Those Who Doubt (RJS)

Those Who Doubt (RJS) July 19, 2012

Michael Patton had an interesting post over at Credo House last Friday. This is not surprising, as he often has good stuff, well worth reading, on this blog. For that matter, the whole Credo House concept is fascinating and has great potential. I don’t see eye-to-eye with Michael on some issues (he would say the same about me), but these are secondary and his thoughtful consideration and comment always provides an interesting read and a valuable perspective. These kinds of difference are not a problem in the church – they help us all grow.

Last Friday he put up a post On Talking to Those Who Doubt. This is a topic that captures my interest every time. Doubt is a common experience – and one that is particularly common among young people learning to own their faith. Doubt is not a sin, shameful and disloyal — to be beaten down with a stick or a whip — but a sign of a faith that needs to grow. Patton’s post is focused on a conversation he had with a young woman confronting doubts and with her concerned father. Patton makes several interesting points in this post. One is the importance of insight from those who have walked a path before.  Another point is the importance of validating the strength of the doubts and questions.

If you have struggled with doubts what helped and what didn’t help?

What can the church do to help to prevent these crises?

What can the church do to help people grow through doubts and questions?

This post brought back to mind a book I read several years ago by Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith.  Chapters ten and eleven: Chapter 10 — DOUBT how to handle it, and Chapter 11 — DOUBT putting it in perspective are worth the price of the book. These two chapters should be required reading for every pastor or other Christian leader whose work includes ministering to those who experience doubt and conflict in our educated secular environment, especially those ministering to undergraduate and graduate students. McGrath’s advice in Chapter 10 is right on target -€- he’s been there – he gets it. The following points are culled from various places in the book, with a little of editorializing thrown in for good measure. The points are addressed at students who may be struggling with doubt – but have equally powerful messages for church leaders.

The first point is a key.

(1) Know your faith: Most of the people who ridicule the faith know little or nothing about it. Unfortunately, neither do most Christians. Many Christians have a superficial faith in the gospel; shallow roots, with external rather than internal strength. To one with an unsophisticated faith the ridicule of the world appears reasonable and deadly. The most powerful defense then is education. Read the scripture daily; read solid scholarly Christian literature (this blog is a good source of suggestions); read books that stimulate you to think about the content of the faith. A more reasoned faith with deep roots can be defended and shared. A ‘€œSunday School’ sophistication is not enough–neither is a catechistic memorized list of propositions and answers. Do not simply affirm belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus €- discover what these doctrines mean, how they developed, and why they are affirmed.

What can the church do to make this happen? Some of us can learn and study on our own, but most of us need help and guidance. What can the church do from cradle to grave to facilitate this process?  I will be brutally honest — I have generally found the church to be inadequate to the task – and the situation is getting much worse. The pastors and leaders don’t get it. The short term costs are deemed to outweigh the long term gain. In an increasingly educated and skeptical world Church has become a spectator sport with an uneducated and disempowered laity. We will reap the fruit of this labor in the future. Instead of increasing and carefully structuring educational efforts in the church we are intentionally gutting them to grow larger Sunday morning gatherings.

The thing I appreciate most about Michael Patton’s work is that his heart is right here. Through a variety of efforts, including Credo House they are working to bring serious education to lay Christians, and to provide tools to develop Christians who can think as Christians, not Christians who can spout someone’s idea of the right answers. In an increasingly educated, secular, and hostile society this is absolutely essential.

(2) Keep it in perspective: Nothing in the Christian story suggests that the Christian life is easy. There is no guarantee of health, respect, and prosperity. The early church was persecuted; the church around the world is persecuted today; the God who raised Jesus was on the side of the early church and is on our side today. We move forward in this power and hope. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow.

(3) Appreciate the importance of support: in isolation we waver and fall all too often. Go to church, worship and study in community. Search out community and be persistent. It is not always easy to find in our evangelical church, especially beyond the undergraduate years. Be a church that makes support a priority. Small groups and fellowship groups are important, but they are not enough.

(4) Develop spiritual discipline and make it a priority: Read books that stimulate thought about prayer, worship, devotion (Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, …). Pray and worship without fail, from the head and the heart — and from the head even when it is hard to make it from the heart.

(5) Don’t be afraid of change — your faith should change and grow as it matures in understanding and depth in the great traditions of orthodox Christianity.

