By: Dr. Gary Habermas
This article is from a series by Dr. Gary Habermas teaching on doubt in our lives. There are several articles including the explanation of doubt itself and the different types such as emotional, volitional and factual. This article focuses on the emotional.
We have already referred to this species of uncertainty as emanating chiefly from one’s passions or moods, usually involving a subjective response(s) by the individual. It perhaps most frequently masquerades as intellectual doubt and hence does not immediately reveal its disguised emotional basis. Such may often be discovered by careful questioning about the individual’s beliefs on subjects such as the facts of the gospel. In my experience, it may soon be established by this means that the person who manifests this type of doubt will show that these factual issues are not primary. Rather, in this kind of uncertainty, it is the underlying feelings behind the individual’s queries that are of prime interest. Additionally, such feelings are sometimes also accompanied by varying types of distraught psychological states, at least privately. The counselor or teacher will often observe such as a result of probing to the center of the issue.
How, then, can the helper assist in identifying this type of uncertainty? Several earmarks of emotional doubt serve to distinguish it from other species of uncertainty, especially the volitional variety. Very regularly, the factual data is judged by how one feels about it, rather than on its own merits. Thus, instead of coming to grips with the strength of the evidence, the one experiencing the quandary often responds by emoting about it. Another common sign concerns the periodic emotional “highs” which doubting individuals sometimes experience when they think that their doubts may have subsided. When such elation is followed later by a return to the previous state, all in the absence of any change in the actual state of the evidence, this may well be an indication that the person’s passions are likely divorced from the facts on this subject of doubt.
Still another means of identifying uncertainty as emotional in nature occurs in the fair number of cases where its origin becomes known, such as with childhood problems or in the case of old wounds. One more indication, and in my experience usually the major signal which most quickly reveals a doubt as emotional, is sent when the suffering person responds to an admittedly strong presentation of the reasons why he should not doubt with a query which might be phrased in terms of, “Okay, but what if . . . ?” While such questioning can (and does) have meanings other than this one, the “what if” perspective, more than perhaps any other, often precedes some inquiry as to why some extremely unlikely scenario (which is usually even admitted to be improbable) might not be true or might not occur after all. The questioner thereby exposes his position as one which is more concerned about (barely) possible options than about what the facts actually relate. This reveals, once again, that it is not the data which the individual considers determinative, as strong as that may be, but rather identifies the real issue as one involving strong feelings.
There are still at least two other characteristics which commonly identify a doubt as emotional, but both of these are shared with volitional uncertainty and thus need to be distinguished. When no amount of evidence (which the doubter admits to be strong) ever brings a person at least some peace, even when these facts are properly applied, and especially when small, “picky” problems are continually raised, such most likely reveals either an emotional basis or the will not to believe (volitional). Additionally, if peace is beginning to shed its light on the unsettled quandary but the doubter paradoxically finds himself fighting that peace, believing that he should not allow himself to experience it until the issue is completely settled, this likewise points to either emotional or volitional uncertainty.
The key to identifying which of the two types of doubt is primarily present in these last two illustrations is found in both the origin of the uncertainty in each particular case and how it manifests itself. For one example, emotional doubt is frequently revealed by distraught emotional states while volitional matters are generally communicated in a much more settled manner. Both our list of common doubts in Chapter 2 and our discussion of each overall species (in the appropriate chapters) should be helpful in such cases. But it also needs to be remembered that more than one kind of uncertainty is commonly present. And here, once again, the predominant type needs to identified and worked on at the start of the healing process.
At this point a major misunderstanding of Christian doubt as a whole ought to be mentioned again. It would seem that many persons believe that most doubt is factual in nature. And while this assumption appears to be quite prevalent, I think that careful research will reveal that it is probably false. In my own case studies involving Christians who experience uncertainty, if I have properly identified at least the primary individual doubts, 69% experience chiefly emotional doubt.
This is an interesting conclusion for me personally for at least a couple of reasons. Initially, I had to change my own views on this subject. Years ago I would have had to say that I also believed that factual doubts were predominant. So my study has forced a personal reappraisal of my position. Next, even emotional doubt (as we shall see) ought to be affected by a proper application of the facts, although with a different perspective, method and purpose. So my interest in apologetics was also relevant here as well.
But here a very important point needs to be heavily emphasized. Even if emotional doubts are the most prevalent variety among Christians, this does not require that emotions be viewed as bad. It is still true that they are God-given and, like many things in life, can either be properly or improperly utilized. In fact, we should even thank God regularly for our emotions. Even if they appear to make us uncomfortable on occasion, we should still be thankful for them. We should confirm the fact of our emotions and continue to pursue the proper use of them. After all, as we will see, emotional doubts usually come from the things which we tell ourselves. And they are part of us, not some outside force fighting against us.
