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Editor’s Picks: Best of “Why Do I Think?”

As we’ve spent the last three months looking at what it looks like to love God with all of our minds—we’ve been asking the question, “Why do I Think?”.

Dear Doubting Christian, God Is Not Afraid of Your Questions

Written By Dan Paterson, Australia

Dan Paterson is an itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and based in Brisbane, Australia. An ordained pastor, Dan speaks regularly to audiences on how the gospel connects to life’s biggest questions and on the popular objections to the Christian faith, particularly on the question of suffering. Dan is married to Erin, and they have three young sons, Josiah, Zachariah, and Seth.

Dear Doubting Christian,

I am filled with grief when I see how Christians treat doubt and doubters. For whatever my words are worth, I want to offer a profound apology for any time you’ve been written off easily by Christians in your circle—maybe even made to feel as though you’re “not really one of us” because you struggle to believe what others claim comes so naturally to them.

I know that behind every believer is a doubter. Whether we’re confronted with intellectual challenges to the Christian story, or experience dark nights of the soul when our lives are falling apart (or both), we all have questions for God. And annoyingly, so often, God isn’t as real to us in those moments as we want Him to be. He doesn’t act in line with our expectations.

What I find fascinating about the Bible is how Jesus seems far more comfortable with doubt than the Church has become. Think about how many of the Psalms ask some pretty raw questions that stem from disappointments with God. Consider King David’s plea, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1). What a scandalous time in history it must have been as Jesus echoed this heart cry on the cross: Even God questioning God is in the Bible (Matthew 27:46).

And after His resurrection, Jesus seems okay with doubters being amongst His followers. Matthew’s Gospel records how even after seeing Jesus resurrected from the dead, some of His first followers doubted whilst others worshipped (Matthew 28:17). Or, take Thomas. The night of Jesus’ resurrection, while Thomas was out for some unknown reason (perhaps getting the unleavened pizza), Jesus appears and convinces the others He is alive (John 20:19-23). Does Thomas believe their story? No. And John records that for a whole week, Jesus left one of His apostles in the fog of doubt (John 20:24-29).

Through these stories of doubt that are filled with raw questions, the Bible gives us the emotional register and permission to voice our own. God is not afraid of your questions, even if you have experienced some Christians to be. Perhaps your voice will challenge any cultural winds within the Church that treat doubt as an enemy to faith—something we can all benefit from.

My own story is one where doubt was a doorway to Christian faith. Why? Because I was challenged to explore whether the Christian story could make sense of my objections. To my surprise, upon investigation, I found far more than I was looking for. I was then nurtured in a Christian community where doubt and critical questions were expected as part of a maturing faith. And as someone for whom tough questions once kept me away from God, I’ve now devoted my life to helping others ask away at the Christian story.

There are some substantial (not always complete) answers to many of the questions swirling in your mind, even if you feel no one is talking about it. And there is an entire sub-discipline known as “apologetics” devoted to helping Christians wrestle with whether the gospel is good and true news. It spans various lines of evidence from the fields of philosophy, history, science, and psychology. After critical scrutiny for centuries, it isn’t a rhetorical hyperbole to say that, academically speaking, the case for God and the Christian story is stronger now than ever.

But embarking on your own journey to answer your questions may require a complete deconstruction of your faith in order to build again on a new foundation—one that can survive the storms of doubt and suffering that Jesus promised would come (Matthew 7:24-27). You may discover, like me, that the Christian story is far more nuanced and exciting in making sense of reality than you now believe it to be, and that it really is good news for every area of human life.

I hope you are able to think about what lies behind your questions. Our stated reasons are rarely the reason we distance ourselves from God, as often they are merely an avenue to articulate a deeper distrust we have with the whole “God” thing. I don’t know your story or the events that have brought you to this place of doubt, but I’m curious as to whether there isn’t a mountain of disappointment with God upon which you’re asking these questions. Because if there is, the Bible’s prescription for doubts of the heart is different to how it deals with doubts of the mind. The mind needs answers, but the heart needs mercy, presence, friendship, and healing. So rightly diagnosing the doubt matters.

But let me close with a word of hope. The Apostle Peter once thought his faith impervious to doubt. He promised Jesus he would stand where others fell, only to hours later lose his faith. He doubted everything. He denied Jesus. Thrice. But this is what Jesus said to him:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-33, ESV)

Right now, know that Jesus is bound by His love to pray that your faith may not fail. Standing before the Father, Jesus is perpetually animated with a passion to intercede for you (Hebrews 7:25). And this is a hopeful posture and picture of God that has often warmed my doubting heart.

I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I only hope that one day you return to worship Jesus—but with the whole of your rational mind and heart convinced of the goodness, truth, and beauty of the gospel. In so doing, no doubt, you will strengthen other doubters like me.