The last one is a another key point. While God is never changing, and the gospel is the reality that Jesus is God’s Christ, Lord and Savior, our understanding of this truth should be maturing and growing until the day we die. No one has it figured out completely – not at 18, 58 or 88. And this includes pastors, church leaders, and university professors. And it includes those who framed the various confessions the church has drafted through the years. I am at a very different place today than I was 20 years ago – and I expect to be in a new place 20 years in the future. This is not a problem – it is the way it is supposed to be.

Do you agree or disagree with any of these points?

What advice would you give?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"I think the point, alluded to in Andrew's first comment, was that advances in scholarship ..."

Introductions to Put Pause on All ..."
"So Dreher doesn't say what you want to read, so he's disqualified! Here's another, but ..."

Progressives Learning to Understand Conservatives
"So you don't don't know, either? Since you said the quote was true, I assumed ..."

Introductions to Put Pause on All ..."
"David, what is your point, here? What is your criticism of the article? Or are ..."

Creation Care (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jamieson

    Excellent post, RJS. Thanks for your honesty. There are times when I think I’m going crazy. I am at the point in my life where I don’t care if I even go to church. At the same time, I know I am missing something that is vital. An approach/avoidance conflict.

    I can’t resist a few suggestions though. A while back a poster, who claimed to be writing a book on preaching, asserted there is no point in rehashing the biblical material because “they already know this stuff.” No, they don’t already know this stuff. What we do see is, as RJS suggests, is a “Sunday school” sophistication when it comes to the Bible. I recommend that we:
    1. De-emphasize the sermon. Very little learning actually takes place there anyway.
    2. Give people the opportunity to do some thinking on their own instead of sitting passively and listening to someone else tell them what to think.
    3. Give people methods and PRACTICE in actually reading the Bible critically.
    4. Emphasize the seriousness of the task. Let them know that you are more concerned about their spiritual development (i.e. understanding of Jesus) than their weekly offering.
    5. Pastors should learn to spend more time listening. When OTHER people are talking, they’re forced to formulate, categorize, organize, develop, evaluate, etc. their own thoughts. They don’t do that much when you talk at them.
    6. Organize your learning. Help them see the meta-narrative. Jumping around the Bible in a sporadic and disjointed fashion turns us into biblicists.

  • T

    These are very good. I would add at least one thing, because I’ve had to do it myself several times in my life: Learn to wrestle with God.

    We often don’t know what our real questions are when we begin to struggle. Often the questions we begin with aren’t the ones that we most want/need answered or the ones God is going to answer. But we have to, at some point, if the faith that we come to “know” is going to be *our* faith, we’ve got to learn to “ask and keep asking” things of God himself and give the responsibility to him to answer us, or at least lead us to discover deeper questions.

    There seems to be a long list we keep, often unconsciously, of things we’re not supposed to ask God, or that he won’t answer in one way or another. Some of these questions need to be asked, and directly. Further, God’s holiness does not mean his skin is thin. He is alive and he calls himself many things that imply that he will answer many things and take some serious responsibility (not all of it) for our well-being and learning. So do the kind of work that RJS has laid out, but also ask for help, and not just from people, but God directly. He may answer through people or a host of other things, but do both of you a favor and talk to him about what’s eating at you. He’s a big boy; he can take it. Just look at the Psalms. (Definitely look at the Psalms.)

  • The proposal in (5.) is both great and a touch naive. Fear activates or manifests in people as they perceive they will lose someone/thing/idea/relationship/activity/etc.

    You’ve total agreement from me regarding the maturity topics you suggested: Amen, and Amen. But, fear happens, and if I might capture one of your earlier criticisms, that response can and should be fielded by both pastors and the church to mentor, and, above all, love those whose doubt inhibits their maturity: and that inhibition is largely about what they will lose in the process.

  • David

    #4 is hard for me as a current doubter. It’s hard to pray to/worship someone that you are doubting exists, yet I know that’s the only way through.

  • RJS


    I think 5 needs to be stated explicitly precisely because fear is a natural response. It is hard for many to put into practice. Ideally the response should be fielded by both pastors and the church to mentor, but there is a tendency to look here for “THE ANSWER” with simple certainty – and too many pastors feel they must be able to give “IT” with unambiguous clarity. At this stage of my life I am distrustful of anyone who is unwilling to admit that he or she too is continuing to grow in understanding.

