Encouraging belief

Encouraging belief June 27, 2010

Narrow way
'Narrow way' (photo by Arenamontanus, Flickr).
I’ve been thinking for a while about how to encourage belief in my two children, particularly faith in God, trust in his mercy, and hope in his provision. But all around me I see people losing belief, not only in these things particularly, but in God generally. Why?

I don’t think it’s the new crop of media-savvy atheists and all their “persuasive” arguments. I know enough about belief and persuasion to know that most of the time people do not change their minds unless they they’re primed to do so. A good argument doesn’t change your mind; it makes you defensive, standoffish, angry, all sorts of things—but not ready to ditch a cherished and heartfelt belief. Safe bet: If you drop God after hearing an argument, it’s because you dropped him already but haven’t admitted it to yourself yet.

So why do we drop God? I think it has to do with our sin. Sinful behavior and belief in God don’t mix. That’s why believers are called to repent from sin daily, hourly. A life in Christ and willful sin are incongruous.

But what if a person wants to sin? We often do. We like sin and don’t like repentance, which is usually difficult and demanding.

Here’s my conviction: If someone willfully cultivates their sin instead of repentance, they will lose their belief in God. They will become atheists, even if they don’t admit it to themselves until many years later. I am convicted of this for two reasons, one theoretical and one personal.

Theoretical: Incongruity is hard to maintain. The human mind is not very good with contradictions, tensions, things that don’t jibe. We impulsively try to resolve most when we discover them. We need things to make sense. We tell ourselves stories, we reorder events, we fabricate new hypotheses, we amplify focus on one thing and drop focus on the competing thing—and that includes dropping focus on God if he’s making life hard for us. Our belief atrophies, or cools, or shifts to the background, whatever. Bottom line, we let go our grip on God so we can hold onto our sins.

Personal: My own struggles with belief have been their most intense when I was living the worst. I can even remember saying to myself (many times) that I wish I didn’t believe in God. Atheism would have been easier than trying to reconcile my faith to my sinful behavior. I never did lose my belief (by God’s grace), but facing my sin in light of that dilemma made me realize that belief and unbelief were the stark choices.

The narrow path is narrow because God is the focus. The broad path is broad because the peripheral vision occupies so much of our lives that God fades, gets fuzzy, dissipates until he’s a shadow. Atheism is not so much a problem of belief as it is behavior.

Back to my kids. It occurs to me that the most important means to encourage belief in God, to encourage their love, trust, and hope in God is to encourage repentance and help them cultivate holiness. The greater the sanctification, the deeper the belief.

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  • Amen brother! You say it best. It’s very easy to run away from our sin and pretend like there isn’t a God because its just easier that way. The hardest part about believing is (for lack of a better term) owning up to your own shit. Well said!

  • Wow, this is quotable:
    The narrow path is narrow because God is the focus. The broad path is broad because the peripheral vision occupies so much of our lives that God fades, gets fuzzy, dissipates until he’s a shadow.
    Very very good post, Joel.

  • I think you are right, Joel. I used to have a boss in a former publishing company who always wanted to argue theology with me. He was very liberal and kept trying to “straighten me out.” As it turns out, he was living in adultery and left his wife to marry one of our authors. He never did recover professionally. More important, he never recovered personally.

  • Profound. Psychologically sound. Really good, too. 🙂

    (I pay-attention to what Michael tweets, and I am not even a relative.)

  • I often wonder how did Christ attract his apostles to him? How did He make them leave everything, there and then, on the spot without saying goodbye to their mums and dads, children, wives? That’s what I need to find out in order to get kids attracted to Christ, and stay attracted.

  • I’m not much impressed with these sentiments, though people I respect a great deal highly recommended ’em.

    Your post boils down to this: if we don’t believe in your God, it’s our fault. Essentially, you’re suggesting that anyone who doesn’t believe in your God must have an ulterior motive for doing so (in this case, they’re so in love with sin, they can’t bear the truth).

    There are alternatives. For example: when I was a kid, the God I was taught to believe in had nothing at all to do with the reality of God … but was, instead, merely a reflection of my family’s (my and culture’s) own fears, prejudices, and insecurities. I didn’t lose faith in that God because I loved sin; I lost faith in that God because I reached a point where, based on everything I knew and had experienced, that God was clearly and plainly a myth (and a pretty virulent myth at that).

