Why is a settled assurance of salvation so difficult for some genuine believers to experience? I read in the Belfast Telegraph recently (a Northern Ireland newspaper), an interview with an evangelical man in Northern Ireland. He indicated that he never had any crisis of faith and the general impression was of a sincere Christian man, who did not struggle with questions or doubt. I was intrigued that his Christian life had been so free of the doubts that many experience and I for one, have certainly known about.
I began to wonder how much his lack of doubt was essentially linked with personality and mental outlook. The more I observe Christians and how they respond to faith, the more I see the influence of personality, mental health disposition, and on occasions the particular type of church fellowship they were brought up in or belong to at present.
People do not respond in a vacuum; doubts come much more easily into some people’s minds than others. In other words, it is not necessarily a spiritual issue (it can be) but may be linked with perfectionism, obsessional behavior, and excessive analysis. These aspects of thinking can affect Christian and non-Christian alike. I might even suggest that some Christians, until the Lord calls them home, may have to learn to live with a “doubting disposition,” and accept the limitations of their personality in relation to experiencing assurance. This is not defeatism; it is a sense of realism. God’s promises must be the basis of one’s assurance and meditation upon them will be essential to train the mind to focus on what is true. Yet, we must acknowledge that some overthinking, sensitive souls will lack assurance of salvation?
In my introductory comments I highlighted the significance of personality. I am aware that my insights will not be applicable to many believers. But there will be struggling souls who have agonized over this issue, often for many years. Many have spoken to preachers and counsellors, seeking assurance and confirmation. Many have read books, magazine articles, and listened to internet sermon resources, all to help bolster and confirm to their overthinking minds that they are included in the people of God.
British Christian psychiatrist Dr. Gaius Davies, in his excellent book “Genius and Grace,” highlights the importance of this interaction:
“The question of how temperament and faith are connected is, of course, brought to the fore in every conversion experience.” Davies, further comments:
“Grace does not change us as personalities. The bodies, intelligence and natural aptitudes remain the same. Grace does not change temperament. The new life, the new creation, expresses itself through the same old personalities. Some readers may find this a harsh and a wrong judgment, as if I were attempting to make light of the wonder of all things being new when a person is “in Christ.”… All things become new, certainly. But they are perceived with the old eyes, the old mind: and therefore, the eyes have constantly to be opened to see new things out of God’s law; and the mind has constantly to be renewed.” (Genius and Grace, pages 18 -19 Hodder and Stoughton, 1992, London)
The realism behind this wise observation, is true to the differing human responses to God’s grace in conversion. Some individuals are much more prone to question, analyse, and doubt. Others are much more relaxed in their transfer of trust and are less prone to nagging, perpetual doubt. Granted, I have highlighted a more extreme sufferer in this regard but if we wish to be utterly honest, such people do exist in our churches and various groups. From my own experience, I have known the nagging doubt and difficulty regarding assurance on many occasions.
Due to a personality weakness (or overreaction) to over question things, to over analyze, it is often inevitable who will end up in the camp of the doubters. I say personality weakness, simply because this self-doubt is quite often part of that person’s mental reactions to so much in life (not necessarily Christian areas) and as such can be debilitating. It is that more extreme tendency I refer to. This is not to excuse real unbelief but to try to show a tender heart to those who often end up in “Doubting Castle.” It may be a multiplicity of factors but we cannot ignore personality and, in some cases, genuine mental health issues. We are body, soul and spirit (1 Thess. 5: 23). Stubborn refusal to rest in God’s Word can indeed be a real factor too. We need to ask why this happens.
The second area where doubt often arises is in perfectionism. Like many seeking assurance of salvation, I often came to the Lord, asking Him once again to be saved (fearful my previous attempt was not real saving faith or not real repentance). In essence, I was looking for a sense that I had “done it right” (a form of perfectionism, especially when it becomes so forensically analyzed). Have any of you felt like that?
What this does is to create a false idea of how the Lord receives sinners. It turns us back too much on the quality/degree of our coming to the Lord as if He would not respond to us, if our perceived response to His offer of salvation, was not fully 100% (be it faith, repentance, or commitment). We may not say this but often our doubting reflects a driving need to eliminate any shade of uncertainty and therefore a “perfectionist” view of our responding becomes a nightmare scenario. Remember, some of us struggle much more that others, with transfer of trust and doubts and trying to avoid the habit of analyzing the whole thing to bits.
Let us look at one man in Scripture who responded to the Lord in a very imperfect way. His response was a mixed-up response, yet he still came in desperate weakness to the Lord Jesus. In Mark 9 verses 23 and 24: “Jesus said to him,” If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
I refer to this incident to show that coming to Christ is never done “in a perfect way.” Here, this man is desperate and needs help. His faith mingled with his doubts is not rejected or turned away. The Lord sees us coming to Him. He sees the heart. We come only as sinners looking to Him (albeit imperfectly) and He runs like the father of the prodigal son to meet us.
The third area relates to promises. We must remind ourselves of the welcome a sinner receives when they come to the Lord for salvation. In John 6:37 the Amplified Bible illustrates this absolute certain welcome:
“All whom My Father gives (entrusts) to Me will come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will most certainly not cast out (I will never, no never, reject one of them who comes to Me).”
C. H. Spurgeon in his superb daily devotional “Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith” comments on this certain promise in his January 13th comments:
“Is there any instance of our Lord’s casting out a coming one? If there be so, we would like to know of it; but there has been none, and there never will be. Among the lost souls in hell there is not one that can say, “I went to Jesus, and He refused me.” It is not possible that you or I should be the first to whom Jesus shall break His word. Let us not entertain so dark a suspicion.”
In conclusion, I encourage those struggling with assurance to keep reminding themselves to meditate upon the truths and promises in Scripture; in other words, feed on the facts of the gospel and Christ’s guarantee to welcome those imperfect ones who come for salvation. Christ is not an ogre or one who is out to mock us. When Peter cried out in desperate faith, mixed with doubt, as he was sinking on the Sea of Galilee; Jesus did not turn away from him; He responded to weak but desperate faith (see Matt. 14:22-33). Trust His firm promises.
by Brian Graham