The vast majority of my time this week has been spent walking with others through the dark emotions that often wage war against the soul when Belief finds it's been challenged to a duel by Unbelief. It can be a scary conflict, one capable of driving a saber of distress deeply into the heart in the best of times and brutally in the worst. Though the clashing of swords can spark with doubts about God's existence and one's eternal security, more typically they spark with doubts that find difficulty in resting confidently in the promise that our loving Father only gives his children good and perfect gifts.
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matt 7:10)
Some of you bear scars from swords of doubt that have been thrust into your heart with sudden and surprising force; while others of you remain quite unscathed. The unscathed typically possess an emotional gifting that can playfully sidestep surface portals of darkness, one that can make it difficult to understand the inner turmoil that can mark more serious divers of the deep. On a spectrum with a proclivity to emotional positivity on one end and a propensity to mental negativity on the other, we've been united in war regardless of where our ordained design lands us. The pandemonium of a pandemic has turned the world into a battlefied, inciting a confusing combat filled with uncertainty.
If you are Christian who is struggling to stand fearlessly on all that you know to be true about your God, the first thing that I desire for you to know is that you are not alone in this fight.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (I Cor 10:13)
The second thing I desire for you to know is that your struggle with unbelief in itself is not a reliable indicator of an impoverished view of God that ranks you more theologically or spiritually deficient than those boasting of strong faith. Especially not when that boasting is launched from the bunker of a comfortable home with food and running water, electricity, temperature control, electronic communication, and little risk to one's socially-distant existence.
Because even as many of us seek protection in the safety of a warm dwelling, there are members of the Church who are wrestling against the cold wounding of this vicious virus in ways that we can only imagine. And even if they were clinging tightly to Christ before their affliction, many are now finding themselves in a struggle with unbelief that is causing them to cry out from the depths of their soul:
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!
If this is the cry of your soul, I want to encourage you to process the emotions of your heart rightly. More than a decade ago I took John Piper's admonition to study a theologian who had finished the course of his life leaning hard into the glories of the Cross, imbibing their writings until my heart became knit with theirs. Octavius Winslow became the subject of an intense three-year study that made him my most intimate friend from the 1800s. His following words are the ones that sealed that relationship, shaping my thoughts about our frailty of faith:
There is a danger, and it cannot be too vigilantly guarded against, of substituting the work of the Spirit for the work of Christ. This mistake leads so many of God's saints to look within themselves, instead of without, for the evidences of their calling and acceptance; and thus, so many are kept all their spiritual course walking in a state of bondage and fear. The work of Christ is a great and finished work. It is so glorious that it can admit no comparison, so complete that it can allow no addition, and so essential that it can give place to no substitution. Precious as is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, and essential as it is to the salvation of the soul, he who places it where the work of Jesus ought only to be will assuredly bring distress and uncertainty into his soul. "Righteousness, peace, and joy" are the fruit of a full belief in the Lord Jesus Christ; and he who looks for them away from the cross will meet with disappointment, for they are found in Jesus alone. He who looks away from himself—away from his vileness, guiltiness, emptiness, and poverty—fully and believingly unto Jesus, will know what the forgiveness of sin is and will experience the love of God shed abroad in his heart.
If, then, your faith is feeble and tried, be not cast down. Faith does not save you. Though it be an instrument of salvation and is of vast importance, it is but the instrument. The finished work of Immanuel is the ground of your salvation; yea, it is your salvation itself. Then make not a Saviour of your faith. Despise it not if it is feeble, exult not in it if it is strong, trample not on it if it is small, deify it not if it is great— for such are the extremes to which every believer is exposed. If your faith is feeble and sharply tried, it is no evidence that you are not a believer, for the evidence of your acceptance in the Beloved arises from Jesus alone. So let your constant motto be: Looking unto Jesus! Looking to him just as you are; looking to him when faith is feeble; looking to him when faith is tried; looking to him when faith is declining; yea, looking to him when you fear you have no faith at all. Look up, tried and tempted soul! Jesus is the Author, the Sustainer, and he will become the Finisher of thy faith! (Octavius Winslow; Morning Thoughts)
Are you beating yourself up because your faith is small? Is the steady flow of fearless posts coming across your newsfeed leaving you struggling with guilt that everyone appears stronger than you with their authoritative admonishions to buckle down and brave up? Are you feeling anxious about feeling anxious? Nervous about feeling nervous? Fearful about feeling fearful?
