Blog

On Talking to Those Who Doubt

The first thing you have to know about talking to most doubters is that they have a strong suspicion that you have never been there . . . that you just don’t understand. It is easy to find yourself in a position of illegitimacy. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

Since I went through my depression three years ago, I have noticed something: there are those who understand depression and there are those who don’t. When I am down, I want to talk to someone who understands. And you know what? If you have not been through it, you normally don’t get it. I know this, because before I went through it, I did not get it. Back then, solutions were simple. Stop sinning, trust God, talk yourself out of it, pray, listen to Christian music, read your Bible, get out of bed, think positively!  Next! These were the quick remedies I would offer to those who were groping for hope in the darkness of despair. Not so anymore. Now, when I enter into that darkness (and I still do), I need to find someone who has been there. When I talk to people who don’t get it – who are like me before I went there – I just fall deeper into the black hole, finding less hope. It is only when I find someone who has been there, can admit it, and is not there now do I find some degree of solace. And I can tell. Those of you who have been there, you know exactly what I am talking about. Whether it is a look in their eye, their avoidance of giving judgmental advice, or their description of their own darkness, I know if they have been there. But most people are insensitive to the plight of those who are truly struggling through depression because they just don’t get it.

It’s easy to find yourself in a position of illegitimacy. It is no different when it comes to dealing with people who are doubting their faith. How do we talk to people who are in the process of walking away from their faith? You see, those people who are in doubt are in a very similar black hole and they need to know you have been there before they will listen to you.

I am going to tell a story and change some of the details a slight bit for the sake of privacy.

Last year I had a church leader from Oklahoma City call me. He was down and discouraged. He informed me that his daughter was doubting her faith. She was twenty-one and was just entering college for the first time. While she grew up in a Christian home and a conservative church, while she had been to youth group all her life, while she served in AWANA, the children’s ministry, and even led a Bible study, she was now questioning everything she knew. “She is having doubts about the trustworthiness of the Bible,” he told me. “I heard from someone that you deal with this kind of stuff. Can you talk to her?” I had them come into the Credo House.

They arrived the very next day. We sat down at the Cappadocian Bar. It was a hot day so I made them a Nicene Mocha Frappuccino. They were amazed at both the taste and the presentation of the frap ( . . . now I am getting off the subject and self-promoting my amazing barista talents). As we began to talk, I realized something very important: this girl was not simply having doubts about her faith. You see, there are two types of doubters. Allow me a brief interlude to describe them.

1) Those whose doubts turn them to depression because they don’t want to lose their faith. They are walking away from the faith facing backward, crying out for help. Because of this, I have more hope for these kind of doubters, but they are in need of emergency counseling. I have hope for them because I know that they want to keep their faith. Therefore, finding the source of the doubt and rebuilding a strong foundation is normally attainable (from a human perspective).

2) Those whose doubts turn them to anger because they think that they have been misled all their lives. They are walking away from the faith facing forward calling on others to follow them. It is not that I don’t have hope for these doubters, but I have less inclination to believe their faith was ever truly established. Sure, these doubters experience anxiety and depression because they are leaving everything they knew, but they are more likely to turn into evangelists of unbelief if something does not change quickly.

I fear for those who have never doubted their faith more than for those who have gone through (or go through) the darkness of uncertainty. At least with both types of doubters above, you know they are taking their faith seriously. Sooner or later you will know where they stand.

I quickly came to realize that this girl I was talking to over coffee was the second type of doubter. It broke my heart as I clearly saw her father’s anxiousness as she expressed her doubts to me. It was not a simple distrust in the reliability of a particular portion of Scripture; this was full-blown antagonism toward everything in the Bible. This person was coming to the bottom of the hill of doubt and just about to cross the line to full-blown unbelief.

However, with both types of doubters, before you can effectively minister to them, you have to gain legitimacy. And the way to gain this is the same for both. They need to know that you have been there. They need to see your battle scars with the Lord. They need to see that you have truly wrestled with these issues. They need to see that you walk with a limp too. Otherwise, you are immediately going to be written off as a naive Christian. In our postmodern society, naivete is the greatest disqualifier for your counsel and witness. So it is important that you raise your shirt and show your scars across your heart. And you know what? Your wound does not necessarily need to be sewn up and closed. It could be wide open. You may be in the middle of the battle yourself. As long as they see you are/have been there and that you have still kept your faith, they will be much more likely to listen. It is just like depression. Once someone sees that you have been there, their first thought is hope. “I am not the only one!” they think to themselves. “How does this person hold it together? There must be a way!” is often their thought.

I know this gal was very surprised as I trumped her struggles and doubts with greater struggles of my own. When she brought up the “atrocities” of the “Old Testament God” I told her that while this was indeed a problem, there was a much greater problem that I have than God leading the call for the death of nations (men, women, children, and animals).  The greater problem is hell. Why would God allow people he loves to go to eternal punishment when he has the power to save them? I don’t know the answer to that (and please don’t let this blog turn into a debate about this issue). When she brought up a “contradiction” in the New Testament, rather than quickly solving it, I acknowledged it and then brought up what I believed to be a much more significant problem. Now, I have my ways of dealing with all of these problems, but this is not really want the doubter wants (or needs).  What they want (need) is to know the listener identifies with them. They need to see that you have truly been there.

