Alisa Childers was a member of the Christian teen pop group ZOEgirl in the early 2000s. The trio’s first breakaway hit spoke about shouting their faith in God from mountaintops, and every concert they held included an altar call to the young teens in attendance. Years later, Alisa found her faith on the verge of utter shipwreck. Recalling that time, she writes,
It felt like I’d been plunged into a stormy ocean with waves crashing over my head. No lifeboat. No rescue in sight. In the 2000 film The Perfect Storm, one of the last images (spoiler alert) is of the giant ship being capsized and pushed underwater by a wave the size of a skyscraper. The tiniest form of a human head peeks above the water for a split second before disappearing into the depths.
That was me.
What had happened? Shortly after the birth of their first child, Alisa and her husband joined a church where they experienced vibrant fellowship, deep devotion, and dynamic teaching. One day, the pastor asked if she would be interested in participating in a small, invitation-only discussion group. He told her that she would receive the equivalent of a four-year seminary education. She eagerly grasped the opportunity.
At the first meeting, the pastor greeted the group and then began, “I consider myself a ‘hopeful agnostic.’” For the next four months, she sat through these discussions in which the pastor systematically undermined everything she had been taught about Christianity. The inspiration and authority of Scripture? Meh. The virgin birth of Jesus? Seriously? The resurrection? Never happened. It left her floundering and searching for answers.
Happily, God graciously intervened and, through a series of interactions, brought her back to a firm faith foundation. Today she writes and speaks to help Christians spot the dangers of progressive Christianity and to embrace historic orthodoxy.
It has become something of a trend in recent years for people to “deconstruct” their faith. I suppose that has always happened, but Instagram, in particular, seems to have given people the platform they need to do so publicly and openly. It’s all the rage to wrestle with doubts without actually looking for answers. The only answer is whatever makes you feel good. Conversely, Alisa writes,
When I have doubts about my faith, or deep nagging questions that keep me up at night, I don’t have the luxury of finding “my truth” because I am committed to the truth. I want to know what is real. I want my worldview (the lens through which I see the world) to line up with reality. God either exists, or he doesn’t. The Bible is his Word, or it’s not. Jesus was raised from the dead, or he wasn’t. Christianity is true, or it isn’t. There is no “my truth” when it comes to God.
Do you know what it is to have doubts in your Christian walk? It may not be doubt produced through challenges to your theological beliefs. Perhaps your doubt stems from wrestling through the loss of a loved one. Perhaps you were deeply hurt by a previous church experience or by other Christians and you wonder where God was in it. Perhaps your doubt stems from years of unanswered prayer. Or perhaps your once vibrant faith has simply grown cold with the passing of time and you wonder where the fervency of faith you once enjoyed has gone.
How do you wrestle with doubt when faith fails? That is the question that John seems to have in mind in 1 John 3:19–24. Like Alisa Childers, his readers’ faith had been shaken by the “progressive” thinking of false teachers, who drastically undermined sound doctrine by promoting a superficial view of Jesus Christ. To his readers who wondered about how to defeat doubt, he offered four pieces of counsel. If you want to know how to defeat doubt in your life and your context, listen to John.
Defeat Doubt with a Compassionate Heart
First, John urges his readers to defeat doubt with a compassionate heart. He writes, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (vv. 19–20).
To his readers who were wrestling with doubt, John wrote, “By this we shall know.” “This” refers back to what he had written in vv. 11–18, where he exhorted his readers to love one another in a sacrificial way. Now, he says that, to defeat doubt, they should examine their love—whether Christlike compassion exists in their heart.
Examine Your Love
He tells them to examine their love: “By this [love described in vv. 11–18] we shall know we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (v. 19).
Human beings are, by their sinful nature, deeply selfish. Despite the protest of many people that they have yet to learn to love themselves, Jesus taught that we already love ourselves and must learn to love others in the same way we already love ourselves (Mark 12:30–31). Paul added that nobody has every truly hated themselves, but that we naturally take great care to do what is best for ourselves (Ephesians 5:29). Sacrificial love is, therefore, something that is deeply unnatural.
Now, you might argue that unbelievers show sacrificial love all the time. It is not difficult to find stories of non-Christian mothers who have sacrificed themselves for their children, or irreligious husbands who have sacrificed themselves for their wives. This is true enough, but John’s point in vv. 11–18 is that Christiansacrificial love extends beyond immediate family. Christians display sacrificial love for those who, apart from the cross, are otherwise completely unrelated to them.
As you struggle with doubt and wonder where to find assurance, John encourages you to examine your love life. Do I feel and display genuine affection for the people of God? His point is not that you must display perfectlove or that you must naturally feel equal affection for every member of the church, but Christ’s love in us does produce genuine, sacrificial affection for the people of God.
Are you willing to sacrifice your time for the benefit of God’s people? Ministry to people is not always easy and not always convenient, but neither was Christ’s love for you. Are you willing to forego quiet evenings at home for the sake of ministry to others? Are your willing to forego that extra hour of sleep, or the quietness of a private lunchbreak, to give that time to others?
