4 helpful ways to respond to those who doubt
Have mercy on those who doubt. – Jude 22
I have never heard a sermon about doubt, and rarely have I experienced responses to doubt that I would call merciful. But, in the oft-neglected book of Jude, we are commanded to have mercy on the doubting. To have mercy is to show compassion, kindness, pity, or a loving and patient spirit. God’s mercy is what we all rely upon; his mercy does not give to us as we deserve. Just as God does, we are supposed to show a special deference, kindness, patience and compassion to those who are questioning, unsure, or are having their convictions shaken. Why then, is this not often the response to doubt?
Part of the reason is because doubt makes us uncomfortable. There is something about calling into question who we are and what we believe that makes everything in life feel more insecure. We all want the security of certainty and familiarity, and doubt begins to cloud some of the things that were, perhaps at an earlier or easier time in life, clearer.
Doubt can also make us afraid, and lead to avoidance. For us who believe, to have robust faith can feel like it is the most important thing in life, and so someone who questions their faith can make us fear that they are turning away from what they need most. And for many people, when they are afraid, they do not engage with their fear. Rather, the natural tendency is to avoid it, bury it, or drown it out. But when it comes to doubt, this does not work. Just like people need to be engaged with on a deep and personal level to feel understood and loved, doubts need to be engaged with deeply and personally. If not, they have a way of rising up from the place where we bury them.
We have all experienced doubt, in varying degrees. And we have all experienced bad responses to doubt. But what are merciful and loving ways to respond when someone you know is doubting?
1. Remember that behind the doubt is a person.
This is the first and most important rule of responding with mercy. To respond well to a doubting person is to truly listen to the person. Although it may be tempting to simply try to offer an answer to a person’s doubt when it is presented or to debate about it, rarely does that involve listening. When someone is struggling with doubt, there is usually something that caused it, or a process that led to it. A doubt is never just a doubt by itself, but a doubting person has his or her own process that led to their questions and that process may have its own emotional turmoil and sensitivity that requires patience and not pat answers. I have found that sometimes that most profound doubts come from those who have experienced a personal tragedy or catastrophic setback, not someone who was maligned by another person being antagonistic to their faith.
People by nature want to be received more than they want to be debated. To be merciful is to recognize that a doubting person often wants to be welcomed and wants dialogue, not silence or resistance. In my view, the silence and anti-intellectualism of those who respond badly to doubt leads far more often to disastrous consequences than the questions brought about by a personal tragedy or interaction with perspectives antithetical to Christianity.
2. Be diligent and intellectually responsible enough to deal with your own doubts.
It is so much easier to show mercy to a doubting person if you have actually done the work of engaging with your own intellectual struggles or questions. Remember how in Acts 17:11 Luke commends the Berean believers for doing the work of engaging with what they heard from Paul, examining his claims to see if they made sense and were defensible. The Bereans understood what they believed and why they believed it, and this is necessary in order to be able to do as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:15, to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. It is neither merciful nor helpful to meet a doubting person with the silence that comes from not taking the time to deal with difficult questions yourself. This takes time, effort, and a willingness to study, but it is worth it to help a doubting person.
3. Remember that our faith is reasonable, but it cannot be fully explained.
And that is okay. To be a Christian is to embrace the fact that what we believe has elements of mercy and paradox that are meant to bring us to wonder. To be a Christian is also to believe many things that can be corroborated with evidence. It may be a weight off of a doubting person’s shoulders to know that you are humble enough to say, “I don’t know all the answers and I’m still growing and learning. But that’s okay and I’m willing to look into these questions with you”.
4. Understand that doubt is more of an opportunity than it is evidence of someone slipping away from the faith.
Remember to be patient, knowing that a doubting person is in process, and that process could be short or it could be very long. Be patient just as God is patient with you when you continue to do things that you thought long ago you would have stopped. Keep in mind that doubts change over time. The doubts that I wrestle with today after many years of following Jesus are very different than the ones I wrestled with after following Christ for a few months. Looking back on seasons of doubt I know that my faith has been built in the crucible of my engagement with doubts, and I have been refined by those who have shown me mercy in those times.
Our faith is hard fought; it is not easy-believism. To have mercy on a doubting person is to be willing to be uncomfortable with them and to leverage your own faith on their behalf, realizing that following Jesus is not easy. To show mercy is not to say that doubt is good or that assurance is not possible, but it is to legitimize the humanity of the struggling person in front of you and to provide them with a safe space to work through their questions. In a climate like ours where questions are many and mercy is rare, this is sorely needed.
William Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.