There was a long, baffled silence as I continued to acknowledge her problems and then up the ante. After a bit of time, I felt the question I was waiting for was arising within her mind. “Why then are you still a Christian?” A fuller, unexpressed version of the question was this, “If you have the same wounds as me (and more so), how can you still keep the faith?” It was then that I began. It was then that I had an audience. It was then that there was hope for this young lady. I began to explain to her why I believed that true faith and doubt were compatible. Christianity is not understanding seeking faith, but faith seeking understanding.

If you do not show your true colors – worse, if you don’t have true colors – the doubters will go to someone who does. Unfortunately, the crowd they will find is made up of atheists, agnostics, and relativists. Why? Because they are almost always honest about their struggles. If the doubters cannot find identity in a Christian crowd, they will find it in another.

 

53 Responses to “On Talking to Those Who Doubt”

  1. Thank you so much for this Michael. There’s a strong inclination to hide our weaknesses, but our weaknesses are so often our strengths. Reminds me of 2 Corinthians 12. I never cease to be amazed by the profound wisdom and guidance of the Cross of Christ. This wisdom is exactly what I need for an upcoming conversation.

  2. You. I just prayed your meeting would go well.

  3. Is there an “end of the story”?

  4. No, it is ongoing now. Please pray for the person. Part of the change in the story was that this was a year ago. It was actually two weeks ago.

  5. Your statement that “In our postmodern society, naivety is the greatest disqualifier for your counsel and witness” to me is so powerful and needs to be shouted from the roof tops for all who would properly witness for Christ. It has and continues to resonate with me. That idea along with being confident that I can have faith while seeking understanding, is what I have gained since I started reading your blog several years ago. I really thank you have really encouraged me and given me new boldness in my walk with Christ that I did not have before because of my doubt. I know see where and how it can be used as a withnessing tool.

  6. Michael, I applaud your approach. I use that “technique” when helping anyone through a difficult situation…like my adult kids. I used to supply the answer before the question was asked. I don’t know how I learned but it got into my head that you do indeed have a most attentive audience when they pose the burning question first. What you did was make it safe for her to lay it all out there. I’m sure she expected another one of “those talk”s and had preconceived ideas of what all your advice was going to be. Had she been right and once you had started and she had objected with news that she’s tried this or that and heard this or that before, she’d be pretty hard to convince at that point that you share her pain. She’s be shut down. You would have had to do a major song and dance to break through to her. Your approach makes so much more sense. So why does it take so long for us to understand that approach? What is our own anxiousness about the “doubter”? I think it’s our own insecurity. I think when we sweep down on the doubter, we are really desperately witnessing to ourselves. She’s just a tool we use to have that conversation with ourselves. Once we feel safe (accept) with our own doubts, we are able to allow others to express their doubts. We just are no longer threatened by doubters. We just don’t have to try so hard. And believe me, others we counsel know when we are trying really hard. And it scares them. They feel smothered and not heard. Good job!

  7. Added observation: I used to not understand therapy groups. Droning on and on about your experience with several others having the same experiences, just didn’t seem beneficial before. It seemed to me that they just wanted to stay victims and found a safe place to do so. I just could never understand how they could move forward, be over-comers if their social life was spent in a black hole talking about ….well, darkness. But I think I get it now. What you did first was validate her experience. That’s what support groups do. You hear others that haven’t had it as bad as you and other stories you could never top if you lived to be 100. And typically, these support groups are an hour, once a week, maybe 2 or 3. But the majority of their time is spent in mainstream society. So they don’t really live there….in support groups. I think one of the biggest benefits of support groups is to show YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! Feeling isolated, alone in a single dilemma or chronic depression is the worse part of it all. Rather than connecting with her on some deep psychological level, your approach was actually more spiritual. She was really needing that. Who doesn’t need that? Family is so fearful we tend to build walls. We can feel so responsible for their own mental health. Sounds as if she was perhaps feeling her Christian life was superficial? Feeling disconnected? And your right, if you don’t let her heart bleed, if you don’t look her in the eyes, if you don’t accept her doubts without judgement, she will find another people group who will. There are some really sensitive, caring, accepting atheists.

  8. Nicely handled. Would love to hear more details from future conversations.

  9. I think everyone in this fallen world can identify with doubt at times, and the devil does try every door handle into our hearts to see if any are open.
    I have also realized through the years that it is harder to talk to an indifferent person than a doubter. Perhaps indifferent people are comfortable in the box that they put themselves in or the control of others.
    I think doubt comes also at times when we are struck harshly whether by words from other Christians, especially when we are young adults…one of the major cases of backsliding ever, yes?
    But I think mostly it is the enemy (devil) that gets in there, whispers in our ears when we are at a low ebb for whatever reason, even for a moment. I think our hearts are waiting for a Cinderella rescue syndrome from God, but God is already there waiting for us to just believe in Him.

    Strangely, I was thinking about a woman who lost faith in going to her church, and I said something to the effect that that is exactly what the devil wants, and he won. It was all a very gentle long conversation, but with all that was said, she went back to church and her faith continued to grow.

    I also perceive that some churches make one feel every week that they need to re-dedicate their lives to Jesus. And other churches make it really plain, that if you are saved, you are saved. I never knew there was such a difference. Some churches really do offer peace. I admit I need a dose of Charles Stanley every so often. But today, I stand amazed on how much the Lord has shown me.

    Back in 1996 in several ways that year, the Lord used people in my life to share the verse, that the Lord will never leave or forsake you. This helped me even to this day to remember that. It was a message in preparation for times ahead when things got rough.

