Wrestling With Your Doubts
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Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Shelby Abbott says that doubt is different than unbelief, and while we should not fear doubt, neither should we make it a badge of honor.
Wrestling With Your Doubts
Bob: How is it that young people, who were rock solid about their faith when they were in youth group in high school, wind up, headed to a university, and starting to have doubts? Shelby Abbott explains.
Shelby: They sit in class, and they hear from Religion 101 professor, and they've never really thought about their faith on their own. Their professor just blows holes in everything that they thought was true about Christianity. And then they go, “Well, if my professor, who is much smarter than me, doesn't believe it, maybe it's not true.” And then they don't take the time to actually research it themselves.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, August 20th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. All of us are going to experience challenges to our faith and have seasons where we deal with doubt, so what do we do when that happens? And as parents, how do we help our children deal with their doubts? We'll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Have you wrestled with doubt in your walk with Jesus?
Dave: Did you hear my wife laugh?
Dave: She laughed!
Bob: Why did you laugh?
Ann: Because this is a topic that is very relevant to Dave because, yes, doubt has been a big part of his faith.
Bob: More of his than yours?
Ann: Yes. I don't really wrestle with it, but Dave has always wrestled with it.
Bob: I've told my kids: “Doubt is not something that we should fear; you're going to have days where you walk and you go, ‘Is this for real?—the whole God-thing.’”
Ann: —which, that alone, Bob—what a great conversation to have with your kids.
Bob: Well, I've said, “When I have that—when I'm driving along, and I think to myself: “Okay; is it a crutch? Do I need something to prop myself up? Is this because I was born in America?”—all of those kinds of things.
And then I look at a tree; and I go, “We have some pretty amazing technological development in our world, and we still don't know how to make a tree. A tree is pretty basic, but we can't make one of those—even our best scientists don't know how to make a tree.” That re-calibrates me to go, “Okay; when they figure out how to make trees, then my faith will be shaken; but for now, I'm okay with where I am; because I think there's got to be a God, who knows more than we do, who knows how to make trees.”
Dave: We were on staff with Cru in our second year—
Ann: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: —so actually married two years as well. I'm a campus minister—Athletes in Action—going to the University of Nebraska campus. I wake up one day—and again, Ann doesn't struggle with this—so she looked at me like, “What?” I go, “What are we doing?” She says, “What are you talking about?”
“We just threw our lives away for a lie.” She goes, “What?!” “How do we know this stuff's true? I gave my life to Christ four years ago. I never did any research. This whole thing—what are we doing with our lives?” She just looks at me and she goes, “You'd better find out because I know your brain. You can't live a lie, so you'd better find out.”
I went on a journey for the substance of it. I welcome doubt; I think doubt's a really healthy thing, because there are answers that are legit; but you've got to go get them.
Bob: One of the things that's interesting in this culture today is that there are some, who are turning doubt almost into a virtue,—
Bob: —like” “Real Christians have to doubt; and the more you doubt, maybe the more authentic your faith is.” That, now, starts to get a little dangerous.
We've got a friend, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today; and we're happy to have him back. Shelby Abbott is here with us. Shelby, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Shelby: Thanks for having me on again. It's good to be with you guys.
Bob: Shelby is an author/a speaker. He's been involved with Cru—how many years have you been with Cru?
Shelby: This summer is 21 years.
Bob: Wow; so he's been involved—working with college students/been involved in campus ministry—has written a number of books, including a book called Pressure Point and one called I'm a Tool, that's all about dating. And he's got a brand-new book that's come out that addresses this issue of doubt. The book is called DoubtLess.
Shelby, talk about your own journey with doubt. Is it something that has been an issue for you?
Shelby: Yes; it's been an issue for me, but maybe not in the way it would normally come about with an average believer. It's never really been that much of an intellectual thing with me; it's really been more about my suffering and how my suffering has dictated some of my thinking when it comes to: “What is God doing?” “Is He really in control?” “Does He care?” “Does He love me?” Then, leading to: “Is He all powerful?” “Can He actually do the stuff that He says He can do?”
Bob: I was reading something over the weekend about a pastor—that's the issue that derailed him/led him away from the faith—this whole issue of: “If an all-powerful, all-loving God exists, then why is there suffering at the level there is in the world?”
You were wrestling with it with suffering in your own life, but it didn't derail you.
Shelby: No; I think it's because, when suffering came around for me, I had already been a Christian for about 15 years. I had deep roots, and being on staff with Cru, I tried to intentionally surround myself with people—who I could learn from and that would pour into me well—that I could wrestle with these in a verbal way and not keep them internal.
