Dealing with Doubts Transcript/Program 4

By: Dr. Gary Habermas; ©2003
Do you wonder if you’ll ever know for sure that you are one of God’s children and will certainly end up in Heaven? The most dangerous thing we face is the area of the volitional doubts.



Today on The John Ankerberg Show, are you a Christian who doubts? Why is it that after placing belief in Christ, you are plagued with questions about your faith? Why do you live each day wondering if you are truly a Christian and doubting whether God has really forgiven your sins? You fear going to hell, but aren’t sure you will go to Heaven. Why do you have these doubts? Is there a biblical way to conquer your depressing thoughts of unbelief? Can you really get rid of all your doubts? Today John’s guest is Dr. Gary Habermas, chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is the author of more than 21 books, including a book on doubt called The Thomas Factor. We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Gary, in your book you have said that the most dangerous thing we face is the area of the volitional errors we can make, the issue of the will. What are you talking about?
Habermas: Well, the key with volitional doubt, this is the one that comes in the most varied forms. It could be the person with weak faith. The person says, “I’m always trying but I don’t get any stronger.” Could be the person that says, “I’ve lost my motivation.” But the most serious varieties, what Os Guinness calls “a time to warn” is the person – and unfortunately we all seem to know examples – the person who has followed the Lord sometimes for 20 years, 30 years, and you say they’re an authentic Christian, and all of a sudden, little subtle things. They don’t come to church. Ask them how they’re doing, they haven’t had devotions. And they start drifting, and they say something like this: “The fire has gone out. When I came to Christ, I was excited. All my friends knew it. I talked differently, I spoke differently. But it’s not there, and I wonder if it was ever there.” But here’s the key: “I don’t care. Until the fire comes back, I’m not going to do anything else.”
Now notice the subtle state from the “I’m hurting; do something; I need to know He’s there,” to the person’s kind of drifting. And, I mean, by nature I’m a person that’s pretty laid back. But if this is a time to warn, I need to sit this friend down and say, “I’m worried about you.”
Now, what’s the key? To me, the key to emotional doubt is motivation. But you want to get it while it’s early. It’s like cancer. You want to get it while it’s early. How do you motivate somebody who doesn’t want to be motivated? Well, I want to start motivating them, here’s a different analogy, I want to stir the embers of the fire. You know, your wife kind of gives you an elbow when the fire’s going out and says, “Stir it” because if they get dark, they’re unlikely to get going again. So, you want to stir somebody up while they’re still going through this. And I’ll tell you a quick little story. The key to me is finding some motivation that Scripture says. A fellow came to me one time and he said, “I’ve lost it. I don’t care. But I owe you a paper. What should I do for this course?”
And I said, “Hey, why don’t you do a paper on motivation for me?” Now, this guy was a religion student and he knew Greek and Hebrew, and he ended up giving me a paper and he said, “Here’s what I’ve discovered. God has two motivations in Scripture: the positive motivation is called “Heaven,” the negative motivation is called “hell.” He gave me appendices, Greek words, Hebrew words, and by doing the study he got himself all fired up again.
Now, originally, he said, “Hey, I’m living in sin and I don’t even care.” He did the study and it shook him up. And that gave me a hint. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has placed eternity in our hearts.” That’s for everybody. Hebrews 11:10 says God has shown believers a city whose builder and maker is God and we long for that city.
I think the key here is eternity, the very thing the emotional doubter craves with all their life, the volitional doubter is sometimes cool about. And I think we need to stir up the embers to make them long for eternity, and conversely, to see what’s at stake.
Now, if someone’s sitting here and saying, “Well, what about eternal security?” I’m not even discussing it. The interesting thing here is, I know many might say, “Well, they’ve lost their salvation.” The Calvinist says, “They never had it in the first place.” Well, they differ on what’s going on, but the bottom line, both of them think this guy’s going to hell!
So, it’s a very, very serious state and you can’t rely back on, “I did that as a child.” If the person is not following right now, it’s at least a very serious state. So I go after this a couple of ways, but the thing I’m most interested in, stirring those embers, is this….
