Dealing with Doubt: 3 Responses

help-my-unbelief_t3-doubtRod Dreher, writer for The American Conservative, recently posted a letter he received from a Millennial about why they left the faith. His reason was that he “grew up in a church that told him the presence of doubt was an indication of spiritual failure.” So, when he got to school and began to struggle with intellectual and spiritual tensions that he hadn’t before faced, the guilt became overwhelming and he eventually just gave up (Dreher, 2014). He further lamented that

“every sermon is a revival stump speech about the evils of the world and the need for salvation. Every sermon ends in a sentimental pop song/worship chorus to accompany an altar call in which the same handful of members weeps at the altar. Instead of an intellectual tradition, it is a church built on emotion” (2014).

According to recent Barna Group study,

“Millennials who are opting out of church cite three factors with equal weight in their decision: 35 percent cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church, and one out of 10 senses that legitimate doubt is prohibited, starting at the front door” (Barna Group, 2014).

Church leaders concerned with the “Millennial Exodus” ought to consider Barna’s conclusion that the church leaves no room for doubting and cautiously take this anecdotal confession as a genuine representation of the views of disenfranchised Millennials. Formulating a response, discipleship geared toward teens and emerging adults, then, must be prepared to tackle more difficult questions, and pastors and disciple makers need to focus on ministering to those in the midst of doubt. If intentionally or unintentionally, churches are teaching that faith is solely based on how we feel about things, then the moment we don’t understand our feelings or that we feel something different… well, the confession letter continues, “when you have a feelings based salvation in a faith in which doubt is a sign of spiritual failure, the young members of these churches lack the space to wrestle with a tough issue,” and they will eventually leave.

SIDE NOTE: Personal experience with the Holy Spirit does NOT constitute a feelings based faith. Systematic theology incorporates human experience as a way of knowing God. William Lane Craig further argues the evidentiary trustworthiness of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as a reasonable basis for faith in God.

So how are we doing with doubt? I wrote a letter to our college students wrapping up the Spring semester with some of my thoughts…

I do hope that you are growing in your faith such that you have an increasing confidence and will be able to, as Peter wrote, “give a reason for the hope you have.” But what happens when we doubt? Have you felt the way that grad student did? Do you think doubt is spiritual failure?

I want to tell you three things:

FIRST: Doubt is not spiritual failure! Whoever made you to feel it was misled you. But probably not intentionally. Jesus said, in Matthew 22:37, that we are to Love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind!” This is going to require work! Proverbs says that the principle thing is Wisdom: Get wisdom, and with thy getting, gain understanding.” It’s going to be a journey to understanding and it is going to include some doubt.

John Piper indicates a few components this intellectual love for God requires:

  1. Dedicating our minds to knowing him.
  2. Thinking clearly and truly about him so that we don’t have false ideas in our minds.
  3. Not being satisfied with merely an intellectual awareness of his attributes, character, and acts but intentionally devoting that mental effort to serve the affections (emotions) for God.

SECOND: Paul Tillich, a German philosopher and theologian who wrote the Dynamics of Faith, says that true faith will always exist in the midst of doubt… and that is why it takes genuine courage to act on faith.

THIRD: Don’t be afraid of doubt, because Jesus isn’t. In fact, we find Jesus most powerfully when we seek Him in our doubt. Mark 9:24, a distressed father, at his wits end cries out to the Lord, “I believe, help my unbelief.” All he wanted was for his child to be healed. Years of dead ends and helpless doctors left this father tired, hopeless. He had little reason to expect anything different, and every reason to doubt God. Rather than walking away from Jesus, he came toward him, even with his doubt.

Our response to doubt should always be as such!