There are some issues that Christians struggle with that are visible for all to see. But often the most difficult struggles in the Christian life are the silent ones. I think struggling with doubt is one of those silent struggles. I struggled off and on for years with doubts, and I did so mostly in silence. Often when I tell my own past struggles with doubt, people will tell me that they also had the same struggles, and sometimes they are still struggling with those silent doubts.
As previously mentioned, I never walked an aisle when I became a Christian. There was no pomp and circumstance. Quite simply, I believed. I knew I was a sinner and needed Jesus to pay the price for my sins. Throughout elementary and middle school, the gospel was presented to me many times via altar calls, with entreaties to me to come accept Jesus by praying a sinner's prayer. These exposures to altar calls threw me into years of doubt concerning my own salvation. As a child young in the faith, being told that I hadn't gone through the right channels was a real stunt to my spiritual growth and to my assurance of salvation. I already chronicled going back to the Bible and confirming that I must repent and believe. I confirmed the Gospel message with God's Word.
But then I struggled with plaguing doubts. I confirmed that I had rightly understood the Gospel, but by seeking to confirm that I had rightly understood, I was admittedly doubting whether I was indeed saved. Why else would I feel the need for confirmation? I then postulated that if I was doubting if I was saved, then perhaps I was not saved. And so went the viscious cycle!
Many people, including many with whom I have spoken, have at times put on a real front when it comes to confidence in their faith, often hiding plaguing doubts for fear of "second class" status as Christians, or even rejection as "true believers." I've been to many churches where during the altar call, it is strongly implied that the set of all Christians and the set of all people who "know without a shadow of a doubt" that they are saved is one and the same.
To comprehend the Gospel, we must trust on Christ for our salvation. There is no other way to be saved. But that does not mean that our trust never waivers or falters. We are still fallen humans in a fallen world. Walter Marshall says it well: May not one that truly believeth, say, Lord, help my unbelief? Yes! That is what I wish I had grasped through my years of doubting. One can doubt and still be a Christian. Unlike the song, being a Christian does not mean you are happy, happy, happy all the time. And it doesn't mean you are always bubbling over with confidence.
I love Stepping Heavenward, by Elizabeth Prentiss, because the heroine, Katy, in all of her utter sinfulness, is remarkably similar to me. I figure if there was hope for her, there is hope for me. I identify with her acutely because she also struggled in her youth with wondering if she was "truly saved," since she had not formalized it with a sinner's prayer. Her story comes full circle when, years later she is able to use her own experience with doubt to counsel her sister-in-law. Helen spent years of doubt, trying to figure out if she was a Christian, and with a few wise words, Katy dispelled her struggles: Doubt everything, but believe in Christ. . . Suppose for argument's sake, you are not a Christian. You can become one now.
The following day Helen recounts the effect of Katy's simple words:
Katy, God taught you what to say. All these years I have been tormenting myself with doubts as to whether I could be His child while so unable to say, "Thy will be done." If you had said, "Why yes, you must be His child for you professed yourself one a long time ago and ever since have lived like one," I should have remained as wretched as ever. As it is, a mountain has been rolled off my heart. Yes, if I was not His child yesterday, I can become one today; if I did not love Him then, I can begin now."
It was only after I learned to rejoice that I was currently a Christian, rather than wonder when I became one, that I was able to rest in the peace of my faith. Not everyone has a neat and tidy testimony, with all the blanks filled in with exact dates and times. The story of Christianity is about a lifechange, though, not a stress on the exact moment that the change started. I know I am a Christian, and I do now believe "without a shadow of a doubt," but I only had that confidence after I stopped berating myself for searching and questioning, when I realized that if I was not His child yesterday, I can become one today.
Do you realize that some of the most prominent characters in the Bible were plagued with doubts? One of the turning points in my struggle with doubts was a sermon I heard on John the Baptist, from Matthew 11. Here is the man who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and he is plagued with doubts as he is languishing in prison. John questioned whether Jesus was even the Messiah! Should we expect someone else? John was regenerated by the Holy Spirit while in his mother's womb, was specifically charged with paving the way for the Lord, and he, in a time of doubt, questions if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Yes, one can doubt and still be a believer!
And look at Jesus' response to John. Condemnation? No. Disgust? No. Anger? No. Jesus showed him compassion. He gives him physical evidence that He is the Messiah: Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. And then look what he does further. He turns to the crowd and confirms that John was the new Elijah, and he says that among those born of woman, there is none greater than John the Baptist.
If you struggle with doubts concerning salvation, you may, like I once did, visualize God frowning down on you, impatient that you "don't have enough faith." Just as Jesus had compassion on John the Baptist, though, so He has compassion as you cry out to Him: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!
The message of the Gospel is simply this: you are a sinner and need a Savior. Christ came to be that Savior, if you will repent and turn to Him. If you truly believe these simple (yet profound!) truths, you are His child! And if you were not His child yesterday, you can become one today.