  • Jon G

    I haven’t read the entire post yet (so forgive me if this is off topic or already answered), but came upon this line and it brought up something I’ve long wondered about…”Doubt is not a sin, shameful and disloyal — to be beaten down with a stick or a whip — but a sign of a faith that needs to grow.”

    Maybe Scot, having done a whole commentary on James, could chime in here, but James 1:6-7 goes pretty hard on a person who has doubts:

    “but let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

  • Jon G

    What can the church do to make this happen?

    one thing I’ve been pondering lately, as a protestant, is how the protestant church believes so strongly in individual bible study and yet does so little to promote bible competency. Shouldn’t churches be subsidizing seminars/classes on academic readings of the Bible like teaching church members Greek/Hebrew, History, Hermaneutics, etc. rather than simply preaching a message from the bible each week?

    It just seems to me that, as someone who has been fed the idea from the church that individual bible study is crucial (which I believe), there ought to be a stronger emphasis on educating people in proper handling of the text.

    just my two cents…

  • Steph

    I am reading a book on Adam and Eve and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim interpretations of that story through the millennia. Just finished Philo of Alexandria and am moving on to rabbinic interpretations in the first few centuries AD/CE. What stands out with the rabbis is the multiplicity of interpretations. I think we would go far in responding to doubt in helpful rather than detrimental ways if the teaching emphasis departed from providing the “right” interpretation to providing instruction on what the various possible interpretations are and have been historically. This is related to what you suggest above regarding the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

    I guess I am just increasingly convinced of the value of knowing about the controversies surrounding a passage or doctrine, of knowing what the various church branches teach, and knowing what the scholars uncover. Five years ago, I began attending a mainline church and it has been a fantastic experience. People of many different denominational backgrounds and church traditions seem to end up here, and the diversity has been a wonderful teaching tool for me. I just took a class on science and faith and it was refreshing to hear people say they have never experienced evolution as a source of conflict between science and faith though they were raised “in the church.” So fantastically different from the way I was raised even if my church and parents were not entrenched in a war mentality!

    Really, there is no reading, research, or study that we do in life that does not involve questions. This seems true whether one’s field is literature or scientific study. In grad school, we often focused in on the “critical crux” of a novel, the key interpretive questions, the debates. That is where it gets interesting. Doubt is just a Christian word for questions, which are a net positive in my mind. To read without questions is not fun; to read without questions is not engaging. At the risk of overstating, is there life to such a faith?

    Sometimes I think at the bottom of this issue is the matter of differing personalities. Some people are not wired to question and can literally set questions aside as obtrusive while others simply cannot set questions aside without disengaging entirely. I will keep my questions since it is a symptom, in people like me, of engagement. Or likely, I will trade them for new questions.

    I really, really miss being in the classroom and I think in the culture at large this is weird. In the church, this really shows. The kinds of discussions I like, exploring the questions, frustrate others and they prefer studies with applications towards character development. We need both but this is the first church I have attended where both are available to me. At a time when I am barely believing, ironically I so look forward to my Thursday morning classes at church. Because of the questions. Because of the paradigm shifts in my thinking when I encounter theologians like NT Wright.

    Btw, I really like mike k’s wording: doubts that inhibit maturity. Focus less on fixing doubt and more on addressing maturity, that is my fix. And for a question-prone person, focusing on maturity may mean, among other things, focusing on more learning of the kind that the non question-prone find troubling and frustrating. For us, that kind of study is necessary, not arrogant (just put aside your human questioning), not futile.

  • bh

    I think there are a couple of ideas, perceptions that have helped me to grow in my faith and in other areas of life.
    1. Normalize the experience: I think helping people to see their doubts, struggles and fears are common aspects of faith helps them to not feel isolated. Often times our doubts come from valid concerns, or questions that many others have struggled through. “it’s ok to doubt, your not the only one”
    2. Helping people understand that all truth is God’s truth: We don’t have to be afraid of the answers to scary questions about the Christian faith. The truth is we don’t have all the answers and some of the answers we do have aren’t easy to accept. Reminding people that God is a good God and he is not running from the truth.
    3. Encouraging people to embrace their doubts as essential to growth: I believe that doubt can be an essential part of our struggle to know God through Jesus Christ. If you never have doubt then I wonder if you are really considering the implications of your faith.
    4. Lastly, these are very simple ideas that don’t offer strong evidence, or a clear pathway to better understanding; however, I believe doubt for whatever reason can become an emotional struggle more than an intelectual one. In these cases we should offer empathy, encouragement freedom for people to explore.

