when they can't believe

By Viki Rife

    It happened three times in one week. Each time an individual told me, “I wish I could believe in God, but I can’t.”

It’s hard knowing someone we care about doesn’t believe. But it’s even harder when they actually want to believe, but something is standing in their way. Is there anything we can do to help their unbelief? What is our part in helping them find God?

     In the past, my approach to this problem was to dig deeper into the study of apologetics, the religious discipline of defending doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. That is definitely essential not only for their benefit, but so we ourselves don’t lose track of the basics of our faith.

     The truth is that most of us, at some time or another, will encounter unbelief in ourselves that we must wrestle with, and knowing what God’s Words really says is essential.

     In our culture, we assume that knowing the facts will lead to belief. Often, however, the problem is caused by emotional barriers, or even by a lack of understanding of what faith really is. Faith (or belief) involves trust. People who have been disappointed or traumatized often have trouble trusting humans, so putting themselves in the hands of an unseen God feels terrifying.

     As fellow travelers, what is our responsibility in the journey to knowing God?  Because I can’t always remember everything I’ve read or heard, I’ve narrowed my own approach down to a few basic guidelines:

1. Encourage them to ask questions.

     At the time of those three conversations, I was just finishing a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is not the Enemy of Faith by Barnabas Piper. I was struck by this comment, “Christians who don’t know the tension of ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ might not be Christians at all, or at the least they might be very infantile ones. Our faith is one of brutal tensions. Not everyone can express this, but every Christian knows it. We feel it in our guts.”

     He goes on to point out, “God is infinite, beyond our understanding, and He chose to reveal Himself to us in a way that sparks questions rather than settles all of them. God did not want us to have easy instructions and simple answers. He didn’t want us to be able to understand Him so well that we could package Him, wrap Him up, and put a bow on Him.”

In other words, doubt is a healthy part of getting to know God. Wim Rietkerk talks about a donkey trying to pull a huge burden up a mountain. The more he slowed down under the load, the more his master whipped him. He observes, “[This is] how some Christians treat their faith—they say, ‘Believe this,’ ‘Stop doubting,’ ‘Act in faith’ and continue to try and whip their faltering faith into action until, finally, it collapses and can go no further.” He further advises, “Sometimes it is better to ask the questions and allow the doubts out than to have your faith collapse under that burden.”

     In our attempts to deal with unbelief, we need to accept that we don’t have all the answers. Our culture likes things packaged and neatly defined, while God is infinitely beyond our comprehension. It helps to realize that knowing about God does not equal believing. Even the demons believe, and tremble (James 2:19).

2. Help them understand the difference between being a victim and being a sinner.

     In a broken world, we all are victims of other people’s brokenness. It’s important to remember that it isn’t God who has victimized us. While his enemy does have some power on earth, God only allows the enemy to bring into our lives things He will use for His glory. Rietkerk explains, “In my experience of bitter disappointments I am a victim, but in the way I react to my disappointment I often become a sinner—in the escape routes and shortcuts, the wrong turnings and disguises, disgruntlement and bitterness I prefer to adopt…. I alone am responsible for my behaviour, my wrong choices, my sinful reactions.”

3. Help them uncover their level of commitment.

     Since faith (belief) is essentially trust, sometimes we have to trust God with the first step. A part of our cultural perspective is the assumption that we need to know how something will end before committing to it. But that isn’t faith. Sometimes we need to act on what we know, committing to taking the first step of faith, before God shows us what’s next. In reality, the more we respond and act in faith, the more we will be able to see of God’s goodness and work in our hearts. Piper underscores, “Questions indicate belief only if you actually want an answer….Asking well also means knowing when to lay our questions down.” As already stated, we will never fully understand God, but as we dig into his Word, we will find the answers to help us find hope and belief in him.

4. Encourage them, if they really want to believe, to ask God for help. 

     Psalm 139:23,24 gives us a model for this kind of prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any fault in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Take encouragement from the father who told Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

     There is no magic formula, but over my lifetime I’ve been privileged to see how unconditional love, offered gently, firmly, and patiently, can help those who struggle with doubt to discover that they can, indeed, believe. May we constantly renew our commitment to never give up in demonstrating Christ to those who need him.

Good books for further research:

If Only I Could Believe by Wim Rietkerk

Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is not the Enemy of Faith by Barnabas Piper

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