What Not to Say to a Doubting Christian

     Just have faith. It is a friendly little Christianese phrase that can serve as a source of encouragement in many contexts.  For example, if someone is planning a mission trip and needs God to supply the financial support, telling them to just have faith serves as a reminder that God is faithful and will fulfill their monetary needs; they need only to stifle their doubts and trust that he will provide the needed support through his providence. Here, telling someone to just have faith is supposed to encourage them, helping them to reaffirm their trust in God’s calling, goodness, and provision.

But what if the focus of one’s doubt is not on God’s characteristics or his calling? What if the focus is on the very existence of God? And what if this is serious doubt that is heavily affecting them? Here, this short expression of Christianese support can be dangerous and harmful. I believe, based on personal experience, the testimony of friends, and much reflection. I hope to convince you that you should never say just have faith to a doubter who has come to you seeking advice or counseling.

Overall, the attitude of the evangelical church towards doubt is highly negative. Anything short of absolute certainty when it comes to the existence of God and/or orthodox doctrine is either condemned as sin or heavily discouraged as being hazardous to your faith. This makes doubters weary of asking for help. No one wants to go to a pastor, church leader, Christian counselor, or even friend if they believe that all they will receive is condemnation. Unfortunately, this context is rarely taken into account when a doubter actually takes the frightening step of coming to voice their doubts.

When a doubter finally comes forth out of this context, it is normally after a long period of dealing with the problem on their own…and failing.  Knowing there is no one to talk to about their doubts that they have kept to themselves, all the while feeling ashamed and afraid that the God they grew up believing in is not there. For them this is no small issue; it is something that has caused a great amount of despair. Their entire worldview is crumbling apart and they may feel like coming to someone for help is their last hope to get out of this mess. Furthermore, if they are anything like me or some of the people whose testimonies I have heard, they have been praying desperately that God would grant them faith while searching scripture for answers.

In this context, saying just have faith (and building the rest of the conversation around that central theme) does not come off as helpful support; it comes off as a condemnation. Because of the doubter’s background there is an implicit message that the one counseling does not realize they are giving. It is not as if stating just have faith is going to give them an Aha! moment where they finally realize that just having faith is the solution to the problem they have been dealing with for a long time, because most doubters spend most of their time attempting to do just that. It is going to sound a lot more like this: “You need to stop doubting and just have faith, because your “attempts” to have faith and trust God during these weeks/months/years of doubt have obviously not been sincere since you’re still doubting. You’re either lying to me about trying to have faith or else you’re ignoring God’s help or else you’re not actually saved.”

Here is where it gets dangerous. A doubter, after an extended time of doubting God’s existence and trying to have faith in him––whether by regular prayer, reading of scripture, church attendance, etc.––has come to someone else for a solution. They are then told that the only solution is exactly what they have been doing…which has not worked. Moreover, their plea for help was met with implicit condemnation. With no other solutions in sight, what will happen to the doubter?

What should one say to this kind of doubter, then? I do not pretend to have a working answer to that question, but I do think there are a few things we need to keep in mind.

First, faith and belief are distinct. Faith presupposes belief and belief is prior to faith. Evangelicals tend to erase this distinction, defining their faith/belief conjunction such that it is equivalent to some type of irrational, blind faith. In scripture, faith is much closer to trust. Do you believe that God exists? and Do you trust him? are separate questions that should be dealt with on their own terms. Accordingly, the advice to just have faith given to someone dealing with the former question misses the mark entirely.

Second, there are different kinds of people with different kinds of doubt and different theologies. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This means that there is going to be much more work involved than a single meeting where you deliver the Christianese one-liner. You may have to actually invest in someone’s life.

And third, while this would take a whole other post to defend, we have to keep in mind that God has good reason to allow doubt. Doubt can lead to a more vibrant faith and allows the forming of many Christian virtues.

The only way someone can say just have faith to a doubter of God’s existence is if they have failed to appreciate what the doubter has been through, how they feel, and the biblical meaning of belief and faith. You may never have to counsel a doubter. But if you do, do not make this mistake, and do not think that a solution will be easy.

Photo credit: thegospelcoalition.org