Ankerberg: Sure, because now you’ve got all kinds of people that are out there saying, “Hey, that’s me! So how do I stir up those embers?’
Habermas: Oh, exactly. Exactly! Well, I look at this from a very, I think, practical, down-to-earth manner. When you ask somebody, “What’s your favorite chapter in the Bible?” do you ever watch how people choose passages? They’ll say, “I like the 23rd Psalm. I just love those, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and they just start drifting off into this, “I shall not want. He makes me to lie down beside green pastures.” So it’s peace and calm, and “I am the sheep and He cares for me.” And somebody else says, “I like Psalm 91.” This is my wife who passed away, Psalm 91: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” And someone else says, “Well, it’s this or that.”
I think some of the most exciting things in the Bible about heaven are not what the Bible tells us, but what the Bible doesn’t tell us. What I want to get across – I’m trying to develop this thought, this idea – is that Heaven is the culmination of our deepest desires, desires like beauty. We all desire beauty. In the Old Testament Eden is a place of beauty. It’s called paradeisos in the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint. In Revelation heaven is called paradeisos from which we get beauty.
We want peace: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” [Psa. 23:1] Jesus said, “I am the Shepherd, you are the sheep; whoever is in Me, they go out and they find pasture.” [John 10:9, 11]
He’s a Lamb on the throne” in Revelation 5. It’s almost like He gets off the throne in Revelation 7:17, now He’s a Shepherd. We’re the lambs and He leads us out to springs of water and He wipes away all tears from our eyes. This idea that’s culminated in Heaven. It’s peace.
How about a fortress – protection? In Psalm 91 God is a castle, God is an eagle. Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I’ve wept over you. I’ve called you to Myself as a mother hen calls her chicks, and you would not.” [Luke 13:34]
And of course, in the Book of Revelation God is a fortress.
What I’m saying here is, the deepest ideas that stir the embers of our heart like no others: beauty, peace, rest, fellowship – that’s a good one. In the Old Testament, it’s the marriage supper, it’s the thanksgiving feast. Jesus says, “Many will come from the east and the west and sit down in the Kingdom with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” [Matt. 8:11] And of course, in Revelation 19, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
I think God doesn’t tell us everything we’re doing for eternity, but He stirs the embers of our hearts by saying, “Hey, peace, beauty, fellowship.” And you start going, “Oh, give it to me.”
And a couple of other things. Knowledge. I think we’re going to be able to learn and grow and I think there are passages that say this. Ephesians 2:7, throughout the ages to come He is going to continue to show us grace in Christ Jesus. Well, I just think that if God is going to show us grace, we’re going to continue to learn.
And I think living, exploring, learning. “Now I look through a glass darkly but then I’ll see face to face.” [1 Cor. 13:12] I think for the person who is a volitional doubter, two suggestions: Get them early while the embers are still going, and secondly, study with them about positive and negative reinforcements, you might say. Talk to them about Heaven and talk to them about the dangers of judgment and try to wake up in them and see what’s going on.
Very frequently it’s this: volitional doubt is often caused by sin. This is one of my topics I don’t like talking about, but I do not think we in America have the right view of sin. Here’s our view of sin: I think I’ll do it for a few minutes, wash my hands, it’ll all be gone, I’ll say I’m sorry, and it’s over.” Sin leaves a mark; it scars. And we all know when we participate in it, it’s easier to participate in it the next time.
People prefer the sin over the Lord. I agree with John Piper. The best reason not to sin is not because you shouldn’t sin, you shouldn’t sin, you shouldn’t sin. The best reason not to sin is because you love someone else more. Why am I faithful to my wife? I am faithful to my wife because I love her above anything else the earth offers. Not because “I’ve got to be there, I’ve got to be there.” And if we want heaven above all else, the battle is over. If you prefer God to your sin, you prefer Heaven to hell, you prefer, “Well done, good and faithful servant” to judgment, you’re on the road.