    In my personal experience — and your mileage may vary, of course — it’s the people with the *weakest* faith who have to position questioners, skeptics, and doubters as dishonest (at best) or delusional (at worst).

  • Boy, am I glad I follow Michael Hyatt on Twitter. I think you’re completely correct, Joel. It’s nice to be reminded of what not to do.

  • Mark, thanks for your response. There is obviously a limit to what can be said and how it can be nuanced in 500-or-so words. My observation was not meant to be exhaustive or explain every instance of disbelief, only communicate something I’ve witnessed many times in both my own life and in others’. There is no formula for faith, and someone could probably argue that it’s to some unbelievers’ credit that they reject Christianity as it’s occasionally presented. I’m certainly not vaunting my own faith or positioning all questioners, skeptics, and doubters as dishonest or delusional; sometimes a period of disbelief and doubt leads to stronger faith in the end (note the story of A. N. Wilson on this point; he’s certainly not alone).

  • Hey, Joel!

    Good post! I have been through many rough patches in my Walk with G*d, and I agree that it is very often when our lifestyle choices flounder or veer of course that we find it the most difficult to remain faithful.

    I got to thinking about other things that may cause non-belief, unbelief, or loss of belief. I think a big one is that people become disillusioned and jaded by organized religion. I have experienced this in my own life, even though I have never had a desire to “become atheist”. It is really important to be in a Church that perpetuates the values you’re talking about and encourages children to participate.

    One other thing I thought of that lends to loss of faith is the way “Christians” are portrayed in mass media. Too often, there are extremists, claiming Christian doctrines, who forget to exercise their doctrines with the love of Jesus. I think it is also important to teach that everything we do as Christians is about loving G*d and loving others. Children understand love better than most any of us, though, so I doubt that will ever be a hard thing to teach them.

    I don’t have any kids- but I hope that introduces some new thoughts. Great post, I look forward to reading more.


  • Nicki Cumming

    This is great, Joel! Jesus spoke this principle when he said that “no man can serve two masters”. Either we surrender ourselves to our own will or to God’s will,
    Sadly, I’ve witnessed a friend’s marriage crumble because her husband chose certain behaviours and actions that fed his will and he now claims unbelief in God. Their relationship could not survive that kind of rebellion.
    I do wonder, though, why a colleague decided at 16, after having been through a few different churches,that he was an atheist? Can I assume that his parents and spiritual leaders did not foster a passionate desire for holiness and surrender to God in his life at an early age?
    Would love to hear your thoughts!

  • Interesting approach to faith. Several opinions:
    – if a child was exposed to Christian belief then he chose no to follow God anymore, he will not have peace until he will come back “home”. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit who is chasing us like heat guided weapon.
    – following Christ is a rational choice, we must weigh in the arguments then make a decision. As the level of life and science will go up that choice pro God will be tougher to make because we have the illusion we are in control which is not the case. One of the most important factor that leads to following God is humilty that I have failed as a human from God’s point of view, and humility is a very rare assest to find today. Greetings from Romania!

  • Bonnie Buckingham

    I got here via Dr. Grant’s twitter and seems to be a very good word for me.
    How do you reconcile failure and asking God to bless or open a door?
    That is what is hard for my children. They believe but have a hard time with
    faith: trusting in the bad times as well as when the blessings flow.

  • Oh, I wish I didn’t like this post.

    Because the fact that I like it means I need to DO something about it.

    So, will your next post give me the easy answer to what I need to do to straighten my life out, or is it going to be just as hard as this one?

    Sigh. Well, stated, Joel.

  • Joel,

    You’re right on the money about this, and you have well expressed the thesis of my recent book, The Making of an Atheist: http://themakingofanatheist.com/.

    Keep up the good work, brother!

  • Jim: thanks for the pointer on your book. I’m going to check it out. It looks great.

    Bonnie: I don’t think there are any easy answers to that question. God’s providence is a mystery; sometimes we see it clearly, a lot of times we’re in a fog. The ultimate act of God’s providence, thankfully, shines bright and clear — the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we understand the greatness of that provision many other concerns pale. But I’m the first to admit that God’s providence can disappoint. Praying for our children that they would grow in faith while we also grow in faith is probably the best we can do.

  • John Michael Crofford

    If you want to have *good* arguments, then you need to stick to positions for which you can provide reproducible evidence. *Good* arguments change peoples’ minds. *Dumb* arguments, like arguments over angels dancing on the heads of pins or the existence of God, only make people angry because nobody can provide any evidence.