Dealing with doubt

When we are experiencing doubt about our faith, it’s hard to know what to do or where to turn.

"Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

Turning to the Lord is difficult and painful when we feel like He’s not there. But there are things we can do.

Pray to the Lord Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Mark includes a story about a father and his demon-possessed son. The father desperately wanted his son to be healed, and he asked Jesus to have compassion and help him. Jesus responded, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The father cried out and replied with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23, 24).

In our times of doubt, there is often part of us that still believes, even if it feels like it is tiny and growing smaller by the day. We can pray that same prayer: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Praying to the Lord opens us up to His return into our lives. But sometimes our prayers don’t seem to be answered, even in our darkest hours. We need to realize this, too: if our prayers seem unanswered, it does not mean the Lord isn’t there or doesn’t care. It means He knows that for some reason we need to continue to fight as if of ourselves against the doubts that are assailing us.

In His darkest hour in Gethsemane, the Lord Himself prayed, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me!” He did not want to have to go through with the final temptation on the cross. But we know that the cup did not pass from Him. Was His prayer answered? It was, because His prayer continued, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). If we pray that the Lord’s will be done, we can acknowledge, even if it’s painful, that the Lord knows what is best, and that He is guiding everything toward a good end.

Know that doubt is an unavoidable part of a growing faith.

When we are going through times of doubt, we can feel like we have failed as people of faith. This is not the case. In fact, a growing faith always will bring about some degree of doubt. The Writings for the New Church tell us that a growing faith will be attended by periods of “temptation.” We often think about temptation as an urge to do something we know is wrong. Actually the word simply means a test, and the primary thing that tests us in temptation is doubt, which can take us almost to the point of despair (Secrets of Heaven 1820).

When the Lord was in the world, in His soul He was constantly assured that He would succeed. But the lower levels of His mind were constantly invaded by doubts, almost to the point of despair. When He was on the cross, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The fact that we are doubting does not mean there is something wrong with us. It is part of the process of regeneration, the process of being reborn as a heavenly person. It is not a pleasant part of the process, and it can last for a long time, but knowing that it is part of the process can help us get through it.

Keep an affirmative attitude toward the Lord’s Word.

As said above, doubt is an unavoidable part of the process of regeneration. And this is because doubt is actually useful. It is useful to question things that we are taught. A passage from the work Secrets of Heaven says, “It is according to the laws of order that no one ought to be persuaded about truth in a moment, that is to say, that truth should be so confirmed in a moment as to leave no doubt whatever about it” (7289). That passage goes on to say that this kind of truth becomes hard and unyielding, and does not have goodness within it.

Does this mean that we should actively encourage doubt in ourselves? Not entirely. Doubt is harmful if we refuse to believe anything unless we’re convinced by physical proof that it is so. People who have this attitude cannot believe in anything beyond the physical world. The teachings of the New Church call this “the negative principle” (see Secrets of Heaven 2568). On the other hand, if a person believes that the Word is true because it is from the Lord, then it is not harmful to see how rational and physical things support the truth. This is called “the affirmative principle.” In fact, if a person holds onto the belief that the Word is from the Lord, then it is harmful to take the attitude that they shouldn’t examine their faith rationally (Secrets of Heaven 2568).

But many of us do not fall squarely into either one of these categories. New Church teachings talk about those who doubt before coming to the affirmative principle, and those who doubt before coming into the negative principle. Which attitude they end up taking depends on how they live: “But with those who are not in the negative nor as yet in the affirmative, but are in doubt before they deny or affirm…, they who incline to a life of evil fall into the negative, but they who incline to a life of good are brought into the affirmative” (Secrets of Heaven 2568)

Keep living your faith.

If we think of having faith as simply believing, then we can’t help but feel like we are sinning against God when we have doubts. But faith does not just mean intellectually believing something to be true. It also means faithfulness, a willingness to follow what the Lord teaches. And in this sense, we can continue to have faith even if we are going through doubts. We can still choose to live by what the Lord teaches in His Word, even if it feels like we’re only going through the motions.

The reality is that if we continue to be faithful, the Lord gives us a new sight of truth, which is a truer and deeper faith than we can have if we didn’t live by what we know. The book Doctrine of Faith defines faith as an “internal acknowledgment of truth” (1). And the Lord knows that we might feel that we can never have this internal acknowledgment of truth, so He shows us the way to have it.

A passage from that book says, “If anyone thinks within himself, or says to another, ‘Who can have that internal acknowledgment of truth which is faith? I cannot,’ I will tell him how he may have it: Shun evils as sins, and approach the Lord, and you will have as much as you desire” (12). Shunning evils as sins and worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ as God opens us up to that internal acknowledgment. It doesn’t happen overnight—we still go through temptations and doubts—but this is the path that leads to faith.

The Rev. Coleman Glenn is an assistant pastor at the Olivet New Church in Toronto, as well visiting pastor for the Dawson Creek New Church. 

Full issue

Daily Inspiration

"If someone possesses humility they are able to accept good from the Lord, since in that case they have been parted from self-love and the evils which stand in the way of accepting it."

Arcana Coelestia 5957