Suffering
Times of personal suffering or tragedy can often bring doubt. When I was a senior in college, things could not have been better. I had just begun dating Heidi, my wife. We had just started the InterVarsity chapter at our school, we were seeing new people come to faith, and our small group of Christians was praying together regularly. It was an exciting time, and my faith seemed stronger than it had ever been. Everything fell apart when Heidi’s mom was fatally injured in an ice skating accident. Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for dealing with the aftermath of that event. As the strong encourager that I thought I could be to Heidi, I would often say things like, “We’re going to get through this; God is going to get us through.” However, to her they were just empty words. If God really loved her, why would He take away the person that meant the most to her?
The next two years were extremely challenging and were often filled with lingering doubts. It felt like we were forced to grow up a lot faster than we wanted to. To this day, we can’t say that we are happy for what happened. But we were faced with the choice of either believing that God is in control or he isn’t, either that He is good or He isn’t. We chose to believe Scripture’s truth: that He’s both in control and good, in spite of the pain that His Providence sometimes brings. We took the rubble of the easy-answer faith that had crumbled, brushed it aside, and went to work building our next “house of faith” out of stronger materials than before.
What we learned during that time is something that Christians in all time periods have noted and that the Bible makes clear: life in general, and specifically a life of following Jesus, is hard and full of suffering, not pleasure. A poem written by John Piper expresses the biblical concept of what he calls God’s sustaining grace:
Not grace to bar what is not bliss
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
A grace that orders our trouble and pain
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain
God’s grace is not there to shield us from difficulty, and it does not instruct us to run away from suffering. Rather, it is a sovereign grace that guides and directs our trouble, and then sustains us in the midst of it.
When doubts come because of suffering, the natural thing to do is to shake your fist at God. Yes, as the one who is in control of all events, He does allow the pain. But He’s also the only one to whom we can turn to receive sustaining comfort. In the Psalms, we see modeled for us the example of an honest prayer life before God. In
Nickel Creek’s song “Reasons Why” describes a person whose faith has slowly eroded.
Where am I today? I wish that I knew
Cause looking around there’s no sign of you
I don’t remember one jump or one leap
Just quiet steps away from your lead
We get distracted by dreams of our own
But nobody’s happy while feeling alone
And knowing how hard it hurts when we fall
We lean another ladder against the wrong wall
And climb high to the highest rung,
to shake fists at the sky…
A walk away from God often happens slowly rather than in an instant. Before you know it you believe that “God has left you,” while the reality is that you have taken the small, quiet steps away from God. The final line of the song expresses the disillusionment that can come from a challenging life: “With so much deception, it’s hard not to wander away.” And we shake our fists at the only one who can truly comfort us. It’s OK to be honest about your doubt and disillusionment. It’s OK to take a step back to question what you believe. But be careful that your “little break” doesn’t turn into totally abandoning God.
Doubt from Intellectual Challenges
There are also intellectual challenges to be faced. Nic addresses several of these in his chapter on relativism, but let me briefly say here that you need to be prepared for the assault your faith will take, especially in any religion and philosophy classes you take at a secular university. Be prepared to be called closed-minded, intolerant, and judgmental.
One of my greatest faith struggles came in a comparative religions class I took. We spent a good deal of time studying Native American religions and read a book about one religious leader named Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux. The book chronicled the messages Black Elk was receiving from the Great Spirit, which promised him that if he followed all of his commands the Wasichu (white men) would be defeated and his people would be restored. While I was reading, I was struck for the first time in my life with the notion of a person from another religion who seemed to be receiving messages from God that had nothing to do with Jesus. I thought: perhaps God would communicate His truth to different people in different ways. It shook me up a great deal.
Fortunately, unlike other books I read in high school and college, I read this one all the way to the end! The end of the story proved that the messages were not, in fact, divine. Black Elk’s people are defeated and the messages he had been receiving were proved false. Here’s how the book ends: “And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” Tragically, this man had been deceived.
Now I learned from this experience a couple things. First of all, studying other religions and viewpoints is an invaluable experience. We can’t only study Christianity and assume that everyone else is wrong. Everything you discover to be true is ultimately from God, whether it’s “Christian” or not. But I also learned that there is something truly unique about Christianity and about Jesus himself. As Paul says in
Don’t ever think that you have to turn off your brain or your reason when it comes to Christianity. It has stood up to over two thousand years of opposition; Yahweh can handle your intellectual questions. You may not like the answer when you find it, but much of the journey comes in asking the questions. Don’t shy away from these challenges; rather, stare them in the face, ask the hard questions, and seek wise counsel from those who won’t give you cliché answers. Go to the Bible and to other good literature that can offer insight. This is what college should be all about: wrestling with the hard questions. Say to the questions what Jacob said to the angel: I will not let you go until you bless me. The way out is not around, but through the heart of your questions.
Doubt from Disappointment
Finally, when circumstances or friends disappoint us, our faith can wither and die. It’s easy to put others on a pedestal, especially Christians we respect. We can almost worship them rather than God. My earliest mentor and high school youth group leader walked away from the faith while I was still in high school and to my knowledge has not returned. People that you think are invincible and perfect will fail you. The words of Micah are appropriate here: “Do not trust a neighbor; put no confidence in a friend…But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me” (
To close, I want to share a practical word about walking through a time of doubt. There’s a difference between experiencing doubt inside the safety of the church community and outside of it. It’s wrong to assume that you’re no longer a Christian just because you go through a phase of doubting, and to think that you must then leave the community as a result. As I’ve said, this can be a very fruitful and growing time, especially if it’s done in the context of a healthy community. When you decide to leave the community, you open yourself up to the added danger of sin. And a time of doubt plus a desire to sin can lead to a long walk away from God, rather than a short time of wrestling with Him.
In the book of Mark, after Jesus heals a boy with an evil spirit, his father says this: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus doesn’t rebuke him. I find great comfort in those words. We walk through a challenging world faced with all sorts of questions, but Jesus just asks for a mustard seed-sized faith, and a heart that wants that faith to grow. It is not a question of if, but when doubts will come. When they do, let your house fall to the ground, confident that God will be there to help you rebuild.