Doubt is Not the Same as Unbelief

Is God good? Can I trust him with my life? Is the Bible true? These are just some of the questions that can plague college students and twenty-somethings as they stand at the crossroads of life, when new responsibilities loom large and the world around them treats God as a small or irrelevant part of life.

In his book, DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard, author and Cru campus minister Shelby Abbott comes alongside young adults to help them honestly face their doubt and turn to God for the gift of faith. Using both Scripture and personal illustrations, Abbott shows readers how to “feed their faith” in seasons of doubt through authentic relationships with other Christians, hearing from God in the Bible, and practicing thankfulness.

In this interview with Shelby, we dug into the book and explored the topic of doubt.

Q: As Christians, our doubts usually scare us. Is it OK to have doubts from time to time?

Yes, of course. Having doubts as a believer is a normal part of the Christian life. I think they usually scare us, however, because we’re afraid of what our doubts might mean. I think there’s a lot of fear that can flood into our lives when doubt comes along because our doubts might question God’s goodness, sovereignty, mercy, grace, and even existence.

But doubt is a natural part of the Christian experience and can be the avenue God chooses to use to draw us closer to himself, not push us further away. I like to personify doubt and say that he should be a houseguest in the home of your heart, not a permanent resident. Houseguests come in and can shake up things in your life for a time, but they are not meant to set up and live there forever. Eventually they need to pack up and leave.

Q: How is doubt different from unbelief? When is doubt in danger of becoming unbelief?

Doubt is different from unbelief in a similar way that temptation is to sin. Doubts come and go, but unbelief is a conclusion someone reaches—a deliberate decision to live life as if there is no God. Doubt and faith can coexist in someone’s life at the same time, but that’s not the case with unbelief.

However, just as sin can creep in during moments of temptation, unbelief can be born amid doubt. An intentional celebration of doubt can quickly backslide into a glorification of it, so it’s crucial we approach our doubts with discernment. It’s easy for doubt to lead to unbelief if we obsess over it…which many people have a tendency to do when doubt comes knocking.

Q: From your experience in ministry, what are some of the most common questions young people have regarding faith?

These are some of the ones I hear most often:

  • Is the Bible actually trustworthy?
  • I don’t feel loved by God right now, so is he really there?
  • Am I really a Christian if I’m doubting its validity?
  • Is God really all-powerful? If so, why does it seem like he doesn’t care about me or others who suffer?
Q: From what outside sources are the seeds of doubt most often planted—friends, media, college professors, or someplace else?

I think it can come from anywhere, but what I’ve noticed most recently is the Western cultural mindset at large. We’ve seen all of these “celebrity Christians” denounce or deconstruct their faith, and it’s become cool to be a doubter. Believe it or not, that has influence.

A skeptical culture combined with (from my ministry field of college students) an intelligent and articulate professor who openly challenges the Christian belief in the context of the classroom can be a perfect storm. Many students I know have taken something like a Religion 101 class and had their professor seemingly shoot holes in the Christian faith, then they walk away from class with no viable response. Many doubts are born on the college campus.

Q: What is the best way to mentor or minister to those having doubts? Is it better to give them point-by-point arguments or point them towards other tools?

I’d say it depends on the kind of doubt they are currently wrestling with. I’ve divided the book up into two separate sections: Foundational Doubts (major doubts someone can have when wrestling with the larger issues of life and faith) and Every Day Doubts (common doubts someone can experience each day, yet essentially don’t call into question the foundations of your faith). Depending on what someone is going through, you want to be sure you’re on the same page before diving in.

I think being present in their life and really listening to their doubts is key before you start giving arguments or answers. An older friend of mine says, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth,” which is a funny way of saying, “Shut up and pay attention.” Being present and listening can really go a long way. Then I’d encourage a healthy dose of research and reading, because you’d be surprised how little of that is done while people are in the throes of doubt. I like to say that there are no new questions, and the questions you have now have been asked for thousands of years. There are tons of great, satisfying answers to your questions out there if you’re willing to put in the work and look for them. I’ve created a resource list in the back of DoubtLess for some places to get started, and that only begins to scratch the surface of quality tools to available.

Q: Normally when doubt starts to creep in, we get anxious and stressed, but you write that we should stay calm. Why?