Remember the motto: Looking unto Jesus!
God never promised to automatically lift the emotional darkness from our heart whenever we pray, and the lamenting of the Psalms is poignant demonstration of this. There's reason our loving Father so graciously allowed us to hear the heart cry of those who have struggled to believe his goodness. Gracious enough to have even chosen to give us ear to the words of a psalmist ending his song of emotional distress with "darkness is my closest friend." (Ps 88:18) Gracious enough to reveal his character as our merciful God of compassion who knows the fragile nature of our frame.
We live in a world whose cursed condition falls far short of its orignial design, leaving us to wrestle with the sorrow of all forms of unspeakable suffering. We weren't created for the ravages of disease. Our hearts weren't made for the crushing weight of deep grief that comes with death. We live in a world that is in bondage to decay, and though our deliverance in Christ gives us every reason to rejoice, it doesn't deliver us from the groaning of creation. To battle with fear is part of being human sojourners— exiles living in a world that doesn't find us enjoying the full measure of our redemption until we are finally home.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:22-24)
This groaning of worldly dysfunction came by the sovereign ordination of a good God whose perfect justice comes with complexity of thought that can't be comprehended by the simplicity of our mind. It's a mystery intended to drive us to Christ for the glory of the King, the same mystery that compelled Paul to remind the Church of its purpose by reminding us of God's— "that creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:18, 20–21)
Our bringing glory to God in the midst of darkness has never been about being fearless victors in this earthly battle against unbelief. Our bringing him glory has only ever been about our being humble and grateful debtors of mercy who joyfully point to the Victor.
In 1858 Charles Spurgeon preached a powerful sermon that highlighted the capturing of our struggle in John Bunyan's allegory Pilgrim's Progress.
Notice in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress how many Little-faiths he mentions. There is our old friend Ready-to-halt who went all the way to the Celestial City on crutches, but left them when he went into the river Jordan. Then there is little Feeblemind who carried his feeble mind with him all the way to the banks of the river, ordering it to be buried in a dunghill that none might inherit it. Then there is Mr. Fearing, always frightened if he saw a drop of rain because of thinking the floods of heaven were let loose upon him. And you remember Mr. Despondency and Miss Much-afraid who were so long locked up in the dungeon of Giant Despair that they were almost starved to death with little left of them but skin and bone. And then there is poor Mr. Feeblemind who had been taken into the cave of Giant Slay-good who was about to eat him when Great-heart came to his deliverance. John Bunyan was a very wise man indeed, putting a great many of those Little-faiths in his book— graphic characters he knew because he himself had been them. (John Bunyan; Pilgrim's Progress)
Hunkered down in your home, this may be a perfect time for the enjoyment of Pilgrim's Progress. Perhaps you'll identify with Mr. Fearing or Miss Much-afraid, and perhaps Ready-to-halt's limp will be found to be your own. Regardless to which pilgrim you attach your understanding, you will marvel at the grace that has the Little-faiths pressing forward in spite of their struggle. Grace that won't stir you to remain a Little-faith, but inspire you to reach for your privileges as a Great-heart.
After highlighting Pilgrim's Progress in his sermon, Charles Spurgeon went on to deliver a wartime strategy that I have found to be effective in my own battle for belief— enough that I often refer to these tactics of engagement in counseling. I'd love to expand on each, but will instead condense Spurgeon's thoughts without diluting them with my own.
