From time to time good-hearted, honest, sincere, humble believers have questions that are not easily answered. Maybe it is the inequities of life or the oppressive weight of a seemingly endless progression of burdens — illnesses, death of loved ones, financial losses, or the severing of relationships — that threaten to overwhelm one’s ability to cope and endure. Through times of struggle like these, a devoted Christian may experience what feels like the absence or silence of God, wondering if God hears one’s prayers. Doubt may begin to arise in many different forms. What should you do when doubts arise?
The wisdom book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament records the philosophy of the Teacher, Koheleth, who had observed how unfair life could be in his day. He explains, “So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Ecclesiastes 2:20 – 21; cf. 6:1 – 2*). “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 – 12). Fate seemed to be against the righteous person, or at best it was merely the “same fate” for all. “To the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice” (Ecclesiastes 9:2 – 3).
At times the wicked seemed to have a free reign to do evil while the pure in heart had no guardian or protector. The Teacher observed that “in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well” (Ecclesiastes 3:16). He “saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed — with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). “There are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). “There are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:14).
The Teacher struggled to understand these inequities of life. He believed that humans were more than mere animals because God had “put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Unaided human wisdom was insufficient by itself to make complete sense of life or to discern what effect the government of God had on the affairs of humans. “No one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out” (Ecclesiastes 8:17; cf. 10:14; 11:5). Faced with all of the vanity of life, the Teacher asked questions that sounded a somber tone of doubt: “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21).
In spite of all of the Teacher’s pessimism, though, there is a marvelous gem, a defiant, firm statement of faith and trust, embedded in the middle of this negative-sounding philosophy: “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12 – 13). The evidence was not clear; it was mixed and confusing. Good arguments could be made by intelligent people for both viewpoints, for living a righteous life or for living selfishly without any thought for God. Nevertheless, the Teacher knew that living a righteous life before God was the better choice, even if difficult questions tormented him at every turn.
The discussion was over. All of the evidence had been heard and weighed from the Teacher’s philosophy (Ecclesiastes 12:13). What was the conclusion? What should people do when they had doubts? The answer was clear and simple: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Why was this the answer not only then, but also now? There are some things that the good-hearted person, who wants to know the truth, can perceive to be right and true, even though complex questions plague one’s mind and remain unanswered. We can know that it is right to fear (worship) God. Prayer and worship are right. We will never feel bad about doing these duties. Obedience to God is right, and what is the number one duty of obedience? “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:37 – 39). We know that it is right to love God by loving other people. So what should we do when doubts arise? We should love and worship God and obey him and love our neighbor in the plain duties that we know must be right, pure, and true.
A British minister, F. W. Robertson (1816 – 1853), had very similar thoughts along these same lines. He preached a sermon on March 2, 1851, on the text: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself’ (John 7:17 KJV). From this biblical text, Robertson argued that any person can attain the truth and know it by means of obedience. If we “will,” (that is, desire) to know the truth and commit ourselves to doing it, we will, through experience, know that God’s will through Christ for us is genuine.
Robertson was aware that people in his day often encountered doubts. “They go to church because it is the custom, and all Christians believe it is the established religion. But there are hours, and they come to us all at some period of life or other, when the hand of Mystery seems to lie heavy on the soul — when some life shock scatters existence, leaves it a blank and dreary waste henceforth forever, and there appears nothing of hope in all the expanse which stretches out, except that merciful gate of death which opens at the end-hours when the sense of misplaced or ill-requited affection, the feeling of personal worthlessness, the uncertainty and meanness of all human aims, and the doubt of all human goodness, unfix the soul from all its old moorings, and leave it drifting, drifting over the vast infinitude, with an awful sense of solitariness.”†
Who, in this situation, was most likely to doubt? Robertson continued: “Then the man whose faith rested on outward authority and not on inward life, will find it give Way: the authority of the priest, the authority of the Church, or merely the authority of a document proved by miracles and backed by prophecy, the soul-conscious life hereafter — God — will be an awful desolate Perhaps. Well in such moments you doubt all — whether Christianity be true: whether Christ was man, or God, or a beautiful fable. You ask bitterly, like Pontius Pilate, What is truth? In such an hour what remains?”†
When all of your usual supports seem to fail you, and doubt remains, what should you do? Robertson’s reply is identical to the book of Ecclesiastes: “I reply, obedience. Leave those thoughts for the present. Act — be merciful and gentle — honest; force yourself to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know. That must be right, whatever else is uncertain. And by all the laws of the human heart, by the word of God, you shall not be left to doubt. Do that much of the will of God which is plain to you, and ‘You shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.’ ”†
Again, what should you do when doubts arise? If your usual pillars of support on which you have relied in the past are failing you and if you are unable to deal with questions in your normal way, pause from the mental labor of attempting to solve uncertainties that have plagued great minds for millennia. Focus on what you know must be right. Care for widows and orphans. Visit the sick and those who are grieving. Feed the hungry. Teach a Bible class to inmates in a prison or tell a friend the good news of Jesus the Savior. Take flowers to residents in a nursing home. Visit a blind person and read the Bible to him or her. Write a letter to someone who needs encouragement. Say a prayer for all of them. Go to church services and sing hymns, pray, remember Christ in the communion, and enjoy fellowship with other believers. Read your Bible every day. If you love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself through these types of deeds, Jesus assured us that we would know the divine origin of his teaching. We may never find satisfying answers to some complex issues, but there is ample certainty regarding humble, elementary duties through which we can find fulfillment in an abundant Christian life.
* Scriptures are from the NRSV.
† “Obedience the Organ of Spiritual Knowledge” from http://www.fwrobertson.com/sermons/ser29.htm
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