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Dealing with Your Inner Skeptic (while in the Purgatory of Doubt)

Purgatory-of-doubt

Some of you are living in a purgatory of doubt. You find yourself caught between two opinions. You have studied just about all you can study. You have read both sides to the issue. All Christian apologetics books do now is make you ill and create more anxiety. The confusion of the options is a constant ringing in your ears, from which you can find no peace. It is not as if you don’t want to make a decision for Christ; after all, you have been a Christian for quite some time (at least you thought you were . . .). Now you are not sure if you ever really believed at all.  Now you are finding it intellectually (or so it seems) dishonest to believe anymore. Why? Because you have yet to be convinced enough.

How does one get convinced enough to trust Christ? You don’t really trust anyone, not even yourself.

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to share some advice as one who has been there. Not only have I been there but, given the right circumstances (meds, not enough sleep, waking up on the wrong side of the bed, bad habits haunting me, a good fight with my wife, reading too many fundamentalists – Christian or non, a past which won’t let go, depression, having to call donors to get caught up on taxes, or listening to certain music which takes me to places I don’t need to go), I can still go there. However, for the most part, I have learned how to talk to this “inner skeptic” (Daniel Taylor calls him his “inner atheist“).

Here are his five characteristics:

1. He likes to make you doubt, but he never presents better options.

Initially, I must realize that the skeptic who sends me to “doubters’ Purgatory” is not holding as good a hand as he thinks. He bluffs a lot. In fact, just about every hand is a bluff. But it is enough to keep us folding, especially when we have not experienced him before. You see, this skeptic never presents any better options. His arguments are never positive. It is enough for him to introduce the pebble in your shoe. And as long as you focus on that pebble, eventually you will sit down and become immobile. This is Purgatory.

Inner Skeptic: “There are too many disagreements in Christianity. Which do you choose?”

(Notice, this is not a positive argument for anything better.)

2. He uses your emotions against you.

This skeptic loves those who have grown up in a Christian home and have a commitment that is based primarily on family and emotional bias. If you believe in Christianity just because you want it to be true, he will eventually stop by your house for a chat. And it is not that you have not read enough, studied enough, or been to enough apologetics conferences. It is just that you went to them only to have your faith confirmed. This makes you attractive to him.

Inner Skeptic: “You know you only believe this stuff because of your parents, don’t you?”

(Again, no intellectual arguments needed. Just a tug at your emotions that might be true, but fails to make any positive arguments against your faith. But this is often enough.)

3. He presents possibilities that are not probabilities.

The inner skeptic loves options. The more options he brings up, the smarter he thinks he is. He likes to read very broadly in order to keep from dropping anchor. But in all his studies he never has anything more probable to present. He is also fond of the great unknown. This is the trump card he carries. When all else has failed, he just says that one day the true answer to life may be known, but we don’t have it now.

Inner Atheist: “Maybe Jesus’ body was been stolen. Did you ever think of that?”

Inner Atheist: “You know, I heard a scholar the other day that thinks the Romans created Christianity. Maybe that is true.”

(He always has a lot of “maybes” and they are easy to understand. But these maybes only offer other possibilities, rarely any probabilities.)

4. He likes to focus on non-essentials.

If the skeptic can keep you going down non-essential rabbit trails, making you think they actually form the core of your faith and that without them it’s over, he has done his job. You will make Purgatory your home. Things like evolution, the age of the earth, the precise harmony of the Gospels, the writer of 2 Peter, the Documentary Hypothesis, or a thousand other things will suffice. While these things are very important when you are building your faith, they do not form the foundation of it. He likes to make you think that unresolved non-essentials should be sufficient to keep you from making a decision.

Inner Skeptic: “Was there one angel at the tomb or two?” We may never know!)

(Please notice:  the skeptic does not mention that in both accounts the tomb was empty.)

Inner Skeptic: “Every thinking person knows that evolution is true.”

(Not only does he overstate his case – he likes to overstate – but he does not tell you that even if evolution is true, it does not affect the foundation of Christianity:  Christ’s resurrection.)

5. He makes you believe you have to have indubitable, perfect certainty before you can believe with integrity.

It’s either black or while for the inner skeptic. (He is quite the fundamentalist.) Either you believe or you don’t. On a scale from zero to ten, you are one or the other. If you present yourself as a five he will convince you that you are really a zero by drawing attention to your lack of perfect faith. He is caught up in a modernistic ideal of perfection and thinks if God were real, he would make your faith perfect immediately. But the Bible never presents faith as such. In fact, while the Holy Spirit is said to do many things (empower, indwell, seal), it is never stated that he perfects our faith in this life.