And I’ll take a step back. We need to stir those embers while they’re real hot and keep them hotter all the time. This is a real world out here where people are really suffering. But I’m going through that world, too, and if I’m not stirring the embers of my heart, I’m in danger. “Let him that thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.” [1 Cor. 10:12]
Ankerberg: Okay, let’s say there’s a guy that’s listening, a lady that’s listening that’s saying, “You know, that’s me. I’m in the church and the fact is, the embers seem to be going out, and I’m exactly the way you described. What do I do? What step do I take immediately?”
Habermas: Well, we’ve been saying on all these programs on doubt that if there’s a key, it’s in your thought life. It’s what you tell yourself. Usually you sin in your thoughts before you sin in your actions. Usually you get victory in your thoughts before you get victory in your actions. I think the key is, while those embers are still burning, to say to yourself, “Do I want heaven or hell? Do I want victory or do I want sadness? Do I know what the greatest theme in the universe is?” Here’s how I define Heaven – that I can fellowship with the God of the universe and with my Christian loved ones forever. I don’t even get the sentence out before I’m going, “Oh, Lord! That’s fantastic! Especially, when, you know, we have loved ones.” I told somebody the other day, the older I get, the more and more Heaven is looking better and better because that’s where the fellowship is. That’s where loved ones are. That’s what’s going on. I think what we do is, we stir these things continually, everyday.
C. S. Lewis said in his book on The Problem of Pain, he said, “There are days when I think I think about Heaven too much. But there are more days when I think I don’t think about Heaven enough.” He said, “It dominates my thoughts. It’s what I long for. It’s the object of joy.” And to keep Heaven before our thoughts, I think, is to be happy, to be well adjusted.
Here’s a thought. If Christians only realized that what we do with Christ after salvation determines the capacity to which we will enjoy eternity, we would all be far more fully committed. That’s an example of stirring the embers while they’re still glowing and not trying to relight the ones that go out.
Ankerberg: What about the person that says, “Then is it grace or is it performance?”
Habermas: Well, to come into the kingdom, it’s grace. And here’s a great text. Ephesians 2:8-9, it’s not by works, it’s by grace; not anything anybody has achieved so that anybody can brag about it. But the very next verse, Ephesians 2:10: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, unto good works.” And by the way, I think that’s perhaps the best way to go after the so-called conflict between Paul and James. You’re saved by grace; you’re saved unto good works. And that’s why I said, “What we do with Christ after salvation determines the capacity to which we will enjoy Heaven.
Jesus says for us to “lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt or thieves don’t break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” [Matt. 6:20-21] And I think that’s it. I think that’s the key right there.
And I think there’s a selfish way to do this: “Look at me. Diamond, pretty big here; this ruby up here.” That’s obviously not the Christian hope. I think rewards in Heaven have to do with capacities for service, for enjoyment, for celebrating, for sharing. Again, what you do with Christ – it’s by His grace; He anoints us. But this is why one man is put over ten cities and one man’s over five, and one’s over one. There are different, I think, “different strokes for different folks.” But if we were more committed, I mean, you see things in the long run. Here’s a thought, another one: we work in America for 40 years to retire for what might be seven or eight years. Well, in Christianity, if what you do with Christ after salvation determines what you do for eternity, what have we sent ahead for eternity?
Ankerberg: Let’s go the other way, though. As a Christian, when you started learning about Christ, you realized there was a cost to be paid. Okay? And you paid and you paid and you paid. Did you ever come to a spot where you weren’t willing to pay it? And how did you feel? And the folks that are out there listening that are saying, “You know, I’ve been a Christian and I’m at a spot where I’m not sure I can go any further.” Help me out.
Habermas: Why aren’t they sure they can’t go any further? What are they saying to themselves?
Ankerberg: What are they saying to themselves?