It is an earlier point which we need to stress in this immediate context. Not to understand the nature of doubt or to misidentify it could affect a person’s healing. And judging from some current approaches, there also appears to be some confusion as to what to actually do about emotional doubt. This is evident when some authors describe the phenomenon but have very little to say by way of suggested healing. With this introductory understanding we will now proceed to a more in depth description of emotional uncertainty.
A. Doubt, Imagination and Emotions
Several authors have written about the actual characteristics of emotional doubt, but, in my estimation, none better than C.S. Lewis. In several brief discussions of the subject, he sets forth a description of the plight that besets all human beings when one’s feelings wage war on one’s reason. Such assaults are described in the kind of minute detail which could only come from one who has intimately experienced such uncertainty (and Lewis fully acknowledges his personal acquaintance with such, as well).
As for the nature of such attacks, Lewis describes them as emotions which “rise up and carry out a sort of blitz” on one’s belief. And they plague all persons; in Lewis’ words, “These irrational fluctuations in belief are not peculiar to religious belief. They are happening about all our beliefs all day long.” But our concern is with religious doubt, and pertaining to this, Lewis elaborates:
And let us note that whichever view we embrace, mere feeling will continue to assault our conviction. Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamor of this visible and audible world is so persistent and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may after all be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe. Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all.
Thus emotional doubt affects persons across a wide spectrum, casting both believers and unbelievers alike into the same dilemma. And unless one can control such uncertainty, one “can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”
To illustrate the affect of one’s feelings on one’s reason, Lewis likens his own response to the medical usage of anesthetics. Though completely convinced on good grounds that the anesthesia will do no harm, he witnessed that when it was time for it to be administered, “a mere childish panic begins inside me…. I lose my faith in anesthetics.” It is not reason warring against faith here because for Lewis, faith is based on reason. Rather, “The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.”
This analogy is reminiscent of another which is employed by Blaise Pascal, a Seventeenth Century French philosopher and mathematician who quipped:
If the greatest philosopher in the world find himself upon a plank wider than actually necessary, but hanging over a precipice, his imagination will prevail, though his reason convince him of his safety. Many cannot bear the thought without a cold sweat. I will not state all its effects.
I think that the affect of Pascal’s illustration is even more gripping, for many of us can indeed understand his point only too well. The reasonable conviction that we can walk across a board that is sufficiently wide (especially if we have done it many times before) does little to assist us if that object is placed across a chasm. In such a circumstance, reason is at the mercy of one’s imagination. For those of us who value our reasoning faculties, this is a sobering (and even a humbling) thought, but it is so frequently true. It aptly describes the plight in which humans find themselves when imagination conquers reason.
If I may indulge myself for the sake of one last illustration, the popular (but somewhat cruel!) childhood game where one utilizes one’s fists to alternately represent a rock, scissors or paper is also instructional. The rock would perhaps appear to be the “strongest” object here and, as one might expect, it crushes the scissors. And while the scissors naturally cut the paper, a completely unexpected result also occurs: the paper covers (and thereby “defeats”) the rock! I think that such is also a poignant picture of the relationship between one’s reason and one’s emotions (or “imagination” as Lewis or Pascal might prefer). While our reason appears to be ever so logical, requiring evidence, a little dose of feelings effectively topples the castle.
And what about the cause of this sort of doubt? By describing a common scenario, Lewis is perhaps at his best:
Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable—when the whole world takes on that desolate look which really tells us much more about the state of our passions and even our digestion than about reality.
But perhaps surprisingly, we frequently disguise the emotion as a rational exercise:
But everyone must have experienced days in which we are caught up in a great wave of confidence or down into a trough of anxiety though there are no new grounds either for the one or the other. Of course, once the mood is on us, we find reasons soon enough. We say that we’ve been “thinking it over”: but it is pretty plain that the mood has created the reasons and not vice versa.
And lastly, how does such imagination affect our conception of Christianity? Again Lewis points out:
When once passion takes part in the game, the human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gained as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace.
The sort of arguments against Christianity which our reason can be persuaded to accept at the moment of yielding to temptation are often preposterous.
Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases.
From these insightful comments, we may glean several worthwhile pointers concerning the nature of emotional uncertainty. One’s personal Christianity is more frequently threatened by one’s view of his faith than by any actual problem. Thus, such questioning explains more about ourselves and other subjective factors than it does about Christianity.
Then, speaking as a “seasoned veteran,” Lewis describes how emotional doubts usually thrive without input from any new objections to Christianity. Rather, the mood causes the believer to “invent” problems. Let me add here that the sort of concerns which affect believers during such moods are quite often the same “old” issues which the person has contemplated on several other occasions and which would not bother him if it were not for his current frame of mind. But Lewis notes how we quickly conclude that the factual problem is the reason for the anxiety, when such is usually not the case. Further, it is often the “preposterous” objections which are treated as respectable during these emotional periods of time.