Inner Skeptic: “You doubt your faith every day. You are not really a believer.”

(Since when do doubts mean that we are not believers? We all doubt from time to time. Our faith is not perfect.)

Inner Skeptic: “You are not certain without a doubt that Jesus rose from the grave. No one is. No one was there.”

(But he does not tell you to keep from going to bed at night because you are not certain that you will wake up. He does not tell you to keep from marrying because you are not certain your spouse will be faithful. More importantly, he does not tell you that while there are very few things in this life that we have infallibly perfect certainty about, that does not mean we don’t commit to things sincerely.)

Conclusion

The primary thing the skeptic does to keep you in Purgatory is make you think he has just enough. Just enough for what? Just enough to cause you to be hesitant, just enough to cause you to be indecisive, just enough to make you immobile in your faith. But again, what are his better options? He doesn’t have any. All he can do is criticize what you believe, belittling you to the point of submission. Ask him to show his hand and you will find he doesn’t have much. He just want to talk about yours.

I love the story in John 6 where Jesus is talking to people about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. People were getting grossed out and offended. They all started leaving. Jesus turned to Peter and the rest of the Apostles and said, “Are you going to leave me too?” Peter responded with a wonderful response for those of us who spend any time talking to our inner skeptic: “Where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life.” It was not as if the Apostles got what Jesus was trying to say about the flesh and the blood. In fact, they were confused as well. Jesus was acting kinda odd. But, they did not have any better options. Jesus was enough.

What I ask my inner skeptic is this: “Where else are you asking me to go? Atheism? Islam? Scientology? Perpetual indecisiveness? What are the positive arguments for such things? You cannot negatively argue me out of Christianity.” Yes, I have a lot of questions. Yes, I even have some doubts. But the inner skeptic has no goods. Ultimately, even on his best day, his case against Christ is not enough to keep me from following Jesus.

In the end, this is how you must live everyday. Those of you who are in the Purgatory of doubt, where else are you going to go? What is really better? If you have no answer for this (and some of my presuppositional friends are going to get angry here), it is enough. It is enough to begin praying again. It is enough to read your Bible again with enough confidence. It is enough for you to take Jesus’s hand again. It is enough for you to get up each day and commit your life over to him.

39 Responses to “Dealing with Your Inner Skeptic (while in the Purgatory of Doubt)”

  1. Excellent and timely post for me, personally. Thank you.

  2. A couple good things about “purgatory”:

    –if you’re there (where your desire for God is strong enough that doubt makes you suffer), you know that it’s going to be ok in the end.

    –you’ll come out better than when you went in.

    :)

  3. There you go again with another one of your articles that describes me so well, I am starting to wonder if you’ve been following me around. It’s almost creepy (just kidding!) Seriously though, I respect your honesty and humility in this area. Paradoxically, your sharing your doubts increases my faith, because in you I see God working to help me with my doubts! Keep up the great work.

  4. Michael, what we need is a magisterium, not of one or simply polling the scholars among us; but one guided and directed by the Holy Spirit of promise. Could it be that there really is such a thing as Apostolic succession? Further, what devastating catastrophe would pursue if one day we all work up and found out that the Catholic Church had it right all along? Who among us is willing to take that brave step if we came to the conclusion that scripture, history, the creeds, and the magisterium were indeed operative in the church Christ founded? Just curious. Think of all the friends we would lose; including a loss of face, relatives, and a life dedicated to a Protestant agenda that turned out to be build on a shaky foundation, or at least one that we found very difficult to defend polemically. :-(

  5. James, that would be nice if that were the case, but (just sticking to the discussion here), it would just move doubt up one level. The inner skeptic can criticize one’a belief in the magisterium just as much as one’s upbringing, denomination, or personal Bible interpretation. (And believe me they do).

  6. Well, the inner skeptic may still attack one’s belief in the magisterium, but, like higher ground, that “rock” is a lot easier to defend.

  7. The best of the Apostolic is surely not Rome and Catholicism, but the Eastern ground of Orthodoxy, at least that would be my hat in the ring! Btw, Calvin really liked John Chrysostom! But for myself, Augustine is still THE Western Father!

    But I will always be with Luther, and squarely against any aspect of Indulgences! “Purgation”, but not Purgatory!