    I think the Lord does show us in the Bible to LOOK BACK and remember. Remembering is really good when we are in trouble doubting, etc. Just remembering what He has done can…

  10. You are correct when you say that you have a better chance with doubters if you validate rather than confront them. However, I think you still miss a lot of the nature of what you’re dealing with.

    For instance, you claim that your first “type of doubter” is depressed because they doubt. More often, it’s the other way round: they doubt because they are depressed. Depression is not a state of mind, it is a physical condition that produces states of mind. If you do not understand this, simply validating their doubts treats the symptom, not the disease. You need to treat the cause of depression, which is often a personal problem.

    Furthermore, a number of doubters doubt simply because of sectarian differences. Sometimes a doubter needs to find a different branch of Christianity because they’ll fit in better there. Christ is Truth, but we all hold this Truth in earthenware pots (see II Corin 4:7). A great deal of the anger of discovering that one has been misled comes from having invested too much trust in the pot, and not enough in the Truth that fills it. Often this is easily curable, if you’ll lose your denominational partisanship for the sake of your wounded brother.

    Ultimately, it is the attitude that there exists a pat, biblical answer to such problems that lies at the root of the problem, itself. People are people, not problems, and nobody likes to be solved.

  11. people are always going to have doubts, but a lot of this would be prevented if churches weren’t so intent on defending the indefensible, and allowed themselves to be comfortable with questions in the first place, no? how that’s going to happen, i can’t say, but it’s on the wish-list.

    but i think if enough people can survive doubt and still find faith— i don’t say unchanged, but rather *prfoundly* changed— then maybe there is hope. But you can’t have faith without growth.

    I’ve found more or less the same thing as what the writer is talking about to be true when someone close to me has died. Those who’ve lost can speak; those who haven’t, have no idea and nothing they said mattered.

  12. Michael, some very practical advice. I would hesitate to say that if a person has not been a deep doubter, then their faith is not very deep. I know of people who just seem to believe in God and the gospel very easily. Are we to assume that they are somehow inferior in their faith because they do not experience enough angst? Maybe they are naive, or maybe not. I would not make an absolute judgement either way. On the other hand, I would say that they should not judge those who do struggle with doubt to be inferior. My main point is that their are personal factors (our constitution, social context, past experiences, etc.) that effect us.

  13. GoldCityDance July 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    “If you do not show your true colors—worse, if you don’t have true colors, they will go to someone who does.”

    I think the person who doesn’t show his true colors is worse though. Someone who struggles with the same issues but put up a fake confident persona because he can’t face the truth. At least the one who doesn’t have struggles is being honest with himself.

    Other than this minor point, I agree with your points, Michael. Great post!

  14. Both this post and the comments are very insightful. I have spent the last 6 years or so desperately wanting to believe, but afraid that I might not. As part of a home group doing a study on emotionally healthy and authentic spirituality, I thought it might be safe to briefly share what I was going through. It was a mistake. The general response was along the lines of, “Wow. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.” I left feeling utterly alone. Phylwink’s comment has proved true for me – many of my difficulties were related not so much to God, but to particular expressions of Christianity. I am visiting an Anglican church at present, and feel hopeful for the first time in years. Last Sunday we sang “that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” I wept. I appreciate that there can be people for whom faith is easy, but it’s hard for me to hear what they have to say. Thank God for fellow strugglers willing to show their wounds and their scars.

  15. I have to admit I was a bit shocked when you said you agreed with her doubts, Michael. Thank goodness you followed it up with the indication that you did respond to her specific questions after you connected with her.

    I am struck by the number of people who, when faced with doubts, tend to go looking for information to feed their doubt rather than refute it. I’m thinking that is the angry, frustrated, bitter person that is doubter #2 and that doubter #1 is more likely to look for information to feed his/her faith.

    Interestingly, I have had atheists tell me that I am probably scared to death to hear their reasons for not believing in God because they might make me lose my faith. But I go looking for answers for their accusations and find that God always provides some that are intelligent, reasonable and valid. In other words, their attacks have only fueled my faith — which is the exact opposite effect atheists want to have.

  16. Michael, there are important insights in this post. However, it’s important to also recognize and understand another kind of “doubter” than the two you describe (and I know you weren’t trying to be exhaustive and detailed.)

    Here, I’m speaking from my own situation, mirrored pretty closely, tho, by MANY others I know who have developed similarly. And it so happens that an oversimplified summary of what many of us have gone through is described in basic terms (thoughly only in part) by James Fowler’s categories determined through fairly extensive research. So, speaking of my own reflection through my Christian life begun as early as I had any understanding (say 3 or 4) and then through 44 years of adult life (counting from 18), I would suggest at least this category #3:

    The person who always has & never stops asking probing questions, searching for answers. In my case, not a “doubter” of either type 1 or 2 really anywhere along the way, but eventually coming to a whole different way of viewing and interpreting the Bible and understanding who God SEEMS to be (recognizing our severe finite limitations). In a super-condensed nutshell, for you, who I assume will understand this shorthand, and anyone else who may, or will do a little checking, I might call this a Process Christian of the Borg (not formally Process but close) and Griffin/Cobb, et al type.

    I don’t find any affinity with your statement that “…I have less inclination to believe that their faith was ever truly established,” of type 2. I had about as full & deep an Evangelical commitment & sense of “personal relationship with God” as anybody I knew from my childhood faith in Christ, maturing until arnd. 45, with seminary (M.Div. degree [Talbot] and 2 yrs Ph.D. work, plus counseling M. A. [Biola], apologetics trng & ministry w/ Walter Martin, in churches, etc., etc.) But detailed study eventually moved me toward Borg’s “taking the Bible seriously but not literally” position…

  17. Howard, thanks much for the contribution. Interesting and more common than we realize your testimony is (Yoda speak). It would seem that you never left the faith from your perspective? Just adjusted?