Anxiety never leads to anything good. It’s like a rocking horse—you spend lots of time and energy going back and forth, but you get absolutely nowhere. Instead of letting doubt distress your life, approach it with faith which can actually lead to something constructive. Faith brings peace, anxiety brings turmoil. Faith draws us closer to God, while worry because of doubt leads us away from God and focuses on our circumstances. Faith changes things, while anxiety changes nothing.

There are great and satisfying answers to our questions about God if we take the time to intentionally go after them instead of letting doubt sideline us in a pit of anxiety.

Q: What does the Bible say about doubt? How does God feel about it?

Plenty…and God is very accustomed to living in relationship with doubters. The Psalms, for example, give us permission to beat on God’s chest in a way that leads by visceral example. Over and over again in the Psalms, we see the authors wrestle very honestly with God and even accuse him of various things…and God allowed those wrestling matches to live on display for us in His Word.

In the New Testament, Mark 9 gives us a great example of how Jesus himself deals with doubt. The father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Christ and asks him to heal his son if he’s able. Eventually, the father cries out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Then, Jesus heals the boy. Jesus doesn’t scold the father for his doubt, nor chastise him because can’t fully believe in his ability to heal his son. The father admits there is an element of doubt in his heart, and that he needs help. If anything, Jesus rewards the man for his honesty. This parent needed Christ’s help in the midst of doubt, and help was, of course, extended to him.

Another great example is in the person of John the Baptist. John baptized Jesus, and when he did, the Spirit of God descended on Christ, and the audible voice of God the Father said, “This is my Son.” Yet at the end of his life, John himself had his doubts about who Jesus really was. When he was in prison, John sent a few of his disciples to ask Christ if he was the one or if they should be looking for another. After hearing the audible voice of God from the sky, John the Baptist still doubted that Jesus was the Messiah. I know it might seem strange, but I’m oddly comforted by John’s doubt. If he could admit it plainly—to the point it’s recorded in Scripture—I certainly have the liberty to doubt and be honest about it too.

Q: How do you feed your faith rather than your doubts?

It’s been said that if you feed your doubts, your faith will starve, but if you feed your faith, your doubts will starve. When we choose to obsess over our doubts and give them the undue attention they crave, their demand for attention will not go away—it will grow, overshadowing our faith.

However, if we choose to feed our faith when doubts come along, we’ll find that our faith will increase in ways we’d never have been able to see otherwise. Asking questions, studying, researching, and earnestly seeking real answers in and from the Christian faith will develop strong roots in our belief-system and snuff out the doubts. Instead of backing away from our faith and leaning into our doubts (as is what’s common in our culture), let’s lean into our faith and trust that the Lord will help nourish and sustain our relationship with him, causing our doubts to diminish in the light of the gospel.

Q: For someone wrestling with doubt, how should they seek out someone to talk to about their questions? Where should they go to find a safe place to ask questions?

Look to a trusted friend, family member, ministry leader, or church mentor—someone who won’t recoil at the idea that you are wrestling with doubt. Someone who knows that doubts have the ability to make our faith stronger, not weaker. Someone who isn’t afraid that you are asking tough questions that work your faith muscles out in a way that they’d never be worked out by avoiding important questions/doubts.

I’ve found that if tough questions don’t get asked now, they will eventually bubble to the surface in the future, so get with someone you trust and ask the hard questions you struggle with now—they probably aren’t going to go away. We shouldn’t fear questions and doubts as believers…we should embrace them as a gift of grace acting not as a stiff-arm from God, but an invitation to come and seek Him. There is great joy in the journey when we have someone to help us along the way.

Readers can find Abbott online at www.shelbyabbott.com, on Facebook (shelby.abbott.98), Twitter (@shelbyabbott) and Instagram (@shelbyabbott).


DoubtLess cover

DOUBTLESS: BECAUSE FAITH IS HARD

Is God good? Can I trust him with my life? Is the Bible true? These are just some of the questions that can plague young adults as they stand at the crossroads of life, when new responsibilities loom large and the world around them treats God as a small or irrelevant part of life. In DoubtLess, Shelby Abbott comes alongside young adults to help them honestly face their doubt and turn to God for the gift of faith. 

About the author

Shelby Abbott

Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Abbott’s latest release is Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress.

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Shelby Abbott

Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Abbott’s latest release is Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress.

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