1) FEED YOUR FAITH
If you would have your little faith grow into great faith, you must feed it well. Faith is a feeding grace. It does not ask you to give it the things that are seen, but it does ask you to give it the promise of the things that are not seen. You tell me you have little faith. I ask you whether you are given to the meditation of God's Word, whether you have studied the promises, whether you carry one of those sacred things about with you every day. For he who deals largely with God's promises will, under grace, very soon find that there is great room for believing them. Get a promise every day, beloved, and take it with you wherever you go. Mark it, learn it, and inwardly digest it. Don't do as some men do—who think it a Christian duty to read a chapter every morning that is as long as your arm without understanding it at all. Rather take out some choice text and pray during the day for the Lord to break it up to your mind. Do as Luther says: "When I get hold of a promise, I look upon it as I would a fruit tree. I think— there hang the fruits above my head, and if I would get them I must shake the tree to and fro." So I take a promise and meditate upon it. I shake it to and fro, and sometimes the mellow fruit falls into my hand and other times the fruit is less ready to fall. But I never leave till I get it, turning the text over and over again until at last the pomegranate drops down. (C.H. Spurgeon)
2) FELLOWSHIP WITH THOSE OF FAITH
Another plan I would recommend for the strengthening of your faith— associate yourselves with Godly and much-tried men. It is astonishing how young believers will get their faith refreshed by talking with older, advanced Christians. Perhaps you are in great doubt and distress. So you run to an older brother and say, "Oh my dear friend, I am afraid I am not a child of God. I am in such deep distress. I have had blasphemous thoughts cast into my heart. If I were a child of God I whould never feel like this." The man smiles and says, "Ah! you have not gone very far on the road to heaven or else you would know better. Why I am the subject of these thoughts very often. Old as I am, and though I have enjoyed the full assurance for a long time, yet there are seasons when, if I could have heaven for a grain of faith I would think heaven never mine for I could not see so much as a grain in me." And he will tell you what dangers he has passed and of the sovereign love that kept him; of the temptations that threatened to ensnare him and of the wisdom that guided his feet. And he will tell you of his own weakness and God's omnipotence; of his own emptiness and God's fullness; of his own changeableness and God's immutability. (C.H. Spurgeon)
3) FOCUS YOUR FAITH
Another way whereby you may obtain increase of faith is to labor to get as free from self as possible. I have striven with all my might to attain the position of perfect indifference to the praise of men. I have found at times if I have been much praised in company, that if my heart has given way even a little, the very next time I was censured and abused I felt it too keenly. For in receiving the praise, I was then rendered liable for the censure. So I have tried, especially of late, to take no more notice of man's praise than of his censure, but to focus my heart upon endeavoring to serve God with a single eye to his glory alone. Not taking praise from man nor censure, but standing independently upon this one rock of right doing. The only way in which you can maintain faith is to live above both the praise of self and the censure of self, living solely upon the blood and merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. (C.H.Spurgeon)
4) FASTEN FEET TO YOUR FAITH
Do you want to get your faith strong? Use it. You lazy Christians that go up to your churches and chapels, and take your seats, and hear our sermons, and talk about getting good but never think about doing good; you that are letting hell fill beneath you and yet are too idle to stretch out your hands to pluck brands from the eternal burning; you that see sin running down your streets yet can never put so much as your foot to turn or stem the current— wonder not that you complain of the littleness of your faith. It ought to be little; for you do but little. Why should God give you more strength than you mean to use? Strong faith must be an exercised faith. True, your works won't save you. But faith without works is dead, frozen to death. But faith with works grows to a red heat of fervency and to the strength of stability. Go and teach in that Sunday school, or go and catch seven or eight poor ragged children; go and visit that poor old woman in her hovel; go and see some poor dying creatures in the back streets of our great city and say, "Dear me, how wonderfully my faith is refreshed by doing something"— for you will have been watering yourself while you were watering others. (C.H. Spurgeon)
5) FLEE TO THE FOUNDER OF YOUR FAITH
Now my last advice shall be this—the best way to strengthen faith is to have communion with Christ. If you commune with your Savior, you cannot remain unbelieving. When his left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me, I cannot doubt. When my Beloved sits at his table and he brings me into his banqueting house and his banner over me is his love, then indeed I do believe. When I feast with him, my unbelief is abashed and hides its head. (C.H. Spurgeon)
This battle for belief is a good fight of faith, one that comes with great reward. It's a fight of faith calling for wartime strategy that rejects striving to be strong because it rests in the one who is strong. Unlike the fuseless weaponry of this temporal world with its affirmations of personal worth and messages of positivity, its arsenal comes with the explosive weaponry of the eternal Word of God activated by Spirit power. It's an arsenal of heavenly inheritance fierce enough to free us from all striving, bringing peace and unspeakable joy to our restless soul.
If you're battling for belief and this has encouraged your heart, I write about this in more detail here.