  18. Michael I deeply appreciate your candor and flying your true colors with courage.

    I am definitely one who understands from experience. Regardless of the underlying source(s) involved that can cause depression (physilogic/neurological, attacks by Satan or a negative state of mind) God can use for good as Joseph explained to his brothers who betrayed him. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20 NIV see also Romans 8:28

    I do believe there are multiple underlying causes for depression including the three categories listed above and how to best deal with depression can depend on the underlying cause. The pain associated with the need to share is exponentially increased when dismissed with “bumper sticker theology” and platitudes.

    Some who have been helped with medication insist it is always physical in origin while others who employed “the power of positive thinking” and the like are equally convinced depression is strictly an attitude problem or lack of faith.

    Just as “The life not examined is not worth living” I tend to believe that personal faith that is not challenged (and at times with levels of personal doubt) most often has very shallow roots.

    There are many days my sole reason for “not walking away from the faith” is that while I may be experiencing extreme dissatisfaction with my spiritual life and selfish disappointment with God; is that I know there is no other than relationship with God for a (the) source for being truly at peace, fulfilled, have eternal purpose and ultimately who I was created to be.

    The other thing that always keeps me in the fold is that all of the people I know and truly admire are strong active believers in whom I see spiritual fruit in abundance. That is the only state of being that I want to be in or working toward. Doubt properly dealt with and thought out only deepens our spiritual roots IMHO.

  19. My post of 4:13 continued:

    I realized I should give at least one specific reference to a work within the alternative “system” (to either orthodoxy or “loss of faith”) I have found, after exTENsive study, to make the most sense of the most data, be most internally consistent, etc. It is neither theistic nor atheistic (pure naturalism) and does take Christ and the Bible very seriously (It’s Process, BTW).

    One good, brief intro to it, with much historical and biblical theology (a bit technical at times, but accessible to most) relative to orthodoxy and liberalism, and to naturalistic science is by David Ray Griffin: “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” (2004). It is indeed a synthesis of these two (but not strictly Hegelian). But this and other (some more lay-oriented) Process resources are, just as importantly, a fresh way of making sense of the Bible along with the often-ignored data of wide-ranging “spiritual” (and/or “paranormal”) phenomena. Process, one might say, presents a general theological paradigm which many studious-yet-practical people find to “honor” God properly and to make more sense, biblically and otherwise, than orthodoxy or other heterodox systems.

  20. Dear DB @
    July 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm
    Your message reminded me of a brief time years ago when our former church many years ago was going through a revival and suddenly while everyone was feeling and experiencing God’s Presence, I felt silence. Even worse, I went to a small prayer group at my lowest ebb, and everyone afterward the prayer meeting was thrilled but I was trying to hear from God. Three of us were left and we were just candidly talking at the door, and while all of us were talking I accidentally interrupted one lady, who promptly told me that (because of my interruption) that “that the Holy Spirit just left”.
    Others might have reacted differently, but it crushed me deeply for the state that I was in.
    Pretty ridiculous, huh?
    But I learned from the silence, that God really showed me that HE wanted me to press in MORE.
    It was a very revealing time after I perceived what the Lord was doing in my life.
    I say all this because I believe doubt can affect us in many ways and for various reasons, and different kinds of doubt can really bring us to new levels of “down”.
    But I truly believe that God does not leave us there, and there are reasons why we go into the valleys, deep valleys.
    It makes the mountain views such a greater experience!

  21. Oops… I just posted a followup without noticing your reply to my first one. So, in answer, yes and no as to “never left the faith?” Yes in that I didn’t attend any Christian church regularly, but rather for several years mostly Centers for Spiritual Living (formerly Religious Science–primarily a philosophy and inter-faith approach). But I was ambivalent as to owning the “Christian” label. I’d been exposed to Process much earlier (at Claremont), but not yet embraced it. It wasn’t until arnd. 1-2 years ago I did so and again could feel comfortable with being called “Progressive (or Process) Christian,” or just Christian if that’s all a person could grasp.

    But an important addition: I never had a “crisis of faith” or great turmoil of doubt (circumstances of moving, mostly unrelatedly, away from ministry, death of my parents, etc. helped). I never feared death or hell and had no angst as if “far from God.” I’d had too many other sources of input and observation to gravitate there. I can understand the difference for people who have not.

    Rather, I continued to rest in a sense of the “graciousness” of the universe/God (as what Barth said he observed in the irreverent Mozart’s music), tho I never merged God and universe fully as in pantheism. I also knew enough “parapsychology,” supported by solid research, to continue to believe in the continuation of consciousness, with possible “purgatory-like” detours, but not eternal punishment. I.e., I never doubted being a spiritual being and never felt separated from God, even while significantly reconceptualizing him/her/it. (That may be credit to early relational and/or spiritual trust developed in a loving family and an Evangelical church–I’m not sure.)

  22. Very interesting Howard. Thanks for the contribution here.

  23. Dear philwynk @
    July 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I too really appreciated what you said, particularly about the denomination thing. You know, I have never seen Jesus knuckle anyone down and change their denominational view. But many churches really do have the motto, my way or the highway…nowadays. It is so sad, though, because if the Christian churches got together and emphasized all the good things, I think it would be very powerful and wonderful. This requires grace.

