Dealing With Doubts in College (and Beyond)
Doubt is a normal part of any faith walk. Here’s how to navigate it well.
It happened. It was done. Finished. Complete. Fulfilled. The proof had been on display with eyewitness accounts for more than 40 days (Acts 1:3). Forty days! That’s longer than a month. That’s longer than Christmas break.
Jesus’ closest friends had seen him repeatedly after the resurrection. They knew he’d been crucified, yet there he was again—alive. Put yourself in their sandals for a minute or two. Can you imagine seeing him again? You might have hugged him, shared a meal with him, laughed with him, cried with him, and heard him retell stories of events you’d seen firsthand. “Remember that storm on the lake?” he would say. “Remember the faith of Peter?”
As he spoke, you couldn’t stop staring at him. As he served you the bread on the beach (John 21:13), you couldn’t help staring at the holes in his hands. He was walking among you again. There was no reason for you to doubt the tomb was empty and Jesus was alive.
But according to Matthew, some of those closest to Jesus did doubt. Listen to his account of one of the final commissioning speeches from Jesus to his disciples:
Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17)
Remember, this isn’t the first time the disciples spent time with Jesus after he rose from the dead; they’d been with him before. One time it was with a crowd of 500 (1 Corinthians 15:6)! Yet Matthew tells us some doubted. Some doubted? Why? How? These men and women had been with Jesus off and on for over 40 days. Yet they still had this place deep inside that questioned, that wondered, “Could all this be true? Is Jesus really alive in front of me? Is Jesus really the Messiah?”
And what about Thomas? He’s mainly known as a doubter—a bummer of a description to have written on his tombstone. But his first reaction to hearing the news that the other disciples had seen Jesus alive was, “No way! I’ve got to see it myself.” Nothing happened for a week. A week! Thomas might’ve laid awake thinking about it every night of the week, his doubts growing deeper each dark minute.
Then, a week later, Jesus appears to the disciples again—and this time Thomas was there (John 20:24-29). Jesus set up a personal worship experience with him. I can imagine Jesus telling Thomas something like, “Tom, come over here and put your fingers in the holes in my hands. Put your fingers in my side. Feel that? That’s from the spikes and spear. What do you think, Tom?” John tells us that doubting Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!”
Do you think Thomas ever doubted again? We don’t really know. Maybe he did. But on that day he understood the true identity of Jesus.
What to Do With Doubts
Doubts about spiritual things come in all shapes and sizes. There are big doubts that plague all of us and hang around for a while. There are smaller doubts that quickly come and go. I can imagine sometimes when you’ve prayed you’ve felt like the prayers just bounced off the ceiling. I know I’ve had that feeling. You might be questioning if you’re heading to the right college or landing the right job. Maybe you’re wondering why that terrible tragedy happened or questioning whether God even cares about the details of your life.
Doubts make their way in. You can do your best to ignore them and get past them, but they keep knocking at the door of your heart. As a believer in Jesus, you might think, I’m not supposed to doubt, right? You might feel like others look to you for answers, but you’re filled with questions of your own. You begin to beat yourself up with guilt. What’s wrong with me? Why do I doubt God? I’m a believer. What will my friends and family think of me?
If you’re struggling with doubt, I’d encourage you to relax. Take a deep breath. Doubts are a normal part of the journey with Jesus, and they’re especially common in times of transition. As you journey out the door, customizing your life into all that God would have it become, you’ll face doubts. But your identity is in Christ, and placing your faith in him will help you work through those doubts.
Remember: Doubt is not the opposite of belief. The opposite of belief is unbelief. Authentic faith says, “I doubt like the rest, and I’ll be honest with my feelings.” I think the disciples were honest about their doubts, and Jesus helped them along as they kept following him. Maybe he had to hang around for 40 days after the resurrection just so they’d be convinced he was alive! The key is to stay true to your deep belief in God and follow Jesus wholeheartedly, even when doubts creep in. Don’t run away from God when you doubt; use it as an opportunity to get closer to Jesus like Thomas did. Get close enough to touch his hands and side.
Next page: 4 steps for dealing with the doubt
Deal With Doubt
Here are some tips to help you handle those times when you find yourself struggling with doubt.
First, acknowledge the doubt. Don’t deny it. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s normal to doubt. Think about the most mature Jesus-followers you know—the people you most admire and look to because of how they love Jesus and people. There’s a good chance those folks have experienced doubt at times. Share your questions with them and ask them to share how they’ve dealt with their own doubts. I hope they can admit some of their doubts to you. If they can’t, then they’re not being real with you. It’s worse to pretend you don’t doubt. Give yourself room to think through your questions and struggles.
Second, admit your doubts to God. Don’t just lie awake at night worrying. Talk to him. Tell him your feelings. He’s God. Just like any other relationship, your relationship with God will grow with communication. Tell him your doubts in your own words. You won’t shock him—he already knows your thoughts and the feelings of your heart. So just go ahead and claim them. Ask him to walk with you through the dark valley of doubt.
Third, go to good resources. Take some time in the Scripture with your questions. In the back of most study Bibles is a concordance that includes some key themes and Scripture verses on various topics. Do your questions line up with some of these topics? Look them up in the Scriptures. Many people of the Bible have already asked the same questions of doubt.
Fourth, nail down the essentials of your belief in Jesus—the real certainties. You and I don’t know everything there is to know about God—we know about a thimble’s worth of the universe’s understanding of God. You may never receive answers to all your questions and doubts this side of heaven, and that’s where faith in God comes into play. Authentic followers of Jesus live with the tension and mystery that God is God and we’re not. Continue striving to know God, but recognize there are some things you might not know this side of eternity. When you doubt, make a list of the essentials of your faith in Jesus. Hold on to this list for a rainy day. When doubts and doubters come along, remind yourself of the most important things.
Doubts will come and go. Admit you have them. Talk to God, talk to good friends and understand the most important aspects of your faith in Jesus. Dwell on him. Fill your mind with true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy things (Philippians 4:8).
Remember, God really is in control—even when you don’t understand what he’s doing. That’s why I’m so glad he’s God and I’m not; otherwise I would’ve messed it all up a long time ago. God is the God of answers, but sometimes I think he thought up all the questions, too—so ask away. There’s no question he hasn’t already dwelled on. He would love to journey with you and your doubts.
Questions for the Journey
1. Do you see doubting as good or bad? Do you think it’s OK to doubt some things as a follower of Jesus?
2. Can you identify areas that are causing doubt in your life?
3. What are some ways you can bring peace to your doubts this week? How can God help you?
Excerpt adapted from my book The Ultimate Guide to Being Christian in College: Don’t Forget to Pack Your Faith. For more information about this book, click here.