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Piper on Doubt

 

Dr. John Piper, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church and founder of Desiring God, one of the men of faith I admire most, was once asked when he doubts God the most.  What he said struck a chord with me: “When do I doubt God?  Not in tragedy, but when I see the slowness of my sanctification.”


On Talking to Those Who Doubt

It is easy to find yourself in a position of illegitimacy. The first thing that you have to know when talking to most doubters is that they have a strong suspicion that you have never been there . . .  That you just don’t understand. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

Since I went through my depression three years ago, I have noticed something: there are those who understand depression and there are those who don’t. When I am down, I want to talk to someone who understands. And you know what? If you have not been through it, you normally don’t get it. I know that before I went through it, I did not get it. Solutions were simple. Stop sinning, trust God, talk yourself out of it, pray, listen to Christian music, read your Bible, get out of bed, think positively . . . Next! These were all my quick remedies that I would give to those who were groping for hope in the darkness of despair. Not so anymore. Now, when I enter into that darkness (and I still do),I  need to find someone who has been there. When I talk to people who don’t get it . . . who are like me before I went there, I just fall deeper into the black hole, finding less hope. It is only when I find someone who has been there, can admit it, and is not there now do I find some degree of solace. And I can tell. Those of you who have been there, you know exactly what I am talking about. Whether it is a look in the eye, their lack of judgmental advice, or their description of their own darkness, I know if they have been there. But most people are illegitimate to the plight of those who are in depression as they just don’t get it.

It’s easy to find yourself in a position of illegitimacy. It is no different when it comes to dealing with people who are doubting their faith. How do we talk to people who are in the process of walking away from their faith? You see, those people who are in doubt, are in a very similar black hole and they need to know you have been there before they will listen to you.

I am going to tell a story and change some of the details a slight bit for the sake of privacy.

Last year I had a church leader of a church in Oklahoma City call me. He was down and discouraged. He informed me that his daughter was doubting her faith. She was twenty-one and was just entering college for the first time. While she grew up in a Christian home of a conservative church, while she had been to youth group all her life, while she served in AWANA, the children’s ministry, and even led a Bible study, she was now questioning everything she knew. ”She is having doubts about the trustworthiness of the Bible,” he told me. “I heard from someone that you deal with this kind of stuff. Can you talk to her?” I had them come into the Credo House.

They arrived the very next day. We sat down at the Cappidocian Bar. It was a hot day so I made them a Nicene Mocha Frap. They were amazed at both the taste and the presentation of the frap ( . . . now I am getting off the subject and self-promoting my amazing barista talents). As we began to talk, I realized something very important: this girl was not simply having doubts about her faith. You see, there are two types of doubters. Allow me to talk about them for a moment.

Two types of doubters:

1) Those whose doubts turn them to depression because they don’t want to lose their faith. They are walking away from the faith facing backward crying out for help. Because of this, I have more hope for these kind of doubters, but are in need of emergency counseling. I have hope for them because I know that they want to keep their faith. Therefore, finding the source of the doubt and rebuilding a strong foundation is normally attainable (from a human perspective).

2) Those whose doubts turn them to anger because they think that they have been misled all their lives. They are walking away from the faith facing forward calling on others to follow them. It is not that I don’t have hope for these type of doubters, but I have less inclination to believe that their faith was ever truly established. Sure, these type experience anxiety and depression because they are leaving everything they knew, but they are more likely to turn into evangelists of unbelief if something does not change quickly.

I fear for those who have never doubted their faith more than for those who have gone through (or go through) the darkness of uncertainty. At least with both types of doubters above, you know that they are taking their faith seriously. Sooner or later you will know where they stand.

I quickly came to realize that this girl that I was talking to over coffee was the second type of doubter. It broke my heart as I looked at the anxiousness of her father as she expressed her doubts to me. It was not a simple distrust in the reliability of a particular portion of Scripture, this was full-blown antagonism toward everything in the Bible. This person was coming to the bottom of the hill of doubt and just about to cross the line to full-blown unbelief.

