“I believe; help my unbelief” is my favorite phrase in scripture. It captures so much of what it means and takes to be a follower of Christ, encapsulating struggle, faith, doubt, obedience, wandering, and repentance. It is deeply theological and personal. For these reasons and more I wrote a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith which explores what real belief is and its relationship with doubt in the life of a believer. The challenges of that tension are not unique to me; They’re nearly universal among Christians no matter position, maturity, or church tradition. In the weeks leading up to the release I will share the the thoughts and experiences of several friends of mine – authors, church leaders, writers, thinkers – who honestly answered five questions about faith and doubt.
Matt Perman is former director of strategy at Desiring God and the author of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014). He has an M.Div. in biblical and theological studies from Southern Seminary and a Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute.
Matt is a frequent speaker on the topics of leadership and productivity from a God-centered perspective and also consults with businesses and non-profits, focusing especially on start-ups devoted to solving large global problems. He blogs at www.whatsbestnext.com.
1) What does “I believe; help my unbelief” mean to you?
Since God knows everything anyway and desires “truth in the innermost being” (Psalm 51:6), I think it’s crucial to always be honest with him. How could it make sense to try to mislead a God who is all-knowing? Our culture today fortunately values authenticity. But God values it even more—especially before him.
“I believe, help my unbelief” is thus an honest recognition of the fact that we need God’s help even for faith itself. We don’t always struggle with believing God “all the way.” But sometimes we do. When we are in such situations, the right response is to be honest with God about it and ask him to help us grow further in our faith. And, paradoxically, doing so is actually an act of incredible faith.
In one sense, the ultimate act of faith is to trust God even for faith itself.
2) Do you have a favorite Bible passage about belief and doubt? What is it and how has it impacted you?
Interestingly, I actually would have to say Mark 9:24 (the passage in the prior question). The reason is it’s profound honesty, and it’s amazing implication that God is willing and eager to help us even with our faith itself.
It impacts me primarily in relation to my sanctification. If I am looking ahead to a challenge or a difficult biblical command that has application to my life, this is one of the passages that has helped me see that it is good and right to go to God and say “this seems beyond me; please help me.”
3) What is belief in God?
This question could be answered from lots of different angles. In one sense, belief in God is simply acknowledging that he exists.
But the Bible, of course, is after something much deeper. We must believe not only that he exists, but that he is a rewarder of those who seek him and thus good (Hebrews 11:6). And even more than that, belief in God is the glad affirmation that he sent Christ to die for our sins and raised him from the dead, for Jesus taught clearly that any who truly acknowledge God will acknowledge him as having been sent from God (John 8:42).
I believe that belief in the death and resurrection of Christ is thus central to belief in God. This is important because the resurrection is not only central to true Christianity; it also shows us that we aren’t called to believe in a remote and aloof God. Rather, we are called to believe in a God who truly cares—who cares so much he entered into our life and pain. Interestingly, it is also much easier to believe in this kind of God!
4) What do you see as the relationship between belief and doubt?
I’m not sure you are going to like my answer, because I don’t think it is affirming enough of doubt! I don’t like doubt. I don’t try to deny it inauthentically, pretending it doesn’t exist when it is there. That would be dealing with doubt by means of the sin of false pretenses, even if in our own hearts, which would not help at all.
But, at least when it comes to the essentials of the faith (the resurrection of Christ, etc.), I believe doubt is something we are to overcome (cf. Jesus’ response to Thomas—not condemning, but leading him to a greater and sound faith, John 20:26-29). So if I ever do feel doubt, I go to war with it. This does not happen often. When I was in college, I dealt with lots of skeptics and atheists. Some of them were people of incredible intellect and skill. This led me to dig deeply into the evidence for Christianity, and I found that it holds up. The evidence for the faith is incredibly solid.
Beyond that, I have seen Christ work in my life in incredible ways. So, at least when it comes to the essentials of the faith, I see the relationship between faith and doubt as being this: doubt helps drive us to examine the reasons for our faith. When we do so, we see that the reasons are indeed sound, which in turn increases our faith and takes away our doubt.
Does it always work that way for everyone? I’m not saying that. For example, sometimes people who have doubts are given really bad, superficial answers by some Christians. Such a thing not only fails to help with their doubts, but also discourages them and can lead to an even greater crisis of faith. I don’t believe in doing that. I believe in listening to people and letting them know it’s right and good to be honest about their doubts. I also believe in not pressuring people to believe or “not doubt.” That gives psychological air.
And then, when the time is appropriate, I believe we are to point to the solid evidence for Christianity and that it speaks for itself. The big problem is that lots of Christians aren’t trained in this evidence, and they settle for lazy, superficial answers such as “just believe it.” Or, worse, making the person feel bad or inferior for having doubts. They often think they are being godly by doing so, because it can sound spiritual and confident to do this. But it is really anything but godly. It is just plain inconsiderate—and a massive lack of love. How will that lead anyone to a stronger faith? It won’t. But it sure does make those self-righteous, “just believe it” sorts of Christians feel good about themselves. I think those folks have their priorities mixed up.
5) How can a person strengthen their belief in God?
There are many ways. One of the most important is to ask God to help strengthen their belief (question one).
Beyond that, and building on it, I have found the discipline of Christian apologetics to be incredibly helpful in strengthening ones faith in God and Christ. But the catch is that you have to read apologists who are actually good—that is, those who don’t settle for easy, superficial answers, and are able to hold their own against the best of the active skeptics. When you encounter Christians like this, you see that Christianity really can hold its own in the court of ideas. This is incredibly faith strengthening.
To my mind, the absolute best Christian apologist alive today is William Lane Craig. His book Reasonable Faith is one of the best I have ever read. I would especially call people’s attention to the chapter on evidence for the resurrection, where he shows that even on the basis of just the facts that critical scholars accept, the resurrection of Christ is the best explanation of the evidence. I would also recommend his chapter early on (I think it may be the intro even) on the relationship between faith and evidence. He draws a helpful distinction between knowing Christianity is true and showing Christianity is true.