How to Lovingly Guide Those Who are Struggling with Condemnation as a Result of Doubts

18 Oct

A few introductory remarks:

First, this topic is very near and dear to my heart because this is something that I personally experienced. That is, over a year ago, I experienced what many have called the “dark night of the soul” (coined by John of the Cross in the 16th century). I went through an intense season of intellectual/spiritual doubts (though, I have learned since then that they’re more connected than one might think). The reason I mention this is because this post is birthed from personal experience, not simply theoretical knowledge.

Secondly, this entry has been the product of much reflection (and mistakes made). In terms of reflection, I have filled nearly two entire Moleskine notebooks on the subject ever since I started going through it, making note of my thoughts and reflections on some resources I had come across. But more than that, I have made many mistakes, as well, in that when God put several others who were struggling with doubt in my path, I made some serious blunders in an attempt to “help” them – for which I am still having to remind myself of the Gospel for.

Thirdly, I know that this entry is not – by any stretch of the imagination – a completed work. And so, therefore, I invite any correction and constructive criticism (grounded in Scripture) that would help bolster this – for lack of a better word – “guide.” However, I felt that this was a good time to write something down so that I could not only reflect further as I write, but also, if God would be pleased, that this would be used by others not only for their personal struggle with doubt, but also in helping others who do.

Fourthly, I want to reiterate and emphasize that this is primarily designed with those who actually struggle with either conviction (from the Spirit) or, perhaps, even condemnation (from the Enemy) in mind. This assumes that the one who doubts is actually troubled by their doubts (rather than blatant unbelief where someone wouldn’t even be troubled by the subject).

With that said, here are a few suggestions to lovingly guide and help those who struggle with a sense of conviction/condemnation as a result of intellectual/spiritual doubts:

1. Empathize With Those Who Doubt: It is one of the worst feelings to open up to someone when you’re struggling with an issue (not least, doubts!) and be met with hostility, indifference, or confusion. If you’ve never experienced or struggled with doubt (which is altogether consuming and debilitating), I’m not saying you should go ahead and lie; rather, I am suggesting you say something that lets the one who doubts know that you understand that this particular struggle (though you’ve never experienced it) is difficult. Say something like, “It must be so hard. You must be so tired from this.” Though this is not the ultimate solution, empathy goes a long way for someone who is struggling with doubt.

2. Don’t Sugarcoat!: This is important! Telling someone who is dealing with intense conviction or condemnation because they are doubting to “Relax” or “Try to forget about it” or “Don’t take it so seriously” is unhelpful at best, and destructive at worst. Remember, the reason they feel so bad in the first place is because – no matter what you tell them – their consciences are telling them that they are in sin (Rom. 2:14-16). In other words, they already know that this is sin against God.

So, in order to help them, tell them what they already know to be true! Namely, that doubting is sin (I’ll explain why in point 3). I believe that it’s only when we tell them what they already know to be true, lasting healing can begin. Because otherwise, essentially, what you’re doing is communicating that they don’t have to repent and believe the Gospel (which is ultimately what they really need, not just a superficial sense of peace).

So, if a doubter who is struggling with conviction/condemnation comes to you for help, then tell them in a loving, compassionate way that they are, in fact, in sin. Or, using an illustration that John Piper used in a sermon: it’s much more compassionate for a doctor to tell someone they have cancer so they can start implementing the treatment right away, rather than not telling the patient at all until it’s too late. Which brings me to my third point.

3. Be Sure to Tell Them Why Doubting is Sin: When actually talking with someone who struggles with doubt, there doesn’t have to be such an artificial distinction between #2 and #3. But nonetheless, this point is important enough to warrant its own point.

For this, John Frame was an extremely helpful resource. As I mentioned here and here, for some reason, it never crossed my mind that sin affected my ability to reason, as well (I know, right?).

Since then, I have learned that theologians have called this the “noetic” effect of the Fall. In other words, according to Frame, ever since the Fall, every single one of us mistakenly think that we “have the right to seek knowledge of God’s world without being subject to God’s revelation (i.e., His Word!).” (Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God, 15-16).

Simply put, we don’t trust God when He says something to be true. Adam and Eve did it when they didn’t trust God when He said to not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3). And we do it everyday when we don’t trust God when He says something in His Word. And this is sin.

And so, for example, when someone doubts their salvation in Christ and doubts that there is “therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ” (Rom. 8:1) then, instead of trusting God and what He says, they are ultimately trusting in either their own reason that tells them, “That’s too good to be true” or Satan when he says, “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1).

Or, for someone who doubts, let’s say the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, then instead of trusting God when He says that He raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:32; Rom. 8:11, etc.), they try to find assurance that such an event actually happened ultimately outside of God’s inspired Word (e.g., historical studies, philosophical arguments, etc.).

Now, that’s not to say that one shouldn’t do historical or philosophical studies (not at all!). On the contrary, because God’s Word is true, trustworthy and ultimately the only perfect description of reality, then we shouldn’t be surprised when historical studies and philosophical arguments line up with the reality that the Word of God already so perfect describes. These things are helpful and important.

But, the question is Where does one ultimately find a sense of assurance or certainty about the historicity of the resurrection? If it’s not ultimately in God’s Word, then wouldn’t that, in essence, be trusting our own reason without being subject to God’s Word? Or, to put it another way, wouldn’t that be judging Scripture by our autonomous reasoning, rather than the other way around?

I believe Scripture calls that the essence of sin – namely, substituting oneself in the place of God, trying to make sense out of God’s world without being subject to God’s Word.

And so, doubting is sin ultimately because we don’t trust God and His Word. And, in order to let them know fully what they already know to be true and to make their God-granted repentance deeper, tell them why doubting is sin – we don’t trust God and His Word.