Are you willing to sacrifice your liberties for the benefits of God’s people? Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 8–10 that there was nothing wrong with eating meat that is offered to idols. He realised, however, that not everybody shared his convictions, and rather than insisting that others allow him to exercise his liberty, or that they must unthinkingly embrace his convictions, he wrote, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Why? Because love for his brothers and sisters in Christ was more important to him than fighting for his liberties. Are you similarly willing to forego your liberties for the benefit of others?
Are you prepared to sacrifice your possessions for the benefit of others? There is a lot of debate within the Christian community about whether or not Christians are required to tithe. In one sense, that’s a moot point, because Christians are called to sacrificial giving. Being generous toward a family in need means that you will have less for yourself, but it’s an evidence of Christian love. Being generous toward Great Commission needs means that you will probably create some need in your life, but it is an evidence of Christian love, which God promises to reward.
Are you willing to sacrificially employ your abilities for the sake of the kingdom? When the deacons ask if you are willing to serve on security or Sunday morning transport, is your immediate answer no? Or are you willing to give what you can to serve the body? Are you looking for ways to employ your natural talents and abilities for the sake of the kingdom and the benefit of the church?
John says that doubt can be defeated as we exercise genuine, sacrificial love to other Christians, because such love is an unmistakable evidence of God’s work in your life.
Embrace God’s Knowledge
The oversensitive conscience may, however, run into a roadblock here. John urges the doubting Christian to examine his sacrificial love as evidence of genuine faith. But what if the doubter examines his life and concludes that he doesn’t love as he should? What if the doubter compares her sacrifice to the sacrifice of others in the church and concludes that she simply doesn’t match up? She sacrifices where she can, but her sacrifice pales in comparison to the church member next door. Does that give her reason to persist in doubt? John writes, “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (v. 20).
To the person who feels that his sacrificial love does not match up to that of another church member, John writes, “God knows.” God knows that you can’t give as much as Mr. Smith. God knows that you don’t have the time that Mrs. Jones has to minister to others. But he knows and understand that you are giving what you can and he does not condemn you for failing to keep up with the Joneses. Don’t allow your heart to condemn you when God doesn’t.
It is one thing to observe a complete absence of sacrificial love in your life; it is another to recognise that you aren’t sacrificing as you would like to. If your life is all about storing up for yourself and protecting your time and fighting for your liberties, you may have some serious soul searching to do. But if you are doing what you can, even as you dearly wish you can do more, God knows and he doesn’t condemn, even if your conscience does.
Defeat Doubt with a Communing Heart
Second, John encourages his readers to defeat their doubts with a communing heart. He writes, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him” (vv. 21–22a). We can defeat doubt with a communing heart—a heart that communes with God—and there are two characteristics of a communing heart.
Confident to Approach
John does not want his readers to live in doubt. He wants them to defeat doubt. He wants them, ultimately, to have a “heart” that “does not condemn” them. That is first prize and will result in confidence in our approach to God.
John is not saying, however, that we should desperately hope that we get to the point of defeating doubt so that we can experience a subjective confidence in approaching God in prayer. Quite the contrary, he is urging us to confidently approach God as a means to overcoming doubt.
It is an objective reality that believers have the ability to confidently approach God. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). James tells us quite plainly that we do not receive answers to our prayers because we don’t ask (4:2–3). The consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Christians can confidently approach God in prayer, and John urges his readers to do that here.
There are few things as destructive to a Christian’s prayer life than a condemning conscience. When our conscience makes us feel unworthy of approaching God, it is all too easy to completely neglect prayer. After all, we are not worthy. Who are we to approach the throne of God?
John urges his readers not to think like that. He wants their conscience to be so instructed that they realise the wonderful, bold access that they have to the throne of grace. And there are few better ways to build this realisation than to simply do it. Pray. Believe the objective teaching of Scripture that you can confidently approach God and then do it, regardless of your subjective feelings on the matter.
As an aside, we should not miss the point that these verses are written in the context of community. You have access to God’s throne of grace, but so do we. One of the most effective ways to build your confidence in approaching God is to do so in the context of community. Pray with other believers. Pray with the church. Your private prayer closet has a significant role to play in your life, but not to the detriment of the corporate prayer life of the church.
Confident to Ask
Related to the above, we have confidence not only to approach God, and to adore and worship him for who he is, but to actually ask him for what we need: “And whatever we ask we receive from him” (v. 22).
This, of course, is not a carte blanche promise that we can get whatever we want from God. He is not a genie whose proverbial lamp we rub only to make our daily demands. Other texts of Scripture must be read alongside this one. But John’s point is that we should, in prayer, be confident to ask what we need.
One way to combat doubt is to believe that God cares enough for you to bring your burdens to him and then to do that and watch how he wonderfully answers your prayers.
People often wonder what is appropriate to pray for. We know that we can pray for the salvation of our loved ones and for our daily provision. But does God care enough about my sick or lost dog for me to pray about it? Does God care about the prayer of the five-year-old who asks for her mosquito bites to stop itching? Is it irreverent to pray for quiet roads on the way to an appointment?
