Doubt and Patience

My time as a campus minister taught me that one of the best tools we have to deal with people’s spiritual doubts is patience. I met many young adults who had doubts and tough questions about their Christian faith. My approach was to let them voice those doubts and wrestle with those questions rather than marching in to dispel them with quick answers and proof texts. Only when they were ready to hear them did I offer them the variety of answers Christian thinkers have given to some of their struggles in the past. I left it to them to decide which of those answers resonated with them, if at all. My pastoral posture was not as one with all the Bible answers to solve their problems. Rather, I chose a humble posture of journeying with them as they sought the Holy Spirit’s answers to their doubts.

To use another metaphor, I am not the one creating the new life of faith in those who doubt. I am merely the midwife who supports them in their faith-birthing labors as the Holy Spirit works within their hearts and minds. It helps shield me from a “savior complex.” I am not the one who will save them from their doubts. It is always only God.

Of course, this requires a lot of patience on my part as a midwife has no control over how long the labor will last. I see it as a demonstration of love, as love is patient (1 Cor. 13:4). If I truly love them, I will be patient with their doubts, their questions, their struggles, rather than imposing some artificial timeline on their resolution. I have to trust—exercise my faith—in the Holy Spirit’s work and timing. It is not easy, and there’s always a tension.

Some think that doubts and questioning God’s Word are inherently bad. After all, did Satan not tempt Eve by casting doubt on God’s Word when he said, “Did God really say …” (Gen. 3:1)? Hence the knee-jerk rushing in to dispel doubt and impose answers. But spiritual certainty, if it is unthinking acceptance, of God’s Word is not inherently godly either. Satan used a posture of taking God’s Word (Psalm 91) literally to tempt Jesus (Matt. 4:5-6). My point here is simply that neither critical doubting nor uncritical proof-texting is inherently bad or good. Both postures can be the devil’s tool to lead us astray.

Doubting and critical thinking tend to go together. Therefore, there is a tendency among some Christian circles to be suspicious of critical thinking and asking tough questions, especially concerning the Bible. But I think God can use critical thinking, and even doubts, to help us grow. Jesus rarely “spoon fed” his truths and insights to anyone. Reading the gospels, we find that Jesus often asked questions to make people think. He told parables, used metaphors and enigmatic phrases—e.g. “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35)—and challenged conventional beliefs—e.g. “You have heard that it was said … But I tell you …” (Matt. 5:21-22)—all of which caused people to think and ask questions themselves. Jesus’ teaching style was rarely one of imposing answers and shutting down conversations.

An ex-Christian student once told me that he might still be a Christian if his youth pastor was as patient as I was, putting up with all his questions and doubts. I lament that our impatience with their questions might have pushed some young people away from church. Do they experience our impatience as a lack of love?

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