  8. Michael, you write to encourage doubters which is laudable. Much of what you write is about addressing the intellectual doubts which is probably helpful for many.

    May I add that faith develops with obedience. While we obey in response to faith, our obedience can grow our faith (and conversely disobedience can hinder it).

    Perhaps in addressing doubt there are several steps.

    1. Deal with (real) stumbling blocks.
    2. Encourage those who doubt (your posts).
    3. Tell doubters to walk in obedience while they are addressing their doubts.

    There may be more.

  9. You’ve embraced Jesus for years, but now the pieces of your faith no longer add up and you don’t know what to make of your doubts. Or you’re struggling to relate to your believing spouse who can’t understand why you’ve taken this turn in your life. Or you’re looking for a gentle but firm response to Christians who are pressuring you to return to the fold. If this describes you, then Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary is for you!

    Why I Believed (rated 4.5 stars at Amazon) tells the story of a Christian who believed for nearly three decades, having grown up the son of evangelical missionary parents, later becoming a missionary himself. Yet he slowly lost his faith and now no longer holds it. In this part-autobiography, part-exposé, Ken traces his journey from evangelical missionary to secular humanist while remaining part of a committed Christian family. He looks back at a number of reasons he remained a believer for over a decade after his initial doubts began at university, critically evaluating each one in a separate chapter.

    Whether or not you agree with Ken’s conclusions, you will find his journey and his reasons for taking it fascinating and informative. You will end up better understanding, if not appreciating, the mind of apostates whose desire is to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

    Supportive feedback and respectful criticism are welcome using the “Contact Ken” section below or through the book’s Facebook page, but critics are requested to read the entire book before responding in case the issues you wish to raise have already been addressed. Thank you! Also be sure to visit Ken’s new blog, The Deconversion Desert, today!

  10. from bethyada “There may be more.”

    Pray.

    (Mark 9:24b ;1 Cor 12:9a; Rom 14:22a; Matt 7:7)

  11. Beth,

    What you will find is whatever the source of the doubt, people perceive it through certain filters. When this happens, the whole self begins to crumble. Even when one is doubting God’s love for them or their salvation (the other two primary types of doubters), these basic principles are the same.

    And to push it into the court of obedience is helpful for a few, but most that I talk to (including myself) find this can make it worse as this really isn’t the problem. Out of the dozens that I talk to, I have yet to find one that the issue came down to obedience.

    Now, the fear and ability to make a commitment while in this purgatory, is an issue and will eventually be the cause of a final fall. Therefore, we must encourage them to keep living their faith even while in doubt.

  12. C.S. Lewis talked about there being two islands in his mind. One was perhaps imaginary, but held all the mystical, beautiful things he loved. The other held the grim, hard, but real things. He had to find how to reconcile these two. Faith and reason, religion and philosophy, logic and myth.

    Below is a free audio about Lewis’s book Til We Have Faces, given by Peter Kreeft, which discusses these issues. I highly, highly recommend it.

    It talks about issues like, If God is Light, then why the agony of the darkness? Why doesn’t God just show Himself to us clearly? For me, the discussion is both enlightening and satisfying. I think it puts uncertainties into their proper place.

    One of my favorite sayings (paraphrasing) mentioned in the talk: Human wisdom is clear and thin, like water, but divine wisdom is thick, and dark, like blood.

    http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/16_cslewis-till-we-have-faces.htm

  13. The one I deal with is “you don’t hate your sin enough – you actually like your sin. Maybe you are not a Christian after all.”
    Or
    “Jesus said they would know a Christian by his fruit. You don’t love your enemies. Maybe you need yo re-examine your salvation.” (I’ve actually heard this taught at uber-Calvinist church, so I hear it in the pastor’s voice).

  14. In regard to sin, isn’t it possible to mistake “inner skeptic” for “conscience” ? (Or be preached to by someone who has them confused?).

    Seems like it is crucial to keep them separate. (Not saying I know perfectly how to do that.).