  • I repeat Jon G’s excellent question at #6. I would greatly value Scot’s answer.

    I liked the original Creedo article and can see how doubt can be part of the path to maturity. However, is doubt ever commended in Scripture? Jon G points out James 1:6-7. St Thomas is not condemned for doubting (doubting is part of his path) but Jesus doesn’t seem to commend him for it either.

    It is a good question in light of the fact that some types seem to want to make doubt into a virtue unto itself. I’m all for not condemning doubt (and doubters) but am confused when doubt is seen as deep or intellectually heroic.

  • Pat Pope

    Well said, RJS. One of the things we can do is addressed in your last paragraph:

    “While God is never changing, and the gospel is the reality that Jesus is God’s Christ, Lord and Savior, our understanding of this truth should be maturing and growing until the day we die. No one has it figured out completely – not at 18, 58 or 88. And this includes pastors, church leaders, and university professors. And it includes those who framed the various confessions the church has drafted through the years. I am at a very different place today than I was 20 years ago – and I expect to be in a new place 20 years in the future. This is not a problem – it is the way it is supposed to be.”

    The Church needs to do away with this thinking that a true believer never changes. Only God never changes. But as finite beings, we need to understand we don’t know everything, nor will we on this side of heaven. If we approached the faith with a little more humility about our own abilities and confidence in the fact that our unknowing is not a reflection on God, then maybe we would be in a better position to help those who doubt. Rather than being consumed with trying to defend a faith that we feel must never be questioned, we can welcome the questions as an opportunity. We should also not be afraid to say, “I don’t know” when we don’t know and commit to searching with the person for the answer or for understanding. Setting ourselves up as ultimate authorities puts us in a position of always providing answers that we may not really have.

  • RJS


    I won’t answer for Scot (he wrote the commentary after all), but with respect to your other question, whether doubt is ever commended … I think it depends what we mean by doubt. Doubting the pronouncements of human authorities is certainly commended. Wrestling with the faith is modeled repeatedly in a variety of ways. Rejecting God, failing to look to God, rejecting Jesus as Messiah, these are not commended.

    I think one of the problems in our church is that we tend to equate questioning human pronouncements and interpretations with doubting God – and this means that for many they are so intertwined that questions about human pronouncements lead to rejection of God far more often than they should.

  • RJS, thanks, your response is helpful. The distinction between doubting what we’ve inherited and doubting God Himself could also be helpful. But I have encountered some who in fact say they are doubting God Himself and yet appear to give themselves spiritual credit for it. Perhaps both your wisdom and Patton’s could help someone wrestle without crossing over into unbelief.

    I hadn’t noticed before that it was you who had written the post. I would still be interested in reading Scot’s expert opinion on the James passage and how it relates to doubt in general.

  • scotmcknight

    I’m in Denmark, don’t have James with me, but I suspect James 1:8 is approaching doubt from a different angle, yet not glorying one bit in doubt.

    That is, he wants people to see that God is good and can be trusted 100%. He’s not hereby denying the exploration of faith by Job, who gets a nod in this book. So I’m not sure James 1:8 is the fullness of the Bible’s approach to doubt.

  • Louise

    Thank you for your posts RJS they are helpful and always get me thinking. My thinking has also changed over the years, but my faith is alive and well. All the five points above are good ones. For myself #3 has been important. I have needed reassurance from others in the faith when I have gone through difficult times of questioning what I believe.

    In a recent sermon on Hebrews Chapter 3, our pastor made a careful distinction between the normal doubts and questions people have and the unbelief talked about in that chapter. In reading that chapter a questioning person might think that perhaps he/she has fallen into unbelief like those that Moses led out of Egypt and despair and fall into a depression about it. There is a apparently a distinction between normal questioning and doubts in our unseen God and willful unbelief and hardening of the heart despite having seen God’s works for forty years.
    I am just a layperson maybe someone else can expound on this point much better than I.

  • Thanks Scot.

    By the way, you’re in Denmark and don’t have James with you? You don’t bring a Bible when you travel? Check the drawer of your hotel room. 🙂

    Have a nice trip.

  • DRT

    Without reading the other comments yet….

    The most singularly unhelpful thing I have been faced with is people spouting bible verses about how I need to believe in god. If I am doubting at that level, then the bible carries no weight unless you can present the story of the bible to me in a big picture way. Ultimately that is what brought me back, NT Wright’s big picture.

