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Podcast: Fighting for Faith in the Midst of Doubt (Glenna Marshall)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Our Doubt Means

In today's episode, Glenna Marshall discusses how we should view our doubts about the Bible, the gospel, and God's love for us, and how our struggles with doubt should give way to a more resilient faith.

Everyday Faithfulness

Glenna Marshall

This book explores what daily faithfulness to Christ looks like when spiritual growth seems hard to measure, working through the unique challenges to faithfulness during seasons of waiting, doubting, caretaking, suffering, and more.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:51 - Doubting Our Salvation

Matt Tully
Glenna thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Glenna Marshall
I’m happy to be here.

Matt Tully
Yeah, we get to do this in person this time. Today we’re going to talk about doubt and the struggles that we all, at some point in our lives, are going to experience when it comes to doubt—doubting our own salvation, doubting the faith that we have that we believe one moment and then sometimes the next day we start to wonder. Have you ever struggled with doubt when it comes to your faith or with the assurance of salvation?

Glenna Marshall
Yeah, definitely with assurance of salvation. I feel like as a child being raised in the church, even though I came to faith at a young age, I constantly questioned if my faith was genuine. And then as I got older, I would say even like high school and college age, because I couldn’t necessarily remember the day, the week, the moment that I believed in Jesus, then I struggled to believe that it might have been real. I prayed the sinner’s prayer so many times just in case I’m not really saved or I didn’t mean it enough. Lord, please save me again! I struggle with it less as an adult, but quite a bit growing up.

Matt Tully
Would you say that was a function of being a kid and just your childish understanding of things? Or, looking back, was salvation presented to you in a certain way that maybe wasn’t ideal that led you to kind wonder all the time?

Glenna Marshall
Probably both. I’ve always been someone who struggles with overanalyzing and being anxious about things that you should not be anxious about since I was a very small child. So I think probably examining myself too much would be part of the problem. And then the other part I think was a real misunderstanding of the gospel and my role in my salvation.

Matt Tully
How would you summarize how you thought about that?

Glenna Marshall
That I was a sinner. I definitely believed that and that I needed Jesus to save me from my sins, but that I needed to believe and then be really good. And so if I wasn’t really good, then maybe somehow I undid what happened. I don’t think my parents taught that, but just in the church culture that I grew up in the 80s and 90s, I look back and I see that flavor of gospel that was presented during that time.

Matt Tully
So it wasn’t denying the importance of the foundational importance faith, but sort of maybe through implicit things it kind overemphasized your behavior afterwards.

Glenna Marshall
Yeah, I think performance was a big deal. I think essentially I believed that, Okay, yes, your salvation is miracle and a work of the Holy Spirit, but from that point your sanctification is up to you. The Bible’s really clear that sanctification is a work of the Spirit as well, and I did not understand that until I was probably an adult, to be perfectly honest. So I lived in a very performance—I just better be good in order to keep my salvation. I think I viewed myself as a little too responsible for my faith. I believed Ephesians 2, that we’re saved by grace through faith, and faith is a gift from God so that we can’t boast. But I did boast. I was a good little girl. I was a great little Pharisee—so, so good. I was really confident in my goodness. I look back and think I probably felt like God was lucky to have me on his team, so to speak. So then if I noticeably screwed up, sinned, or did something I knew was disobedient to the Lord ,then I worried he would rescind that. I didn’t understand the finality of the work at the cross, for sure.

Matt Tully
When do you think you realized that you were, to use your words, “a little Pharisee”? When did that recognition come to you?

Glenna Marshall
I have a distinct memory of being in junior high. I went to a Christian school, and I was at some extracurricular activity, like cheerleading or softball or something, and I was giving this other kid a really hard time about not meeting an academic standard. This other girl next to me told me to shut up. And it hit me—

Matt Tully
She was defending this other kid?

Glenna Marshall
She was defending the other kid, and all of a sudden I just had this dawning realization that I thought I was better than everyone else, and I was holding people to an impossible standard that I myself didn’t meet. I was humiliated by my sin. I think that’s when I first began to realize that I am not as good as I think I am, and I never will be as good as I want to be. Not on my own. I think that’s when I began to understand that my salvation could never hinge upon my goodness ever. It’s all grace from top to bottom.

Matt Tully
Is doubt always a bad thing when it comes to our salvation?