However, with both type of doubters, you have to gain legitimacy. And the way to gain this is the same for both. They need to know that you have been there. They need to see your battle scars with the Lord. They need to see that you have truly wrestled with these issues. They need to see that you walk with a limp too. Otherwise, you are immediately going to be written off as a naive Christian. In our postmodern society, naivety is the greatest disqualifier for your counsel and witness. So it is important that you raise your shirt and show your scar across your heart. And you know what? Your wound does not necessarily need to be sown up and closed. It could be wide open. You may be in the middle of the battle yourself. As long as they see you are/have been there and that you have still kept your faith, they will be much more likely to listen. It is just like depression. Once someone sees that you have been there, their first thought is hope. “I am not the only one!” they think to themselves. “How does this person hold it together? There must be a way!” is often their thought.

I know that this gal was very surprised as I trumped her struggles and doubts with greater struggles of my own. When she brought up the “atrocities” of the “Old Testament God” I told her that this was indeed a problem, but that that there was a much greater problem that I have than God leading the call for the death of nations (men, women, children, and animals), it was hell. Why would God allow people he loves to go to eternal punishment when he has the power to save them? I don’t know the answer to that (and please don’t let this blog turn into a debate about this issue). When she brought up a “contradiction” in the New Testament, rather than quickly solving it, I acknowledged it and then brought up what I believed to be a much more significant problem. Now, I have my ways of dealing with all of these problems, but this is not really want the doubter wants (or, at least, needs). They want (need) is identity. They need to see that you have truly been there.

There was a long baffled silence as I continued to acknowledge her problems and then up the ante. After a bit of time, I felt the question I was waiting for was arising within her mind. “Why then are you still a Christian?” A more fuller unexpressed version of the question was this, “If you have the same wounds as me (and more so), how can you still keep the faith?” It was then that I began. It was then that I had an audience. It was then that there was hope for this young lady. I then began to explain to her why I believed that true faith and doubt were compatible. Christianity is not understanding seeking faith, but faith seeking understanding.

If you do not show your true colors—worse, if you don’t have true colors, they will go to someone who does. Unfortunately, the crowd that they will find are made up of atheists, agnostics, and relativists. Why? Because they are almost always honest about their struggles. If they cannot find identity in a Christian crowd, they will find it in another.


Os Guinness on Doubt

“The problem is not that reason attacks faith but that emotions overwhelm reason as well as faith, and it is impossible for reason to dissuade them . . . [this kind of] doubt come just at the point where the believer’s emotions (vivid imagination, changing moods, erratic feelings, intense reactions) rise up and overpower the understanding of faith. Out-voted, out gunned, faith is pressed back and hemmed in by the unruly mob of raging emotions that one a while earlier were quiet, orderly citizens of the personality. Reason is cut down, obedience is thrown out, and for a while the rule of emotions is as sovereign as it is violent. The coup d’état is complete.”

God in the Dark, 25-26


Eight Points of Encouragement for Those Who Are Doubting Their Faith

1. Focus only on the issues that make or break Christianity.

Realize this: People can and do easily get off course, discussing, debating, and getting depressed over issues that are not linchpin issues to Christianity. From the details of creation/evolution to the inerrancy of Scripture, some people’s faith can be quite disturbed—quite unnecessarily disturbed. For example, while I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, if one of the authors happened to get a detail wrong, this does not mean that the entire Christ story is false. In what area of life do we find the same standards? This can be called a “house of cards” theology. In other words, if one card falls, they all fall. Our faith should never be a house of cards. There are so many things that we are all going to be wrong about when we get to heaven. I have often said that theologians need to be well rehearsed in recantations in order to get prepared for heaven!

However, while the Christian faith is not a “house of cards”, there is a definite foundation. This foundation, first and foremost, is the resurrection of Christ. If Christ rose from the grave, Christianity is true. If he did not, it is false (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Cor 15:17). Since this is an historic event that took place in a public arena, with dates and people involved described, from a historians standpoint, it longs to be examined. As Daniel Wallace has put it, “The fact of the incarnation demands an incarnational method of inquiry and examination” (i.e. not a merely a “spiritual” examination).