B. Models for Healing
There are numerous methods for treating patients with psychiatric or psychological problems of a religious nature, perhaps in part because of the different backgrounds and professional convictions of the counselors themselves. Some operate primarily from a medical perspective, others with a psychological or counseling model. A growing group of pastors who have gotten increasingly involved in the healing process broaden this field of study. And this is not to infer that those within these separate groupings necessarily agree with each other, either!
On several occasions, I have observed the friendly rivalry between professionals who hold to these differing perspectives. The give-and-take is often fascinating as with an ongoing but amiable interchange which occurred between two friends of mine, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who regularly discussed theoretical aspects concerning the subject of which proposed remedies really obtained the best results. On another occasion, I chaired a dialogue between two other scholars with different perspectives on whether the medical or psychological models were more conducive to theological endeavors. Another type of interaction which has really helped me has been derived from my referrals of certain persons to our campus counseling center and my continuing interaction in each of these cases.
But in spite of these differing approaches, the Christian who is suffering from doubt can take heart on at least three counts. Christian counselors such as those listed below agree that Scripture is central to the healing process and its truths are to be applied. Therefore, counseling goals and desired results are based on an objective Source.
Additionally, there is widespread agreement among these professionals thatmore than one kind of treatment can work. After surveying a number of models, both psychological and medical, Gary Collins concludes that:
A careful look at the Bible reveals, however, that a variety of techniques were used when counseling took place… counseling must utilize a variety of techniques.
Lastly, there is an amazing amount of agreement among Christian researchers that a major (if not the chief) element in treating emotional doubt is cognitive in nature. That is, increasing numbers of professionals think that the primary approach to this type of uncertainty is to devise a strategy which applies rational truth to one’s thoughts and actions. Thus, such a method requires both a cognitive response and a behavioral change.
As an example, it would be amiss to describe C.S. Lewis’ account of emotional uncertainty in such detail in the previous section of this chapter without also providing his answer to it. For Lewis, the answer is twofold, involving a cognitive change followed by a behavioral one. First, one needs to recognize that moods are going to change no matter who one is or what one believes. So individuals must be resolved, in Lewis’ words, to teach these moods “where they get off.” By this it is meant that one should actually expect changing emotions and be ready to dictate the truth whenever needed. Second, Christians must “train the habit of Faith” by daily reviewing Christian doctrine in prayer, edificational reading and church attendance. In fact, it is asserted that only such “practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually” solve these dilemmas.
Os Guinness also has a twofold remedy for emotional questioning. First, he suggests solving the immediate problem, which may be a lack of sleep, improper eating habits or overwork. Second and reminiscent of Lewis, Guinness asserts that the long-term answer consists of “training faith so that it is not overwhelmed by moods and emotions.” One must not allow moods to dictate to faith, but faith must control the feelings. Guinness graphically describes the second remedy this way:
Unless we do this our emotions will lead us around by the nose, and we will be captives to every passing impulse or reaction. But once faith is trained to control the emotions and knows how to lean resolutely against weaknesses of character, another entryway of doubt is blocked and sealed shut forever.
Other authors present similar suggestions for the conquering of emotional doubt. There appears to be a wide range of agreement among Christian scholars in a variety of disciplines that such religious uncertainty can be dealt with primarily in cognitive terms. This process is variously described as preaching to oneself, arguing oneself out of moods, reasoning against doubts, or thinking in opposition to one’s feelings. Interestingly in terms of our earlier discussion of the medical and the psychological models of healing, some psychiatrists are also convinced that such cognitive methods are quite useful.
But it should be carefully noted here that it is not being claimed that such is the only way to treat emotional doubt. We have only said that there is data which indicate that a cognitive approach is a very helpful way to deal especially with emotional uncertainty and that there are several Christian researchers in various disciplines who have adopted this model.
C. A Strategy for Healing Emotional Doubt
Perhaps some are wondering how we actually begin the process of conquering emotional doubt, given the preceding perspectives. Surprisingly, few writers have actually presented formulas which are immediately applicable. It will be our purpose here to do three things: to briefly view a New Testament passage which addresses this concern, followed by a presentation of a psychological strategy for possible healing and the giving of some additional suggestions for the conquering of emotional uncertainty.
1. A Biblical Pattern
The Bible contains various kinds of instruction for persons who are suffering distress of any of several kinds. So it is not our purpose here to pretend to offer advice from a single passage as if to say that it’s the only possible technique to use with hurting individuals. It is only being claimed here that this particular text is a very helpful one for dealing with anxiety (including that which is caused by doubt) from a biblical perspective.