    But the way it is going with churches, I can really see where Jesus said in the Gospels: when He returns will He find faith?

    Can that be one of the saddest verses in the Bible?
    I think so.

    I was kicked off a forum online some years ago because I said to some that they should not criticize a revival that was going on because it might be going against the Lord’s doing.
    Anyway, the Lord spoke to me alone days later when it all made me cry…and He even named the denomination of most of those people there (and I did not even know this church) and said to me, if I wanted to be named their name or if I wanted to be Named a Disciple of Jesus? But the way the Lord said it to me was in such a way, that I was one, His Disciple. My tears of sadness became tears of Joy. Whenever I think on that, I rejoice.

    I think as we get older we know the Truth that God has put in our heart, and I also think we become more gracious to other people’s views, the more we learned from the Lord Himself. Does it not come down to love?

    For does not love cast out fear?

  24. In reply to Mary Lou – yes, with the doubt thing I have found the most helpful advice I have received (from this blog actually) is to “doubt your doubts. I think sometimes when people have doubts they just start to assume that their former beliefs must have been wrong and the new one is correct. I have this instinct but I’m not sure why. I often have to remind myself to doubt my doubts.
    Saskia

  25. The key to surviving crises of faith is to have experiences with God. If you haven’t got those, pray for them.

    Beginning in 1988 I had a crisis of faith something like the one Howard described, above, that lasted several years. To address it I educated myself about theology, cosmology, biology, history, textual criticism, and other topics relevant to understanding the truth about God. I adjusted my theology to what I found, for which reason I am now only nominally Evangelical.

    I remained loyal to Jesus because my faith did not consist of a list of beliefs, but rather a genuine, personal relationship with Him. This is crucial; I could doubt any particular teaching I had heard, but I knew beyond doubt that Jesus was real, because my experiences with Him were real. I did have beliefs I would have been frightened to give up, but in the end I decided to trust God with my intellect, and trust that He was as much in control of my education as He was in every other aspect of my life.

    I currently attend Vineyard churches, which are Evangelical after a fashion but very relaxed. Most Evangelicals would find my bibliology too loose for their taste, and my Christology is kenotic. My relationship with Christ is doing fine, and I find it a lot easier to explain things about the faith than I did back when I though Evangelicals had it all figured out. Frankly, Evangelicals talk a lot of bunk when they’re explaining the faith.

  26. By the bye…

    I’ve used your tactic of revealing greater contradictions than the one the doubter raised, several times. In fact, the entire topic of Bible contradictions is humorous. The skeptics nit-pick and hyper-analyze to find little hiccups in the evidence when there actually exists a massive, real, and unsolvable contradiction right at the heart of Christian theology: how can we have free will if we are predestined?

    CS Lewis addressed that one by saying there can be no solution to it within time; you simply have to live time out to the end to see how they work together. But that’s a far better contradiction than any little flub in the gospels.

  27. I think the key to surviving our doubts is to look to the external Word and sacraments.

    Our experiences (of God) are great, but you can’t really trust in your experiences because as St. Paul tells us, “the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light.”

    So, as Luther did, and told us we ought, “we return to our baptisms daily.”

    We return to the promises that God made there, at a time and place in our personal histories, and know that they are always good, always valid form us. Totally apart from what we do, say, feel, or think.

    Then you can assurance, real assurance without having to look inward.

    Thanks.

  28. Michael, I appreciate this article very much and have just shared it with some guys I know who have spent some time in dialog with an atheist friend who, by their accounts, is in some ways attracted to Jesus but repulsed by the concept of “faith.” They’ve just recently asked me to share a spiritual autobiography I wrote, with this guy, because I come from a position of doubt myself in many ways yet remain stubbornly in the faith.

    But I do have to respond to @Pylwynk’s comment #25 above…if the only remedy for doubt were a “relationship with God,” I’d be well and truly lost. I have never had such a relationship; in fact one of the cores of my own doubt is my utter lack of experience of the transcendent in my own forty-plus years of faith. Not to discredit Phil’s own experience, but to say that the *only* remedy is experiential, is to completely exclude someone like me who sees fraud and delusion all around him, is open to the genuine working of God’s Breath, but refuses to accept (or manufacture) a counterfeit. There are other foundational stones through which one can still cling to God…

  29. I think this highlights a major issue with the way that we do our theological training and education in churches. I mean, a story like this generally works out much better for a person who knows someone like Michael Patton who spends time in educational ministries dealing with these issues. But if he didn’t know anyone (as many geographically isolated church leaders don’t), and couldn’t deal with the problem himself, he’s up the creek without a paddle.

    In my experience, after a bachelor’s degree in Bible and an M.Div., most Christian colleges are not teaching their graduates sufficiently to deal with problems of doubt. This is very corrosive to churches, and often yields the “I just believe the Bible” approach without learning to think. While this may be enough for those who are simply willing to follow, there are those of us who don’t always like to toe the line will be the first out the door when we begin to question the establishment.

    The bottom line is that we need to start showing our future pastors stories like this one and bringing them face-to-face with people like Bart Ehrman, so that that there’s a moment of revelation as to what a single doubt can do. And we need to educate them on how to confront and address the major issues.

    I think the training needs to start much younger. The approach is more along the lines of “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” and by that point, it’s too late to be able to regain the trust lost when someone thinks you’ve fed them bad information under the guise of religion their whole life. It’s much more effective to expose them to the issues, teach them how to work through them, and weigh opposing views as the person matures in their walk with the Lord.