Habermas: Well, the first thing I want to say to that person, if they’re saying, “I’m going through tough times. I don’t know if it’s worth it, etc., etc., etc.,” I launch right into a little discussion of the difference between what happens to us and what we say to ourselves about what happens to us. If the person’s issue is, “I’m stultified, I’m not moving,” or “bad things are happening,” or “I’m in pain,” the vast majority of this, in my opinion, and the opinion of a lot of people that are writing today, the vast majority of this is what we tell ourselves about what is going on. If you say to yourself, “I can’t move any further. I’m stultified,” guess what? You are. You don’t make reality, but you make the way you respond and think about reality by what you say. I’m no psychologist. I’m saying this is strict commentary from….
Ankerberg: It’s biblical theology.
Habermas: It’s biblical theology. It’s pastoral counseling if you want to look at it from that viewpoint. But if the person says, “I’m stultified,” do you know what you’re doing? You’re telling me what you’re thinking. So I say, “Hey, get off of it. Think something differently.”
“No, you don’t understand this.”
“No. It’s not. It’s what you’re saying.” That’s why you go, “Yes!!” and I can make it until 9 o’clock tonight. I tell myself, “The world stops at 9 o’clock. I’m going to crash.” Tell yourself something different, you’ll feel better.
Ankerberg: Go the opposite way. I hear people say, “I’ve prayed in Jesus’ name. I really wanted something from God. I prayed a long time. I meant it. I lived right. Nothing.”
Habermas: But God promised it, right? There are verses in the Old and New Testament that tell us, “Whatever you pray, pray in my name.” “Many things you’ll do and more.” In fact, probably the biggest concentration of these verses is John 14 to 16. “I’m sending the Holy Spirit. Whatever you do, pray in my name. Heretofore you’ve not done this. Do it. Your joy will be full. You’ll get what you want.” What to me is crazy about this interpretation is how we bring our cultural heritage, our baggage, to interpret these verses. Someone said to me recently that this is a Western thing. A Western thing says, “Get me from.” It’s our pushbutton society; it’s our fast-food society. The old Negro spirituals, when they were slaves, it’s “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot. Help me through. Help me make another day.” It’s not taking me “from.”
So I went back and started looking at some of these texts. And, John, one of the most incredible things in Scripture is this. If you go through the New Testament, every time Christians are in a tough situation where God could have done something – right in the New Testament – He leaves them in it more times than He takes them out of it. That should tell you there’s something wrong with that interpretation.
So then secondly, I went back to those verses and I said, “What’s in the near context of these promises?” And in John 14 through 16, every time there’s a comment about, “Do this and you’ll receive this and you’ll receive this,” then He says a moment later, “But in this world you’ll have persecutions.” Wait a minute! I thought we were talking “from” those things?
There are three comments in John 14 to 16 that you can have anything you pray for. And there are three comments that you are going to suffer in this world. And then in John 17, Jesus says, “I’m not praying for you [to God] I’m not praying for you to take them out of the world, I’m praying for you to be with them and keep them through it.” [John 17:15] And I thought, “Bingo!” That’s the interpretation. We’re mad at God because we think He should take us “from.” He never promised to take us “from.” Sometimes He does, and that’s His grace; but most of the time, He takes us “through.” And I think that is the scriptural promise. We get angry at Him for the wrong reasons. He never made that promise to take us from things all the time.
Ankerberg: How do you pray, then? Because if you’re praying and believing in Jesus’ name, and yet there are people that say, “I’m going to pray for a job,” they don’t get the job. Guys pray for their healing and they go out and have a heart attack. So how do you pray in Jesus’ name, believing these verses?
Habermas: Well, a few comments. First of all, prayer is always conditional; it’s never unconditional. For example, some of the conditions we can establish. David said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” [Psa. 66:18] Okay, confess your sins. We should be obedient, not just come to God whenever we need something. That was a tough one. But here’s one: Pray according to Jesus’ will. [1 John 5:14] Uh-oh. That one hurts. I can’t control that one. So, I don’t know what He wants and what He doesn’t want. But as far as how I should pray in His name [John 14:13-14], how about the model of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus had a lot on the line here. He’s facing death. He knows why He’s come and He says, “Not my will but yours be done.” [Luke 22:42] I think a resignation that says, “I know you can take me from it. If you do, that’s fantastic. If you don’t, I’m still in there with you.”