    Next, the church should not hide the fact that there are different theologies that have different implications.

    Last, please have those who think they know what the teachings are stay the heck away from me. There is nothing quite as annoying as some smug Christian thinking they have the secret knowledge and all you have to do is mature into it and you will start to approach their level. I think this goes hand in hand with the maturing until you die concept in the post.

    In summary, if someone wants to get through to me they need to lay opinions with the appropriate counter opinions on the table and let me decide the efficacy. Simply telling one side of the story is the best way to lose credibility.

  • DRT

    I read the responses, and want to clarify one thing.

    Pretty much everyone in the US has gone to school and has received instruction in a more or less scientific way. That is, they are taught the big picture, they are taught the competing theories, and they are given what scholarship says is the best theory. Or if there is no definitive best theory they are simply taught the theories and recognize that they do not have all the answers.

    I would like to see Christianity taught this way in churches. Where there are classes that give the breadth of the issues, the competing ways to think about them, and the acknowledgement that we are just human.

    Some of the commenters also seem to like the whole idea of spiritual maturity. I would like to offer that I find the whole idea quite arrogant, particularly in light of someone with doubts. When I have doubted I looked at those with firm beliefs without depth as very immature, and I still do. Many in the churches feel that they know their theology and their view and have been doing it for a long time therefore they are mature. But I always viewed it that someone in doubt, someone questioning the more fundamental ideas is likely more spiritually mature than the one who has drank the Kool Aid.

    Nothing would irritate me more that if Piper or Driscoll said to me that I have not matured to the point that I can accept TULIP.

  • AHH

    One point I would add, connected to #1 in the post (also maybe to comment #8) is that the church needs to do a better job in avoiding leading people into situations where they are likely to fall into doubt for wrong reasons.

    If somebody is wrestling with doubt because of “the problem of evil” or because of feeling personal distance from God, that is legitimate and the points in the post apply. But sometimes the church sets up faith as a house of cards, where the whole faith depends on having the Bible be a “perfect book” or on evolutionary science being wrong, so people fall unnecessarily into doubt (and sometimes out of faith altogether) when they discover those things are not true.

    I guess that also ties in to some of the comments about how doubting man-made doctrines (like inerrancy or young-earth creationism or Hell as eternal conscious torment) gets equated in certain circles with doubting God, which leads to lots of problems.

  • RJS


    This is also connected to #5 in the post. The number of things about which we should teach with “absolute certainty” are very small.

  • I think that we need to be very cautious avoid giving the idea that (1) doubt is a problem to be overcome, a substandard spiritual experience, or positionally further from God than belief and (2) that the problem behind doubt is a lack of intellectual, conceptual knowledge.

    I see two kinds of doubt. (1) Doubt brought on by An experiential incongruity between knowledge and actual life experience and (2) doubt that must exist in balance with every statement we make about God due to the fact that our words and thoughts are insufficient to define or contain all of who God is. Every belief we hold is either too much or too little and to realize this and acknowledge the tension between doubt and belief is th point to which we need to help lead thouse who suffer the anxiety of not knowing.

  • EricG

    DRT and Nate W’s comments are very important – I agree.

    I’d also add that the tendency to equate doubt and immaturity isn’t right. There is a long tradition – think St. John of the Cross and The Dark Night of the Soul – of doubt being an important part of growth for many, including those who are mature. Sometimes doubt allows us to challenge of our problematic conceptions of God, which can be healthy. Heck, even Mother Therersa had long-standing doubts.

    My reaction to many of the comments was that they were primarily about analytical questions; there is some of that with doubt, but a lot of it is experienced/existential, as Nate suggests.

    Also, I think it is a big problem that our liturgies do not express challenges and doubts. The Psalms express such things – yet we today take a different all-triumphalism-all-the-time approach that isn’t authentic to the experiences of many sitting in the pews, or to the Bible (Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes). I also think we don’t allow pastors and worship leaders to express authentic challenges and questions of their own, which is not healthy.

    I’ve been through some very challenging things lately. My version of doubt had ranged from anger and opposition to God for some time, to a current lack of any firm belief in a particular understanding of God, but an openness to experiencing Him, and actively seeking Him. I see a difference in outright rejection and a closing of the mind.

    Finally, I like the photo with the post.

