"He who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:6, 7).*
It was a quiet evening at Zaokski Theological Seminary in Russia. One student a future pastor wanted to talk to me. We found a quiet corner, and I waited expectantly for the student to begin. After a long silence he began with a confession: he was not sure about his calling. He was not sure if he should pursue a pastoral career. He sounded desperate. One word from me, and he was ready to drop out of the seminary forever.
That was a few years ago. Today this young man is the pastor of a large church. His members love him. They love him for his warmth and sincerity. They appreciate him as a pastor. They feel free to go to him with their problems. They flock to hear him preach. I know he has found his calling.
Have you ever had doubts about your calling? Your commitments to ministry? Your faith? Your family? Yourself? How serious are a pastor's doubts about such things?
Consider John the Baptist, described by Jesus as among the greatest "born of women" (Luke 7:28). In the loneliness of Herod's jail, his doubts almost overwhelmed him. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who was to come or should we look for another?" (verse 20). This was the same John who had baptized Jesus, proclaimed Him as the "Lamb of God," and devoted all his life to preparing the way for Jesus. This same John had said of Jesus, "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30). How could such seminal doubt enter the soul of a man who possessed such mature convictions?
When doubt enters
Doubt need not mean disbelief in the existence of God. Lucifer doesn't doubt the existence of God. Nor did Job. Nor did John the Baptist. Nor our seminary student. The issue of doubting is much broader.
To begin with, doubt often enters when we do not take our problems to God. We try to lock our problems in some remote corner of our hearts. We neglect our study of God's Word. We hardly pray. We may be pastoral workaholics or capable administrators, doing our duties perfectly well, performing at optimal levels, and yet deep down there is a hidden emptiness and it begins to express itself in doubt or even despair."As activity increases and men become more successful in doing any work for God, there is danger of trusting to human plans and methods. There is a tendency to pray less, and to have less faith. Like the disciples, we are in danger of losing sight of our dependence on God, and seeking to make a savior of our activity."1
I know a pastor who was very upset with himself because he felt he didn't have a real interest in the study of the Bible. "Bible study for me is just a duty," he confided in me. "I set a time for study, but then I always seem to find something more interesting to do!"
Does that sound familiar? Can doubts assault us in the face of our own proclamation? Can we preach good news and yet experience nothing but sadness? Take, for example, the good news of the second coming of Jesus. For more than 150 years we have been proclaiming it. Are we tired of waiting? Or did we ever really, personally, wait? In some corner of our heart, is there a little doubt about the Second Coming? Has the good news become sad news?
Doubt assaults when we struggle to understand the fine points of doctrine. Adventist theologians do not have a unified understanding of Adventist beliefs. There are varied interpretations of redemption, Christian perfection, inspiration, the nature of Christ, the function of the Spirit of Prophecy, etc. And some pastors are asking: "Then what about me? Where do I go from here? What is the truth and what is my future?
Doubts can also be of a personal nature. Just two hours remain for a pastor to leave for church. He is giving his sermon a last look and meditating on the details. Just then someone in the family says something angry or wrong. The pastor reacts, perhaps harshly. Now doubt questions his right to preach. Can the Lord bless his sermon? Is he really fit to be a pastor?
Is it possible in our Christian life to avoid doubt? Is it possible to avoid fluctuations, internal struggles, and uncertainties? The answer is no. But while doubt and despair are unavoidable in life, we need not fall victim to them. We can overcome doubt. We can minister without despair.
Watch Jesus in Gethsemane. Hear Him pray, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me" (Matt. 26:39). Jesus' internal struggle didn't begin there. A few days earlier, when a group of Greeks wanted to see Him, He revealed something about the storm inside: "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say?" (John 12:27). And then, during the final hours: "My God, my God, why ...?" (Matt. 27:46). Ellen White comments on the struggle in Gethsemane: "As Christ felt His unity with the Father broken up, He feared that in His human nature He would be unable to endure the coming conflict with the powers of darkness. . . . With the issues of the conflict before Him, Christ's soul was filled with the dread of separation from God. Satan told Him that if He became the surety for a sinful world, the separation would be eternal. He would be identified with Satan's kingdom, and would nevermore be one with God."2
Doubt is Satan's studied method for derailing us from our journey of faith. He tried it with Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Elijah, and John the Baptist. And he will surely try it with us. But the point is that we can overcome doubt by holding on to God and looking up to Him.
Let us go back to John the Baptist. When out of despair John sent messengers to find out about the authenticity of Jesus, the Master did not say anything at first. While the messengers waited for an answer, Jesus, instead of speaking to them directly, did something. "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind" (Luke 7:21). The messengers didn't hear as much as they saw. They saw the Lord in action. They saw God. And this they could tell John. What they saw was the healing balm for John's doubts. And he accepted this with relief and with gratefulness.
When Jacob, under the pressure of his guilt and deceit, doubted his future, his remedy was the ladder, above which stood the Lord Himself. When Job sought a reason for his suffering, the Lord didn't give him an answer. Instead He gave him a powerful picture of Himself, and Job understood. When darkness surrounded Isaiah, his hope came in a fresh vision of God.
Of course, not always do we see a ladder going up to heaven where the Lord stands to speak to us. However, the Bible provides us a picture of a God who cares, who loves, and who never leaves us alone. In His strength we can have victory over doubt.
If we take time to be with God, if we commune with Him in His Word, if we learn to talk with Him and listen to Him, we will have strength to carry on our journey and complete it. His strength will be ours. We will never have all our questions answered. For now we see only "a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). Until then it is important for us to learn to live with questions. We cannot avoid these questions. Mean while, we are to walk in the light we already have. "God gives light to guide those who honestly desire light and truth; but it is not His purpose to remove all cause for questioning and doubt."3 "Faith grows by conflicts with doubts."4
* All Scripture passages in this article are from
the New International Version.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 362.
2 Ibid., pp. 686, 687.
3 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.. 1948), vol.
5 Ellen White, p. 303.
4 ———, Sons and Daughters of God (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1955), p. 191.