“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 (releases July 1 – Available at BarnesandNoble.com & Amazon.com) 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.
Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of several books including The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ and Proverbs: Wisdom that Works. Ray and his wife Jani have served together in ministry for over 40 years.
1) What does “I believe, help my unbelief” mean to you?
Well, who doesn’t have a hard time making up their mind, especially when everything important to us is on the line? We’re talking about the ultimate meaning of our lives and the eternal consequences that hang in the balance. We have to get this right, because we have no reason to believe we’ll have a second chance after this life. That is very sobering to me. But it leads me to this realization. My capacity for belief is not measured by my certainty but by my need. Faith is not my bringing the great questions of existence under my control; faith is turning to the Lord, in his all-sufficiency for my desperate need, to hear and receive what he has to say to me. “I believe” is that childlike capacity to accept whatever he says, and “help my unbelief” is that standoffish pride of mine that folds my arms as I listen to him and responds, “What else you got?” When I am unsatisfied, I have to ask if it’s because I am being unsatisfiable.
2) Do you have a favorite passage about belief and doubt?
Yes. Psalm 73. The psalmist walks us through his personal crisis of doubt. He believed in the goodness of God (verse 1), but it wasn’t working for him (verse 2). Why? He saw how everyone does everything wrong on purpose, and they succeed (verses 3-12). Then he got to feeling really sorry for himself, how sacrificial he was, how much fun he was missing out on by obeying God (verses 13-14). But he couldn’t admit to anyone what he was really thinking (verse 15). Just when he was about to cave, he saw something new (verse 16). He thought he had seen too much of reality, but he hadn’t seen enough of reality; he hadn’t seen where it was all going (verse 17). Then, looking again with new eyes, he saw how flimsy the whole God-neglecting system is (verses 18-20). [I think, for example, of John Lennon.] Now he was embarrassed by his own stupidity (verses 21-22). But God had still held onto him, even when he couldn’t hold onto God, and God will never let him go (verses 23-24). Finally, he collapses in contented defeat, having nothing but God in all this world to count on as his own, and feeling rich and amazed and talkative (verses 25-28).
I love Psalm 73 because I identify with the poet at every step of the way.
3) What is belief in God?
Belief in God takes us beyond a naked intellectual persuasion that a Higher Power is out there. Real belief, by apostolic standards, is — to use the language of Jonathan Edwards — a new sense on our hearts that God is really there and really wonderful (Hebrews 11:6). Even more boldly, it is a vivid awareness, an implicit certainty — it is Christ himself dwelling powerfully in our hearts, so that we are rooted and grounded in his love, it is knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that our hearts are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19). Anything less is pathetic. Which means we live much of our lives in a pathetic state. But let’s call it what it is. Real faith in God is living on the edge of inner miracle moment by moment.
4) What do you see as the relationship of faith and doubt?
Wherever the fault line between faith and doubt appears inside me at any given moment, that is where the Holy Spirit is gaining new ground. There are vast continents inside my internal world, most of which remain unexplored and uncivilized, vast jungles of disorganized impulses and moods, dark continents of unbelief I’m not even aware of yet. But the Holy Spirit is bringing the kingdom of Jesus into me, little by little, but inexorably. The struggles I become aware of take place where his power is pushing into my unbelief, debunking by tired old thoughts, creating new faith, advancing the felt presence of Jesus. This will continue, by grace, until my dying day.
5) How can a person strengthen their belief in God?
Read the Bible a lot. Go to a credible church every Sunday. Hang out with believable Christians as much as you can. But hang out with smart non-Christians too. Never shy away from a doubt, difficulty, or question. Finally, take a risk. Put something of yourself on the line, something costly, in obedience to Christ, and see how he comes through for you.