  • Having studied philosophy, theology, and social science as a Christian for nearly 20 years has fed into and forced me to wrangle with my own doubt quite a bit. Having found so many Christian authors to pathologize, minimize, or altogether evade the issue, I was particularly impressed by Robert Wennberg’s treatment here:

  • Steph

    A few observations. Just as wordy as before.

    Doubting something and rejecting something. I think they’re very different. They may temporarily look alike. I have, a couple of mornings, woken up with the horrible thought that everything I have ever held to be Truth … Is not. It is an experience of sheer terror. I can’t dwell in that moment. And I don’t.

    By number 9, bh, doubt as an emotional struggle … Oh yes! “Doubts as essential to growth” yes, again. Paradoxically, as long as I am engaged, as I called it, I should be progressing spiritually, maturing, or why stay “engaged,” but doubts can inhibit that, and yet at the same time, these doubts can lead me into the kinds of studies that will allow me to grow.

    How are faith and knowing and loving God related? A former pastor of mine played a clip of someone (this is years ago so details are fuzzy) that used to work with Billy Graham but was no longer a believer. The man’s voice broke as he talked about how much he missed Jesus. Wow. His love for Jesus surpassed mine (I was a firmer believer at the time) and that continues to strike me. No faith; great love and knowledge.

    Faith in what? So often the word faith simply means that when presented with a certain set of circumstances, I am supposed to have a certain spiritually appropriate response to them. Faced with fear? Just have faith. In what? That God still loves me even if the worst happens? That God will make me able to handle it? That he won’t send more than I can handle? That he won’t let something *that* horrible happen because it is unthinkable? What, really? I wanted comfort, and I was handed expectations for my thinking and testimony. And I am still scared and embarrassed at the end of it all. Weak. That this world is horribly broken and scary but God is not done with it yet? Ok. Ok. I am still scared, but okay.

    Deeper thinking. Even if it is above my level of intellect or learning. I glean what I can, and it helps. Hmmm, it strikes me that in my case the emotions of doubt preceded the intellectual questions, and therefore perhaps it makes sense that robust (a relative term) theological debates help. It is not, as a commenter has suggested, that doubters are (necessarily) smug, self-described deep thinkers. In my case, perhaps diving into the intellectual debates helps balance what is otherwise my emotional subjective experience. Debates with many competing viewpoints make me feel less alone, like I am in good company in this experience of not always agreeing. In an average woman’s bible study? I feel alone.

    Quite a few years back I was teaching in a Christian school (yes, I was) and the coach was giving a “praise” that the track uniforms had arrived the day before the first meet. Wasn’t it wonderful how God took care of his children? Everyone smiled and nodded. Is it? Are track uniforms more important than an evening meal? Did some of God’s children not go without an evening meal that day?

    Are we seeing something that is truly there? Can we trust what we think we know? Are we just imposing a framework on life? So it begins …..

    I couldn’t think the way I was supposed to. So, that was the beginning for me. I followed the inclinations of my mind. (Yes, I realize how terrible that sounds. It was that or Christian doublethink, 1984 style.) I hope I will meet God in these questions and be at rest.

    So now you have a concrete example. How can the church help? What has helped me is back at comment 8 but though I have been helped, I haven’t arrived yet. Still journeying.

    (Blogs have really helped. Jesus Creed. Rachel held Evans. Richard Beck at experimental theology. Elizabeth Esther.) The conversation. Uncensored. That helps.

  • Steph

    Actually, not just as wordy as before, but even wordier. I save up my comment word quota and use it all up on one post! I know it is not very effective. One day, I will conquer brevity.

    DRT, we are near neighbors. I think I am just to your north. Have been wanting to say “hi” for a while. It was the earthquake that gave your location (approximate) away. While I am rambling, I may as well say hello.

  • Steph

    Nate 21, point number two. Yes, when people believe doubters lack knowledge or understanding, the result can be a study in which your mentor wants you to read book x, chapter y, verse z and answer the question, to do which you only need to repeat back a section of the verse verbatim. Ugh.

    Or, a visiting pastor can get wind that you have questions about a particular theological debate and, on an occasion when he is a guest in your house, he can unexpectedly announce, “So, I heard you have questions about …” He can then explain why the position you are beginning to lean towards is wrong and can enthusiastically tell you that he is excited because (he knows you will come around to his biblical position one day and) God will use you mightily down the road…. And I thought I was just serving an out of town guest dinner!

