There’s a C. S. Lewis quote in my Ecuadorian classroom painted on the back wall: “We have nothing, if not belief.” These words from Voyage of the Dawn Treader are spoken by the valiant mouse Reepicheep.
One might assume belief comes easy for students in my international Christian school. It doesn’t. Only 10 percent of the students in my Bible class are practicing believers, and many doubt the God of the Old Testament, the validity of the Gospels, or if there even is objective truth.
Even though most of my students have never heard of Reepicheep, they probably agree with him in theory about the importance of belief. But in practice they find belief elusive.
Responding to Doubts
What should we do when we come across doubts in our classrooms, living rooms, or the local coffee shop? Here are four lessons I’ve learned in my own classroom about how to respond to students’ doubts.
1. Take Them Seriously
In our overwhelming information landscape, where young people are inundated with dubious voices—blogs, podcasts, social media, fake news—speaking to their hearts and minds, uncertainty and skepticism are understandable. They suspect that nothing can be trusted. Thus we shouldn’t view their questions and doubt as a crisis, but merely as the new normal in an epistemologically unsteady age.
We shouldn’t view their questions and doubt as a crisis, but merely as the new normal in an epistemologically unsteady age.
When they come to us with curiosity and honest inquiries, we should take them seriously and wrestle through the issues alongside them. We should heed Matthew Lee Anderson’s counsel from The End of our Exploring: “We are not called to bury our doubts but to confess them. And when those near us are embroiled in doubts, it is given us to bear their crosses with them and enter into their labor alongside them.”
Teachers, friends, or parents facing difficult questions could greatly benefit from Jude’s command to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). “It is a serious mistake,” Nancy Pearcey argues in her book Finding Truth, “for Christian parents, teachers, or churches to dismiss young people’s doubts and questions, or to think they can be overridden merely by cultivating a more intense devotional life.”
2. Ask More Questions
As teachers, it’s tempting to merely tell our students exactly what to believe about God or the Bible. But this approach doesn’t serve them in the long run. It’s much better to foster critical thinking and guide them into the light of discovery themselves. In my own classroom I’m learning to teach my students how to think, rather than just what to think.
Recently one of the students in my Quito classroom voiced frustration because I repeatedly answered questions in class with another question. I was accused of making the student think too much. As a teacher, my goal is to push and probe my students’ ideas about Christianity, creating an environment that ultimately gets them to think about their own thinking and logic.
3. Join Them on the Journey
I am not immune to questions and doubts myself. The moments of uncertainty in my own story have led me to admit to my students that I am also on a journey. Together we navigate through biblical and theological complexity, even though our cultural backgrounds differ. My students do not have the North American Christian background that I have, but many are wandering on the coattails of Latin American Catholicism. They have a culture of religiosity but question authority, identity, and truth.
It can be tempting to get frustrated by the unbelief and skepticism I see in these students, but I’ve come to see that in their up-and-down journeys of belief there is ample room for God to be glorified. The presence of the “lost” never diminishes the glory of God in our mission. As Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” When I come across a student who writes, “There is no truth,” I can see these words as discouraging or see them as an opportunity for God’s truth to be gloriously revealed. Sometimes God’s glory shines brightest when it flickers to life in the darkness of doubt.
4. Remember Jesus
Jesus is the greatest example of mercy for those who doubt. As a teacher, Jesus was patient, generous with his time, and gracious with his disciples’ questions and doubts.
Jesus is the greatest example of mercy for those who doubt.
When John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus with questions and doubts about the validity of his messianic identity, Jesus didn’t scold them. Instead, he appealed to evidence for believing in his messiahship (Matt. 11:4–6). Jesus vividly acknowledged the doubts of the 11 when he appeared to them post-resurrection: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself” (Luke 24:38–39). Again, knowing their doubts were real, Jesus had mercy and gave them comforting evidence that he was alive. Even in his resurrection body, just prior to his ascension, some still doubted: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). Still, Jesus was present with them and his glory shone bright, even amid their doubts.
As we deal with doubt, both in those we teach and shepherd and also sometimes in ourselves, may we rest in the fact that Christ is sufficient and glorious—all the more because we are insufficient. And may we often pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)