“Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.” MADELEINE L’ENGLE
Recently, I heard someone pray for young people. There was nothing inherently wrong with the prayer, but there was something the person said that hit me wrong. Now, I do not believe he meant it how I perceived it. But, it got the wheels turning in my head. He prayed for God to protect our young people from “joining the ranks of the de-conversion movement.”
I assume he was talking about the “trend” of what is called “deconstruction” that is somewhat prevalent amongst the younger generation (including my own). Please understand that I have no problem with praying for young people or even praying that they are protected from leaving the faith. What struck me the wrong way was the recruitment language and the portrayal of deconstruction as a “movement.” As if those who have walked through deconstruction are trying to advance a movement of de-conversion and unbelief.
I am sure there are some skeptics and de-converted individuals that are aggressive with their views and seek to “recruit” believers to their ranks. However, many of the “young people” and even high profile people who have deconstructed their faith have walked through a disillusioning and painful experience of doubt. For many, leaving the faith was a grief filled experience. Many were extremely committed—I mean, some had devoted their lives to full-time ministry. Their deconstruction was a disorienting, agonizing process.
When I was in college there was a band* that was started by some students and became quite popular. Part of the appeal was the raw and honest lyrics in their songs. One that I remember was titled “Times are Changing.” The lyrics of the second verse capture the internal angst of a doubter:
Lives are changing
Everybody's waving hands in the air
They're singing songs of praise
But it feels so dead to me
Could it be that I just don't believe?
That’s the question that a believer who collides with doubt is faced with: Could it be that I just don’t believe?
A Snippet of My Story
I grew up in the church. I went to a Christian school where I had Bible class as an academic subject every day. I knew the Bible answers. Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that faith was being certain about what you believed. We had whole sections of our Bible class focused on apologetics—knowing the right answers so that we could defend our faith. What logically followed is the idea that being a “strong Christian” with a “strong faith” meant you had zero doubt. Zilch. Nada.
Questions that could lead to doubt were to be avoided. When faith is measured by your certainty, doubt is a sure sign of a weak faith. Or, as Peter Enns* puts it “When knowing what you believe is the nonnegotiable center of true faith, questions and critical self-examination pose a threat.”
So, you can imagine how disorienting doubt and questions can be for someone who believes that “know what you believe with absolute certainty” is the measure of true faith.
If knowing what you believe with absolute certainty is the measure of true faith, and you find you have questions… well, you start to wonder if your faith is true. Most times, you start to wonder in isolation because you don’t feel safe voicing your struggle in a subculture that treats doubts like they’re ants at a picnic—something to be squashed.
My Collision with Doubt
I have always had a sort of inquisitive nature. I like to investigate, understand, research—you know, do nerdy things. When I went to school to study ministry, I went in believing I knew all the answers and knew what I believed. I mean, I had Bible class every day since first grade.
I had a “strong” faith according to some standards. It took one undergrad theology course to introduce me to the reality that I knew so very little about church history, the context of the Scriptures, the larger history and scope of Christian orthodox theology. Suffice to say, I realized I did not know as much as I thought I knew.
But, I desired to learn. I decided sometime during my undergrad that I wanted to be a life-long learner. I wanted to read and study and explore the world of theology, Church history, and the context of Scripture.
Long story short, my search for knowledge confronted me with diverse ideas and more questions than answers sometimes. I do not think the pursuit of knowledge or truth is the problem. My framework for understanding the measure of faith was the problem. This, in combination with a few cross-cultural experiences and a dose of disappointment with the local church added in for good measure…and, well, I had a few full-blown existential crisis.
I had questions about everything. Suffering and justice. Why are some people born into seemingly hopeless circumstances? I’ve been to countries where children struggle to have enough to eat on a daily basis. How do I reconcile my Christian version of the American dream with the reality that most of the world’s population has very little opportunity to dream.
I had questions about Scripture. I don’t want to send anyone else down an unnecessary path. And, let me say up front, I believe the Scriptures are inspired by God, are authoritative for all matters of faith and practice, and are beautifully mysterious and at times, incredibly frustrating to understand.
I love the Scriptures. I make it habit to read through the entire Bible every couple of years (I don’t share that as a brag. I simply want to make it clear that I love the Scriptures and make them a priority in my life). It’s just that the fact that it was written in a completely different language, culture, historical and cultural context makes it not as “black and white” as some people assert. “The Bible is clear” is one of the most frustrating statements I hear people say. Don’t get me wrong. I believe some things are clear. But there are some things that are just not.
I’ll give you just one example. When you lay the gospels together side by side and try to construct a clear timeline of the Passion Week and the Resurrection, things get… well, not “black and white” clear.
Was the “Last Supper” just a normal Thursday night meal, or was it the Passover meal? How could it be the Passover meal when John states in John 18:28,
Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.
Meaning, according to John, the Passover meal was on Friday evening not Thursday.
With the Resurrection, Matthew and Luke depict multiple women going to the tomb. John only mentions Mary Magdalene going to the tomb. In Matthew, Jesus appears to all the women. Mark and John depict Jesus appearing to only Mary Magdalene first. When and where Jesus appears to the eleven is a little tricky too.
