Those Who Doubt

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]att.net

If you wish to comment please see Those Who Doubt on Jesus Creed.

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