Glenna Marshall
Maybe not always. I think if doubt sends you to the Scriptures to really understand or seek to understand what is true about God, about Christ, about grace, about faith, about sin, then doubt can be a great catalyst for spiritual growth. Anything that sends us to the word to really see what is true can be a gift. I don’t love it when we celebrate doubt.

Matt Tully
That that seems pretty popular today where doubt of all kinds is sort of viewed as maybe a marker of an authentic faith almost.

Glenna Marshall
Yeah, like you haven’t really arrived as a Christian if you haven’t doubted your faith some. I don’t know, I almost feel like there is a little bit of pride in that sometimes, just from where I’m sitting. When I look at the Scripture, I feel like Jesus is really direct about doubt. He rebukes it quite a bit in the Gospels, and so I think that we need to always submit our doubt to the authority of Scripture—always—and let our doubt be a catalyst for leading us to the truth rather than deconstructing and reconstructing and all of those things that are popular today.

Matt Tully
That’s such a helpful way to think about it. Doubt can be a good thing when it pushes us run to Jesus more, to try to bolster our faith in the things that he’s given us to do that.

Glenna Marshall
But if we’re doubting and we’re just anxious and worrying all the time, then doubt, in and of itself, can be an idol even, like something that we just live in and causes us to live in fear and condemnation as well.

Matt Tully
So would you say Christians should expect to struggle with doubt in their lives?

Glenna Marshall
I think so. I think it’s a normal part of the Christian life. I think we’ll all experience it. Think of the book of James in chapter one where James tells us, If you just don’t have wisdom, ask God. He gives generously to all, but don’t what God has given you. Be firm. Stand confident in it. That’s my paraphrase, but basically he equates doubting to being like a wave of the sea that’s tossed to and fro. It’s unstable. And so I think, again, we’re called to take our doubt to Scripture and to what God says is true, not living under it. I just think if we constantly live and question, I think that could stunt our growth. At some point you have to walk in faith. Faith is by definition believing what you cannot see. It is trusting God and taking him at his word and staking your life and your eternity on it.

Matt Tully
Would you see faith and doubt as fundamentally in conflict? It seems like today people would say, No, those actually are not mutually exclusive. They live together. Do you agree with that?

Glenna Marshall
I think sometimes we will doubt because we are human. Faith is a gift from God. I don’t know that the Lord gives doubt as a gift necessarily. I think it’s something that God can use for good because he can redeem anything. And so I think of all of those people mentioned in Hebrews 11 who were living by faith and not by sight. We’re not going to have all of the answers that we want this side of heaven, and it is faith to follow Christ anyway.

08:41 - Doubting the Goodness of God

Matt Tully
So there’s obviously lots of different kinds of doubt that we might struggle with. There’s doubt related to the truthfulness of the Bible. There’s doubt related to just even the existence of God and of Jesus and the gospel. We’re not going to discuss all of those. I want to focus primarily on when we doubt our own salvation. We believe that God exists, we believe that the Bible is true, but we just doubt and wonder if we actually are saved. But maybe one other kind that I’d love to hit on a little bit is when we sometimes doubt the goodness of God, or the character of God, because of things that we’re experiencing, or maybe things that people we love are experiencing. What would you say about that? How should we think about the doubt that we might experience when it comes to God’s goodness?

Glenna Marshall
I think in my own experience, when I walk through suffering of any kind—and the Lord’s brought me through a lot of hard things, especially with my health—sometimes my first inclination is to doubt his care for me. I kind of hate that about myself. I wish that wasn’t like my default response, but in my flesh I look at my circumstances and view God through that lens. And then I let those circumstances tell me what’s true about God. And that leads you to doubt about his faithfulness, his love, his care for you, his sovereignty—his just general goodness. And I think the call for us is first to expect suffering and hard things in this life. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1, Don’t be surprised when you endure hard things, like something crazy is happening to you. I think we should expect it and not be surprised by it, but I also think that it’s really important to let Scripture tell us who God is so that we can then view our suffering and our difficult circumstances through the lens of that. When we let the Lord tell us who he is, suffering looks different.

Matt Tully
So what are some of the things that Scripture would tell us about God that might transform our understanding of suffering?