    Thanks for the story. I hope and pray that all works out with this young lady. As hard as it is for the father, it’s exponentially more difficult for the daughter, who’s trying to determine whether to abandon the potential myths she’s…

  30. One way that is more or less guaranteed to push a doubter further away from you is to tell them you suspect “their faith was never truly established”. Even if you sincerely believe this – heck, even if it’s true in a given instance – the arrogance and insensitivity comes off as just another example of what is driving these types of doubters away in the first place.

    I think being honest that you don’t know all the answers, that things like talking donkeys and zombie saints bother you too etc. is something believers should be doing FOR ITS OWN SAKE, because it is the right thing to do, not opportunistically, as a means-to-an-end to keep someone tucked away in the shopping cart of the faith. (Note I am not saying this is what you are suggesting.)

    The second type of doubter is outraged by the oceans of obvious, three-minutes-on-google-refutes-it mendacity of the Hovinds and the McDowells, and by the (at best) silent acquiescence of their brothers and sisters to that enterprise. Being honest and opening up about your own doubts as recommended in the OP will probably help the soon-to-be deconvert retain feelings of deserved good will towards “the sincere guy who was trying to help me out as best he understood how”, but if the doubter has really begun to question whether the faith is intellectually, as opposed to emotionally, sustainable, and to privilege the results of intellectual inquiry over emotional inquiry, there is virtually nothing you can do to put that genie back in the bottle.

  31. I so appreciate this post. Having dealt with depression for many years and not wanting to take anything for it thinking I will be letting God and church down I finally broke down a year ago and started on a med. That being said, I kept it from church folks knowing I would hear all the comments you wrote on. WOF folks sometimes forget it isnt sin to have a weakness.

    After church one day I knew I had to share with a woman about the depression and how God loves me through it and how I finally realized He understands even if no one else does. This woman broke out in tears and talked to me about her dark secret of depression that she was trying to be healed of. We encouraged each other in the Lord that day and have continued to.

    Please understand I dont believe in walking around feeling sorry for oneself or expecting others to.

    It is sad when a person has doubts or questions that many Christians will help the person right over the edge instead of being the encourager Jesus would have us be.

    I have been in churches all my life and always say, until we are perfected there will never be the “perfect” church. Hopefully we will all learn to walk more like Jesus and less like the judgmental people we claim to be nothing like.

  32. This comment is mainly a reflection on the comments of Kyle McLaughlin, which include some important foundational/educational issues, such as …”most Christian colleges are not teaching their graduates sufficiently to deal with problems of doubt.”

    I’m admittedly on the fringes or “borders” looking in on Christian higher ed and church ed now, tho I was very much inside both until early 90s (I’m 62). Now, as a Process or Progressive Xn, it appears to me that the bulk of orthodoxy is stuck in a conventional “apologetics” mode; for fear of the “slippery slope,” refusing to engage where, to me, the focus needs to be taken: re-examining and re-working the major paradigms, as Process people have done in depth, and “Open Theists” have in part. I’m not sure where/how to categorize Emerging/ent folks (have read McLaren & not much more, so open to input re. them).

    So, Michael, Kyle or other serious students, please tell me where you agree or not with this: Aspects of large-scale paradigms (orthodoxy, deism, process) that need to be included: 1) Nature/genre of the Bible (under epistemology) & how it handles the myth/history mix, and the hx of relig. development, 2) View & nature of Christian origins via NT internal analysis combined w/ Patristics and hx at least thru Constantine/Eusebius and 3) How to handle supernaturalism vs. naturalism in the context of interaction with science (beyond just evolution-creation), & with even a lay person’s ability to “hear” and process important data points such as Near Death Exp. & reincarnation research (now increasingly empirical).

    I’ve not read Boyd, but he’d appear the main person conversant with the “new synthesis of Xn faith & scientific naturalism” that Process represents & taking it seriously, who holds onto most of orthodoxy (not sure how much he differs from Pinnock).

    Who else should I be aware of doing serious work, with some depth, on this kind of paradigm construction (and yes,…

  33. Sorry, the blog system is not publishing the last few characters: ending was “… (and yes, including some deconstruction).”

  34. I have to be honest Michael, I appreciate you have had these experiences but I myself have not. Perhaps it’s because I was reading everything i could lay my hands on at an early age, but when I’ve encountered questions I’ve generally known the answers, or perhaps it’s more that I discovered the questions while reading the answers.

    I suppose I have been accused of naivete, but I suppose I should also be considered naive for believing 1 + 1 = 2, and that there are 2pi radians in a circle.

    Could we perhaps get a list of things that people have doubts about, and at least see if I find any common ground with them?

  35. …”If you have not been through it, you normally don’t get it”.

    Substitute any other malady for the word ‘depression’ and this reasoning would still be flawed, in my opinion.

    As a drug addiction therapist I have had addicts say the same to me. When I say to them “I know how you feel”, they respond, “how can you when you have never experienced addiction”.

    Do I have to break a bone in my leg to understand how terrible a broken bone can hurt? Having seen and heard bones break, I usually take the word of the person who says it hurts. Why can’t they take my word when I say I understand?

    Do I have to identify with everyone’s pain in order to ‘get it’? Since when does being depressed make one ‘superior’ to someone who has never experienced depression? And why should offering ‘solace’ be solely dependent on having ‘been there’?