Therefore, from a purely intellectual standpoint, I would set down all other studies, including conversations with those who are representing another religion, books about atheism, or the destiny of the unevangelized. Just to focus on this central issue of Christianity. There is so much good stuff out there on this subject, but I would start here and graduate to here and here. Listen or watch to the debates with William Lane Craig about the historicity of the resurrection. Again, if Christ rose from the grave, Christianity is true, God does love you, and we just have to work out the details. If he did not raise, the journey goes on and we look elsewhere. Rarely have I found someone who is in the crucible of intellectual doubt, yet has a strong conviction about Christ’s resurrection. A conviction about the resurrection goes a long way to stabilize your faith.

2. Doubt your doubts.

There are many doubts going through your mind. However, don’t mistake a doubt with a belief. Do not give to your doubts the credence that Christianity no longer holds in your life as if they have greater right to your beliefs than what you were formerly assured of. Remember, as unassured as you may be that Christianity is true right now, give equal unassurance to its alternatives, including agnosticism.

3. Make sure that you don’t lose fellowship with other believers.

Often Christians feel as if they need to validate their faith by only hanging around those who are not of the faith. I often see this with young men who are enthusiastically engaged in apologetics (defending the faith). The idea is that if the faith is true, it can withstand any onslaught. While this is true in theory, it is not very pragmatic in any area.

One normally becomes emotionally predisposed to those of their immediate fellowship. “Following the crowed” is a very effective means of being persuaded of the most unlikely beliefs. In fact, I have often said that if I hung around the flat-earth society members too long (and there is a flat earth society!), I may begin to doubt that the world is round. This is not because the arguments or evidence is persuasive, but simply because of implicit emotional control of belief that such constant fellowship affords.

Give equal (if not more) time to fellowship with those who are strong in the Christian faith. Our faith must be allowed access to the strength that common fellowship provides. Continue reading


Paul Copan on Christian Doubt

I have asked a few respected Evangelical scholars and authors to contribute one paragraph each on the issue of Christians and doubt. I am grateful to each one of these men for not only contributing here, but being the type of scholar who deals with such issues with openness. I am posting them one at a time over the next couple of weeks.

Most of you know Paul, but let me give you some information anyway. Paul is a Christian philosopher, apologist, and author. Copan holds the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. More about Paul below.

Paul, if you were talking to someone who is having significant problems with their faith, doubting whether or not Christianity is true for whatever reason, what would you say to them if you only had one minute?

 

Paul, if you were talking to someone who is having significant problems with their faith, doubting whether or not Christianity is true for whatever reason, what would you say to them if you only had one minute?

Sometimes doubts stem from a personal or relational insecurity that manifests itself in the wrong-headed insistence of having only 100% certainty in order to believe.

Knowledge can be defined as warranted true belief, but one can have knowledge without having 100% certainty. For those who question that “knowledge” does not always equal “100% certainty,” we ask: “How can one know with 100% certainty that knowledge requires 100% certainty?” Indeed, we can know various true things that rise to the level of “very plausible” or “highly probable” in our minds. (Isn’t it logically possible that my typing right now is just an illusion? It doesn’t follow from being logically possible, however, that this illusion is therefore likely true—far from it.)

One doubter with whom I’ve recently engaged acknowledged that his “100% certainty requirement” was really a defense mechanism that enabled him to feel comfortable in a state of neutrality—to justify his insecurity and lack of persisting in the hard work of committed belief. He confessed to his own insecurity about relationships and his own inability to commit to anything. He pointed to something from my book How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? that helped him: “Skepticism—like relativism—tends to eliminate personal or moral responsibility since truth (which is crucial to knowledge) is systematically being ignored or evaded….We should consider the personal, motivational questions which, while not being an argument against skepticism, raise important issues that may be driving the skeptical enterprise. Blanket skepticism is an affliction of the mind that needs curing” (pp. 28-29). I rejoice that God has been very evidently at work in this young man’s life.

Paul Copan

____________________________

Paul has a Ph.D.from Marquette University (Philosophy), a M.Div. from Trinity International University (Divinity), a M.A. from Trinity International University (Philosophy of Religion), and a B.A. from Columbia International University (Biblical Studies).

