Over the years I have had discussions with many college students who struggle with doubts about their Christian beliefs or who say they feel their faith is “slipping away.” Some of them seek me out in hopes that I can provide some reassurance or guidance as they work through this trial. In such cases, I always probe to see if there are any personal or relational issues lurking beneath the intellectual surface which might shed light on their struggles. Often I discover that the student is involved in some misbehavior. For example, a few years back a male student, whom I’ll call Bill, shared with me that he was struggling with deep doubts about his faith—questioning the truth of Christianity while also wallowing in a general apathy about it. As I gathered some background information, Bill told me that his longtime girlfriend had broken up with him and since then he found it difficult to attend church. So I asked Bill when was the last time he attended a church service. His answer: “about eight months ago.”
“Interesting,” I said. “And when was the last time you read the Bible?”
“Probably about that long—at least six months.”
“Hmm… Bill, do you suppose the fact that you haven’t sat under the preaching and teaching of Scripture might have something to do with your doubts and apathy?”
“Wow,” he said calmly, and without even a hint of irony, “I haven’t thought of that.”
In conversations with other students I’ve learned that when it comes to the impact of behavior upon beliefs, many of them “haven’t thought of that.” Such cases are, you might say, examples of people failing to “work out their salvation,” as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:12. The life of faith must be active and engaged in the spiritual disciplines (e.g., prayer, Bible study, fellowship, worship, service, sacrifice, fasting, confession, submission, etc.), or faith will die. Sadly, those who fail to pursue the disciplines are, for this very reason, unable to see that they are the ones causing their own doubts or apathy toward the faith. As Peter says, “they stumble because they disobey the message” (1 Pet. 2:8). See also Pr. 4:19 and Pr. 19:3.
In short, disobedience gives rise to unbelief. This biblical truth is evident in such passages as Ephesians 4:18-19, where Paul says that certain Gentiles “are darkened in their understanding…due to the hardening of their hearts,” which in turn he explains by the fact that “they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4:18-19). On the other hand, obedience brings wisdom and insight, as Scripture also teaches. God makes wise the simple and grants understanding to those who humble themselves (see Psalm 19:7, Psalm 25:9, Prov. 1:4 and Prov. 11:2).
Spiritual understanding is not just an intellectual matter but is also deeply moral. This is why it is crucial that doubts be addressed with spiritual formation in mind. In my next post I will note some of the psychological dynamics involved in the playing out of this biblical truth.