And then kind of live my life authentically around people, who have traveled the road ahead of me, both like maybe one stage ahead and then multiple stages ahead. I've tried to have, consistently, inject people into my life who have wrestled with the same things I've wrestled with, who have wisdom in ways that I would never have wisdom. And then I just bury my nose in the Scriptures all the time to try to make sure that that foundation is well attended to.
Because of that, I never really got to a point where I was like: “Let me just pitch this whole thing.” I've wondered, similar to what you guys were talking about, but mine was really more like: “If God is good, then why would this happen?” I didn't really wrestle with: “…if God is there.”
Ann: Shelby, can you share a little bit of what that suffering looked like?
Shelby: Yes; in 2009, my wife and I ran a 10-mile race—this is pre-kids—ran a 10-mile race. That was the proverbially straw that broke the camel's back; I had a herniated disc in my lower back that started putting pressure on my sciatic nerve, causing this radiating pain down my leg on a consistent basis. I did everything that I could have done without getting surgery and then I eventually found myself sitting across the table from the top neurosurgeon at Penn Medicine. He said, “You know, looking at your MRI, I just don't see anything here that I could go in and do that would help you.”
At that moment, I was just like, “God, You've got to do something here.” That was ten years after the initial injury that happened. I've learned a ton in the process, and my faith has been galvanized in ways that it just never was before. I've looked back at the suffering and thanked God for it, because it's been a gift to me that my roots are even stronger in Him now than they were before—to the point that I felt like I had the audacity to write a book about it. If you don't actually struggle with the things that you're writing about, what's the point?
Bob: Talk about what you're seeing on the college campus as you work with students today, because you've observed what I was talking about; haven't you?—where doubt is almost like a badge of honor these days?
Shelby: Yes; it is. The culture celebrates it in a way that it's cool to do so. The genesis of this book was a combination of a few things. My brother-in-law—my wife's youngest brother, who is very dear to me—ended up having a two-year long battle with doubt that ended with him walking away from the faith.
That was very, very troubling to me. I started talking about it with a friend of mine/an older mentor friend of mine; and he was like, “You need to write about this.” Then right at the same time—there's a summer mission that my wife and I run with Cru—about three years ago, two students came to me at the end of week one of ten weeks on a summer mission and said, “Hey, we want to ask you a few questions.” They were very honest about what they were struggling with when it came to their doubts.
Because of that, I was like: “I need to look into this a little bit more; because they are just a small subset of the college campus that is wrestling with these things,” and “We've got to get it out into the open; because if you're quiet about this, just like any other thing that you're quiet about, it will fester and grow; and it will eventually lead to where my brother-in-law ended up going to, which is pitching the faith.”
Dave: So as you look at—even the title of your book—are you trying to help people doubt less in their faith and taking them on a journey to do that? What was the idea? The subtitle is, obviously: [Because] Faith Is Hard, and we understand that. But what do you mean by DoubtLess?
Shelby: Yes; it's a play on words a little bit. It's really an interesting thing, because you have to embrace it in order to get to a different side of it. When you get to that other side, you're able to doubt less. It's pronounced “Doubt Less Because Faith Is Hard.”
My encouragement in the book is to do the opposite of what we're tempted to do in the Christian community, which is not talk about it; because we don't want to be labeled as someone who's a troublemaker; or we're afraid to mention it; or we're afraid, if we do mention it, we're going to be someone's project, and they're going to try to argue us back into the faith; or they're going to try to argue away some of the doubts that we're having.
My whole process with this is like: “Hey, let me lean into this in a way that I'm coming around people, and they're helping me through this process; so that, as I doubt—just like a muscle, it gets stronger, and stronger, and stronger the more you work it out—putting the assumption that God is there, that He wants me to run after Him, that He will be there for me as I try to find Him in the search. He's always there; and as a result, my muscle will be stronger at the end; so I will be able to doubt less in the future.”
Dave: This is interesting. I don't know about you, Bob—or even Ann—the church I grew up in, as a kid—they never said this—I would have caught/I think everybody would have caught: “Doubt is sin,”—you know—“It's sin.”
You open the book in your chapter, saying, “Doubt is biblical, and it's common.” As a young boy, I was like/like we all had questions. You weren't even allowed to ask a question—just receive it/believe it—
Ann: —without being judged, you mean.
Bob: Nobody reads the story of doubting Thomas in the Bible and goes, “Man, that's who I want to be. [Laughter] I want to be a guy like that, who goes to Jesus and says, ‘Give me better evidence—
Bob: —“’than You just standing here in front of me.’”
