Have you ever locked the door of your house, left for a trip, and then had the thought, “Did I lock the door?”
Sometimes that thought continues with a persistence that forces us to return to our house and check the door, only to find out we had indeed locked it.
If one’s obsession is, “What if I didn’t lock the door?,” he may live a life of ever returning to check the door he most certainly locked. He may even check the same door ten different times to finally give himself the momentary “assurance” the door is locked. His obsession is not “is the door locked” but “did I lock the door.”
Fears and doubts grow around all the possible tragedies that could happen if he did not lock the door. He would be responsible for every tragedy that occurs because he did not lock the door. The person’s focus is inward, focused on what he did or failed to do.
Someone afflicted with chronic doubt rarely deals with the objective fact—in this case, the fact of a locked door. Such a person is consumed with fears of “what if I did not lock it?”
It is only July and Steve is coming to see you for the seventh time since Christmas. The first few times you were eager to meet with him. But this time you find yourself agitated, even aggravated.
Your mind swirls with thoughts of, “What is going on with this guy? In public things seem fine; but when he comes to my study he is a different person. Every time we meet he is overwhelmed with doubts about his salvation.
“I have told him every conceivable thing I know of to help him. Each time he looks at me with a visible sense of relief, and sincerely thanks me for helping him so much—then he calls again with the exact same questions and doubts accompanied by even deeper fears.”
Have you been in this situation? How do you effectively shepherd your flock when you encounter this scenario? At the risk of oversimplification, a distinction needs to be made between a believer having doubts and being a chronic doubter.
A Doubting Believer
Discerning the chief source of the doubts when a person seeks your godly counsel is essential for the pastor and other church workers. Having occasional doubts is normal and has to do with the reality that even redeemed hearts are “prone to wander,” as one hymn-writer put it.
It is normal for believers to view a specific behavior, attitude, or thought in light of the eternal, unchanging truths of God and His Word and feel despair over how far short they fall in measuring up to God’s ideal. Such doubts are frequently caused by sin.
Other doubts may be associated by a crisis of faith in a particularly trying time. Or, they may be the result of a testing of our faith by God.
The wise pastor must use Scripture to discern and address the underlying cause of doubt. Sometimes, what is needed is reasoned counsel. Sometimes, specific confrontation about one’s behavior is called for. Other times, the believer needs to be comforted with the reminder of God’s unfailing care, helping the doubter cast himself or herself more fully upon the Lord.
The Chronically-Doubting Believer
If the source of one’s doubts is a broken thinking faculty, accompanied by faulty reasoning capacities, the doubter needs help of a different kind. Reasonable explanation of Scripture cannot be received by the person whose reasoning faculty is broken. Such explanation can actually compound the doubts.
In these instances, the issue is not a lack of faith. The real issue is the inability to think with sound mental process. Hence the doubter is lost in his own inner thought world of tumultuous uncertainty.
Chronic doubters in the church are not a new phenomenon. They have been part of Christ’s church throughout the ages.
For example, seventeenth-century Puritan writer and pastor Richard Baxter encouraged pastors to discern whether someone was facing circumstantial doubt or was caught in the painful process of perpetual doubting.
In his Practical Works, he wrote that chronic doubts should not be treated as having a spiritual problem, but as having a thinking problem (Volume 1, page 265). Keen pastoral observation will frequently reveal that those he called “these dear people” are not living in sin but are being tortured by a “diseased thinking faculty.”
Baxter noted that chronic doubters suffer under great self-accusation, live in tormenting fear of going to hell, and long to know more than anything else that they are indeed children of God. Such recurrent doubts are a manifestation of an “error in the imagination, and consequently of the understanding” (Volume 1, page 261).
Assurance of Salvation
Assurance of our salvation is not something we go get. It is something we are given. Scripture is clear: The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16, ESV).
Believing in the name of the Son of God always precedes assurance.
For some people, such assurance may come instantly. But assurance is not necessarily automatic at the moment of salvation.
For many, it is something they grow into. The Apostle Peter addressed this in both his first and second epistles: Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it for your salvation (1 Peter 2:2); and But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity (2 Peter 3:18).
Other believers come to know they have eternal life through clearer understanding of God’s written Word over time. The Apostle John wrote an entire letter to encourage such assurance: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13, ESV).