The passage for consideration here is Philippians 4:6-9, concerning which our purpose will be to make some general application to religious uncertainty, not to exegete the text per se. This is a very familiar portion of Scripture which contains profound advice, promising the peace of God to the one who correctly applies the principles to his life. Indeed, Robert Mounce refers to a portion of this material as the “paragraph on mental health.”
After telling the Philippian believers to rejoice, repeating the injunction presumably because of the tough times they were facing (Phil. 4:4), Paul deals with the issue of anxiety (4:6). His language here indicates that these Christians were currently in a state of worry (meden merimnate), which may be similar to those who are presently suffering these (or other related) symptoms due to the presence of emotional doubt. After his statement of the problem, Paul’s initial advice is to the point: pray. Ernest Scott notes here the explicit or implicit presence of four major aspects of prayer. Paul’s treatment includes waiting upon God, which in turn shows the weakness of man and his dependence on Him. Further, prayer requires that Christians clearly state their requests, believing that God can answer. Lastly, we need to thank God for His provisions.
So Paul’s initial cure for anxiety is prayer; the result is being kept by the peace of God (4:7). The term sometimes translated “keep” (phroureo) is a military word indicating to “guard” or to “garrison.” In this context, God’s peace will act as a fortress to protect the believer’s mind.
But praying followed by thanksgiving is not the entire strategy for the believer. Paul goes on to explain that thoughts other than those which tend to cause anxiety need to occupy the Christian’s mind (4:8). Believers ought to concentrate, respectively, on those things which are true to reality (alethes), honorable or holy (semnos), righteous (dikaios), clean or pure (hagnos), on that which provokes love (prosphiles), or whatever has a good reputation (euphema). Two other categories for one’s concentration are those thoughts which are excellent in virtue or moral quality (arete) and whatever deserves praise (epainos). It is on truths such as these in Philippians 4:8 that Christians are to think. Actually, this last term, “think” (logizomai), indicates a stronger action than simply a casual attention concerning these subjects. It refers to the process of habitually dwelling or reflecting on a topic.
Such a single minded concentration (or meditation) on proper thoughts needs to be practiced until it becomes a habit (4:9). Christian “modeling” is also very important in this verse, as the more mature believer provides a guide for other Christians. The result, again, is peace.
From this passage, we may denote at least four biblical steps to the conquering of anxiety such as that which might accompany emotional doubt. These may be listed as follows:
- believing prayer
- edifying thinking
In short, the problem should be committed to God, with thanks, while one exchanges his old, anxious thoughts for righteous ones. This ought to be practiced until it becomes the norm. And not only are these steps delineated for application, but healing and peace are promised to those who follow its prescription.
2. A Psychological Approach
Several Christian psychologists have utilized chiefly cognitive methods to assist clients with their problems. Two who support such an effort are William Backus and Marie Chapian. Their co-authored volume, Telling Yourself the Truth, is not specifically addressed to the issue of doubts at all but presents a psychological approach to dealing with emotional problems. However, their particular method, termed Misbelief Therapy, is nonetheless applicable to emotional doubts and also makes use of biblical passages such as Philippians 4:6-9. This section will endeavor to present some of their research with specific application to emotional uncertainty.
Backus and Chapian explain that our feelings are largely caused by the things which we tell ourselves. So if we relate untruths or lies, they even claim that these misbeliefs “are the direct cause of emotional turmoil, maladaptive behavior and most so-called ‘mental illness’.” Even those things which we fear happening the most in our daily lives (such as embarrassments or failures) do not generally cause as much havoc for us as do our misbeliefs about them. “What you think and believe determines how you feel and what you do.”
Related to doubt, if a believer repeatedly tells himself that he is probably going to Hell or that Christianity may not be true, it should not be surprising if his behavior reflects these thoughts. In such cases, what the Christian tells himself is contrary to his deepest desires and conflict results. For Backus and Chapian, the correct response to these misbeliefs is a threefold strategy which is reminiscent of the last two steps of our biblical pattern from Philippians 4:6-9. They outline their approach in the following steps:
- Locate your misbeliefs.
- Remove them.
- Replace misbeliefs with the truth.
Thus one is to listen to oneself in order to pick out the lies which one regularly relates. Then these misbeliefs need to be removed, which is done by arguing against them (“No, that is not true, because….”). Lastly, truth is supplied in the place of the lies. One does not simply attempt to rule out the anxious thoughts, for example, but to replace them with the truth.
Backus and Chapian challenge the hurting person that they can control their own happiness. The issue is whether they wish to follow God’s prescriptions or not. Healing can occur:
- …you can change your emotions, you can be an adjusted and happy human being, no matter what you have experienced in you life and no matter what your circumstances are.