    It is the “there is only one way to think about this issue and I will tell you about it over dessert” approach.

  • RJS (5.): I am not sure what you’re responding to from my comment. But, thank you!

  • RJS


    You commented that (5) in the post was both great and a touch naive. I don’t think “naive” was quite the right word – and that was what I was responding to.

  • Ahh…OK. Thanks.

    I still agree with every thing you’ve written so far. I think I’d stand with “naive”, though: for that is what you’ve not addressed.

    In other words, it is optimistic to propose that our emotional responses should be ignored or suppressed- in this case, fear. Precisely because of the losses that are anticipated or perceived to occur.

    But, if my reading of Mark in particular, and other biblical narratives, is close here, even Jesus recognizes that his disciples do have fears and they can respond to him in faith. He doesn’t want them to be afraid- of course, none of us do- and he wants them to consent to trusting him. Not in a coercive way, but I suppose the argument could be made in Mark that his persuasion was love. It’s not always clear what the disciples are afraid of, but Jesus calls them to a deeper and more mature faith in himself.

    Telling our fellow believers in the congregation not to be afraid solely for the sake of maturity isn’t a bad thing, but incomplete. What if fears were recognized, embraced, and we were pointed not to maturity per se, but to Jesus, and by his spirit raise expectations of a maturing faith, and include the proposal that fears and losses are part of the life of salvation from King Jesus?

  • I have found the following three things helpful for my faith and for those members of the church with whom I’ve had doubt-type conversations over the past few years.

    1. It is important to know that there is a lot the Bible does not specifically answer. Take just one example: the degree and amount of suffering in the world. Scripture does not attempt a “theodicy” or an all-encompassing account of why things happen, and in fact there are a few places where you might expect something like that but it’s omitted (Job) or explicitly rebuked (Jesus in Luke on those who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam). This issue is allowed to be something that moves believers to lament and misunderstanding and frustration because frankly that is the sort of thing it is. Sometimes believers implicitly communicate that the Christian faith is supposed to provide answers to every little thing; and while the Christian tradition certainly does provide wisdom (and quite a few answers), this is far from being a functional encyclopedia of random issues.

    2. But the existence of seemingly meaningless or unjustified suffering doesn’t undercut grounds for belief in Christ (and there are other areas of difficulty within Christianity and biblical studies about which the same thing could be said, such as debates about Genesis or about the OT “texts of terror”). Believing in Christ is dependent on a few specific things, such as the reliability of the Gospel portraits of his life, the trustworthiness of the apostolic witness to the resurrection as transmitted in the NT and early church teaching / community life, etc. Many American believers, especially those who grow up in church contexts that are less thoughtful and more reflexive than others, don’t realize that “faith” in the NT is a very specific confidence in Christ for very specific reasons. So often, however, “faith” becomes a nebulous religious catch-all for all sorts of assumptions, convictions, even political persuasions; but the more closely you study the NT you see that their confidence in Christ hardly rests on something so amorphous and open to being shot through when challenged with growth and new ideas.

    3. Finally, once the very specific NT grounds for faith are realized, it’s helpful to point people in the direction of the massive amount of thoughtful work that’s gone into understanding and contextualizing the New Testament. Many Christians have just never seen some of this scholarship (both academic and popular), and maybe they’ve subconsciously imbibed a few “skeptical” assumptions (such as, “All we have in the New Testament is copies of copies and that’s unreliable”) without being exposed to reasonable conversations about why that doesn’t necessarily undercut faith.

    All of this assumes, of course, that from a pastoral perspective a person experiencing doubt is ready and wiling to devote time and energy to the more intellectual / historical side of the conversation. Usually there’s also something else going on (because that’s what it means to be a person – we have a lot going on emotionally / spiritually / socially) and so it’s dangerous to assume anything about why a person doubts prior to investing time in knowing them and empathizing with their struggles.

    What I have found in studying the New Testament is that there is much greater room in the Christian faith for a great deal of lament and even ignorance – I often find myself explaining that I do not understand something, or that I believe I might have some insight but that it regularly escapes me, etc.

    Much of this echoes what you’ve already written, RJS, and I’m glad you brought this up and wrote what you did.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — super, super post; I double-ditto the McGrath book; and excellent comments by you, T, and AHH.

    You all help renew my faith!

