Responding to Doubters Inside and Outside of the Church

doubters

There have been some recently-in-the-news people who are famous for being Christian, who have “left the faith.” One of these is Josh Harris. When I was dating age (decades ago), he wrote a book called, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” I never read it. Marty Sampson, a member of Hillsong, also publicly announced his loss of faith. I avoid Hillsong as much as I can while still attending an Evangelical church.  So I don’t know much about either one in terms of who they were or who they are. So I won’t deal with them directly here.

I have read a few responses to these announcements. Some call them guilty of Apostasy (perhaps a bit premature). Some Christians appear to be genuinely angry. Not really sure why. Perhaps they are wrestling with theological issues surrounding eternal security. Perhaps there are some who have emotionally invested themselves in these people and now feel betrayed. Others were bothered, seemingly, that they chose to express their rejection of faith so publicly. But if they weren’t given a forum in church to express their doubts, it is hardly surprising that they chose a medium outside of the church. I think I would argue that it is quite refreshing that they had the confidence to share their struggles with others. I wish all of us in the church had such openness.

A more constructive response I have seen is the note that apologetics is important. One of them, Marty I think, had mentioned that a lot of the questions he had were not being dealt with in church. People have honest questions and Evangelical churches often pride themselves (“hubris themselves”?) in an anti-intellectual perspective. I remember when a Mormon roommate of mine hit me with the old classic, “If God can do all things, can He create a rock too big for Him to lift.” That did not bother me very much because even back then when I was something like 22 years old I already knew enough Christian theology to be aware that Christians believe that God is unlimited in power, and that is very different from believing that “God can do all things.” That old chestnut that my roommate shared falls apart if one understands this difference. (Of course, it is also damaged a bit if one rejects the “anthropomorphized” god of Mormonism.) But I can understand its effectiveness in dealing with Christians. That is because the phrase “God can do all things” and its ilk are so commonly used in churches, and these commonly go unchallenged and unreflected upon. I mean, if “God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good,” how does one reconcile that with experiences that show that God does not respond in a manner that you and I would consider normal for a “good God”?

Good theology and good apologetics can help. Some think that apologetics is a primary tool of evangelism. I don’t think so generally. Few come to Christ by being intellectually overwhelmed by Christian apologists. More modest goals are that apologists:

  1. Demonstrate that Christianity is a safe place to be for the rational seeker.
  2. Demonstrate that Christianity is a safe place for the doubter to remain faithful.

This leads to the second point— Churches are NOT generally a safe place to be a doubter.

Consider the following experiment:  Go to your church some day and when people are sharing struggles speak up and share something to the effect,

“My family has been struggling both financially and with health. This has led me to struggle with the idea that God is good. In fact, often I wonder if there is no God out there or maybe I am just praying into empty space.”

There may not be an immediate response by the group… but keep track of the different responses you get afterward.

  • How many play the apologist and try to “prove” to you that God exists and is good, showing that your reflections on your situation are invalid? (I have had friends put on FB things that essentially say that if you doubt God due to circumstances your faith is based on feelings rather than on truth… so it you YOUR FAULT. In my mind that is both wrong, and unhelpful. If the church doesn’t helps a person reconcile God’s truths with the truths of human experience, it is the church’s fault as much or more than the one who is struggling.)
  • How many will seek to pray with you that your doubts about God will disappear (without addressing the underlying concerns)?
  • How many will express their concerns, either to you directly or indirectly to others, about the validity of your salvation? (How many will suggest you need a real salvation experience, or a new baptism, or a new second blessing, or a new exorcism, or something else new that demonstrates that you have a problem that the rest of the church lacks?)
  • How many will appear to avoid you as if you have a disease that must be quarantined?
  • How many will come up to you after and say something like, “I often struggle with doubts about God as well so I appreciate you sharing this with us. Maybe sometime when you have time we can sit down and you can share with me more about this struggle.”?

My feeling is that the last one will be pretty rare… yet I think we all struggle with doubts at times— Faith is not the absence of doubt, but a matter of trust that acknowledges uncertainty.