How is doubt biblical, Shelby?
Shelby: Yes, there's tons of examples of it. The Psalms are a great place to go to discover the raw reality of what someone's going through and not really believing the best in God.
One of the major characters that I decided to use, at least in the book—instead of running straight to doubting Thomas, which I do talk about him—I thought John the Baptist was a really good example; because if you think about who John the Baptist was: he was the precursor to the Messiah; he was the one who leapt in the womb when he was close to Jesus; he was the one who pointed Jesus out and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”; and he baptized Jesus.
When he did, literally, God's voice from heaven said, “This is My Son.” Yet at the end of his life—he's in prison—and he sends two of his disciples to Jesus and says, “Go ask Jesus if He's the One or we should be waiting for another.” And it's like: “Really? You heard God's voice in the sky; you saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him; and you're still doubting?”
What does that tell me? That tells me that, if God would give me the “proof” today by showing up in the sky, wearing a flashing jersey that says, “I am Jesus; worship Me,” I'd still probably doubt; I'd still do that.
I see these examples of these people/these characters in the Scriptures. I see the text itself calling into question whether or not God is real, if He's there, if Jesus was who He says He was. I'm like, “I'm in good biblical company. This is really good.”
Bob: Of course, you turn to the Book of James; and here's James saying, “Don't be like those who doubt”; so there's this rebuke against doubting in James; right?
Shelby: That's one of the beautiful things about Scripture is that you can't just pull quotes here, and here, and here to make it want you want it to say, which is what people do all the time. You have to look at the entirety of Scripture and see examples of this. It's important to look at the Scriptures as a whole.
And you know, even at the Ascension, in Matthew 28—the famous Great Commission—His disciples are there; and it says this one little phrase: “…but some doubted.” “…but some doubted,”—seriously, this is after the resurrection! This is after the resurrection—you know, some doubted still in those moments. It's like: “Okay; Jesus is still patient with us; He cares about us.”
Doubt is not the same thing as unbelief; it's not. That's like saying temptation is the same thing as sin; it's not. Doubt is one of those things that can—you know, I ripped this from Tim Keller—it acts like an inoculation almost. If you're doubting, your body is able to create antibodies against it so, when life smacks you in the face—which it will—you're able to not doubt, and you're a lot stronger in the situation; because you've already been inoculated.
Ann: One of the things I thought was interesting, when you were talking about John the Baptist—one of the things that always stuck out to me about John the Baptist—it says he was born with the power of the Holy Spirit in him; and yet, he still doubted. Even with the disciples, I can think, “Well, they didn't have the Holy Spirit yet; that's why they were doubting.” And yet, even when we have the power of the Spirit, who helps us discern, we can still have some of that doubt. I feel like that's kind of encouraging.
And one of the things that you talked about, too—which I thought was interesting—you talked about feeding your faith, not your doubts. And even now, like: “Oh, that's so good! Because once we get in this doubting kind of space, it's easy to keep going there instead of feeding your faith.”
Bob: Yes; walk us through, if somebody listening is going, “I'm wrestling with doubts.”
Bob: What's your prescription for them? How do they wrestle well?
Shelby: I think that one of the temptations, as a Christian, when we find that people are wrestling with doubts, is to give them content in order to negate the fact that they are doubting. I've found, especially when you're dealing with people—which is what ministry is—presence is as important, if not more so, than content.
This book is not meant to be an apologetic, per se; there's plenty of other people who have written way better stuff than I have about that kind of thing. Although, I do go into it a little bit with the resurrection; but in general, I think it's an emotional thing—it's a heart thing; it's a communal thing. If you talk about—for example, what you mentioned, Ann: “Feeding your faith and not your doubts,”—I think young people, at least, have the attraction to doubt.
Ann: So then, you're on YouTube®, watching all the YouTube stuff.
Shelby: Yes; and you can find anything on YouTube that will help reinforce your already pre-existing notions about anything; it's there. And so you start to roll that over in your mind. If you remain silent about it, you're going to external sources like YouTube, or reading books, or you're listening to podcasts that reinforce what your doubts are. It just pushes further, and further, and further.
My exhortation to students is like: “Instead of feeding your doubts, and allowing your faith to starve; why don't you feed your faith, and allow your doubts to starve?” It seems a little bit counterintuitive to think and feel that way, but it's obviously the way
that we should be going—putting the weight of our faith into Jesus during the process of the fact that we're not sure He's going to prop us up.
