‘help my unbelief!’

How we respond to doubt is a big deal. Lots of Christians struggle with doubt (whether or not they say so). Sometimes they get the impression that their doubts or questions aren’t ‘allowed’ — I’ve even heard someone say, ‘Maybe I’m going to hell for thinking this…’

I found this diagnosis particularly insightful (it’s fromthis article from last November’s issue of Christianity Today — you can also read an accompanying interview with the author at The Other Journal):

Christians often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions when they talk with someone who has left the faith: they go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon, or they freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all.

Whether it’s someone who’s left the faith or someone currently wrestling with doubts, my pastoral instincts and experience tell me that there’s got to be a better way to respond.

But what is it?

Here are a few random thoughts:

  1. Give each other permission to work through our doubts. I suspect a large part of this would come from Christian leaders taking risks and sharing their own struggles — and not always just the ones they’ve struggled with in the past (although, of course, we’d need to model constructive engagement with them as well).
  2. Help each other with appropriate resources and opportunities to ask questions and express doubt (and hear others ask questions and express doubt). Is it any wonder people who struggle with doubt move to the periphery of Christian community we never giving them the space to do it in fellowship with us?
  3. Inspire each other to face doubt Christianly — e.g., point to the stories of ‘trusting doubters’ (from the Bible as well as contemporary and historical experience). Doubt isn’t necessarily the enemy of faith but often leads to deeper faith — for example, expressing doubt honestly in prayer enacts a much deeper trust in God’s goodness than playing your cards close to your chest out of fear.

Maybe you could add to the list?

6 comments

  1. Very very true!!

    Did you know that in 2007 Leslie Francis and Philip Richter published a study about why people have left church from a range of denominations in the UK? They surveyed nearly 900 people and

    – 16% felt nobody in the church would understand their doubts
    – 25% felt that the church did not allow people to discuss or disagree with its views
    – 29% felt that their questioning of faith would not be acceptable in the church

    I think you are right, I think church leaders need to take the initiative in creating a (healthy!) culture where people can openly work through doubt.

  2. I have a copy but John at work has temporarily stolen it. I’ll see if I can get it off him and bring it down for you to look at when I visit you guys 🙂

  3. The intro to Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God’ is very helpful here. It’s the only part of the book I’ve read!

    Tim Keller on “Doubt” from The Reason for God

    “I want to make a proposal that I have seen bear much fruit in the lives of young New Yorkers over the years. I recommend that each side look at doubt in a radically new way. Let’s begin with believers. A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless
    against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including
    yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.
    But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because “There can’t be just one true religion,” you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle
    East and said, “There can’t be just one true religion,” nearly everyone would say, “Why not?” The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith. Some people say, “I don’t believe in Christianity because I can’t accept the existence of moral absolutes. Everyone should determine moral truth for him- or herself.” Is that a statement they
    can prove to someone who doesn’t share it? No, it is a leap of faith, a deep belief that individual rights operate not only in the political sphere but also in the moral. There is no empirical proof for such a position. So the doubt (of moral absolutes) is a leap.
    Some will respond to all this, “My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it.” But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn’t feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith. The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to
    ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness you must doubt your doubts. My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.
    I commend two processes to my readers. I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined “blind faith” on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them. I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith. At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility. Then there will be an understanding, sympathy, and respect for the other side that did not exist before. Believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement rather than simply denouncing one another. This happens when each side has learned to represent the other’s argument in its strongest and most positive form. Only then is it safe and fair to disagree with it. That achieves civility in a pluralistic society, which is no small thing.”

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