You can find out much more about Paul by visiting his website: http://www.paulcopan.com/


TryIng to find my way

(by anonymous)

I’ve been a believer for almost 30 years. During that time, I’ve dealt with various doubts. Another believer has likely had any doubt I have. So, my first strategy in dealing with doubts is to read what has been written by others. Many times their response is a stretch but their argument is conceivable, so I accept it and move on. I began to deal with my most recent doubt (An old earth, for which I feel the evidence is very strong, implies God freely chose to create through suffering, contradicting His scripturally revealed nature) in the same way.

However, seeing the unsatisfying and poor explanations once again, I began to feel that though atheism has a number of things it explains poorly (e.g. early apostolic resurrection testimony and the conversion of Paul), they pale in comparison to the host of things that the Christian faith explains poorly. For example, the creation story vs. observed paleontology and paleogeography. The lack of destruction of freshwater or oceanic creatures due to the sudden salinity change in their environment. The survival of host-specific deadly parasitic fungi. The number of species needed to fit on the ark (all authors I’ve read on this seriously skew the data). The lack of confirmatory records of Joshua’s long day. The many instances where Old Testament prophecies need to be taken grossly out of context to get the New Testament interpretation. The strong resemblance of many Psalms to propaganda intended to strengthen a Davidic dynasty. The big change in the interpretation of the Law from the Old Testament to Paul (Paul said the law was intended to condemn not to be kept. Moses said (Deut 6) that God commanded him to teach them the law so that they would do it.) These are just a few that I list off of the top of my head. I am confident that I could write many more.

Note, I am not saying the Christian faith does not explain the things I listed. I am just saying that the explanations are poor quality. God COULD have caused the waters of different salinity to not mix. All species could have been originally salt-tolerant and God COULD have caused them to lose this tolerance in a few thousand years. God COULD have written His revelation in a way easily subject to misinterpretation. But all of these explanations seem strange, not the way one would expect. The combination of so many tenuous explanations makes me doubt the underlying theory.

I spoke to my wife. She says I think too much and just need to enjoy the Lord more. I spoke to my small group. They just encouraged me to go forward because God will eventually have a more useful vessel after I’ve dealt with my doubt. I spoke to an elder. He recommended that I not deal directly with the issue but rather groan before the Lord and then to confess my sins, offenses, disposition, upbringing, and pride, then to read the Bible, pray for others, and read Watchman Nee’s book, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

I decided to try the elder’s advice until October. However, I did not find my doubts dealt with. Additionally, in that time, I became more comfortable with the thought of myself as an atheist. I went from feeling ashamed of the possibility of becoming an atheist to seeing it as a result of pursuing the truth. I went from mourning the loss of many of my dreams (preaching the gospel with my sons, training them in the Bible, practicing hospitality along with my wife to shepherd visiting brothers and sisters, having an exemplary Christian home that others can admire and thus be drawn to the faith), to feeling that if Christianity is not true, I don’t want my sons wasting their time. I went from seeking to build an eternal kingdom to thinking that maybe the only part of me that will survive my death is my genes and the culture and knowledge I impart to others younger than myself.

Since the procedure the elder suggested hasn’t helped, after a week of getting the nerve up to do it, I went to the rest of the elders yesterday (the one I had originally spoken with is out of the country) and told them that I would no longer be coming to the church service coordination meeting. I told them that according to my subjective assessment, I was an atheist, but that I would not make a final decision at least until February. I told them that I would use the time I liberated in not coming to the meeting to investigate as thoroughly as I can so I could come to a conclusion more reliable than just my feeling that the evidence for one outweighs the other.

My current (embryonic) thoughts on how to carry out such an investigation are to:

1. Make a list of all the problems I see with Christianity and with atheism.

2. Quantify how important each is to the truth of the beliefs concerned. I’m not sure how I’ll do this. My current though is to use some sort of statistical model, maybe a Bayesian model (with which I am familiar) or maybe an Imprecise Probability model (which I will need to study before using).

3. Assign initial plausibilities and/or confidences to each part of the model that needs it/them. Possibly involving a rudimentary investigation.