I think that’s the other side. Someone might say, “Why pray?” God, “A,” does take us from situations sometimes. He just doesn’t always promise to do that, but He takes us from situations. There are more times that He takes us through them, but He does take the saints through and from in the New Testament. So, pray, because He may take you from it.
But, secondly, you pray for grace to go through it so that you can grow; so that the embers don’t get cold; so I can stay on the path. That’s why Paul says, “I fought the fight, I’ve come to the end of my life. [2 Tim. 4:7] “I’ve pursued Christ,” Paul says in Philippians 3:10, “so that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection.” Paul’s goal, Philippians 2, is to finish the course. His goal is to finish the right way. [Phil 2:12-16] And I think that’s the believer’s prayer. If God takes us from it, praise God. If He takes us through it, if I’m going to go through it anyway, I may as well have my head up, saying the right things to myself, giving glory to Christ, and hope I grow and keep stoking those embers because a hundred years from now, it won’t make any difference.
If we ask ourselves, “What difference does this make in a hundred years?” If I only work on those things that have results in a hundred years, it’s going to guide my behavior.
Another quick thought. People say, “You can’t take it with you,” but you can. The kinds of things that you can’t take with you are material possessions. The kinds of things you can take with you are persons. Changes in persons’ lives last more than a hundred years. I don’t say this in a vacuum. As you said in an earlier program, I did lose my wife, and I watched her die, and we were very, very close. I’m not pointing to myself as some great saint. No, the Lord took me through some tough times. But you know what? Here’s where it really gets “touchy.” She’s in Heaven. I want to be with her. Am I going to blow it down here?
So, again, my thought is, the older I get, the more I want to be there, because that’s where people are. That’s where my loved ones are. And Heaven is fellowship with the God of the universe and with our Christian loved ones forever. I just think it’s worth pushing, especially when God never promised me that He’d take me out of all these situations.
Ankerberg: Okay. One last word, to all these people that are listening to you, what is the Holy Spirit saying to you right now that you ought to say to them?
Habermas: I think the single most important thing in all of this is, troubles are not primarily caused by what we go through or what happens to us: where we’ve been, our twisted past, or this or that. Our troubles are primarily caused by how we respond to it. The liberating comment – again, I’m not in psychology – just over and over again in Scripture, the liberating comment: We cannot change our circumstances right now, but we can change what we tell ourselves about our circumstances. If the person says, “You don’t get it. I’m going through a lot of bad stuff,” they missed the point. That’s not what causes the most pain. It’s how we react to it. And if we change our thinking, the pain gets better.
You know, in a sense this is crazy. In a sense, God really is taking me from it by taking me through it, because by changing my thinking, I’ve removed a lot of the pain, I refocus, I stir the embers all at one time. And guess what? I’m growing. And if I have an effect on people’s lives, those are so many presents I’ve sent ahead. You know, at the end of the day, I may not get everything I want to get done today, but I like to think back and say, “By God’s grace, what has been accomplished in people’s lives today.” And instead of the old beads of sand dropping through which, you know, often tells us what I’m not doing, I think about those little pieces of sand gift-wrapped going back up to Heaven. I may not have gotten everything I could have done today, but, you know what? I took a break because this person had a doubt. I took a break to spend a minute with this person and visit this person. You know, that’s the kind of thing you can take with you in a hundred years. And to me, seriously, this is what gets me up in the morning.
A friend said to me one time, “It’s my Christianity that gets me up in the morning.” I think that is the most motivating idea in the world. What more stirs the embers than to say, “Eternal life starts now and this is the first day of the rest of my life.” These are clichés, but you know, they’re true clichés. I can affect eternity. That’s the main thing: change the way we think, “He that is of a cheerful heart hath a continual feast.” [Prov. 15:15] We all want feasts; no sooner within our reach, we don’t do it.
Ankerberg: Thanks, Gary, for this great encouragement.

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