Here is a simple principle to operate on when you have those questions: If it’s big enough to concern you, it’s big enough to concern God. God calls us to childlike faith, and childlike faith sometimes asks for things that seem insignificant. David Allen is correct:
Childlike [faith] makes you pray as nothing else can. It makes you pray for big things that you would never have asked for if you did not have this confidence. It makes you pray for small things because you know nothing is too small in your life to occupy God’s attention.
Praying for small things, I would argue, can actually be extremely helpful. Praying for the small things helps you maintain your dependence on God. Praying for the small things helps you remember that God does not despise childlikeness. Praying for the little things helps us to remember that God actually cares about us.
John’s basic burden here is to urge his readers to defeat doubt with a communing heart. Prayer in the midst of doubt is not easy, but it is necessary. Pray when you don’t feel like it. Pray when answers don’t seem to come. Pray when praying seems futile. Pray until you pray.
Defeat Doubt with a Committed Heart
Third, John urges his readers to defeat doubt with a committed heart. He writes that we can confidently commune with God “because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (vv. 22b–24a).
He identifies two ways here in which our hearts must be committed as we combat doubt.
Committed to God’s Commands
First, we must be those who “keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (v. 22). John was no antinomian. Christians have long spoken about “the obligations of grace,” which sounds almost contradictory, but is beyond question a biblical principle. Grace does not come without obligations. As John will write a little later, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (5:3).
Doubt can often be effectively combatted with obedience. When we doubt, we do not feel like obeying, but obedience is crucial to defeating doubt. In times of doubt, we are often tempted to ignore basic Christian disciplines like church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer, but there is never a time we need these things like when we doubt. Doubt can paralyse us so that we don’t reach out to and minister to others like we otherwise might, but God blesses such obedience even when we don’t feel like it.
Willing obedience provides particular comfort that we are, indeed, God’s people. As John writes, “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (v. 24).
Committed to God’s Community
John does something interesting in v. 23, however. He has told us of the need to obey God’s “commandments” but now he switches from the plural (“commandments”) to the singular (“commandment”). He writes, “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (vv. 23–24).
Notice that the singular commandment has two parts: “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” and “love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Here is the point: Unity with God is inseparable from unity with God’s people. The person who professes faith in Christ but remains wilfully disconnected from the church is professing something very contradictory. You cannot “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” without also showing “love [for] one another, just as he has commanded us.”
One of the best disciplines to maintain while you are going through times of turmoil, doubt, and deconstruction is consistent fellowship with the people of God. Don’t allow your doubts to divorce you from your community of faith. You never need the church as much as you do when you are undergoing doubt. Sadly, commitment to the church is often the first thing to go when we doubt, but we are harming only ourselves when we allow that to happen.
Defeat Doubt with the Comforter’s Heart
Finally, John tells us to defeat doubt with the Comforter’s heart. He writes, “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (v. 24).
It is necessary to apply our thinking caps a little to understand John’s point here. As is so often the case in 1 John, his closing statement both wraps up the present section and introduces the next. For the first time in the letter, we read of the Holy Spirit, who testifies of our belonging to God. He will write more about the Spirit later in the letter but, here, the Spirit has a particular function: to help us recognise and affirm truth about Jesus Christ. The Gnostics were teaching falsehoods about Christ, but the Spirit would teach the truth about him
In 4:1–6, John writes of the need to test the spirits. He tells his readers, in other words, to examine the teaching that the Gnostics were promoting and to do so in reliance on the Spirit. The Spirit would ultimately bear witness to their spirit whether the Gnostics were teaching the truth or lying. And John was confident that those with the Spirit would indeed embrace true teaching about Jesus Christ.
Here is the principle: When your subjective feelings lead you to doubt, remind yourself of what you objectively believe about the gospel. Do you believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man? Do you believe he was born of a virgin? Do you believe he lived a perfect life and that, by faith, his perfection is credited to your account when you repent of your sins? Do you believe Jesus really died for your sins, was really buried, and really rose again, victorious over death? Do you believe he ascended to heaven where he rules on the right hand of God? Do you believe that, through repentance and faith, you have received the gift of eternal life? Do you believe that, at the end of time, he will come back to receive his people and grant them the fulness of eternal life?
Do you believe these things? If you don’t, pray to God for the aid of the Spirit to believe. If you do, allow that to encourage your heart that you are a believer. You are saved not by the frequency of your church attendance or the extent of your biblical knowledge but by faith in the objective realities of the gospel, which only the Spirit can reveal to you.
Christian, do you struggle with doubt? Then combat your doubts with a compassionate heart, a communing heart, a committed heart, and the Comforter’s heart. I pray with you that God will give you the assurance for which you so desperately long.
Non-Christian, does all this talk of gospel realities seem foreign to you? Then pray to God to enable you, through his Spirit, to believe the truths about Jesus Christ that are necessary for salvation. Pray and believe.