How to Help Christians Struggling with Doubt

By Joshua D. Chatraw and Jack Carson

In our pluralistic age, the “God question” can be dizzying. Western society has moved from having a single, almost unquestionable majority view to having a plurality of viewpoints, both religious and irreligious. This shift has left many people fragile and insecure about questions of faith. How should we go about ministering in such a context?

Your instincts might be to get out your list of evidences and hammer away at the person struggling with doubt. The instinct to turn to evidence isn’t wrong: science, history, and reason are friends of the faith. However, our intellectual posture has a significant impact on how we process questions about doubt, and before dealing with any specific arguments, consider addressing the question of posture. We have found that there are four common postures that people assume, often unconsciously, when exploring the question of God.

Posture 1: Clench Your Teeth, React, and Ridicule

Those who take this posture assume there is nothing to learn from alternative positions, which are intolerable, even evil, and must be driven from public view. This posture reduces people to caricatures, and those who have the “wrong” beliefs are the enemy. In this way some Christians and headline-grabbing New Atheists can have a surprisingly similar posture. On the latter side a small group of loud voices claims that belief in God is not only irrational but also dangerous. As one popular book argues, religious belief “poisons everything.” On the other side are those shouting that atheists are simply immoral or illogical. Debates between these two camps are filled with what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “conversation-stoppers”—which sound like, “I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral.” This flexing doesn’t lead to wisdom, for it short-circuits learning and undermines conversations that have the potential to bring insight.

Posture 2: Lean Over, Focus Narrowly, and Achieve “Certainty”

Another posture that we often see people embody in the modern discourse about faith is a quasi-intellectualism that justifies Christianity with what is imagined to be something like raw intellect. This group responds to the God question by building from the floor up, reasoning with one plank of truth at a time until they’ve completed a unified structure made entirely of logic. “Reason,” they think, is the neutral arbitrator for determining the truth about life, God, and ultimate reality.

This approach might seem smart, but most philosophers today consider it a dead end. Sure, there are some truths of basic logic or math recognized as universal. But when it comes to life’s big questions, there is no universal, agreed-upon system of reasoning. In fact, the overarching systems of rationality are themselves contested. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has stressed, when we are speaking about the big worldview questions of justice or practical rationality, we must ask, “Whose justice and which rationality are we talking about?” Everyone makes “rational” judgments in light of a framework that they have—in some sense—trusted by faith. The framework cannot be proven by empirical or logical evidence.

If we are putting our trust in basic logic and raw data to solve the God question and reach an answer everyone will agree with, we’ll end up disappointed. Consider how we choose our spouse, or our vocation, or who or what to make sacrifices for. We don’t just two-plus-two our way to life’s most important decisions. If “reasoning” about the question of God is reduced to logic chopping or data processing—both of which have their places in answering life’s smaller questions—the result can be a malformed Christian faith. The Bible is reduced to a storehouse of data, with the disciple working as a logician who syllogizes conclusions or as a lab tech who searches for reproducible data. Attempting to squeeze the Christian claims into a hard rationalism will misalign your posture. And once you’ve adopted it, you have, perhaps unwittingly, closed yourself off from seeing the bigger picture and attending well to the question of God.

Posture 3: Shut Your Eyes to Give Up (but Not Really)

Postures 1 and 2 can eventually lead to a loss of hope in answering the God question. Apathy sets in, and the existential questions related to the God question (Who are we? Why are we here? What happens when we die?) are impossible to answer with confidence. In response, you might be tempted to be “free” and float through life, avoiding taking any particular stance.

But trying to float through life leads to a functional view of life in which we act out whatever view is most prevalent in our particular time and culture. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “You can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another.” We all must live somewhere.

While we aren’t able to solve the question of God in the way posture 2 suggests, we can’t ignore the question either. Reality pushes back on us. People close to us die, and we can’t help but ponder what awaits them. We make judgments. We label some actions as good and others as evil. We assign value to things, people, feelings, and experiences throughout every moment of each day. And we can’t seem to shake the feeling that certain things in life are sacred. We all have to cope with the question of God as we interact with questions of meaning, significance, and morality by way of our decisions. If you choose to give up, you aren’t really giving up; you’re accepting the answers of the socially constructed space you happen to live within.

Giving up is still wagering.

Posture 4: Stand Up Straight to Look At, Look Through, and Step Into

For those of us who grew up in a church that demanded certainty, doubt can itself become quasi-evidence against belief. The dogmatic voices of former church leaders still echo in my head: “Are you a hundred percent certain? If not, you are a hundred percent lost.” If you struggle with doubt, that will keep you up at night. If certainty through arguments or just saying the sinner’s prayer for the 100th time is attainable, why can’t I find it? What’s wrong with me? However, the root cause of this disappointment and dread is not the insufficiency of the arguments or prayer; it’s unrealistic expectations. Evidence and careful reasoning are important, but arguments alone can’t provide definitive proof or banish doubts entirely. But if we can’t find the answer to life’s most important questions by breaking down arguments into their smallest components or by executing a string of Google searches, how do we move forward?

For both of us, the key was learning a posture suggested long ago by C. S. Lewis. In his short essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis gives us a metaphor that will guide the posture we are inviting you to try:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

When looking at a beam of light, we can see some remarkable things, like the floating particles within it. But when we look along (or through) the beam, we can see the world through it. Christian truth works the same way.

Lewis is arguing that if you aren’t willing to look at and along Christianity, your vision of the “God question” will be limited. Extending Lewis’ metaphor one step further, we also need to learn to step into the light, trying on new (but really ancient) ways of attending to the world the Church has passed down to us. Viewing the world through Christianity changes what we see, and stepping into Christian practices shapes the way we experience life. Instead of simply thinking through the various answers to the God question, this posture is centered on trying on the options.

We all have to live somewhere. When caring for someone in the throes of doubt, we should remind them that living out the human quest with wisdom will mean staying attentive to our full humanity—which includes our intellectual, emotional,and imaginative faculties. Attending to the whole range of human experience gives us the best possible tools as we try on different beliefs. Ultimately, if humans were made to find rest in God, the belief that will “fit” best with our human experience is the one centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. While this way of approaching Christianity will not make anyone’s faith doubt-proof, it does offer an intellectually honest and existentially powerful way to continue to walk with God through doubt.

Published December 4, 2023

Joshua D. Chatraw and Jack Carson

Joshua D. Chatraw is the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement at Beeson Divinity School. He lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jack Carson serves as the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and as an instructor at Liberty University. He lives with his wife and son in Lynchburg, Virginia. Josh and Jack have co-authored the new book, Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2023.