  15. Regarding: #7. Fr. Robert (Anglican) says:

    Yes, Robert, but few either appreciate this rock of surety or ignore it. Those who prefer to ignore the unity of the core beliefs within the Orthodox community are simply left standing on sandy ground with little or no historical or creedal support to support them. To argue for the sola scriptura position must ignore the fact that it was the Church which recognized the canon as we now have it and not those who commissioned by the Court of King James. To argue the validity of Scripture on the basis of “historical evidences” strictly on the basis of historical methodology is a very fragile argument, indeed. Therefore, we must factor Apostolic succession into the rudimentary stages as absolutely essential-because, let’s face it, we had Apostles before we had the New Testament. Maybe the early Church got it right, Peter (for sure his confession) was the Rock, and he had the keys as the chief overseer of that early band of disciples. Acts 15 certainly indicates that as do other settings. Pray tell me, who gave Luther permission to go out on the tangents he did, as well as Calvin and others. Where was the unifying principle in all of these. Scripture? Then why are the diversions and disagreements? The Holy Spirit? Then how do we determine which is the Spirit or just spiritual smugness on the part of an aberrant interpreter? Well, the truth is, in my opinion, that God use/d all of the above: Apostolic tradition and leadership, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we are are left with a magisterium of one, or of the intelligencia at best. What say ye?
    :-)

  16. Definitely. But I am talking to those who have significant doubt, want to get their faith back, and can’t.

    Every time I talk to doubters, we do eventually get to the sin issue. But we have to be careful. We all have sin and we can get to the point where we say the problem you have is sin in your life. Of course this is a problem and it will always be. But is it the problem bringing about the doubt? More often than not the answer is no. It amounts to a change in the way we think about doubt and faith.

    If we are not careful, blaming it on sin can lead to more doubt, discouragement, and despair as the doubter gets into a self evaluation that is endless. This also take so much away from grace.

  17. That last response was to Irene

  18. Let’s stay away from the Catholic/Protestant thing. It will only cause more discouragement with those who need this post.

  19. Well, right. We certainly shouldn’t expect to perfect ourselves, driving out all sins, before we can have faith. That’s backwards.

    (Although, and I’m sure you know better than me, that there is the concept of consenting to sin over and over that darkens the intellect and the eyes of faith. )

    Anyway, one thing that helps me is knowing that God knows how it is for us. This isn’t abnormal. Israel means “wrestles with God”, right?

  20. Fine. It’s your blog, and your conscience. At some point, however, intellectual integrity must factor in. Alleviating doubt on one level without addressing the broader foundations of what constitutes religious truth and personal surety will eventually backfire on us. I shall remain silent, however, and allow you to develop the dialogue. Blessings, Brother.

  21. James,

    Thanks my man. I understand your point but I know where things go and how easily this can turn into a debate that consumes the discussion.

  22. The best tool for doubting is isolation: don’t tell anyone you are doing it. This way, you won’t be encouraged by anyone who might have gone through the same thing and learned valuable things that could be helpful to you. It is much better to create a culture of 100% certainty, where doubt is a sign of weakness. That is the way to humility and teachability.

    :-p

  23. Brother Stumblefoot October 12, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    How i wish I had known some of these things when I was a new Christian!! (and an older Christian also). I somehow supposed I was the only one who had such doubts, and I didn’t dare mention them to other Christians. What folly, what suffering I went through in my isolation. I thought if I didn’t “know” then I didn’t really “believe.” And when I sometimes convinced myself I was “sure,” then the enemy
    (or one of his agents) would whisper into my head, “Yeah, but what about this other possibility.” Michael- I’ve been there and done that, I recognize what you’re talking about.

    But I do want you to get help, especially get the seritonin (sic) level checked.There are, I think, a lot of self-helps such as rest, sunshine and blue sky, unloading your workload, exercise and physical work. I have observed that when we just tell the inside skeptic that we don’t have time to talk to him right now, and we just get busy with some work project (completely unrelated to the subject),
    faith seems to re-set itself, like the computer when we turn it off for a while.

    So don’t burn yourself out young brother. Our God can handle this, It may not go away completely, but it won’t be a problem forever unless you try to solve it yourself.

    Brother Stumblefoot

  24. Thanks brother,

    I have been well for a while. Have not had any depression since those six weeks in 2010. Or at least anything like that.

    I word things in my blog for identity, not necessarily revealing a present crisis.

  25. Do you doubt? Join the club.

    This is why (we believe) that Jesus commanded the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

    Tangible events in real time, in your own personal history, where God has made the Cross a concrete event in your life…for you.

    We can rely on this external Word, for us, totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    I love it. What a gift.

  26. Fair enough Michael, I agree that doubt does not mean disobedience, though disobedience can lead to doubt.

    What I mean is specifics. You ask your child to say sorry to his sister and latter he says that he has tidied his room and cleaned the kitchen. When you ask him has he said sorry yet he becomes all coy. It is not that what he has done is wrong, and he may be otherwise well behaved, but he is trying to be good in other ways to avoid what he does not wish to do.