Now, I want to again clarify: I believe the Scriptures are true. I believe a timeline can be constructed that makes sense. There are some cultural and contextual details relating to the Passover and the timing of the Sabbath that can help make sense of the Last Supper. I also believe that John mentioned Mary Magdalene for a specific reason and that his mentioning only her does not by nature mean the other women were not with her. Each author communicated what he wanted with beautiful intentionality to bear witness to the Resurrection. And, each account has a vantage point—they would actually be less credible if the accounts were exact replicas.
I simply share these examples to demonstrate that one can run into some questions by studying the Bible deeply. I share these examples to point out that the Scriptures are not exactly clear on all points. Some Christians seem to think the pathway to questions and doubt is one of rebellion and obstinance. For me, some of my questions came from deeply and sincerely studying the Scriptures.
Another thing that fed my doubt was the lack of grace and love and compassion and empathy among some of Jesus’ followers. I don’t want to spend too much time here because a vast majority of Jesus-followers are making a huge and positive difference in our world. However, it is very disillusioning when the people who are supposed to reflect Jesus cause so much pain in the name of Jesus. Some people wrestle with doubt because they come to doubt the authenticity of His Body (the Church).
Why I Still Follow Jesus
The disciple we have labelled as “Doubting Thomas” articulated doubts about the resurrection. The truth is, he wasn’t any different from the other ten. When the women reported the empty tomb, the men didn’t believe them either. Luke writes, “But they [the eleven] did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (24:11). The other ten were doubters too when the report came from the women.
Additionally, when Jesus appeared to the other ten disciples, John makes it clear that Thomas was not there. The ten saw Jesus with their own eyes. Thomas demanded to see what the other disciples had already experienced. Seems fair.
You know what is the most beautiful part of Thomas’ story? Jesus appears to Thomas a week later and meets every single one of his demands. Jesus meets him in the place of his doubt. What follows is that Thomas is recorded as making one of the first and most explicit declarations of Jesus’ divinity, “My Lord, and my God” (John 20:28).
I believe my questions have pushed me to a deeper faith. A faith that boldly approaches the throne of my Father and asks questions. I know God can handle them. I put God on trial sometimes. Is that appropriate? I don’t know. Some would say “no.” But I have found that he often meets me there. There in the place of my doubts.
I also have found that I just can’t walk away from Jesus. I do not have a concrete, skeptic-proof explanation for this. I have tried to go down the path in my mind of walking away from faith. I have found that I could walk away from religion. I could even fill my life with other things besides church activity. What I can’t do is walk away from Jesus.
I believe Jesus is who he says he is. I believe Jesus overcame death. I believe in Resurrection hope. So, I will live my life trying to follow Jesus. As a pastor, I will invite others to follow Jesus with me while striving to be salt and light in our world. I will invite those who do not believe to “come and see.” To join me at the table of grace where sinners, prodigals, and even skeptics are welcome.
I doubt, but I follow anyways. In the midst of my unanswered questions and in the midst of unexplained mysteries, I follow Jesus. I think that is called faith.
I was listening to a sermon the other day on a bike ride. The preacher* was speaking about Jacob’s story. Do you remember the scene in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with God and God touches his hip leaving him with a limp (see Genesis 32:22-32)? The pastor referenced this scene and stated words that resonated deeply with my soul:
“There are people here who are still fighting with God. It’s not always your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. Maybe. But one day when you were minding your own business, it seems to you that God himself jumped you and assaulted you… you’ve started to wonder with all this wrestling going on in your soul if that denies the fact that you’re a Christian—a follower of God. Listen to me. It might be exactly the opposite. The identity of an Israelite is one that fights and wrestles with God. It is not one who has figured everything out…You must learn to wrestle with God without walking away…Maybe this doesn’t prove that you’re a skeptic. Maybe it proves you’re a saint if you stay in the fight.”
I am staying in the fight. I am not walking away.
How You Can Help A Family Member or Friend Deconstructing
- Listen. Listen to their questions with empathy. Don’t try to answer their questions. Just listen to understand.
- Pray for them. Not in a patronizing, self-righteous sort of way. Just lift their stories up to the Father.
- Encourage them to participate and belong in community. We need relationships. Even those who don’t believe in Jesus need relationships. Just being a part of community shapes us. They need to be in community.
- Do not demonize them. Please do not demonize their struggle with doubt. Doubt has the potential to lead to a deeper experience of faith and trust. Questions compel us to search.
- Encourage them to search for answers and stay in the fight. Encourage them, without patronizing them, to not resign to unbelief. Resignation is easy. Unbelief is easy. Wrestling and searching is hard work. Encourage them to do the hard work before they just walk away.
*Mosquito Fleet is still making music if you want to check them out: https://mosquitofleet.bandcamp.com
*Peter Enns is a Bible scholar who teaches at Eastern University. His views would be considered by some as “Progressive.” I did not share his quote as an endorsement of all of his views, but I have learned from his scholarship.
*The message was by Pastor Steve DeNeff at College Wesleyan Church. You can view the message here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duMKMhbETt4 (the part referenced starts at 51:15)