Can I Still Have Joy in Seasons of Doubt?

So today, can we struggle with doubt and delight in God at the same time? That’s Steve’s question. He lives in Nashville. “Hello, Pastor John. My question for you is about how much joy I can hope to experience in the Christian life as someone who struggles seasonally with doubt. Sometimes I struggle with doubts about whether God exists or whether God is good, based on all the evil that I see on the news. Or I doubt whether God has a plan and purpose for my life. These doubts come and go. They’re seasonal. None of them extinguishes the smoldering flax that is my faith. The doubts do not stay long, and they do not overwhelm me. So, my question for you is this: Can I ever hope to have deepening joy in God in seasons when I also struggle with doubts like these? Or is joy in God simply impossible when doubts are present?”

I think the answer to that last question is no, it is not impossible to experience joy in God when doubts are present. And I think the answer to the question just before it is yes, you can hope to have deepening joy in God in seasons when you are also struggling with doubt. Those are my two answers. Now, let’s try to think biblically about this.

Intruding Doubts, Embattled Faith

First, a definition. Doubt comes in all sizes and shapes and durations and levels of seriousness. So, I’m going to call doubt of a Christian variety (that is, doubts that real born-again Christians have from time to time) thoughts that enter our minds from who knows where — they could be Satan’s fiery darts, desires of the flesh, a skeptical associate at work who mocks your religion, some new scientific argument, lack of sleep, dalliance with sin. There are all kinds of sources for how doubts rise or thoughts rise in our minds.

These doubts are thoughts that enter the mind that make us wonder whether something the Bible teaches is really true or whether we ourselves are as real as we thought we were. Those are the two kinds of doubts that I think a Christian wrestles with: Christian truth claims may not be true, or we may not be true.

Now, for the Christian, these thoughts are not conclusions; these are intrusions. They break in like a thief. They start moving around the house of your mind and knocking things over and making threats. This really does happen to Jesus’s followers. When Peter started to sink after walking a few steps on the water, Jesus said, “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). When Jesus appeared after the resurrection, it says, “They worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Jude 22 says, “Have mercy” — this is in the church — “on those who doubt.”

In other words, such doubting is not a sign of no faith; it’s a sign of embattled faith. When Paul says we should “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), he included in his meaning, “When doubts intrude, fight them.”

Fight them with prayer. “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). That’s a prayer. Or fight them with the word. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word” (Romans 10:17). That doesn’t just apply at the front end of the Christian life — that’s every day. We fight doubt by the word. Fight it by obedienceJohn 7:17 says, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God.” Obedient people have fewer doubts than disobedient people.

Kept in the Storm

My answer to Steve’s question is that during that battle, during that season of doubt, it is possible to experience, alongside the anxiety of doubt, deepening joy in God. Now, why would I say that?

Doubt as sorrow

First, because the anxieties of doubt are a kind of sorrow. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10 that Christians can have the experience of joy at the same time as experiencing sorrow: “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” If sorrow and joy can mysteriously coexist in the same heart at the same time — and they can — then doubt and joy in God can coexist at the same time. Picture doubt as the troubled waters on the surface of the sea, and picture the new creation reality of faith as the deep, still waters of the ocean depths beneath.

Doubt as perplexity

Second, I think in Paul’s mind perplexity is another way of talking about some kinds of doubt. He says in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” What is perplexity? Perplexity is a state of confusion or uncertainty. And what is uncertainty but a kind of doubt?

And yet, Paul admits to experiencing this kind of perplexity, doubt, but knowing full well he will not be destroyed by it: “perplexed, but not driven to despair.” That confidence beneath the perplexity can be experienced as a kind of deep joy in God’s keeping. Picture a child lost in the forest, but underneath that growing anxiety of the child and his growing doubts is deep confidence: “Daddy will find me. He said he would. He will find me. He promised to keep me.”

Doubt as suffering

Third, consider Romans 5:3–4: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces [approvedness], and [approvedness] produces hope.” Now, what that text teaches is that the reason we can rejoice in times of misery — suffering hurts; it’s misery — is that we have learned that enduring through experiences of misery has the effect of giving us a sense of authenticity. We made it. We’re real. We have been tested by fire and found to be approved. That, he says, produces hope, and hope is why we can rejoice. That’s the argument.

I think the very same process of testing and enduring and hope and joy can be experienced when the kind of suffering is not physical pain but psychological doubt. “We rejoice in our seasons of doubt, knowing that the suffering of doubt produces endurance, and endurance produces approvedness, and approvedness produces hope.” That’s the ground of our joy.

I would answer Steve’s question, that’s the ground of deepening joy. Can I experience deepening joy in these seasons? My answer is yes.

Paradoxical Calm

In fact, he said, these kinds of doubts are recurrent, seasonal. When that’s true, every season of doubt with triumph on the other side can bring a deepening sense that God is faithful. God will hold me fast. I can, in a sense, laugh at these intrusions on my peace. I can scorn the foam and the waves on the surface because, in the deep waters of my soul, I enjoy paradoxical calm because of Christ’s keeping promises.

So yes, Steve, you can hope to have deepening joy in God in these recurring seasons of doubt.

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