This summer I ended up in the hospital for 24 hours. In between running various tests, my nurse and I had some great conversations. She told me that she’s attended an evangelical church for 11 years and is actively involved in a women’s book study and a mom’s group, but is still plagued by doubts. “Everyone talks about prayer, but I don’t really know if I believe.” She brought up numerous difficult questions she was grappling with: How could a loving God send people to hell? Why were babies born to drug-addicted parents and then placed in their care? Why do people seem to suffer endlessly?
She had more questions than we had time to discuss in my brief stay at the hospital. but as I talked with her, I realized she has very little knowledge of what the Bible actually says. When I asked her how she thought someone becomes a Christian, she responded, “I have no idea.”
How could someone who has been sitting in church for 11 years, attending book studies and moms’ groups, be so confused about what makes a person a Christian and what God calls us to in his Word? It made me wonder how many other people sitting beside us in the pews are plagued with doubts and confusion.
So, how should the church respond to those doubting their faith? In the midst of a summer where a once well-respected Christian leader renounced his faith, former ministry friends have declared themselves “ex-vangelicals,” and my new friend at the hospital declared her confusion as to what makes someone a Christian, the questions are fresh in my mind. In the midst of a doubting loved one’s questions, then, here are a few ways we can help point them to Jesus:
1. Listen before you answer.
It can be easy to half-heartedly listen to someone because we’re already forming our response in our minds. Our self-centered nature focuses on making ourselves look good instead of listening and caring about the person sharing their heart with us. But truly giving someone our full attention, putting our phones down, evaluating what’s at the heart of their doubts will help us to provide a more genuine response. We can’t point someone to the Lord when we haven’t really heard what they’re struggling with. As James says, we should “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19).
2. Respond with compassion, not fear.
When it comes to someone we truly care about doubting their faith, we can feel shaken. The fear in our own minds and hearts causes us to be judgmental in our words and attitudes. We want so badly for them to believe that we forget to show compassion to their hurting hearts. Often when someone is struggling, there may be wounds from the past or a season of suffering that is causing their faith to be rocked. My nurse at the hospital readily admitted that she had watched so many people suffer endlessly with illness that it made her doubt God’s ability to answer prayer.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all for me from this summer is the reminder that those sitting by us in the pews week after week may not be Christians.
Just as the Lord shows compassion to our wavering hearts, so we need to extend the same compassion to others (Psa. 145:8-9). Our churches and homes need to be a safe place for believers and non-believers alike to express their uncertainties and doubts. We create a culture of grace when we welcome these questions instead of run from them and display the same mercy our Father has shown to us (Luke 6:36).
3. Point them to Scripture.
As we listen to our doubting friends, we need to know our Bibles well enough that we can point them to truth. We study, meditate, and memorize Scripture to both strengthen our own faith and be a witness to those around us. Philippians 2:12 exhorts us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” Even if we don’t immediately know what Scripture to refer them to, we should be willing to spend time reading and investigating where to direct them.
Our Sunday school classes were recently studying the battle of Jericho. Our 16-year-old daughter asked a poignant question, “If God is a God of love and tells us to love our enemies, how could he command the Israelites to wipe out all the Canaanites, even women and children?” Her Sunday school teacher later emailed my husband with a more thorough answer to her question and with resources for her to read. He took time to invest in a difficult question of a young believer and strengthened her faith as a result.
4. Pray for them.
Most difficult questions don’t have clear, black-and-white answers. As I struggled with how to answer Sam’s questions at the hospital, I told her to pray God gives her faith. Faith is believing without seeing. Even though we’re to be diligent students of the Word, God needs to do a supernatural work in our hearts to grant us eyes to believe. Without a new heart, the promises of his Word will be meaningless, and the answers will be insufficient. Thankfully, Jesus invites us to pour our hearts out in the midst of our need: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7:7-8).
5. Don’t assume the person sitting next to you in church is a Christian.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all for me from this summer is the reminder that those sitting by us in the pews week after week may not be Christians. Even those in ministry may be struggling with their own doubts but are afraid to admit them. Ask God to keep us persevering in the faith, to have eyes to see and discern truth from error, and to show compassion to those struggling with doubt. He is the only one with the power to save and fill us with faith instead of fear. He is worthy to be trusted and has promised to complete the good work he began in us (Phil. 1:6).
So often in our zeal for evangelism, we avoid the difficult truths of Scripture. We don’t want to offend, so we dodge the hard conversations. But in doing so, questions and doubts accumulate in the minds of others. Fears grow when questions are unanswered. Instead, we should help our loved ones turn toward the Lord, searching his Word and praying he would replace fear and confusion with faith and clarity.