Theology 101

Where Does Spiritual Doubt Come From?

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Have you ever questioned your faith in God?

According to a recent study from Barna, episodes of doubt about what we believe are not unusual. The study reports that two-thirds of American adults who self-identify as Christian have experienced “spiritual doubt,” and 26 percent say they still experience spiritual doubt. Even 19 percent of devout believers who regularly attend church services still experience doubt.

Spiritual doubt of various degrees has always been part of the Christian experience; both the fathers of the faith and the disciples struggled with it: Moses (Exodus 3:11—4:13), Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), Peter (Matt. 14:29–31; Matt. 26:69–75), and, of course, Thomas (John 20:24-29).

The Barna survey also reports that millennials, who have grown up in a more secular and pluralist culture, experience more doubt—twice as much as other generations. Men are much more likely than women to actively experience doubt (32 percent, compared with 20 percent of women). And the higher your educational level, the more likely you are to experience doubt: 37 percent of college graduates experienced doubt as opposed to only 19 percent of those with just a high school education.

The report also cited evidence that during a crisis of faith many Christians stop attending church, reading the Bible, and praying. This seems almost counterintuitive because Christians usually turn to these practices in order to build their faith.

The Sacred–Secular Divide Doesn’t Help

This problem of doubt is compounded by the fact that most believers in the 21st century live in a world where they see part of their lives as spiritual and the rest as secular. We have become double-minded, seeing a false division between what we regard as godly work and what we see as secular work. This divide is responsible for the popular misconception that our relationship with God can be reduced to church-related events and activities.

We have been tricked into thinking there is secular, neutral ground in our lives that is neither for nor against God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Portland pastor John Mark Comer writes in Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human:

The cosmic, gargantuan 24/7 Kingdom of God cannot be shrunk down to a few hundred people singing songs in a nice building for an hour every weekend.

Our response to God’s call on our lives should reverberate into every facet of life: at home, at work, in our families, in our communities, and at our churches.

This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says to the Corinthian Church,

…whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Like the Barna study, we at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics pose the question: How can pastors and spiritual mentors help Christians support and speak wisdom into the lives of fellow believers during times of spiritual doubt?

Being Part of Something Bigger Than Ourselves

We can help answer this question perhaps by finding the source of the problem.

And I suggest that the problem lies upstream of the crisis of faith. We need to explain to Christians that God’s call on their lives is all-inclusive. The gospel is a redemptive call back to a lost purpose to fill the earth with God’s redeemed images and to make the earth a place where those images can flourish (Gen. 1:27-28).

Your salvation is not just a bus ticket to heaven; it is an invitation to join in the mission of God. To flourish by bringing flourishing to the communities of which you are a part (Jer. 29:7).

From antiquity to modern times, philosophers have put forward various ideas on how to flourish, but the path to biblical flourishing is unique. In his chapter in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, Jonathan Pennington writes that one of the ways biblical flourishing is different is that it is “missional, priestly, and outwardly focused”:

The end goal of the God of Scripture is not less but more: the spreading of flourishing to all the world through love. The means by which this happens is God’s gracious activity, ultimately by the in-breaking of Christ’s second coming…Meanwhile, his children serve as priests of this same message of flourishing to the world. We are his shalom instruments, a royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests.

Being driven by this sense of purpose to spread “flourishing to all the world” is the antidote for sliding into spiritual crisis or doubt regarding our faith. We were created by God to be part of something bigger, something outside ourselves—as Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov,

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.

I would add that this “something to live for,” or purpose, is found in the work we have been called to do in our families, our churches, our communities, and our jobs.

Do you have doubts about your faith today? Cry out to God using the words of a man who, in desperation, brought his son to Jesus for healing: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And remember what Jesus said to this father: “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23).

Then, go find the purpose that God has called you to and don’t be surprised if it changes the world.

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