Now some may object that others can be healed but that they cannot or that they have already tried everything but nothing works. Here Backus and Chapian point out that this is as good of a place to begin as any. These two objections need to be identified for what they are: lies. Whenever we catch ourselves thinking or saying that these (or any other) misbeliefs are true, we must stop ourselves immediately and correct them by going through the steps stated above. While one can no doubt imagine some reasons to believe that the misbeliefs are true, we must turn our thoughts elsewhere. Changing our thinking can work, explain these psychologists, “even if nothing else has because its effectiveness depends upon very explicit psychological laws which are as universal as the law of gravity.”
So the blame for the faulty thinking is placed squarely on the shoulders of the one who is suffering. People and events around us don’t make us doubt or worry—the key is how we respond to and interpret these occurrences. And changing our misbeliefs really does alter both our feelings and our actions. While the outward circumstances may not change right away, what we tell ourselves about them can. The change in ourselves may be gradual and may take time, but it can happen; our problems can be remedied.
How does all of this apply to emotional doubts? Instead of stating (and believing) our misbeliefs, we need to locate the lies we tell ourselves, argue against them and cite the truth. Instead of thinking that they may be going to Hell or that Christ may someday say “depart from me” (with no real reason for thinking so), believers need to object and replace these lies with the truth: “Jesus does not send saved persons to Hell. I know this to be true based on no less of an authority than that of the resurrected Jesus Himself. Besides, the Lord of the universe loves me and I have a unique place with Him” (see John 3:16-18; Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 1:3-14).
Or instead of the emotional question of whether Christianity could just possibly be false after all, believers need to stop the query immediately by pointing out the misbelief. One applicable truth, for instance, is that anything could be doubted on the grounds of possibility, but wise persons don’t base their lives on such. Then the Christian’s argument needs to be one which actually recounts the factual basis for faith. A review of the evidences might be helpful. Further truth is supplied as we train our faith by daily practice and by not allowing emotional questions to shake it.
Likewise, when we do not “feel” saved we must not allow a frequent course of events to take place: an emotional letdown and further questioning followed by a “who cares” attitude. Rather, we need to forcefully identify the misbelief and argue against it, perhaps even with the jolting question, “Who cares how I feel? Feelings are simply irrelevant to the issue.” Follow-up truth statements of relevant biblical facts are then needed.
As a last example, what about the concern that God does not answer a believer’s prayers, like He has for so many others in biblical times? Once again, the lie should immediately be identified (“God doesn’t answer prayers today”), followed by an argument such as the recounting of answers which God has already given to both others and to ourselves. (This is why the keeping of a list for enumerating at times like this is so very important.) More truth is supplied by the assertion that strong believers in biblical times like Job, David, John the Baptist and Paul also experienced doubts, with several writers reporting the feeling that their prayers were not answered, either! So such emotions should not be allowed to question God’s actions today or His love for me. As pointed out earlier, the circumstances are not the chief problem; the question is what we tell ourselves about the circumstances.
And what about complications which frequently accompany doubts, such as depression and anxiety? While constantly emphasizing my lack of expertise on these issues, Backus and Chapian do address these concerns from their professional backgrounds, further extending Misbelief Therapy to each of these topics.
They explain that depression is almost always provoked by a loss of some sort (such as a person, an idea, health or finances), which then causes the individual to devalue himself, his surroundings and his prospect for the future. This condition is also identified in Scripture, such as the person who is “cast down” (Ps. 42:5, 6; 43:5).
And here, once again, each situation must be placed in perspective by identifying the misbeliefs. Lies include telling ourselves that we cannot go on after this loss or that the emotion itself is the worst thing in the world. Many have faced similar losses and the accompanying feelings and have progressed to successful lives. Backus and Chapian express it this way:
Experience bears out the deception here. Many of us have told ourselves we “cannot live without” some person, object, scheme or notion. Then this adored “whatever” is removed from our lives and wonder of wonders, we recover.
The one who responds, “Yes, but that’s someone else, not me” is likewise stating a misbelief. This vicious cycle must be broken in order for healing to occur properly. The lie needs to be identified and argued against. A proper response might be, “Okay, I feel very bad, but this is not the end of the world” or “I’ve felt horrible before and, with God’s assistance, I’ve always recovered.” When a person continues to react emotionally to a loss past a normal period of time, it is no longer the loss but the misbelief which is crippling him and to which he is responding.
The greatest truth we can substitute in place of the lies of depression is that Christians are loved by God and will receive eternal blessings from Him:
Christians don’t have to base their work on achievements or attributes. Even without any achievements and without any special merit or attractiveness, the Christian can know for certain he/she is important and loved. Our lives have been bought and paid for with the blood of Jesus Christ and that means we’re free from the pressure to be something, do something, own something, achieve something or prove something in order to be important and loved. We can do all these things or not do them and still be loved and important.