    If I were drowning, I would want someone in a sturdy vessel to throw me a life-line. If I were in a “deep dark hole”, I would want someone with a safety harness to come down and get me, not some guy standing at the top of the hole telling me stories about being in a similar hole once.

    But maybe you are right. Maybe I just don’t get it. However, seeing how agonizing drug addiction and broken limbs can be, I am not sorry to have escaped those ‘deep dark holes’.

  36. C Michael Patton July 15, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Steve,

    I appreciate so much what you do my brother. Thank you for being on the front lines.

    I am pretty sure that I said people “normally” don’t get it with an emphasis on “normally”. I was thinking of people like you which I made the exception clause. Wouldn’t you say that people don’t normally get it?

  37. Truth Unites... and Divides July 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Steve Skeete: “…”If you have not been through it, you normally don’t get it”.

    Substitute any other malady for the word ‘depression’ and this reasoning would still be flawed, in my opinion.”

    This rebuttal sparks a thought. What percentage of people who need help or are requesting help have benefitted tremendously from people who haven’t experienced the same difficulties as they?

    Derivative question: Should a person’s counseling and aid be restricted to only those matters in which he or she has experienced personal pain and trauma? After all, people who have experienced the same trauma have the greatest credibility.

    Suppose Chuck Swindoll has never been a male prostitute. A very safe assumption. Is he then ruled out as a credible counselor of God’s grace and healing because he’s never been a male prostitute? Is a male prostitute healed most effectively in circle therapy with other recovering male prostitutes? He may very well be helped tremendously in such an environment. They’re the only ones who know his pain. Encouragement through shared experiences of misery is helpful.

  38. …”If you have not been through it, you normally don’t get it”.

    Substitute any other malady for the word ‘depression’ and this reasoning would still be flawed, in my opinion.

    Depression, as a condition, suffers from a bad reputation that most maladies do not — it is very difficult to imagine what the debilitation actually is if one had not experienced it. This is not the case with, say, a broken leg, because many of us have broken bones, and it is relatively easy to see how a broken leg would hinder one’s mobility. That cannot be said about depression, which has no obvious symptoms and produces a set of behaviors that look suspiciously like laziness or a bad attitude.

    I recall having this conversation with a friend who had never experienced depression. He asked me what it was like. I explained, “You know that feeling you get when it’s spring, you’re looking at the garage, and you know you really ought to clean it but you don’t want to start? Getting up in the morning feels like that. Cooking breakfast feels like that.” He got it. Without something common to which to associate the feeling, though, people who have not experienced depression can’t understand why the depressive doesn’t just “buck up.”

  39. Truth Unites... and Divides July 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Depressed, coke-snorting, gay guy has been attending a smallish church off-and-on for about six months. A friend suggests a meeting with the senior pastor.

    Depressed, coke-snorting, gay guy: “Pastor, I need help. I have doubts about life, about God, and maybe that’s why I’m depressed, do drugs, and do other recreational activities that you might think is sin. I’ve heard your sermons about Jesus Christ and His Grace and His Love and How He loves sinners like me. I need you to counsel me and disciple me.”

    Pastor: “Yes! God Loves You! He and I are so glad that you’re here in your time of brokenness. I want to let you know that I don’t know what it’s like to do drugs or be an addict, I’m not gay, and I don’t know what depression is about since, thank you Lord, I’ve never been depressed. However, there’s a great Celebrate Recovery program at another larger church that helps folks who are going through what you’re going through by folks who’ve been there and done that. There’s group discussion with other men and women who are chemically dependent, depressed, and have same-sex lovers. I can call them and they’ll be able to minister to you because I don’t have the life experience credibility that they have. They “get” it and I don’t. I never want to represent that I know your pain, because I know from discussion with others that only people who genuinely know your pain can minister authentically to your pain. In humility, I can’t. I haven’t been there … where you’ve been.

    I’ll call now.

    Depressed, Gay, Drug Guy: “Pastor, seems like you just want to push me off.”

    Pastor: “No! No! No! I just don’t have the background to minister to you.”

    Depressed, Gay, Drug Guy: “You don’t have to, man. You’re a sinner too, aren’t you?

    Pastor: “Yes.”

    Depressed, Gay, Drug Guy: “Then that’s all I want. Who are all these people who say that a counselor has to be depressed, gay, or a drug addict to…

  40. Hey, Truth unites:

    You don’t really think that conversation is the only plausible outcome from recognizing that having experienced depression helps one understand it better, do you?

    If you do, then you need to stand down, because nobody is advocating the nonsense you suggested is the outcome. The point of discussing experience with depression is to prevent lay counselors from erring by thinking depression is just laziness, or some other, similar error, not to disqualify non-depressives from talking to depressives. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard well-meaning but truly clueless Christians telling depressives that their depression is nothing but a lack of faith.

    If you do not, then I’m wondering what was the point of the ridiculous Straw Man fallacy.

  41. That is a good point that depression (and I would add doubt) is easily written off and attribuuted to some sin by those who don’t understand. It is easy to do.

  42. Truth Unites... and Divides July 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Doubter: “Have you ever doubted God’s existence?”

    Other: “Maybe some, but not really. I wouldn’t call myself a doubter, now or before.”

    Doubter: “You can’t help me. I have to talk to people who are doubters, or who have been doubters. They get it, and they are the only ones who really know what it’s like to have a crippling doubt that depresses you.”

    Other: “I’ll pray for you.”

    Doubter: “Thanks.”

    Six months later.