Dear Joshua and Marty: You’re Not Alone

Dear Joshua and Marty,

I read your announcements within weeks of each other and can only imagine the circumstances that led you both to write your posts. I know enough to recognize that what you’ve told the public will only be a fraction of an intense and complex story. No one walks away from everything they’ve known on a whim.

This letter comes from no place resembling a high horse. I only wanted to reach out to say that I identify with this turning point in your lives. I certainly wasn’t well-known like either of you, but did have some degree of standing in my local church. More importantly, I felt like I’d really gotten it, what it meant to have a relationship with God. But life happened, and one day I was just done believing in Him.

I was very frustrated with a lot of the Christian responses I got. Some expressed their incredulousness that “someone like you” could be in “a place like that” (I’m still not quite sure how that was meant to spur me back to the faith). Others did try to be present. But in their urgency to fix me, they tended to listen only to point out all the logical inconsistencies in what I was saying. Mind, I didn’t have to make any public announcements about leaving the faith, so I was spared the hateful reactions I’ve seen whizzing about online (I’m so very sorry you’ve had to be subjected to that).

The trouble was that these responses weren’t saying anything I hadn’t already used in an attempt to beat myself back “on track”. But being told what I should be thinking or doing just wasn’t enough to get me there. Did you feel this too? The anguish of knowing what the “right things” to think and feel are, but realizing, more and more acutely as the days go on, that you’re just not there. I felt it coming for a few years myself, without a clue about how to bridge the increasing chasm between where I was and where I should be.

“Come home!” everyone was crying. “You know where it is!” Well yes, that’d be nice. But without first trying to find out exactly where I was, how could anyone give me useful directions to get me back to the right spot?

Perhaps that was what I needed, once I was ready to deal with the pain of where I was. To have someone recognize that I was in pain, and then be patient enough to identify the terrain of that pain with me. What was I feeling and why? What was the deep cry and need in my heart that my version of the Christian life wasn’t meeting? Was there a truth that I was somehow missing, even after all these years of being a believer?

Perhaps not many of us are taught how to speak to pain. So we often panic and are at a loss for what to say when we see it. Then we grasp for the words that we do have: platitudes, solutions, truth-telling (oh, we’re so good at that).

But the language of the mind is not the language that speaks to a broken heart. It is not what makes another person’s pain feel seen.

Not that I was ready to figure this out immediately, of course. And in all likelihood, neither of you will be too. But perhaps a response that creates space for doubt is part of the language that speaks to pain.

Maybe if someone had been able to show me how to struggle well and ask wiser questions when the pieces of my faith were starting not to fit, I wouldn’t have bolted in the other direction to find comfort elsewhere. Maybe I would have stayed a little longer to figure it out.

Because maybe the “God” that we were wanting to leave wasn’t really God at all. Just someone who looked and sounded a lot like Him. I didn’t believe the wrong things about God; He had all the fundamental tenets of all the right Christian creeds. It was just that what I knew about Him was incomplete. I’d missed a critical detail, one critical beam that would keep my framework from collapsing in a storm (Matthew 7:24–27): I didn’t believe that God knew me better than I knew myself (Psalm 139:1–4) . That made it impossible to trust Him when times got really tough, because I couldn’t be certain that He knew what I really needed.

Our missing pieces are probably different, but their consequences are similar. Being one degree off at the starting point doesn’t really look like much. But if we keep walking on along that bearing for long enough, we eventually end up terribly off course. We find ourselves on an arduous path, carrying an enormous burden, without going anywhere life-giving. It is hell trying to bear the high, high cost of Christian discipleship for a “God” who isn’t really God, even if he does have the name “Jesus” slapped on him.

It was utterly freeing at first to leave the faith. Finally, I could build a life with frameworks that resonated with what I felt. For three years, it really did seem like I’d found a better place to set up home. But somewhere along the way, the same sensitivity in my gut that told me my earlier version of Christianity wasn’t working told me again that something wasn’t quite right with all the new frameworks I’d found either.

And it was painful all over again. But this time, someone was there to really listen to me. Based on what I said, she was able to help me see the piece that I missed about God. The piece that would make things fit, give me hope, and—finally—peace. I wish she could have been there the first time. But maybe I needed to come to the end of myself first, to really be able to ask for help.

Joshua and Marty, more than anything, I hope that you’ll have people who can create a safe space for you in this turning point of your life. I hope they’ll sit with you for as long as it takes to grieve what you have lost and bear witness to your pain. And I hope they’ll have words that offer both compassion and clarity, so that you’ll be able to step out of your pain and into something more life-giving one day. I’m rooting for you.

Sincerely,
Nelle

Episode 5: How Can I keep My Faith During Suffering?