Jesus loved [us] so much that He was willing to die on the cross so [we] could have eternal life with Him one day, as well as a fulfilling life here and now.
Further, no circumstances, pain, or loss can ever change these facts (Rom. 8:31- 39). Leaning on God, we can never be ultimately disappointed, no matter how we feel now. It is simply a fact that eternal life with Jesus Christ not only outweighs all of our present suffering and pain, but it gives us a tremendous perspective from which to view these problems.
Besides, virtually all depressed persons recover. Depressed Christians must face the truth of both probable recovery now and God’s riches in eternity.
On the other hand, anxiety “is ordinarily defined as fear in the absence of actual danger.” It includes such “factors” as an overestimation of the likelihood of the danger and an exaggeration of how horrible it would be in reality. The “central theme” in anxiety is that what others think about me is of “crucial importance” to my thinking.
People teach themselves to be anxious. It is important to realize that we create our own anxiety—not our circumstances. Again, such arises from the lies we tell ourselves and these need to be identified as such. One misbelief is that something “terrible” is going to happen to me:
What does “terrible” mean? Usually it means something far worse than you think you can endure. You tell yourself the “terrible” is beyond human endurance, worse than anything on earth. Truly, nothing of this sort exists.
Another lie concerns the likelihood of our fears. Anxiety by its very nature generally involves imagining an evil which is actually very unlikely. (How many of our worst fears over the years have actually come true?) Yet the anxious individual tells himself that the occurrence of this evil is unavoidable or inevitable.
We need to challenge such misbeliefs with the truth that, although we may be feeling bad, what we are imagining has not occurred. Even if something horrible has happened, it’s not the end of a meaningful life, for believers still have the Lord, His love and eternal life. In other words, nothing is as terrible as we thought and, while painful things do happen, believers still possess their ultimate hope. And as just mentioned, the object of most anxiety never occurs at all.
A recent psychological analysis of emotional doubt among evangelicals by James Beck found that it frequently occurs to persons who experience chronic uncertainty, often obsessively. Other characteristics include the regularity of a highly developed intellect which sometimes concentrates on minute studies of Scripture or philosophical questioning. The most common subjects which bothered individuals in a small sampling were the fear of having committed the unpardonable sin or other issues involving the salvation of the believer or the nature of God. The Bible itself is even a Source for such anxiety since the person is frequently worried by the implications of various sorts of passages. Beck notes that such anxiety, “characterized by irrationality and unreasonableness… can be one of the most distressing and painful of all emotional disorders.” He points out that researchers from various schools of thought agree “that a major treatment goal is to work at the intense feelings of insecurity which are the core of the obsessive’s struggles.”
Among several suggestions to assist such an individual in his emotional healing, Beck appears to agree with Lewis that individuals suffering from such fears as their having committed the unpardonable sin or who misunderstand God’s nature need “a better grounding in the central truths of the Christian faith and its practice.” Consequently, the doubter “may have to be trained to keep thought structures from deteriorating into such painful rumination.” This last point is also somewhat reminiscent of the methodology employed by Backus and Chapian.
But it must be stressed here that the improvement and healing of such conditions takes time. I have seen numerous cases where individuals have been significantly helped after just one (usually lengthy) meeting. But very frequently the conquering of the effects of doubt takes practice, especially so the more it is ingrained in the person. If we have reported misbeliefs to ourselves for more than a very short time, it should not surprise us that it also takes some time to cure the dilemma. And one key here, again, is repetition—both when we need the biblical remedy and even when we don’t, as a preventative measure.
3. Additional Helps for Healing
We have seen that a biblical pattern for the healing of emotional doubts in Philippians 4:6-9 and the psychological approach taken by several Christian researchers are similar in some very important respects. There is much agreement that emotional uncertainty needs to be confronted with a rational approach which combines the truth with a specific volitional action pattern. Such an avenue might involve prayer with thanksgiving, along with locating, removing and replacing misbeliefs with edifying truth, as well as practice until such becomes a habit. This is not the only possible methodology for such uncertainty, but it appears to be a biblically and psychologically sound solution.
However, in spite of the explicit “1, 2, 3” approach utilized here, there is no magic number of steps which must be applied. Our purpose was to be specific enough to get someone started down the road to improvement and healing. But the individual who is suffering the doubt may well discover additional pointers which may be both biblical and which function better for him. Perhaps the best suggestion would be to apply a specific pattern such as that in Philippians 4:6-9 or in Backus and Chapian until one is familiar enough with the territory to change or alter the method. To that end, this section will suggest several additional helps which may hasten the healing process. I have known the application of each of these to be successful in helping to treat emotional questioning. They may be used together or separately.