Glenna Marshall
That he is near, that he never leaves or forsakes, that he is love defined, that he is always good. I was just reading in Proverbs last week (I can’t remember the reference) and the author says to the Lord, “You are good and you do good.” I’ve rehearsed that over and over in my heart. I’ve had a rough couple weeks with one of my kids’ health, and just reminding myself. It would be easy to look at what my son is going through and think the Lord does not love us. He does not care for us. I’m trying to disciple my son through a really hard thing, and what I was able to say to him was, Let’s look at what God says is true about himself. We know from Scripture that the Lord is good and the Lord does good. And so if he allows suffering in our lives, he will not waste it. He will use it for our sanctification. He will use it to draw us really near to his side. And so I just think it’s so important to get that right, to not let your circumstances tell you what’s true about God, because circumstances change constantly. Anything that you have in this life you can lose in a moment, but God is ever faithful and he does not change. And so if we hold onto what Scripture says is true about God, that just really changes the way we see our suffering.

Matt Tully
Maybe very practically, I would imagine people listening right now are like, Man, I wish you could just follow me around and remind me of those truths every day when I do face those trials. Because it’s hard to remember in the moment. It’s hard to remember, when we’re confronted with that scary diagnosis or that difficult situation, all those biblical truths that you just shared. Any practical advice for keeping those on our minds when we are living our lives and we we start to feel that doubt creeping in?

Glenna Marshall
Be in your Bible every day. There is not a day where I do not need a reminder of God’s faithfulness, that I do not need a reminder of the gospel and what that means for my life. As often as you need him, you need to be in the word. You’ll never graduate from that. We’ll always need it. And then the thing that’s been helpful for me—we’ve talked about this before—is just memorizing it. Keeping it before me. I have scriptures posted all over my house. I’m having my family memorize some psalms right now, and it comes up in conversations when it’s ever before you. I think of that passage in Deuteronomy 6 where in the law the people of God are told, When you’re walking by the way, recite the word. When you’re in your house, when you’re sitting, when you’re lying down—always reciting and keeping the word before you. Because we’re forgetful people, and the Lord knew we would need to remember. So as often as we can keep it in front of us, then I think it comes out in your conversations. It changes the way you think. It’s so important keep it in front of you.

13:16 - The Plague of the Scrupulous Conscience

Matt Tully
The other kind of doubt I wanted to talk about today was the doubt that arises that you kind of testified to a little bit at the beginning where we just question our faith. We question the sincerity of our faith. Maybe we question the ability of Jesus to save us because we’ve messed up so bad. And you talk about “the plague of the scrupulous conscience,” and you say that you struggle with this sometimes. What is that? What is the scrupulous conscience? And how does that connect to our struggle with doubt?

Glenna Marshall
That phrase comes from Ed Welch’s book Running Scared, which is a book on fear and anxiety. The scrupulous conscious describes a person who examines themselves so often and so much, and they just live in constant fear and condemnation that either they have somehow deceived themselves into believing that they’re saved and they’re not saved, or that they are losing their grip on their salvation. I think people who tend maybe to be more anxious might struggle with that more than others. I am definitely one of those people. And I think that you can live with a lot of fear with that, being plagued by that. I think the remedy for that is to really preach the gospel to yourself. To understand that you were dead in your sins, and God made you alive in Christ. You could not resuscitate your own dead heart. He did that. He gave you faith to believe. And if he started that work in you, he will finish it. You cannot undo the work of Jesus at the cross. It is finished, and that means something for us. I think even understanding, too, that Jesus’s death conquered sin, Satan, and death for us, but his resurrection guaranteed that we will be resurrected too. The work that the Lord has begun in us will be completed. We have to identify with Jesus in both his death and his resurrection. I think that really understanding even the order of salvation can help you with that. Looking at sort of the golden chain that Paul talks about in Romans.

15:24 - Using Theology to Fight against Doubt

Matt Tully
That raises a question that I had related to just the value of theology. Sometimes maybe in our circles there’s a high premium placed on theology and taking the time to study those truths. But in other circles, maybe theology is almost a bad word and it feels like it’s head knowledge detached from actual heart for Jesus and loving him. What role can taking the time to dig into theology and the Bible’s teaching on these things play in helping us to fight against this doubt?

Glenna Marshall
It’s so important. Theology is just what we think about God. It’s the study of what we think about God and what we know about God. And Scripture is going to be the way that we form our theology, and listening to faithful preaching of the word. I don’t have a formal education as far as a theological education. All of the framing and shaping of my faith that the Lord has done has been through Scripture and through faithful Bible preaching in my local church.

Matt Tully
So it’s not about getting a degree.

Glenna Marshall
Not necessarily. It would be great to get a degree, but that’s not really feasible for a lot of us. And yet I look at myself raising two kids, and I am married to a pastor so that’s helpful. I can bounce all my questions off of him, but I have a big responsibility in discipling my children. I have the Bible just like everyone else does, and so digging in and really understanding things like doctrine. That can feel like a scary word to someone who’s not in seminary, but doctrine informs our regular everyday living. And so it’s important to understand what you believe. Right now I’m studying the book of Romans with my Bible study group, and we’re just a group of women—stay-at-home moms, a nurse, and an empty nester—and we sit around my dining room table every week and discuss. We’ve been in Roman 6 and 7 the last couple weeks, and these are basic, core tenets of our faith that we’re learning and discussing in very remedial terms. And it is enough.

17:24 - How to Help Each Other When We Doubt

Matt Tully
Well, that leads into another question: What role should other Christians play—can they play—in helping us when we doubt?

Glenna Marshall
We should always bring other people into our doubt. Not to invite them to doubt, but to voice our doubts, because sometimes what we fear alone in the dark can hold power over us that it shouldn’t. When you speak your doubts aloud, sometimes you realize that’s a little ridiculous, when you talk about it with another person. Sometimes, though, we’re so overcome with our fear and our doubts that we just need someone else to speak truth into our lives. And so I think this is the gift of the body of Christ, to bring someone in and say, This is what I’m struggling with: I’m not sure I’m saved. We’re not great evaluators of our spiritual growth, and so sometimes we need other people to say to us, I have watched you walk with Christ for all of these years. Here is what I see. And that can be so helpful. I mean the body of Christ is so important.

Matt Tully
Can you think back to any specific examples of times when you did go to a fellow Christian and ask for help and share some of those struggles that you were facing? How did that help you?

Glenna Marshall
I remember specifically—we talked about how when I was a child I struggled to know if I was really saved, was I good enough—I remember getting out of bed one night, and I was probably nine or ten years old, and I couldn’t sleep because I have a scrupulous conscience.

Matt Tully
So you would just lay there as a nine year old, going through your day—

Glenna Marshall
Yes, and worry that maybe I wasn’t a Christian. I feared hell. I feared dying. I remember getting out of bed one night and going into my dad’s study where he was working—he was an architect, so he had his drafting table—and I just said, Daddy, I just don’t know. I just don’t know if I’m a Christian. I don’t know if it’s true in my life. I’m afraid. I don’t remember what passage he read, but I remember my dad just reaching for his Bible and opening up to Romans and reading me a passage and calming me down with the Scripture, and then praying with me and sending me back to bed. And that was really impactful for me as a child.

Matt Tully
It’s pretty amazing that you don’t even remember the specific passage, but that that memory nevertheless and the impact of that has lived on.

Glenna Marshall
And that teaches me, and taught me then, that we go to the word with our questions and our doubts, because the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness. And so his word is sufficient for our doubts.

Matt Tully
As you reflect back on your own experiences of doubt as a kid, have you had similar experiences now that you’re on the other side of those now as a parent, walking alongside your two kids?

Glenna Marshall
Yeah, my kids have a lot of questions. I just had a discussion with my teenager a few weeks ago. We were talking about sanctification. We were sitting at the dinner table, and he confessed something that he had done. It wasn’t a big deal, but he knew it was wrong, and he said, I guess I’m just not a Christian anymore. I said, Whoa! Excuse me? And he said, Well, I mean I sinned. And I said, So do you think that walking with Jesus means you’re never going to sin again? And he said, I mean, I think we’re not supposed to sin anymore. So I don’t know if I’m a Christian because I’m still sinning! And so it was a great opportunity to walk through 1 John and talk about yes, we’re not supposed to be characterized by sin, but when we do sin we don’t have to doubt that we’re Christians. John says, I write this so that you won’t sin, but if you do, here’s some encouragement for you: Jesus is your advocate. He is your mediator, and you can trust in his work at the cross. And so it’s really interesting to be on the other side of that because to me it seems so clear after years and years of studying and walking with the Lord. But it’s good for me to remember those doubts can feel very real and very scary. But again, just like my dad, I’m going to take my kids to the word.

21:12 - What If Doubt Just Won’t Go Away?

Matt Tully
What advice would you give to the person who hears all this, resonates with all of it, and has maybe even tried a lot of this? They’ve gone to the word, they’ve gone to other people, they’ve tried to be faithful in the things that they’re called to do, and yet it feels like the doubt just won’t go away.