4. Remember Who You’re Talking To and Give Them Hope!: It’s easy when you’re agreeing with their evaluation of themselves that they are in sin (#2) and explaining to them why doubting is sin (#3) for these people with sensitive consciences and who are struggling with condemnation to revert to hopelessness, that they have “no hope and [are] without God in the world” (Eph.2:12). It is at this point that I’ve personally failed in the past. That is, for whatever reason, I didn’t offer the hope of the Gospel to those who were struggling with doubt.

We must remember who they are and thus, remember to offer them hope! Ask yourself, “Is God’s grace in Christ Jesus big enough to cover their sin of doubt (i.e., not trusting God and His Word)?” Or does God’s grace go only so far, and then stop? Absolutely not! This is the scandal of the cross, is it not? That Christ became sin (Rom. 8:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21) for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God? Absolutely! And so, we must remember first of all, that there is hope and secondly, we must remember to offer it on behalf of Christ! If this isn’t what we’re doing as counselors, pastors, communicators of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then what are we doing?

So, even for the one who doubts [and is convicted by the H.S. or is being condemned by the Enemy that they are in sin because they don’t trust God and His Word)], we are to offer them the hope of the Gospel! We are to remind them that God’s grace in Christ extends even to them!

But some might say, “What if they continue to doubt?” My response is: Is this particular sin somehow different from all the others (e.g., lust, anger, etc.)? Is it not possible that God’s call for all to live a lifestyle of repentance and belief in the Gospel (Mk 1:15) includes doubt? I believe so. Otherwise, what we communicate to those who struggle with doubt is that they must overcome their intellectual barriers through their own power and strength and believe! – which, in the end, is (a) impossible, (b) a subtle, yet deadly form of works-righteousness, and (c) ultimately hopeless.

But, the Gospel bids us to turn (in hope!) from our doubts (i.e., not trusting God and His Word) and trust God afresh! That’s why God in Proverbs 3:5-8 says:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
6In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

7 Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
8It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.

Because of the Gospel, rather than hearing this with a tone of “You better do this or else!” we can now hear this call to repent of our autonomous human reasoning and trust God with a tone of fatherly, tender, affectionate, loving, encouraging patience. Our Father who loves us (because of our perfect Christ, not because we have perfect faith) encourages us to confess our sin and try again and again and again whenever we fail.

So, we must remember who we’re talking to and offer them the hope that is found only in the Gospel!

5. Give them Practical Suggestions (i.e., Homework): Though ultimately, we should believe because we trust God and His Word, that does not mean that that precludes doing anything else. So, in addition to having them employ the more well-known means of grace (e.g., reading Scripture, pleading with God through praying I.O.U.S., meditation, prayer, involvement in a healthy, Gospel-centered local church, etc.), have them do some studying!

**** Now, I want to make clear at this point that if one is a new believer – or is one who is not familiar with any of the authors (or their ideas) that I will mention below – and is trying to help someone who struggles with doubts, the Gospel is sufficient!

In the end, regardless of all of the intellectual questions and barriers that one might bring, it really is a moral issue in that we don’t trust (or, more accurately, don’t want to trust) the One who is altogether worthy to be trusted (see point #3 above). So, in that sense, reminding them of the Gospel is all that is necessary (and, I would even argue, the goal). As a matter of fact, this is the grace that God showed me through Linda when I was going through my dark night of the soul. When I went through some really dark times, Linda was there to remind me of the Gospel of grace and it made the world of difference.

So, yes, if one is a new believer and/or is not familiar with any of the authors I mentioned below (or their ideas), then the Gospel is sufficient (thanks Francis!).****

With that said, I do still think that having an intellectual framework by which to address questions that are hostile to the faith is beneficial. And so, some helpful resources for me included (but are not limited to):

It’s good to let those who doubt know that though there are good questions, there are good answers, as well. These resources provide some good answers. But warning: DO NOT give them all of this information at once. DO NOT! They’ll become overwhelmed and hate you (just kidding about the hate… or am I?). And so, go through a chapter a week (or a sermon a week) with them and reflect through it togetherlittle by little.

6. Check In on them Regularly: Doubting is an insidious disease that, in my opinion, needs much time for the Holy Spirit to heal. And so, even though you might have gotten across to someone struggling with doubt once, chances are, something they heard or read or even their own consciences might have triggered it again. And because they are prone to believe the lie that they have to be perfect, they’re not going to openly tell you, for fear of shame or more condemnation.

So, be sure to check in on them regularly and ask them gently but pointedly, “How’s your struggle with your doubts?” Like I said, chances are, they’ll still be struggling with it. Be sure to love them, and remind them of the Gospel – again and again and again and again! Because more than more information to help them “overcome” their sin (which is still important!), they need to be reminded of the Good News that someone else has already overcome it. Give them hope.

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2 Responses to “How to Lovingly Guide Those Who are Struggling with Condemnation as a Result of Doubts”

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  1. Presuppositional Apologetics Links: October 8th to October 20th 2011 « The Domain for Truth - October 20, 2011

    […] 5.) How to Lovingly Guide those who are struggling with condemnation as a result of doubt- This is where the framework of Presuppositional Apologetics and practical Pastoral theology meets. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "333333"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "265e15"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "ededed"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "996633"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "religion"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "apologetic-links"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "presuppositional-apologetics"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "presuppositionalism"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "reformed"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "van-til"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. Cultivating Distrust in the Certainties of… | One Pilgrim's Progress - November 2, 2011

    […] could be said about doubt. Doubt is relentless in the certainties of his uncertainty. But for those who struggle with doubt, by God’s grace, there are moments of clarity in which the warmth of full assurance melts […]

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