On the Edge of Faith

Sometimes I’m jealous of other Christians.

Maybe you know the ones I’m thinking about: those who seem to have their “Christian act” together a lot better than I do. Their faith and confidence in God remain stable and strong. When they pray, they receive discernible, positive answers to their requests. They can clearly identify where and how God is at work in their lives. Maybe that’s why they always seem optimistic and cheerful.

My experience is very different from that. My faith goes up and down like a roller coaster. On a good day I feel pretty confident that God indeed is my compassionate and caring Father, that Jesus Christ has erased the record of my sin, and that the Holy Spirit is empowering me to live a new life.

Doubt is a necessary condition for faith to exist.

But then there are the days when I am simply not sure. I feel like I’m praying to an empty space in the sky. I see no evidence of God actively at work in my life. I wonder whether Christianity is maybe just a myth after all. I try to keep believing, but it’s not easy. I cling to faith, but sometimes I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. I survive somehow, somewhere on the edge of faith.

As a young person my doubt centered on the question of assurance: How could I be sure that I was really a Christian? How could I know that God had really forgiven me?

As an adult my doubt has centered more on the question of truth: Does the gracious and loving God Christians profess actually exist? And, if God does exist, why does the course of my life seem so difficult and confusing? I have experienced repeated job failures, depression, and chronic pain. God’s presence amid these difficulties has been hard to discern. I’m always clinging to the edge of faith—sometimes, it seems, hanging on only by my fingertips.

Myth of Certainty

Several years ago I read The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor (InterVarsity Press, 1986). Taylor addresses his book to “the reflective Christian.” He describes the reflective person as someone who is always asking questions, someone for whom reality is always ambiguous and confusing.

Reflective people struggle to achieve certainty in their lives. The absolute confidence of both the “cynical unbeliever” and the “fundamentalist Christian” eludes them. Taylor contends that the experience of reflective people is, in a sense, true to the nature of reality. Absolute certainty about truth does not exist: “My own experience is that for human beings certainty does not exist, has never existed, will—in our finite state—never exist, and, moreover, should not. It is not a gift God has chosen to give His creatures, doubtlessly wisely,” Taylor writes.

Reading Taylor’s book was a minor revelation for me. It affirmed that I am not the only Christian who struggles with uncertainty and doubt. And it suggested that my God-given personality might have something to do with it. This makes a lot of sense to me. After all, everyone recognizes that different personalities cause people to respond to the same situation in remarkably different ways. The optimist takes a cold, rainy day in stride, while the pessimist concludes that it confirms his suspicion that life is a miserable, frustrating affair.

So one Christian with a more confident attitude may find what she regards as positive certainty in her Christian faith, while another may agree with Taylor that no such certainty is possible.

But personality cannot explain all our differences. Do confident Christians, for example, receive more answers to prayer than so-called reflective Christians, or is that simply how it appears to them? Someone might claim that the confident Christian has more faith than the reflective one, but I think that leads us to an unfair conclusion: that it may require more faith for me to keep believing in God in my difficult and confusing circumstances than it does for a confident Christian to receive what she perceives as concrete answers to her prayers.

Look at Job and his friends. Job struggled to maintain his faith, while his confident friends claimed to have all the answers. But who was closer to the truth?

Necessity of Doubt

More recently I read Faith & Doubt by John Ortberg (Zondervan, 2008). Ortberg admits that he continually struggles with doubt in his own life and claims that this is normal for all Christians. In fact, he explains that doubt is a necessary condition for faith to exist: If we possessed absolute certainty, faith would no longer be necessary. Doubt drives us to seek to know God better and is thus a necessary motivation for our faith.

The important thing is that we do not allow our doubt to keep us from making a commitment. Ortberg asserts that “trying to put off deciding what to do about God is like jumping off a diving board and trying to put off actually entering the water.” Living without faith and without making any commitments is impossible.

Ortberg’s book is encouraging in its affirmation that many Christians struggle with doubt and that such struggle is perfectly normal. Our Christian hope is that someday our faith will become sight, but until that happens we must learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is certainly scriptural warrant for acknowledging and affirming believers in times of doubt. We need only turn to the psalms of lament to see Old Testament believers struggling with serious doubts about God. In Psalm 10:1 the author cries, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” And in Psalm 88:14 we read these troubled words: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” Doubt and anxiety were obviously part of the Old Testament believers’ experience.

