Can we be certain of a God we can’t see? I remember agonizing over this question. Here was my struggle: I desperately wanted to believe in my Christian faith, but I kept having recurring doubts. Some were intellectual questions about God’s existence or his goodness. Others were more experiential—God seemed absent and my affections for him felt constantly dull. I would resolve one question and then feel unsettled by another. I would answer that question, only to find I had two more and felt unsure again about the first.
What was I to make of these stubborn, persistent doubts? I feared the reason why these doubts kept arising was because deep-down I didn’t really believe in Christianity, I just didn’t want to admit it. After all, I had a vested interest in believing in God. Christianity was everything to me—my upbringing, my community, my entire way of looking at the world. I wondered if I could really be objective when thinking about my faith.
These were deeply painful thoughts, but if the doubts never went away, how could I dismiss them? And if I couldn’t dismiss them, how could I ever pursue Christ with full joy and confidence? The daily fight to believe was so tiring. The thought of doing it for a lifetime, unsure if I was faithful or in denial, felt too difficult to bear.
Here’s the best way I can think to describe the experience of doubt: imagine you’re caught at sea in the middle of a raging storm. Fierce winds howl around you. Waves crash against your ship, spilling icy water inside. It’s night, but there’s no land in sight. All you can see through pouring rain is dark threatening water on every side.
That image captures the exhaustion and anxiety of wrestling with doubt. On land, we take moving normally for granted. But when you’re at sea being tossed to and fro by waves, even the smallest step of faith requires enormous energy. You never know if the next wave will be the one to capsize your ship and hurl you into the sea. Likewise, I was constantly fearful that the next unresolved question would be the one to finally shipwreck my faith. I felt like a beleaguered sailor and, with no end to the storm in sight, I was beginning to despair.
But what if, instead of a ship, we were inside a sturdy house built on a strong foundation? We would be in the same dangerous storm, but we would be far less afraid. Why? Because we’d know our shelter would survive. The ground would no longer be shifting beneath our feet. We’d be able to stand and move freely.
That is a picture of certainty. I longed for certainty—a way to know that God was real and was who he said he was. If I could have that, I thought, I would be free from my paralyzing introspection. Unanswered questions, painful circumstances, and changing feelings would still come. They would still be difficult and scary. But I would be able to face them with confidence, knowing God was with me and he would not let doubt break my faith.
But how could be I certain of a God I couldn’t see? Normally, our human senses dictate what is most sure to us. We don’t doubt the reality of something if we’ve seen it with our eyes or felt it with our hands. But I had never seen God, heard his audible voice, or witnessed a physical miracle. How could I really be sure that I knew God and was loved by him?
I thought I had good reasons why I believed in God, but none of them felt decisive or definitive. My strongest apologetic argument had at least a plausible rebuttal. My religious experiences could be dismissed by sociological, nonreligious explanations. Neither of these could sustain me when my doubt was fiercest—when I was was the one dismissing the legitimacy of my faith.
I came across this video of a Q+A session with Pastor John Piper during what was probably my most difficult season of doubt. A student asks Piper, “How do we handle the doubt that the Bible or Jesus or the Gospel isn’t true?” Piper’s answer left a deep impression on me. He answers compassionately and acknowledges the pain and confusion of the doubting student. More importantly, he gives the student a way forward in his doubts.
He encourages the student to, “Cry out to the Lord to open your eyes to the self-authenticating glories and beauties of Christ in the Bible.” When Piper says “self-authenticating”, he’s not saying to believe the Bible because it says it’s true, though the Bible does say that. Rather, he’s telling us to we can know for certain that the Bible is true because it shows us wisdom and beauty that is unmistakably divine.
And what is this self-authenticating glory? To sum it up simply: Jesus—his person and work; his life, death, and resurrection. In his character and at the cross, we see strength and humility, love and justice, compassion and courage all intermingled perfectly. In him, we see the unity of the Biblical storyline and how it reveals our desperate need for a Savior.
We encounter Jesus and over time, we come to love and trust him. Like the disciples, we can say, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69). No one speaks like you do. No one loves how you love. Seeing Jesus’ glory, combined with walking in relationship with him, provides the certainty we need to anchor us in the storms of doubt.
Piper uses the illustration of his relationship with his wife. What if someone came to him and told him his wife was being unfaithful. Would he be haunted by the possibility that it could be true? No. Piper says he wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep. Why? “An absolute, subjective, eyeball-to-eyeball trust. I know this woman.” When we see Jesus’ glory and walk with him, Piper argues, we can have that same kind of confidence.
I had never thought to look to the beauty and wisdom of Scripture as decisive proof of it’s truthfulness. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I didn’t have to look to apologetics or my own wavering feelings for evidence that Christianity was true. I could look to Christ. I thought about everything I had learned about him through the pages of Scripture. Were these truths just like any man-made religion or had I seen divine glory which could not have been fabricated? Did I have that sense of subjective, eyeball-to-eyeball trust in the Jesus of the Scriptures? Even at my weakest, I could still say, “Yes, I have seen glory. Yes, I trust you Jesus.”
The certainty of the Scriptures in the self-authenticating glory of Christ has provided me a way forward through the paralysis of doubt. When Satan whispers that God isn’t real or that I don’t truly believe the Gospel, I can remember God’s past faithfulness to me through his Word: the truths about Christ he has shown me and allowed my heart to understand; the times he has nourished and sustained me; the ways he has transformed me from who I once was.
There are no magical, quick fixes to doubt. If I’m honest, my doubt is often just as strong now as it ever was before. Still, I’m confident I’m not acting out of intellectual cowardice or blind, irrational faith. I’ve really seen something. I’ve really come to know a Savior worth cherishing and holding on to. When I feel crippled by doubt, this knowledge gives me the strength to crawl back to God’s Word and cry out for fresh sight of the beauty of Christ. It gives me strength to hold on in faith until God helps me see clearly again.
The Scriptures are our sure foundation in the storms of doubt. May we build our lives on the strong words of our Savior. The rains will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against the houses of our souls, but our faith, founded on the rock, will not fail (Mt. 7:24-27).