In every instance, salvation—and its assurance—is completely grounded outside the believer in the undeniable, unchangeable work of Christ as revealed in the Word of God. Any ground of assurance found within ourselves is as susceptible to fault as we are.
Pastoral Care for Chronic Doubters
Since perpetual doubting is primarily a mental problem, it must be addressed with kindness, patience, and pastoral skill. The chronic doubter is caught in an endless pursuit of a “self-defined” sense of assurance. This sense of assurance only comes periodically when the “correct” thoughts, feelings, and actions align properly together; but it appears and disappears like a mirage.
Obsessive doubters lack the typical capacities for dealing with the fearful possibilities of life. For example, no one knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she will not be in a car accident on the way to work each day. But most people can readily dismiss such possibilities as a needless worry.
The obsessive mind does not have such “dismissing” capabilities.
Obsessing over whether a door is locked or whether one will be involved in an auto accident is upsetting; but obsessing over one’s eternal salvation becomes an unbearable torment. The chronic doubter becomes consumed with making sure he or she did everything “just right” to properly “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is not uncommon for the chronic doubter to pray over and over again, exercising painful precision of thought, words, and feelings to “get it just right.” This behavior is the same as checking the same locked door ten or more times.
Sometimes the prayer “works” and the doubter feels assured for a time. But, when the next trigger of uncertainty goes off he is yanked back into his miserable state of fearful doubt.
The doubter is actually looking for something that does not exist—a certainty grounded in his or her own best efforts to do things “just right.” All his attempts at “praying just right” are ill-conceived attempts for assurance based on a faulty understanding of true faith.
The pastor will often have a hard time convincing the doubter of this fact. But, a skilled and compassionate pastor or Christian friend is needed to help this dear sufferer understand and accept the brokenness of his thinking. Chronic doubters need a shepherd to patiently help them correct their faulty thinking, often repeatedly, guiding them step by step to set their faith outside of themselves and onto Christ. When we look to Christ, we grow into assurance. But, when we look at our assurance, it will surely slip away.
A Final Word
Two cautions to the pastor or Christian friend who is helping a chronic doubter. First, be slow to give assurance to any doubter. This may sound odd, but if you offer the comfort of temporary assurance you become the ground of the doubter’s assurance. Each time he slips back into his cycle of doubts he will have to come to you for reassurance. You are not to guide him to assurance. You are to guide him to Christ.
Second, be cautious of reading your experience into the life of your doubting friend. Just because your assurance came along a certain path does not mean his assurance will come in the same manner. Yes, the Scriptures make it plain that God offers assurance of salvation to all his children. Yes, every believer’s assurance is built upon the same trustworthy rock of Christ’s merits. However, the path to that assurance can be quite distinctive and unique to each individual.
May God grant each of us eyes to see and minds to grasp the sure salvation offered us in Christ! May He also grant us soundness of thinking to know the true assurance of His salvation as revealed in His Word!
From Psalm 23
Leslie Weatherhead, author of A Shepherd Remembers, told of two ministers in England in the early part of the twentieth century. They were taking a vacation hiking among the Welsh mountains. Far up in the hills, they sat down to rest and soon got into conversation with a shepherd boy who was tending his sheep nearby. To their astonishment, they found that this fellow seemed to have missed any education. He seemed also to have been remote from church or Sunday School.
The hikers began to talk with him in simple language about God. As they were getting ready to go further, one of the ministers said to him, “Just remember five words and think of each of the five fingers of your hand standing for each word. Grasp one finger at a time as you say these words, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’”
The following year the ministers were hiking in the same mountains, and they inquired about the boy. They learned that he had been killed during the previous winter. Apparently he had been going out after sheep in a storm, had fallen over a precipice, and had lain for many hours there before he died.
The ministers were directed to a mountain cabin where they could pay their respects to the boy’s mother. They told her how they had met her son the year before and had talked with him about God.
With a strange light in her eye, the mother said, “Then, sirs, perhaps you can explain something to me. When my son was found, he was dead, but with his right hand he was grasping tightly the ring finger of his left hand.”
One of the ministers said quietly, “Yes, we can explain that. He was telling you, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’”
Tony Rose is pastor of LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, and served as chairman of the Executive Committee’s Mental Health Advisory Group, 2014–2015.