    So obedience need not mean stop doing all those sins (which they are not doing), or try harder (which probably won’t help). It may mean addressing the one issue that you think God may be getting at you about that you wish he wasn’t.

    This may not be disclosed (easily) in discussions.

    Nevertheless, keep encouraging those who struggle to believe but want to.

  27. forgot to include ‘without ceasing’ and meditate on His word & the Word, day and night, and rejoice always and
    in everything give thanks

  28. Doubt is a natural phenomenon. Don’t let doubts scare you, rather use it as an opportunity to strengthen your belief by finding out the right answer. God does not expect us to be dummies, and just accept any and everything by blind faith. So, I am going to show you an article and then give you a couple of important links for you to visit to strengthen your faith.
    So, now, in response to your email, I would like for you to read the following article:

    Scientists Copy God’s Design—Without Giving God Credit (Again!)
    by Eric Lyons

    Man has been constructing airplanes for more than a century. From the Wright brothers’ first gliders to Boeing’s popular 747s to the U.S. military’s stealth bombers, flight technology has become so advanced and high-tech that one can only imagine what aviation engineers will invent next, or whence they will get inspiration for new flight designs.

    Wonder no more. According to Live Science senior writer Jeanna Bryner, a team of mechanical and aerospace engineers is designing a new, 32-inch spy plane called Pterodrone. According to the design team,

    The next generation of airborne drones won’t just be small and silent. They’ll alter their wing shapes using morphing techniques to squeeze through confined spaces, dive between buildings, zoom under overpasses, land on apartment balconies, or sail along the coastline (Bryner, 2008).

    Scientists expect Pterodrone to be equipped with gyroscopes and a GPS, while being able to walk as well as fly.

    What exactly inspires a group of highly educated, 21st-century engineers to design such a flying machine? Whence is the self-styled “design team” getting inspiration for their new flying mechanism? Answer: From Tapejara wellnhoferi, a flying reptile that supposedly evolved and went extinct 60+ million years ago. Bryner called the pterosaur “one of the savviest movers of the Cretaceous…a morphing machine” (2008). Based upon their study of the fossil record, scientists…

  29. The inner debate of doubts and fears are called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS). If we develop the discipline to take these ANTS to The Lord and allow the Spirit to sift them with the biblical filters without panic it can build our faith muscles. My book Power Christian Thinking has a suggested filter for Christians.

  30. Your portrayal of the fundamentalist being “either/or” is dishonest. It is little wonder you regularly struggle with certainty when you willingly create untrue generalizations about fundamentalists. I am not a fundamentalist BTW. And, having been part of them and still interacting with many I find your using them as the bogeyman irresponsible and quite self-serving. There are some truisms collectively about fundamentalists but even then it would have to be what kind, Baptist, Lutheran, Bible church non-dom, etc. But never have I come close to observing fundamentalists, collectively in any manner, demonstrate a profile of demanding perfect faith. But hey, you have to have a whipping boy if you aren’t going to take personal responsibility for your doubting.

  31. Missy, “fundamentalist” can be used as an adjective or noun as an adjective, it can apply to any group, Christians or non. That is the sense I use it.

  32. CMP

    Non-Christian fundamentalists should not be treated the same as Christian fundamentalists. Non-Christian fundamentalists are not simply other fundamentalists just like Christians but they are not Christian. Such a careless and casual distinction is a disservice to the many good Christians fundamentalist voices.

    I believe your attempt to justify its use fails. Don’t think I do not understand what you are trying to say in your use of it but it fails, logically and certainly with respect to matters of discretion.

    I feel sorry for you CMP. You seem constantly beset but these things you describe. Your confidence in your rationalism betrays you.

  33. @Missy M., you may want to revisit the original post; for example:

    It’s either black or while for the inner skeptic. (He is quite the fundamentalist.)

    I think CMP meant ‘white’ instead of ‘while’.

  34. Missy,

    Thanks for the comments. We will just have to move on and leave it at that.

  35. Faithless in Seattle October 15, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Thank you for another wonderful post. I always appreciate the empathy your ministry provides and the much-needed reminder that I am not the only one. After admitting my doubts to my church only to be rejected by them, I am certainly feeling stuck.

  36. Michael, I did not read every comment here to see if anyone else mentioned it, but your post made me think of Os Guinnes book,”God In the Dark” . Not sure if you have read it, actually I’m only about half way through…great read , so far.

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