Evangelism and apologetics are about interacting with people who have doubts about God. Two of the best books on doubt that I have ever read are currently out of print: In Two Minds by Os Guinness and Dealing with Doubt by Gary Habermas. Thankfully, both are available used on Amazon and the entire text of Dealing with Doubt is available for free on Mr. Habermas’s website. Here is a quick summary of each.
Dealing with Doubt by Gary Habermas
Habermas wrote this book to help those who struggle with doubting God. Because doubt can be painful and debilitating, understanding it is crucial. He notes that doubt is not just a Christian problem, but a human problem. It afflicts all types of people in all areas of the world. However, not all doubt is the same. There are different species of doubt and they are caused by different factors. The author divides doubt into three categories: factual, emotional and volitional. Consequently, dealing with doubt requires expertise in different disciplines. Factual doubt may call for a philosopher or apologist, while emotional doubt will need a psychologist or counselor. Volitional doubt is perhaps best dealt with by a theologian. While not claiming to be an expert in all these areas, the author attempts to discuss the different types of doubt in a general sense and provide help in dealing with each.
Development of the Book
Habermas starts by noting some common misconceptions about doubt that occur among Christians. These include the ideas that doubt is always a sin for a Christian and that good Christians very seldom doubt. This is simply not the case.
The author then points out that the first step in dealing with doubt is to identify the type of doubt you have. Different problems require different solutions. Doubt can arise from everything from lack of sleep to willful disobedience. Knowing the type will help pinpoint the cause and lead to the proper remedy. The next section of the book is spent discussing the three types of doubt.
Factual doubt is the perhaps the least common doubt (although it is also the most commonly claimed type) and is the most easily dealt with. Factual doubt is concerned with the truthfulness of the faith. It wants to know the factual evidential or philosophical basis for inquiries concerning such things as the miracles or problem of evil in the world. It is generally solved when satisfactory answers are provided. Habermas briefly notes several good answers for some of the more common questions. The fact is, Christianity is based on very good evidence and the Christian worldview provides the most compelling answers to life’s biggest questions. Christianity is not a blind faith and does not require us to ignore the evidence or put our minds in our back pockets.
Emotional doubt is the most common type of doubt, although it often masquerades as factual doubt. Emotional doubt is not about the obstruction to faith itself, but the reasons behind the obstructions. It is not a problem with the data itself. The problem is how one feels about the data.
This type of doubt is usually accompanied by distraught psychological states followed by periods of emotional high as the doubts strengthen or weaken without any change in the evidence. A common objection to the data takes the form of a “What if. ..” question. The doubter responds to admittedly strong evidence by proposing an unlikely scenario that would support the objections. In other cases, no amount of evidence will reduce the person’s doubt.
Emotional doubt takes a person’s reason captive. An emotional doubter must learn to let reason dictate emotions rather than the other way around. To do this he must address whatever is causing our emotions to lead him astray. This could be as simple as getting enough sleep. Other times he will need to take a more in-depth approach.
Habermas notes the Biblical pattern for dealing with unruly emotions involves believing prayer, thanksgiving, edifying thinking and practice. He also suggests a psychological method that uses Biblical principles. Backus and Chapian lay out a three-step process for healing emotions: 1) Locate the misbeliefs, 2) Remove them and 3) Replace them with the truth.
The main point of the chapter is that emotional doubt is not the result of circumstances or lack of evidence – it is the fault of faulty thinking and faulty practice on the part of the doubter. Through God’s gracious work in us, we can change thinking and heal emotional doubt.
The third category of doubt is volitional. It involves an inability or refusal to make the appropriate decision for God. This type of doubt is characterized by a people who are not motivated to live the Christian life or simply refuse allow themselves to accept the peace that comes with mature faith. It is somewhat similar to emotional doubt in that seemingly small problems create huge roadblocks to belief, but it differs in that volitional doubt does not create a distraught emotional state. This type of doubt is accepted calmly.
Changing a person’s will is not an act of self-improvement. It can only come through the power of God. However, a person still has to make the decision to believe. Habermas suggests several ways to activate the will in order to grow faith. These include verbalizing to God one’s commitment to Him and speaking the truth to oneself in a similar way as in the previous section. Also, one needs to be motivated by a proper view of God. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, a doubter can get God’s perspective and start loving what He loves and doing what He wants us to do.
The author also mentions that believers must sometimes choose to believe even when the evidence seems to be against it. One reason for this is that people of faith are committed to a person, not a philosophical system. Being in a relationship with Jesus means that sometimes believers just have to trust him based on his character, just as they do with their friends. Also, God is so much higher than man that man should not expect to understand everything fully.
Habermas concludes this chapter by suggesting ways to avoid volitional doubt. Through prayer, Bible study and meditation, in times of doubt and before they hit, our wills can be conformed to Christ’s.