- We need to remind ourselves that emotional doubt is not primarily factual in nature. Therefore, it does not constitute any evidence against faith. Rather, emotional uncertainty is based on improbabilities (the “What ifs” of life!). In short, the facts actually oppose the worry.
- We need to minimize the problems without neglecting the correction of them. Others have experienced the same or similar things before (1 Cor. 10:13). Thus, our experience does not make us stand alone as some sort of emotional loner. In fact, to have such experiences is even human. But we still need to correct the faulty thinking.
- We need to properly identify any accompanying feelings as occurring because we are telling ourselves misbeliefs, not usually because we actually want to give up the Christian faith or something similar. In other words, when the believer responds to an issue by saying, “See, I’m probably not saved,” unwanted feelings may well occur next. But they are usually the reaction to the misdirected statement itself, not an emotion which further proves that we are unsaved. So fear can be quite paradoxical in that unwanted emotions which some Christians interpret as proof of their diabolical state are (conversely) most frequently a confirmation of our true faith! That’s primarily why we are upset at the suggestion that we are not a believer, even when that thought was our own!
- We need to realize that anxious states are frequently short-lived. At any rate, these unwanted emotional responses do not have to continue. For example, we have presented a biblical remedy to anxiety, found in prayer and thanksgiving (even for our emotions themselves) followed by replacing the worrisome thoughts with edifying ones, along with the repetition of these steps (Phil. 4:6-9). In this sense, we can break the mood and actually end the anxious state. Realizing that we can control our own emotions should cause us to relax even in the face of the emotional storm, calmly watching as it passes! This may sound too “flowery” to those who are suffering anxiety, but we can actually change the emotion in this biblically prescribed manner.
- We need to practice thanksgiving and praise even during these emotional states! In the passage just mentioned (Phil. 4:6-9), we are specifically told that, during a time of anxiety, we are both to pray and give thanks (v. 6) and that the major subject for edifying thought is that which is praiseworthy (v. 8). Likewise, one of the psalmists reports his being downcast (depressed), but goes on to say that it is actually during these very times that he decides to praise God (Ps. 42:5-6, 11; 43:5) in order to change his disposition. There is no more edifying thought (Phil. 4:8) than this one.
- We also need to trust God and believe Him during these emotional states, as well. There is no better time to develop faith in Him and perhaps no better way to help faith grow than to practice it right during the times while we think it is most in jeopardy. This will be more properly dealt with in the next chapter.
At any rate, it is hoped that the principles in this section will further compliment the biblical and psychological strategies mapped out earlier. Emotional doubt needs to have the truth forcefully applied to it.
D. Conclusion: A Work of God
More than with factual doubt, emotional uncertainty appears to lend itself more easily to “self-help” scenarios. But once we get the idea that we are doing the changing, a fundamental problem results. William Backus explains it this way:
[quote] It’s frightening to undertake a book on self- control…. I fear that the reader will interpret self-control as self-generated effort. If we proceed that way, we quickly abandon the only right ground: the grace of God.
In our conclusion, we need to alert our readers to this problem as forcefully as is possible. The power to change the believer’s doubt is the Lord’s; personal effort and our own will do not solve the issue, so we ought not attempt to take credit away from the Lord and to ourselves. This is more properly the concern of the next chapter. Here we will just note that Scripture has much to say about utilizing our tongues and our thoughts in order to effect either negative or positive results. So Satan can achieve negative results while God promotes positive ones (cf. Js. 4:7-8).
One biblical means of confronting emotional doubt is to pray with thanksgiving (even for one’s emotions), replacing the anxious thoughts with edifying ones. Continual meditation on these concepts (practice) is also commanded (Phil. 4:6-9). A biblical approach to depression includes praising God (Ps. 42:11; 43:5). A psychological model for healing anxiety, depression and other problems, also making use of similar biblical principles, recommends locating, removing and replacing our misbeliefs which we tell ourselves. And as we have been careful to mention throughout, this is not to say that other methods, such as the use of medicine, are not also needed in appropriate cases. But at each of these points, Scripture notes that God is the Source behind the healing, not our own self efforts or even the practicing of certain steps. We will return to this last point in the next chapter.
- In some lectures, I have even defined emotional uncertainty as being a “what if” doubt in order to stress this element of passion.