    Other: “How are you?”

    Doubter: “I’m a happy atheist.”

    Other: “That’s not what I prayed for.”

    Doubter: “Looks like your God gave you an answer of ‘No.'”

    Other: “I wonder why God answered my prayer that way.”

    Doubter: “Be careful! You’re on the road to doubting God!”

  43. Bro. Michael, please understand that I was/am not trying to be argumentative, but only seeking to bring another perspective to the issue you raised.

    There is this on-going debate where I come from about whether one needs to have been a great player to be a great coach. Some even say that many very good coaches never were players at all. I have heard very sound arguments advanced on both sides.

    I have also heard the saying that “misery loves company”. While my line of work demands that I keep company with those in misery (drug addicts, the homeless etc.), my position is that I do not believe that having never experienced the misery of addiction or homelessness first hand disqualifies me from understanding it.

  44. Most of the posts here are excellent.

    But some are truly outstanding.

    This was the latter. :)

  45. Very interesting article and comments.

    I have found that all the *worldly* advice in the world does not add up to what I can find in the Word of God. And it does not tell me to *validate* disbelief, but it tells me (in Proverbs 18:2) “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” and in Proverbs 18:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (both ESV). Or with St. Francis of Assissi “…O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand…”. Your “validation” puts up a front of understanding, whether you truly understand or not. This is why it seems to work.

    I find it hard to believe anyone who claims they never doubted their faith for a moment. They are probably too scared to admit it or have a pretense issue – or aren’t truly concerned about their faith. Mother Teresa claimed she had moments of doubt. The father of the child born with an unclean spirit said to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!”.

    It is what we do when the doubt arises that matters. If we seek the answers in the world – we will find an answer in the world. But the Truth is only found in one place – in the Bible. Not in nature. Not in science. Not in worldly counsel. Not in ourselves, our peers or superiors. Not in books about faith. Not in books about the Bible. Not in the Bible plus something. In the Bible, period. It takes faith, time, and effort – but it is all there.

    @Dan Martin – To be a Christian means to have a relationship with Christ, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that He constantly reveals Himself to you. In John 20:29
    “Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.””.

    Our God Experiences encourage and confirm us, they are not to prove our faith – what kind of faith would that be? But listen and pay attention, and you may just see…

  46. At a gut level, I would rather trust a Christian who is rough-hewn from common cloth, with scars and wounds clearly visible. Faith and strength are perfected in spiritual poverty and weakness. Perhaps the “beam” Jesus told us to remove from our eyes is pride! Pride can literally spoil every effort to reach out to someone who needs help.
    Sometimes, questions can be a trap. “How can a loving God send people to Hell?” can sometimes have mutually exclusive concepts in the mind of the questioner. In other words, either “A” is true or “B” is true, but not both. This kind of question has no real answer. The question needs to be reframed in a way that makes someone own his doubts and assumptions. Then a sincere dialog can be reached about God and His attributes, etc.
    And frankly, instead of cerebral answers, sometimes we just need to be held.

  47. I really enjoyed this insight on doubt. “Those whose doubts turn them to anger because they think that they have been misled all their lives. ” That reminded me of how I left Christianity. It’s very interesting to see how some deal with the doubt. I have close friends who went through some of the same doubt and stayed in the faith, and I seem to have been the only one who didn’t. Much enjoyed, thank you.

  48. Your post is a good beginning, but I would go faehtrr.As I read Mother Theresa’s letters, I think her faith was always firm, and that she ultimately had no doubts.What she was lacking, was the subjective feeling of being in touch with God, the subjective feeling that God was acting in her life and in the world.Despite the absence of that feeling, she always had faith, and she acted on the basis of that faith.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Wounded Healer | eChurch Blog - July 14, 2012

    […] Michael Patton’s recent post entitled: Talking to those who doubt, touches on this very concept: They need to know that you have been there. They need to see your battle scars with the Lord. They need to see that you have truly wrestled with these issues. They need to see that you walk with a limp too. Otherwise, you are immediately going to be written off as a naive Christian. In our postmodern society, naivete is the greatest disqualifier for your counsel and witness. So it is important that you raise your shirt and show your scars across your heart. And you know what? Your wound does not necessarily need to be sewn up and closed. It could be wide open. You may be in the middle of the battle yourself. As long as they see you are/have been there and that you have still kept your faith, they will be much more likely to listen. It is just like depression. Once someone sees that you have been there, their first thought is hope. “I am not the only one!” they think to themselves. “How does this person hold it together? There must be a way!” is often their thought. […]

  2. On an Apologetic for Doubt - July 15, 2012

    […] by RazorsKiss on July 15, 2012 C. Michael Patton is hardly my favorite blogger, as you might have guessed by now. The reason I have him in my RSS feed is because the sorts of things he typically says are symptomatic of what is wrong with most of non-confessional “Calvinism.” What I’ve dealt with most from him, of course, is the subject of “doubt”. The subject of doubt, for some reason, seems to be a fascination with Mr. Patton. As one who is focused on the apologetic implications of theological stances, his “advice” on this subject often horrifies me. Case in point: “On Talking to Those who Doubt.” […]

  3. A Morning Peacock of Links (7/ | hobojarpen - July 16, 2012

    […] On Talking to Those Who Doubt […]

  4. A Morning Peacock of Links (7/16) | hobojarpen - July 16, 2012

    […] On Talking to Those Who Doubt […]

  5. Those Who Doubt (RJS) - July 19, 2012

    […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply