Does Emotional Certainty Correlate with the Presence of the Holy Spirit?

This is a response to a blog post in which a commenter asserted that once the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a person that they no longer experience doubt or mental uncertainty. They sighted Peter and Paul in the New Testament as examples. I disagree and below is why.

1. Part of the struggle with conversations about “doubt” is that it has a lexical range. You seem to be addressing certainty and doubt as emotional experiences. This aspect isn’t disconnected from faith “faith is being certain of what we do not see Heb. 11 and from my own tradition in the Heidelberg Catechism “faith is a deep-rooted assurance”.

Emotions are involuntary experiences that arise from our construal or perception of our circumstance. In this way faith very much impacts emotion and is an enormous aid in our emotional challenges.

2. Your assertion is that once the Holy Spirit comes in we no longer have the emotional experience of doubt. You base your claim I assume on personal experience and Biblical evidence.

I don’t know you so I can’t speak to your personal experience, but I find doubt to be common among people who profess to be Christians, people who in my estimation show evidence of faith in their lives, and who show evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.

Apart from my personal anecdotes I think we can find many others in the history of the church including CS Lewis in A Grief Observed and Nicholas Woltersdorff in Lament for a Son and many, many other accounts of notable Christians who have been looked upon for leadership, guidance, etc. testifying to experiences of doubt even long after having experienced and to all evidence lead exceptional Christian lives.

You might say that these are not sufficient evidence and that we need to appeal to Scripture.

a. I don’t think the corpus of the New Testament is sufficient to say that the Apostle Paul after Damascus never harbored emotional doubt or emotional uncertainty. Perhaps not. We have no testimony that I can think of that he did, but I will think longer.

b. I think in the case of Peter you are mistaken. Peter in the incident when he failed to eat with Gentile Christians shrank back out of fear of criticism and Paul reprimanded him for denying the Gospel. We might also note Peter’s uncertainty with respect to dealing with the issues that the new mission to the Gentiles involved. Should he eat with them? How did he respond to the vision on the roof in Joppa? I think we see evidence in Peter’s life, even given the tiny corpus of information about him after Acts 9 where he almost falls off the map that I don’t think we can easily say that once the Holy Spirit is present emotional uncertainty is banished.

c. Probably the best example of doubt we actually find in Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross. Here his emotional world is laid open and we have a window into his heart. I don’t think that we can define faith as not feeling fear, doubt or uncertainty, but rather what do we do when we are confronted with these things. If Jesus was tempted by all that we are, and you will not deny Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, I think we cannot say that temptations and trials of fear and doubt and uncertainty are somehow banished after we pass a historical boundary marker in real time.

d. You also seem to want to draw a hard and fast line between the Old Testament saints and the NT ones in terms of experience. I’d not go there partly because of the way the NT (again, Hebrews 11) talks about the OT saints. Of those saints, great ones wrestled with doubt and uncertainty. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, David, Job.

3. A dynamic exchange between faith and doubt I would argue in fact builds faith in real time. That seems to be the majority way in my experience that faith is built rather than the Holy Spirit just poofing it into us. If Yhwh is the God of creation, providence and history, I believe he uses history to build his saints and his church. The Apostle Paul is a terrific example of this. I think he needed to be a Pharisee and a Christian murderer BEFORE he could be the founding theologian of the Christian church. My favorite treatment of this is Tim Keller’s introduction to “The Reason for God”. “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” p. XVI.

4. I find the position that presumes that an experience of doubt is a denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit to be discouraging and potentially devastating for Christian faith and life.

a. It’s discouraging because it may lead one to have an existential crisis based on something as illusory and transitory as an emotional reaction. Despite massive attempts to keep up appearances common emotional lives can be tumultuous. Crises large and small regularly throw people into a tizzy. I think it is pastorally unwise to suggest that these fits of emotion should be seen as evidence of the absence of the Holy Spirit. This kind of thinking raises experiential validation to such a high level that nearly all will fail, especially those who struggle.

The same point in the opposite way goes to certainty. I know a lot of people who emotionally are simply wired for certainty, including the deranged. Many of these people aren’t believers at all.

I think equating validation for the presence of the Holy Spirit with experiential certainty is dangerous pastoral theology.

b. Having said this I do believe in time, as faith grows and strengthens, emotional equilibrium, perseverance, endurance, combined with emotional availability, vulnerability, and suppleness are marks of true faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In Jesus we see incongruous excellencies. What we find in him are excellencies that we don’t often find “in the wild” as it were. We expect people who are emotionally certain almost all the time to also be dogmatic, hard, non-transparent, invulnerable, etc. This is evidence of emotional brittleness, not strength. In Jesus we find not only a high capacity for moral perfection, but also enormous compassion for the weak, the emotionally wounded, and availability to those who are on the edge. Remember, the smoldering wick he will not snuff out, and the bruised reed he will not break.

5. I think experiences of emotional uncertainty are normal, and in fact may be in many cases marks of a healthy, growing self under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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