4. Do a sensitivity analysis on the individual parts of the model to see which parameters would shift the conclusion the most.

5. Investigate more deeply those areas that could change the conclusions the most.

6. Repeat 4-5 (potentially refining the model as I uncover new details) until I am satisfied with the confidence.

7. Live according to the conclusion, adding new facts as they arise.

Until I come to a more certain conclusion, I have decided to continue living as a Christian with three exceptions. First, I will not preach the gospel – how can I try to convince others when I disbelieve to such an extent. Second, I will put my offering in a special bank account. If I decide for Christianity, it will be used for the Lord’s work. If I do not, it will become savings. Third, I will only pursue minimal church service: nursery duty, hospitality, distributing the announcements. No organizing VBS, making web-sites or traveling for this or that.

I choose to live as a Christian during this questioning time for a few reasons:

1. It is easy to stop, hard to start.

2. I already have been living this way almost my whole life.

3. Christianity has a track-record of being generally good for believers.

The consequences for my life and my family are quite severe if I decide on atheism (even if I decide for Christianity, there are costs, but I’ve already paid most of them). So, I want to make the right decision. On the other hand, I don’t want to sit on the fence for the rest of my life. Even the Lord said to the Laodiceans, “I wish that you were either boiling or cold.”

Today, looking for this site, I ran across the Habermas book, “Dealing with Doubt” and was somewhat encouraged by his chapter on factual doubt. However, I know from previous investigation that the evidentiary issues he touches there are more complex than he presents. I am a bit intimidated by the enormity of the task ahead of me. But I don’t see any other way to go. I can’t just ignore the problem – a wishy-washy life is not for me. Nor do I know of a simple way to quickly analyze everything in a way I will believe after I finish. Nor can I just delegate my responsibility to authority figures because there are brilliant and committed men on both sides of the issue. So the choice will come down to my evaluation of which authority I want to follow. I may as well analyze the issues themselves. Thus, the only way for me is forward: to do the best I can to come to a conclusion I can keep to in the future.


Disobedience and Doubt: Is There a Connection?

I have written extensively on this blog on the issue of Christian doubt. I have avoided talking about it’s connection to personal sin in our lives not because I don’t believe that the root of doubt can be sometimes traced there, but because, in the minds of some, personal sin is the only reason for doubt. I have argued against this. However, I do think it is important for us to realize that doubt is very often rooted in our sinful choices. In fact, crossing the line of disobedience consistently will tear apart every aspect of our faith.

Let’s start at the beginning: Disobedience is a choice. Faith is not. Well . . . what I mean is that I cannot just decide to believe like flipping on and off a switch in my head. It is more complex. However, disobedience, from a biblical standpoint, can and does rob us of faith that we have. Habits in our lives form faith connections. Once that line is disobedience crossed, it gets easier and easier to cross it again. We have all been there. What we have to understand is that when God says to do something and we decide not to, it eventually becomes habit. These habits necessarily create connections of unbelief. And like with any habit, tt gets easier and easier to disobey. Once it is a habit, we begin to find excuses for our waywardness. We become very good at finding ways to justify our disobedience. How do I know? Because I am an expert. Don’t get smug; you are too.

“My anger outbursts may be bad, but at least they are not as bad as his.”

“I am entitled to spend all this money on myself. After all, look how hard I worked.”

“I made all the right decisions. I deserve to think more highly of myself than I do of that person, who can’t get it right.”

“Why should I share? This is a tough world. Either eat or get eaten.”

“You don’t buy a car before you test drive it. Why shouldn’t I live with my girlfriend before marrying her?”

“After all I have been through, I deserve to get drunk.”

“So many bad things have happened to me, I have the right to worry.”

These types of justifications for our sin are a reflection of our humanity. They are emblematic of the flesh. We will hear this type of rationale (from the devil on our shoulders) until the day we die. But knowing what is right and not doing it is destructive to every aspect of who we are. Justifying our sin leads to further disobedience and, ultimately, to a loss of faith. Some of you reading this are suffering significant doubt because you are disobeying regularly and justifying your disobedience in one way or another. It has become a habit. Continue reading