  • James Rednour

    Wow, this could not be a more timely discussion for me. I have spent the past year under a pastor who has Calvinist leanings for the first time in my life and the experience just about drove me away from Christianity completely. I’m a rational and have always struggled with reconciling a loving God with a God who is omnipotent and possesses divine foreknowledge. Part of my problem is that I think too much and don’t accept arguments that don’t make sense to me simply because they come from authority. In the past, I have been able to live in a state of relatively comfortable cognitive dissonance but sitting under a pastor who is preaching a God of judgement and wrath as opposed to the God of love that I have always known was too much. I basically said to myself that I would rather live my live as an agnostic or atheist instead of worshiping a God like that. Call it rebellion or whatever, but I have a strong sense of right and wrong and the Reformed God is wrong to me (no offense intended to any Calvinists reading this).

    What brought me back from the edge was Open Theism. My pastor would call it heretical, but for a free thinker it was exactly what I was looking for. Suddenly, the passages in the Bible where God seems to express regret or changes his mind in response to prayer began to make sense to me. Also, the idea that God offers the gift of salvation to all, and may not even know the identities of those destined for hell gave me great comfort and peace.

    Is Open Theism a true view of God? I have no idea, but it makes sense to me from a scriptural perspective and like Roger Olsen says, it really doesn’t make if it is or is not. Open Theism is largely a philosophical construct for me. It gives me hope that God is not a puppet controlling the fates of his creation from cradle to grave.

    My problem was not in not knowing what I believed but in knowing what I believed (or at least accepted) and not being able to rectify it within my mind. I suspect the second half of my life as a Christian is going to be quite different from the first half.

  • James Rednour

    DRT, your post at #18 is spot on. Thank you. It’s good to see you here instead of mixing it up with KDY at TGC. 🙂

  • DRT

    James Rednour, thanks, I feel much happier here 🙂

  • JamesB

    Like many here, I recently went througha long period of doubt. In the end I found that the only way I was able to “overcome” it, as it were, was to embrace it. The natural tendency, I find, is to recoil in the face of doubt and return to what has brought us comfort in the past, but I had reached a point where I knew I couldn’t continue to be true to myself unless I stood up and faced it head on.
    I began to read books and visit websites outside of my comfort zone that challenged me to really examine what I believed and why; books by more liberal and even non-Christian authors.

    It was a very frightening and painful experience at times and not one that I lightly recommend to anyone. But it was the only way I was able to find any peace.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I ultimately found I had no good reason to remain a Christian, but I know of many who traveled a similar path to mine and still consider themselves Christians in one form or another. Pete Rollins is a good example that comes to mind.

    Regardless of where I am in five, ten or twenty years, I am confident of this: I am no longer afraid to doubt. In fact, I welcome it more and more each day. It’s a wonderfully freeing experience.

  • #18, 35 – thanks.

    Positive doubt, engaged liminality, emphatic ambiguity, or what I like to call interrobanging (with far more interro than banging) (look it up).

    RJS, the very last line of Patton’s post says this, “If the doubters cannot find identity in a Christian crowd, they will find it in another.” Patton refers to a kind of relational empathy outside of the status quo. And yet we’re still asking the same self-referential questions,

    “What can the church do to help to prevent these crises? What can the church do to help people grow through doubts and questions?”

    Many are doubting the preeminence of “the church” itself. I’ve lost hope in models of tribal membership “set apart” from the greater tribe of humanity. I’ve lost hope in “us / them” religion. Bucky Fuller once said “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.” If the goodness of creation isn’t something I can find (often hidden) in every person, in every corner of creation, then it is a good so limited and constrained as to make a mockery of love.

    Doubt. I doubt the claim of any tribe or council as truth’s preferred proxy. Even the best construct remains little more than a signpost pointing us to truth. And I doubt that truth is a tidy collection of right answers (in other words, I doubt that our signpost is merely pointing to another signpost…..). If there were a normative, calculated answer to every question and doubt, we could simply program a computer to spit out answers to any question.

    Jesus said love others, neighbors, God, enemies. But my greatest doubt is in my ability to love. Love my enemy? Really? Until I learn how to do THAT, religious identity seems (at best) like an inauthentic proxy for truth or (at worst) a road block. As with Nick’s last sentence, I admit that I’ve given up on “Christian identity.” If love doesn’t precede and infuse my entire life, then any claim to “religion” or “proxy tribe” is an exercise in self-deceit.