- Incidentally, I like to use deferent types of responses to such “what if” queries, each of which is designed to “jolt” the doubter into a different frame of mind. I think the best one is the answer which basically says, “You know, you could just possibly be right. It is possible that X might happen after all. But in light of the (admitted) strong evidence against it, you are probably wrong and wise men choose the best data, not extremely unlikely possibilities.” I think one reason this approach has merit is because the doubter usually does not expect me to admit his slight possibility. But I want to show him that the issue isn’t where he thinks it is; the fact that something is possible (what isn’t?) ought not to be the major concern. If that slight possibility still bothers him, showing the depth of the emotional quandary, I will go straight to the more powerful remedies listed later in this chapter. But he should also know that the type of factual certainty which he is rejecting is as strong as finite persons in a finite world can have, whether in science or any area of inductive study. And the gospel can be said to be factually proven. (Again, see Habermas, Ancient Evidence, pp. 19-20.) On the other hand, if he rejects my claim to certainty on these issues and does not admit my basis, then we are probably speaking of a more factual doubt and I might have to go back and work through the apologetic case as slowly as I need to do.
- Board terms this type of doubt as volitional (p. 15), but I think that this is to miss the possible emotional elements, as well.
- Guest (pp. 41-42) and Lewis (Mere Christianity, p. 124) agree with this assessment
- As I did in the Introduction (Chapter 1), I want to clearly explain once again that I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist or professional counselor. My professional interest in doubt arises chiefly from an apologetic, philosophical and theological background, which perhaps at least partially explains my emphasis on the more cognitive aspects. But it should be carefully noted that since this book is not a medical, psycho- logical or counseling textbook, it therefore ought not be construed as such. Those with problems in these areas should seek professional Christian help in the specific area of the need(s).
- Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 123.
- This quotation is taken from what is perhaps C.S. Lewis’ best writing on doubt. See “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” in Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 42.
- Ibid., p. 41
- Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 124.
- Ibid., p. 122.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensees: Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects, translated by William Finlayson Trotter, edited by H.S. Thayer (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1965), 82, entitled “Imagination.” This brief essay contains several worthwhile comments about the strength of human imagination, before which “reason has been obliged to yield.”
- Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” p. 43.
- Ibid., p. 42.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- See Gary R. Collins, The Rebuilding of Psychology: An Integration of Psychology and Christianity (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1977), pp. 137-138, 143-145, 150-152.
- Ibid., pp. 185, 190. See especially Chapter Ten as a whole.
- In light of the various approaches to (and definitions of) this term, I am defining “cognitive” here as a rational approach which utilizes a factual basis as the support for a specific volitional pattern. In other words, holding that factual truth is available, the appeal is then to the will to effect a strategy of healing based on that truth. But it should be carefully noted that the description in the text at this point is not a purely cognitive pattern of treatment. For example, behavioral changes are also required, as they are in Scripture. Also, we ought to be thankful for our emotions, as mentioned earlier. Again, the method encouraged here also recognizes that several approaches are both biblical and ought to be utilized or even combined.
- Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 123.
- Ibid., p. 124.
- Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” p. 42.
- Guinness, pp. 163-167. Notice Guinness’ stress on action coming first in these cases.
- Ibid., p. 168.
- Board, p. 5; D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and its Cure (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1965), p. 20; J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 19, 236; H. Norman Wright, Now I Know Why I’m Depressed (Eugene: Harvest House, 1984). Several of Larry Crabb’s volumes depict similar emphases, although most of his and the other texts in this note are not dealing primarily with the issue of doubt.
- For example, see Paul D. Meier and Frank B. Minirth, Happiness is a Choice (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) for this emphasis in the healing process written by two psychiatrists. Compare John White, The Masks of Melancholy: A Christian Physician Looks at Depression and Suicide (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982), who judges that while cognitive therapies do not always provide the proper approach in cases of depression (p. 196) they are still quite useful and White himself utilizes them in his combinational approach to this problem (p. 221).
- Neither are we suggesting that there is only one type of cognitive approach or that each of the authors above agrees in all matters. There certainly are varying emphases among these counselors.
- Gary Collins gives some examples on pp. 185-186.
- This is primarily why this section is entitled “A Biblical Pattern” instead of “The” example or even the “major” counseling approach in Scripture.
- Mounce is citing C.E. Simcox at this point. See Mounce’s commentary in “The Epistle to the Philippians” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Nashville: The Southwestern Company, 1962), p. 1330. Once again, the comment on mental health is made in our text from a biblical vantage point, not from a medical or psychological one.
- Ernest F. Scott, “Exegesis” of “Philippians” in The Interpreter’s Bible, edited by George A. Buttrick, twelve volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), vol. IX, p. 113.
- For a bibliography of noteworthy volumes which comment on Philippians 4:6-9 both from somewhat different perspectives and on differing levels of difficulty, see, in addition to Robert Mounce and Ernest Scott (above), William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975); F.F. Bruce, Philippians: A Good News Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1983); Charles R. Eerdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966); William Hendriksen, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962); H.A. Ironside, Notes on Philippians (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1922); J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953); Terry L. Miethe, A Christian’s Guide to Faith and Reason (Minneapolis: Bethany House, Publishers, 1987), Chapter 9; A.T. Robertson, Paul’s Joy in Christ: St