The final chapters of the book discuss other issues certain to be of assistance to doubters. The first is the problem of God’s silence. How are believers to respond when God does not answer our prayers? Habermas begins by making the point that God is just as active in answering prayers now as He ever has been, but even in Biblical days people had to wait for an answer. God is interested in growing man’s weak faith to maturity and sometimes we just need to trust Him even when we think He is not answering. We may not know why a particular event is happening, but we know enough about the character of God from other instances to know that He can be trusted.
The next chapter focuses on the fact that Jesus is just as alive today as He was in New Testament times. We can personally relate to Him on a daily basis. The compassionate, loving Christ of the gospels is just as available to us as He was to his followers back then. This is a great antidote to doubt. Another doubt buster is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God confirms to us through his Spirit that we are His children and that we can have assurance of salvation. This testimony is not an emotion, but a conviction. It is not to be used as a proof for the truthfulness of scripture, but it is based on a demonstrable foundation.
The author concludes the book by focusing on Heaven. He explains that an eternal or “top down” perspective of life will do wonders for healing our doubts. We should see life as God sees it and focus our energy and attention on what is important to Him. When we seek first His kingdom all earthly problems either fade in comparison or fall away completely. Daily worries about food and clothing, ethical problems and even pain, persecution and death can be properly dealt with by keeping a heavenly perspective. We are to live as pilgrims on earth, looking forward to the comfort of our true home.
Mr. Habermas combines a deep knowledge of the subject with a pastoral heart and concern for making the material accessible and the result is a great book. Habermas borrowed appropriately from other authors, particularly Guinness and Backus. It seems like it would have been tempting for him to just combine and paraphrase those two other books to create one, but he avoided that. Habermas was able to use the best of those books to augment his own findings.
In Two Minds by Os Guinness
Mr. Guinness establishes a foundation for his discussion by pointing out that life is about relationships. People do not live in complete isolation but as part of a group. We survive through interaction with others. This interaction is based on trust. In order to have fruitful relationships, we must be able to depend on each other. If we are unable to trust each other, relationships are destroyed and life becomes much more difficult.
This principle also applies to our most important relationship, the one we have with God. God is a person, too, and He is the person for whom we were created and on whom all of life depends. If we are unable to trust God, life not only becomes difficult, but it becomes impossible. Doubting God is devastating. Therefore, understanding doubt is critical. That is why this book was written.
Mr. Guinness contends that understanding doubt will safeguard against an unnecessary breakdown of faith. Today’s culture is very hostile to faith and we must be very active in its defense. Also, understanding doubt will prepare believers for testing times ahead. True faith is radical reliance on God, but that type of faith is seldom seen today because we don’t really think we need it. It is easy to be reliant on the things of the world without realizing it. If those things get taken away, we need to be prepared to stay the course without succumbing to doubt. The author believes that a proper understanding of doubt will lead to more radical faith – a faith that truly “lets God be God” (p 20).
Development of the Book
Part one examines the nature of doubt by comparing the truth of the matter to three commonly held misconceptions. The first of these addresses the idea that faith is the opposite of doubt; an equal with unbelief. This is not the case. Rather, doubt is the state of mind that wavers between faith and unbelief. It is to be divided, to be “in two minds.” To be sure, doubt can lead to unbelief, but it is not the same as unbelief. The truth is, doubt can lead to faith as well. It is the state of mind we are in before we go one way or the other.
The second misconception is the idea that doubt is a problem for faith but not for knowledge. The fact is, knowledge and faith are inseparable. All knowledge depends on faith. Every “fact” is dependent on presuppositions accepted by faith, although they are often unspoken. In order to know anything, we must assume something. Doubt, then, is a problem for both faith and knowledge, although it can be constructive for both in that it is useful in detecting error.
That point leads to the third misconception – the idea that it is dishonest to believe if you have doubts and that doubt is something to be ashamed of. Guinness points out that doubt can be very valuable. It is critical in the search for truth. By alerting us to unsubstantiated claims, doubt warns about things we should not believe. This type of doubt is nothing to be ashamed of This does not mean that doubt is always good, however. Doubt is not the sole arbiter of truth. It cannot tell us what we should believe.
The fact is, we cannot doubt everything. We all have to accept certain things as self-evident. By using doubt properly however, it can be very helpful.
In this section Guinness examines the seven most common categories of doubt.
The first is doubt from ingratitude. This type of doubt comes from choosing to forget what God has done for us. We decide to ignore how much we need God and how much we have needed him in the past. We become self-sufficient and proud and at the first sign of problems doubt arises.
The second category is doubt from a faulty view of God. If we do not see God as He actually is, if we do not understand the answers that He provides to our questions, doubt will be the result. It is not that we doubt what is true about God, it is that we believe what is false. If the presuppositions we have about God (that is, the beliefs that we actually act on) are not true, naturally our relationship with Him will not be what it should.
