“I believe; help my unbelief” is my favorite phrase in scripture. It captures so much of what it means and takes to be a follower of Christ, encapsulating struggle, faith, doubt, obedience, wandering, and repentance. It is deeply theological and personal. For these reasons and more I wrote a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith (releases July 1 – Available at BarnesandNoble.com & Amazon.com) which explores what real belief is and its relationship with doubt in the life of a believer. The challenges of that tension are not unique to me; They’re nearly universal among Christians no matter position, maturity, or church tradition. In the weeks leading up to the release I will share the the thoughts and experiences of several friends of mine – authors, church leaders, writers, thinkers – who honestly answered five questions about faith and doubt.
Justin S. Holcomb is an Episcopal priest (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University.
Justin has written numerous books, including Know the Heretics, Know the Creeds and Councils, and On the Grace of God. Justin and his wife, Lindsey, are authors of three books: God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
1) What does “I believe; help my unbelief” mean to you?
To me, this is an expression of the basic Christian experience. We believe, but have areas and moments, caused and motivated by a thousand different things, when we aren’t too sure about some beliefs or doubt them all together.
Some of the doubts are about the content of the faith such as resurrection, the reliability of the bible, or God’s character. Other doubts are more about the application of the Christian faith to us because it seems too good to be true or we don’t seems to experience or feel it. Questions of this type may be: Is God really not angry with me? I know I perpetually let him down. Does God really love me when I don’t deserve it? Even when I’m not faithful? If God loves me so much why am I still in bondage, jobless, futureless, or loveless?
“Help my unbelief” means that our doubts don’t freak God out and God is the one to go to, not to avoid, when we sense our unbelief. We can ask him to strengthen our faith.
2) Do you have a favorite Bible passage about belief and doubt? What is it and how has it impacted you?
I like the resurrection appearances in John 20. Many people focus on “Doubting Thomas” and he is treated like a punching bag for his unbelief. But Jesus appears three times—to Mary, the disciples, and then to Thomas. And each person or group had a different encounter from Jesus. They got exactly what they needed in order to believe. In each one of these, a beautiful truth is pictured: that when they lack faith he is faithful by accommodating to their need and weakness.
Mary needed to hear her name called out by Jesus. Mary is as the tomb crying and sees both angels and Jesus but only believes after she hears Jesus call her name. Jesus appears to the disciples when they are cowering in fear behind a locked door. It is only after Jesus showed them his hands and side that they were filled with joy at the sight of him.
For Thomas, hearing his voice and seeing his wounds were not enough. He needed to put his finger in the wounds. And what does Jesus do? He shows up and accommodates and offers his wounds for the touching.
I like the idea of Jesus accommodating to specific needs for belief. I think this is the very heart of Christianity: God condescends and accommodates.
3) What is belief in God?
There are great nuanced treatments of faith and belief. Alvin Plantinga writes about “justified true beliefs” and Graham Ward writes about credibility, believability, perceptions, and dispositions. But I can’t help thinking about “belief” as related to the three dimensions of faith described by Philip Melanchthon in Loci Communes Theologici.
- Notitia: this is the content of data of the faith, such as God is triune, Jesus is the God-man, Christ lived a perfect life and died and rose from the dead.
- Assensus: this is assent to the truth of the content and propositions. This means believing that notitia are true statements about reality. James 2:19 says that even the demons can do these first two: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Belief is #3.
- Fiducia: this is trusting, depending, and relying on #1 and #2 with your soul, life, eternity. It is placing your confidence on #1 and #2.
4) What do you see as the relationship between belief and doubt?
We should be unafraid to doubt. There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the more robust for having experienced its doubts. Kalil Gibran put it beautifully, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” I like that. If doubts are not the opposite of faith, we can be a bit more open and honest about them with ourselves, others, and God.
5) How can a person strengthen their belief in God?
Studying can strengthen belief. This has been huge for me. Most of my formal education was based on my having questions about faith and wanting to strengthen my belief. Studying about the reliability of the Bible, the arguments for the existence of God, overwhelming evidence for the resurrection, and more, has been helpful for me.
Praying is another way. I love that Anselm’s brilliant and lofty work in Proslogion and Monologion are in the setting of prayers. That prompted me to ask God to strengthen my belief.
Being aware of your community and cultural setting is also important. Peter Berge wrote about plausibility structures, which are the sociocultural contexts for systems of meaning. This means that there are frameworks, settings, and communities that are more supportive of belief than others. This does not mean avoiding people who may disagree with what you believe. But it does mean that we should be aware of the influence our surroundings have on what we view as plausible beliefs.