In the New Testament the followers of Jesus were thrown into absolute confusion and despair after his condemnation and crucifixion. It seemed to them that all their excited hopes that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God had been pulverized by the religious Sanhedrin and the Roman government. But when the risen Christ appeared to them, their doubt and despair instantaneously transformed into joy and new hope.

Our face-to-face encounter with the risen and glorified Savior will someday banish all our confusion and doubt too. But, until then, we live in faith and hope.

I still exist somewhere on the edge of faith—never quite certain yet never giving up either. Like Job, who clung to his faith in God even when it seemed that God had become his enemy and his persecutor, I hang on to the promises of God through my experiences of confusion and despair. I can’t wait until my own face-to-face meeting with Jesus transforms my doubt and fear into certainty and joy.

About the Author

Daniel Boerman is a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary and a buyer for a builder’s hardware store. He is a member of Forest Grove (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church

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Comments

Thank you so much for your honesty. I have been suffering real doubts for the first time after being challenged by my grown son who went through Christian school and college and then decided that God cannot be real. He cares about the suffering in the world and sees God as doing nothing. He also questions whether God has ever answered any of his prayers. This has me questioning my own faith and certainty. Yet I know that God is real and that I am saved. You have given me a boost because I have felt that I was so alone in this. I will be reading some of the books that you quoted and will be praising God for your insight.

Kathy Smit

Doubt is not an ominous, threatening stalker that should be repelled by reading the right books and playing mental games. It is your brain's way of suggesting that you should re-examine your assumptions.

As an ex-Christian, I would suggest that far from being a threatening burden, doubt can turn out, in hindsight, to be the crack of light that guides you out of the cave that's trapped you for many years.

You owe it to yourself to consider as objectively as possible the possibility that your doubts are justified. Now that you've read the Christian books, try some popular atheist ones. If your faith is well-founded and the Holy Spirit is indeed working in you, there should be no contest. If not, then welcome to my world! Things make a lot more sense here.

I'm 73 and called by God to be part of His family now and for eternity. After 9/11 I began to seek God when while reading the NIV I set it aside and asked myself if I beleived the Bible. I answered Yes and it's made all the difference in my life. Starting with creation I understand that this beautifully ordered universe, from it's great expanse to the smallest particle of an atom is God's work and under His control. This great and awesome creator made me and though I was at enmity against Him He provided a way for me to be reconciled with Him. By His Spirit I have been brought to a saving knowledge of Christ's finished work of reconciliation on Calvary's Cross. I was given the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit resides within me because our God made a covenant with those He chose to have mercy and save. Our faith isn't based on whether we believe but on that we believe. It's an undeserved gift. Our faith is based on God's word of truth, His promise, Jesus' obedience in doing the will of the Father and His victory over the evil one. Each one of us is precious in the eyes of God for He sacrificed His Son to redeem us. He loves each of us and has prepared a place full of His riches in His kingdom for us that we might give glory to Him forever. Praise Him

"Messy Spirituality" by Machael Yaconelli also discusses this edge of faith situation for himself and anyone else he has known. he believes it is impossible to have consistent spiritual growth without any doubts.

Doubt is a product of the fall as well as a method of Satan. He fostered doubt in Eve when he asked, "Did God really say...". When he tried to deceive Jesus, Jesus replied with God's Word. In God's Word we find truth and answers. John concludes his gospel with these words, "But this is written so that you may know...". Likewise, Hebrews talks about being certain. Paul talks about running to win the prize. No one chases after a trophy that doesn't exist.
Don't turn doubt into a virtue. Trust God's revelation. Trust his promises especially when you don't feel much of anything. We don't depend on what we feel or experience, we depend on what Christ has done.

Thanks for this article. This quite accurately mirrored my own experience with faith. This following words really hit home: "As a young person my doubt centered on the question of assurance: How could I be sure that I was really a Christian? How could I know that God had really forgiven me?"
Even though grace is a free gift, there always seems to be so many strings attached. For reflective people, doubting means taking a step back from everything you were taught to believe, and based on your own life experiences, to personally assess what "Truth" is.

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