The third category of doubt results from weak foundations. Essentially, this doubt occurs in people who don’t know why they believe what they believe. They have no basis for faith, perhaps because they have never been taught properly. This type of doubt also happens when people think that they must have a rational explanation for every aspect of the faith. This doesn’t happen because fallible humans don’t have full understanding. Some things are mysteries to us. This doesn’t mean they are irrational, just that we don’t have the full answer yet. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe absurdity -the Christian faith may be mysterious at times, but it is never absurd.
The fourth category is doubt from lack of commitment. Some people simply refuse to believe. They have no real intellectual difficulties with a proposition, but choose to doubt it regardless. The Christian faith is about more than intellectual assent. Following Christ and understanding His truth requires an act of the will. We must be willing to obey God and choose to be committed if we are ever to truly understand and be free from doubt.
The author goes on to mention doubt from lack of growth. People sometimes fail to understand that Christianity is about more than a one-time act of repentance. It is a life of discipleship. If believers fail to cultivate the new life they have received, setbacks will occur and doubts will arise. Following Christ is not always easy. We must train ourselves and put what we know into practice.
The sixth type of doubt comes from our emotions. Sometimes our feelings override our reason and there seems to be no way to control them. The truth we know should dictate our emotions, not the other way around. We should not put too much stock in our emotional state of being, as it is notoriously fickle and open to influence from the outside. We should take care to keep out emotions under control by doing simple things like getting enough sleep and food.
The final category covered is doubt from fearing to believe. In these cases, people refuse to believe because they don’t want to face the consequences of their actions. It is self-imposed psychological barrier to faith. They don’t have intellectual grounds for doubt, but they insist that it must be too good to be true, so they won’t believe it. They are afraid to trust, “just in case” their trust is unfounded. They don’t want to take a chance of being disappointed.
The third section of the book discusses how to practically deal with people who doubt. The author does not deal with specific cases, but rather gives a broad overview of principles that are effective for all people most of the time. According to Mr. Guinness, proper care and counsel for doubters will involve listening, discerning, speaking, and warning.
First we must truly hear what the doubter is saying. Jumping to conclusions will help no one. Through asking the right questions and getting the whole story, we will have the proper data to start making conclusions.
The next step is to analyze what we have heard and decide whether the doubt is genuine and what the root of the problem really is. We must decide who is responsible for the doubt and address that issue. Then it is time to speak. It is incredibly frustrating to want an answer and have someone refuse to give it to you, even though they know it. We must speak the truth frankly and in love, with gentleness and compassion. If we don’t know the whole answer, we must admit that as well.
It may be that the person will refuse to accept instruction. Then it is time to warn. If the doubt continues as a result of poor choices by the doubter, they must be told about the consequences of their actions.
Mr. Guinness concludes the book by focusing on two specific doubts. The first he labeled doubt from inquisitiveness or keyhole theology. Some people just have to have a full answer for everything and will not rest until every mystery is satisfactorily unraveled.
They refuse to suspend judgment on any issue. The author argues that some issues are simply not clear enough not to suspend judgment on. That doesn’t mean we have to resort to irrationality, just that we have to admit that we don’t know everything. Suspending judgment can be very difficult at times and we become tempted to doubt. However, it is in these times that we need to trust the Lord even more. Jesus is our evidence that everything will be all right.
The second doubt results from impatience. God’s call transforms our life and gives us vision and hope for the future. However, God’s fulfillment of his promises does not always occur on a timetable that we think is appropriate. Doubt creeps in during the waiting times. We must keep our eyes on Christ and His eternal kingdom. All the great men and women of faith who have gone before us in faith should be our inspiration as we persevere.
Os Guinness is one of the great thinkers of our time and I believe this work is one of his best. He clearly knows of what he speaks and makes his point clearly and concisely. Here a couple of sections that I thought were especially insightful. They really spoke to my weaknesses. The first family of doubt mentioned was that which arises from failure to be thankful. I find this happens to far too often. God pours out his grace and mercy faithfully through every situation I go through, but just like the children of Israel, as soon as the crisis has passed I tend to become complacent and prideful. When the next crisis hits, I begin to doubt and worry about how to get through. A thankful heart is the antidote.
I also especially enjoyed the final chapter. Mr. Guinness noted that often God gives his children a vision of the future. However, that vision usually doesn’t become a reality overnight. Following Christ towards its fulfillment can become discouraging. As the years pass, doubt creeps in. It is at those times that passages like Hebrews 11 mean so much. I really appreciated the author’s emphasis on impatience as a source of doubt. It was a high point and fitting conclusion to a tremendous book.
Donald Johnson is the author of How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics