Barnabas Piper, a popular writer, podcast host, and member of the Ministry Grid team, stops by today to talk about his new book, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith.
I read a pre-publication copy of this book earlier this summer and was blown away by Barnabas’s handling of the sometimes bifurcated line between faith and doubt. For someone like me, faith and doubt are often unwelcome bedfellows, but Barnabas seeks to encourage Christians to ask questions. Doubt is not the enemy of faith so long as we pursue God with our questions, much like the man in Mark 9:24: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
In short, this book argues (rightly, I think) that a God as vast and wonderful as ours unsurprisingly brings about a plethora of questions. Along with these questions comes awe at his splendor and grace on the one hand, and doubt of his existence or goodness on the other. Barnabas argues that God not only desires our belief, but actually invites our curiosity.
If you struggle with doubts and questions, you know someone who does, or you know a new believer who could use some encouragement as he sets out on the journey of following Jesus, I recommend this book.
Brandon: You note in the beginning of Help My Unbelief that you grew up as a pastor’s kid, but that you “didn’t even know what belief was.” Is this book in some ways a sequel or extension of your first book, The Pastor’s Kid?
Barnabas: It’s definitely not a sequel. It’s more like a connected ides or an expansion of one piece of The Pastor’s Kid. When I was writing that one and shared a little bit of my story and about the gap in my belief it stirred a whole bunch of ideas and observations and questions that led to this book.
Help My Unbelief is for a much broader group of people, though, because doubt and questions are common to many. “I believe; help my unbelief” is a prayer any Christian can pray, and that’s the foundation for this book.
Brandon: What does Mark 9:24’s “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” mean to you?
Barnabas: This verse captured my attention when I was at a place of struggling in my own faith. What I knew and the answers I had regarding God didn’t match the things that ruled my life. What did I really believe? What does it mean to believe? And then I read Mark 9, the story of a father bringing his demon possessed son to Jesus as a last ditch effort to be healed. He was desperate. He wasn’t overly confident. But he believed enough to reach out to Jesus, and that gripped me.
I will always struggle with unbelief (and so will everyone else), but I do believe in Jesus and in God’s character. So at any time of doubt, when I question, I can pray “help my unbelief” and there is faith just in the asking. It is an honest prayer that acknowledges my weakness and God’s presence and promise.
Brandon: How do you distinguish between good, healthy doubt and destructive doubt?
Barnabas: The difference lies in the aim of the doubt. Doubt leading to belief comes from a place of not knowing or understanding but in genuinely wanting to. It is open to answers and yearns for clarity and sight. This is the kind of doubt a follower of Christ will most often struggle with. The danger is when it turns into unbelieving doubt, that which comes from a place of rejection. It would rather undermine and disprove than find truth. Unbelieving doubt is blind because it closes its eyes willfully instead of because they simply haven’t learned to see yet.
Brandon: There have been many books published about doubt, unbelief, etc. What makes your new book unique?
Barnabas: What I have observed about most faith and doubt books is that they fall into one of two groups: 1) apologetics books which seek to answer the doubts or 2) books that revel in doubt and mystery and make few definitive statements of truth. Mine is neither. I do push the reader to recognize and become comfortable with mystery (since God is infinite and we are not it is inevitable and glorious). I also seek to be clearly biblical about who God is, who we are, and how we should view Him in spite of and through the mystery. Help My Unbelief also shares bits of my own story throughout so that the propositional truths and the difficult questions are grounded in real life and not just theory. I try to ask the kinds of questions doubters ask and answer them in a way that is neither pat nor opaque.
Brandon: How can a doubting believer strengthen his or her belief?
Barnabas: It sounds counter-intuitive, but often doubt can be evidence of belief. Like the dad in Mark 9, he was not sure what Jesus could do, but he believed enough to seek help. If you have the inclination to cry out to God you have belief. Too often Christians get overwrought with guilt and despair about their doubts instead of realizing that belief is woven throughout them. It’s like someone training for a race. If they get discouraged every time something hurts and think “I’m just not good enough” they are missing the point that the pain is the improvement.
So I would say that strengthening your belief comes from recognizing the heart behind the doubt. If your doubts come from a place of wanting to know God more deeply they are born from belief, not sin. They will lead you deeper into faith and obedience, not further away. It reframes doubt from sin to hope, from guilt to growth.