Glenna Marshall
I think that they should continue to do all of those things. Continue to go to Scripture, talk with their pastor or a trusted mentor from church (something like that), pray for the Lord to help them deal with their doubts, but I also think it’s good to reflect that if you worry all the time that you’re not a believer, lost people don’t do that. They’re not necessarily concerned about their spiritual state before Jesus. And the fact that you are examining your heart I think can help you see that you are in Christ. Now, perhaps you are hyper-focused on this issue. I remember having a meeting with a friend once who had legitimate struggles with this obsessive compulsive disorder, and this was her struggle. One of her struggles was constantly doubting her salvation. And I remember encouraging her with John 15, that the Lord doesn’t prune what is destined for the fire. If he is pruning your faith and revealing sin and things like that, it is because he is at work in you. If you were not in Christ he would not be doing that. And so sometimes the very struggle itself can be evidence that you are in fact in Christ. And so it may be helpful to talk through that with a Christian counselor or your pastor or mentor.

22:41 - How to Help Someone Struggling with Doubt

Matt Tully
Maybe as a final question, speak to the person listening who doesn’t really struggle with doubt. That just hasn’t been a dominant feature of their Christian experience. And so they feel pretty confident in their salvation. Let’s say that they have good theology and they’re not unduly confident in Christ and what he’s done for them. But they maybe struggle to understand and even don’t always know how to help another Christian who is struggling in this way. What would be some advice for someone who wants to support, whether it’s a spouse or a friend, wants to support their friend who’s struggling with doubt, but doesn’t always know how to do that?

Glenna Marshall
I would think first, be a really good listener and let them say all of the things that they’re anxious about. Don’t always try to immediately say, Well, I know you’re a Christian. Don’t worry about it, because that’s not really going to make them feel better. It’s not going to stop their struggle with doubt. I think be a good listener and ask really good questions. Instead of focusing so much on, Did you believe back then?, ask, Do you believe in Jesus today? I think that’s a really simple question to ask, because we can get too focused on past faith. What matters right now is, Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God who paid for your sins at the cross, today? It’s a simple question just to sort of anchor them in what is true right now. There’s a passage in Philippians where Paul talks about forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead. And I think people who struggle with doubt do get focused on what is behind. And so I think if you’re trying to encourage someone, listen, ask them about their faith today, and point them ahead. I think that can be helpful.

Matt Tully
It’s so interesting. Looking back can be a source of struggle and doubt, but it also can be, on the flip side, almost a source of pride. We kind of live in the “spiritual success” of the past, and maybe aren’t even reflecting on what’s going on today.

Glenna Marshall:
Yeah, I think it’s important to think about, and that’s why I love that encouragement from Paul. There’s a lot of things that he was ashamed of; there’s a lot of things he could have been proud of. But I think what mattered was looking ahead to the coming of Christ and to our resurrection one day.

Matt Tully
What are some things that are not helpful for someone to do or say with someone who’s struggling with doubt?

Glenna Marshall
Don’t shut them down immediately. Don’t speak condescendingly, like, Oh, you know you’re saved. Yes, you are. I know you are.

Matt Tully
Dismissive.

Glenna Marshall
Yeah, dismissive. Because it feels really real to that person. And if they’re like me, it’s probably keeping them up at night, they’re losing sleep over it, so don’t dismiss it. Don’t be condescending about this issue, and pray for them. Pray with them and look for ways to maybe show them signs of growth in their life, rather than just kind of saying this is not a big deal or shushing them or saying, Everybody deals with that. It’s true. A lot of people do deal with that, and that may be helpful, but I think walking with them through it is probably more helpful than dismissing it.

Matt Tully
My sense is it can be, as with many many types of suffering or trials that we face, if we want to help someone it can be hard though to kind of be willing to live in that difficulty. We want to fix it as quickly as possible, especially with something like doubt where we want to like almost give them immediately some of our confidence.

Glenna Marshall
It might be an ongoing struggle. You may need to walk with them through this for a while, and that requires sacrifice. But that’s the Christian life.

Matt Tully
Well Glenna, thank you so much for talking with us today about this important topic that at some point all of us will wrestle with in different ways, but really the answer is the same: everyday faithfulness. Pursuing God and his word and in community. We appreciate you taking the time.

Glenna Marshall
Thank you.


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