John Stevens’ little book, How can I be sure? And other questions about doubt, assurance and the Bible is definitely one that I will be recommending to others. It’s clear and simple, without being simplistic; it’s empathic and it uses the Bible well. The author understands that doubt is a complex beast, displayed in a variety of forms, and arising from many different causes. I personally found the book to be inspiring and reassuring. It resonated at times with my experiences of doubt, and some of the causes; and it took me to the places where I’ve found reassurance. While recognising that everyone’s circumstances are different, my prayer is that it will do the same for others. All in all, this compact book is one of the better books on doubt and assurance I’ve read.
If I’m going to engage with a book dealing with these topics, I want to know that the author has a firsthand personal understanding of the matter—and Stevens does. He writes about the impact that his father dying of lung cancer had on his faith. It rocked his world, not simply as an intellectual challenge to the goodness and sovereignty of God, but with personal pain and experience. He took some years to recover from the anguish of this time. Stevens has also explored these issues with many in his church over the past twenty years. This has helped him to grasp the different forms that doubt can take in people’s lives, and to apply his thinking to how the Bible helps each one. The book engages the reader by presenting a mix of personal stories of doubt. People have trouble believing due to their struggles with personal sin, unanswered prayers, the challenge of other religions, relationships with people who have different belief systems, God seemingly remote or out of touch with this modern world, feeling overwhelmed by all around who don’t hold the same beliefs, or questioning whether their ‘conversion experience’ was real. Recognising this complexity is so helpful, and many more scenarios could be added, because doubt is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Doubt could mean a lack of certainty about the future, or a questioning of what we believe, or a lack of assurance, or unbelief. The first three types of doubt will likely be common experience for all Christians and if they are unchecked they can lead to the more dangerous position of unbelief. This book helps us to engage with our doubts as part of the normal experience of living as a Christian.
So if you are reading this book because you are struggling with a problem of doubt at the moment, be encouraged! The fact that you doubt does not mean that you can’t be a Christian. “Doubt” is not the same as “unbelief”. However, you can’t afford to ignore your doubt, treating it complacently or just hoping that it will go away. You must deal with it so that it does not develop into unbelief, and use it as an opportunity to develop a more confident, resilient and mature faith. (p18-19)
Stevens answers the important question “How can I be sure that I’m really a Christian?” by pointing not to us, but to God’s love for us in Jesus. There are dangers in becoming too introspective about this issue. We can end up placing confidence, or lack of, in ourselves rather than the gospel. If we base our assurance on a response we previously made at church, or at a Simply Christianity course, or on a university camp, or an outreach event, this can lead to a misplaced and false assurance. We are not made right with God because of our response, but because of God’s gracious work in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. For me, who had made decision after decision to become a Christian (again) in my teens, it was realising the truth of Romans 5:8-9 — that Jesus had paid for my sins past, present and future — that led to my assurance before God. While this book generally leads us away from introspection, it does call us to examine the evidence for our lives being changed. The Bible pushes us to look for evidence that our faith is real and we should expect to see our lives changed by the Spirit of God at work within us. On three occasions, Stevens recommends that we keep a spiritual journal to chronicle the evidence of God working in us and changing us. I must admit that I worry a little about this strategy. It’s not that I’m opposed to journalling, it’s more that documenting our experiences will always provide fickle evidence at best. I’d recommend that if we’re going to journal, we spend even more time documenting the promises of God that we discover in the Bible. God’s promises remain trustworthy, whereas my experiences lead me here and there. If I want clear evidence that God loves me, then I need to look at the cross, not what happened in my life last week or last year. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes in his book Spiritual Depression, after looking at Psalm 42-43, we need to spend more time speaking to ourselves (about God), than listening to ourselves (about why God is absent or doesn’t care). The chapter on overcoming doubt is practical and helpful. Stevens recommends the following strategy:
- Admit that you are struggling with doubt and seek help.
- Come to Jesus for help with your doubt.
- Seek the help of mature believers with your doubt.
- Identify the root causes of your doubt
- Doubt rooted in our bodies: Physical causes of doubt.
- Doubt rooted in our minds: Intellectual causes of doubt.
- Doubt rooted in our hearts: Experiential and emotional causes of doubt.
- Doubt rooted in our spirits: Spiritual causes of doubt.
- Addressing the causes of doubt.
In the end, the Christian faith stands or falls on whether Jesus really was the Divine Son of God who took on human flesh, was crucified and rose again after three days. If this really happened, then we can be sure that God exists. We can know what God is like because Jesus fully reveals him to us. We can be sure that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is true because Jesus tells us so. We can be confident that God is love, and that he will accomplish his good purposes for his people. We can trust that our sufferings are part of his good plan for us, even though we may not understand how, because we can see that Jesus entered into glorious new life after suffering on the cross. We can trust that Jesus will return to bring true justice and remake our broken world. If we can be confident about Jesus, then this is the basis from which we can address all our doubts. (p71-72)
This book will point you to Jesus as the basis of your assurance and the antidote to your doubts. Any book that does this is worth a read, I reckon.