Bob: And I've talked with people for years and said: “There is going to be a gap between what evidence will support and the ultimate questions you're wrestling with in life. Whatever it is you're wrestling with: ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What happens when I die?’—these kind of big metaphysical questions—to get to an answer, if you're looking for evidence that will be an airtight case that is irrefutable, nobody is ever going to find that.”
There's always going to be a gap between what the evidence supports and the conclusion you come to. That gap is the faith gap that we've got to step into. You're either going to step into that and say, “Well, I'm going to believe what the culture says,” or “…what the Bible says. I'm going to fill in the gap, between the evidence and the conclusion, with what I choose to fill it in with.”
Shelby: Yes; and the beautiful thing about Christianity, among many other beautiful things, is that there's never going to be an airtight argument for Christianity. God didn't give us an airtight argument; he gave us an airtight person, and so that's what we need to concentrate on and lean into in the whole process. There's great evidence for the resurrection. There's great evidence for the historicity of the Bible and the people in the Bible—all that kind of stuff—it's there; it's just that you've got to be willing. This is one of my things with younger people: “You've got to be willing to look for it.”
I think they sit in class, and they hear from a Religion 101 professor, and they've never really thought about their faith on their own. Their professor just blows holes in everything they thought was true about Christianity. And then they go, “Well, if my professor, who is much smarter than me, doesn't believe it, maybe it's not true.” And then they don't take the time to actually research it themselves.
I'm encouraging people to research it themselves/to look for the evidence; there is great evidence for the Christian faith. Don't be lazy about it; be intentional; lean into it.
And trust that God is going to provide for you in the process of seeking after Him, because He will.
Bob: Dave, as a pastor, you've seen people in your churchdoubt. Some have wound up in a stronger place and some have wound up spinning out.
Bob: How have you approached that as people have come to you? What would be the approach you would take?
Dave: I think what Shelby said earlier is so pivotal. I didn't, initially, even understand it; but presence is so important. You know, I've always said, “It's not the size of your faith that matters; it's the object.” You can have mustard seed faith, but if you have the right object—I think, like Shelby said, the evidence for the historicity of the Bible/the evidence of the resurrection is so solid—the object is solid; but you still have to have faith.
I still think most skeptics and most people that struggle with doubt—and I have done that—they want somebody/they need somebody to walk beside them and love them. But if you're not tender—I don't even think it's doubt that they're wrestling with; they don't like the person that they're walking beside—and they'll use that to say, “Yes, I don't believe this is true.” I think it's deeper than that.
Ann: It's interesting—I just got a text from a good friend, who lost her 30-some-year-old daughter: “In church, we were singing this song,”—she said—“You're Never Going to Let Me Down [Ann sings a phrase from the song].” And she said, “I couldn't sing that song.” And I said, “I get it.” And she's doubting; she goes, “I'm so struggling right now.”
I lost my sister when my sister was 45. I'm telling you—what you said, Shelby, was so true—I had that choice in that moment to feed my faith or to feed my doubts. As you said, Dave, when I connected with other followers of Christ, saying, “I'm really struggling.” I think it's so important for us to continue to always be building on that faith—to saturate ourselves with God's Word/to be in community with other people. When we can't even stand up, they're holding us up, praying for us. But also, to be able to be vulnerable and real, and have people say, “Yes; I get it. Let me pray for you.”
Bob: What I love about your book is that it's the kind of book that someone, who is wrestling with doubt, can read to help them know how to address that. It's also a book that moms and dads can be reading to help them understand the doubts that their kids are going to go through/that their college kids are bombarded with today to help them know: “How do I walk well alongside my children when they are doubting?”—or help them walk well alongside their friends, who are doubting.
The book Shelby has written is called DoubtLess: Because Faith Is Hard. It's brand new; it's just out this week. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of the book, DoubtLess; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; you can order from us online. Or you can call to order the book, DoubtLess, by Shelby Abbott; the number to call is 1-800-358-6329—that's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “ TODAY.”
You know, we are aware that this issue of helping our kids stay on track, spiritually, is the number-one issue moms and dads are losing sleep over these days. It's the issue that matters most to us as followers of Christ. That's what we're trying to address every day on FamilyLife Today—the very real, very practical issues that we face in our marriage relationship, in our parenting, our extended family relationships.
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We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow. We want to talk about what we can do, as parents, to have healthy conversations with our children about their doubts—how to invite them into dialogue about those things. Shelby Abbott will join us, again, tomorrow. I hope you can tune in as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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