If the church is an unsafe place for doubters, and

If most Christians doubt (whether they admit it or not), and

If most Christians pretend to live a doubtless faith (whether or not such a faith exists)

Then, church is an unsafe place for Christians

I would recommend:

  • Normalize doubt. We don’t believe in God because it is impossible to rationally believe otherwise. We respond to doubt with faith, NOT negate doubt with faith.
  • Treat doubt as a healthy thing to address in church. Don’t destroy it, or quarantine it, or shame it (or the doubter). Doubt is a part of the human experience— and we are all humans.
  • Delve into tough questions in church— fairly and without bumper sticker “Gotcha” one-liners or ad hominem attacks.  (No “People who think like that are a bunch of liberals/apostates/sinners/etc.”) Babylon Bee has a great satirical take on this. You can click HERE.
  • Don’t stifle doubters and minority opinions. In practice, one may have to decide which person is honestly struggling with doubt and which are actually proselytizers of a different belief system. I have met a few people who act like they doubt, but in actuality use every opportunity to evangelize their the new belief that they lack doubt in. There is a need for boundaries there. But people who honestly struggle with their faith should always be honored in church. Church should not a a place of “Groupthink” where people espouse the same aphorisms while hiding their real thoughts.

I don’t pretend to be perfect, or even good, in this area. Back a few decades ago I was in the Navy and my roommate had two friends visiting. Both of them were raised in church and both expressed to us that they they struggled with doubt about God and the Christian faith. My response was that I had no such doubt. They both expressed the desire to have no such doubt. In practice, however, it was a dead end for this part of the conversation. They opened up to me, and I responded essentially that I cannot relate to their experience. They expressed a desire to be like me in this situation, but that was impossible, since they DID have doubts. Desire does not change things. And if I was more honest with myself back then, I would have to admit that my faith was on choosing to trust in the God of the Holy Bible, rather than a certainty that I could not possibly be wrong.

Dem Pesky False Prophets (Part 2)

Clearly this is part 2 to a part 1. You are welcome to click on that HERE, if you had not read it yet.

To continue… one may assume that a true prophet would have the qualities that were suggested from Matthew 7 and enumerated in the last post.

  1. A true prophet understands him/herself. The prophet understands that he/she is called by God to speak on the behalf of God. <As noted before, this is not a good test since many false prophets, mistakenly, believe themselves to be speaking for God.>
  2. A true prophet claims to speak in God’s name (rather than some other name). Again, not the best test since many people will claim to speak in the name of God… or the Bible… or Jesus Christ… or the Holy Spirit.
  3. A true prophet does signs and wonders that provide veracity that they are true prophets— at least if they do signs and wonders. Many many prophets in the Bible did not appear to do miraculous signs, and the passage in Matthew 7 does not imply that all true prophets perform miracles. In fact, Matthew 7 points to an opposite problem. The ability to perform miracles is NOT guarantee that an individual is not a false prophet.
  4. A true prophet produces good fruit.  We will talk about this last one the most, and note that #5 won’t be included on this list (it doesn’t really fit here).

Matthew 7 suggests that the most valid of these is the 4th one. A true prophet produces good fruit. False prophets can also be productive… but what they produce is ultimately worthless or counterproductive. The issue here is then not success.  False prophets can be quite successful. So what might be some good fruit?

  • Truth. A true prophet says what is true. Truth is identified in confirming to what is true. If God is true, the Bible is true, and the Created Word is true, then what the prophet reveals must conform to it. The words of the prophet must speak of God in line with the character of God. It must also conform to canon (the Holy Bible). It must also conform to Creation. So if a prophet was one who retells the future, most don’t, the words must conform to that future.
  • Moral good.  A true prophet must be fruit-bearing… but such fruit must be a moral good. So if prophet seeks wealth or power (a la Simon Magus) then the person is not a true prophet. If the prophet places him/herself above morality, then the person is false. When the prophet appears to be working at odds to God or the church, one should be concerned. (Note of course that a prophet, like Jeremiah, sometimes preaches against God’s people to encourage them to return to God.)

So let’s consider possible false prophets:

Hananiah.  Jeremiah 28.  Did Hananiah know he was a false prophet. Not sure. He was a court prophet, meaning that he served the king. There is an inherent challenge to serve both God AND king. Nathan appeared to be able to do it. Hananiah clearly wasn’t up to the task. He ended up telling the king and leaders of Judah what they wanted to hear. Ultimately, his message was proven false. His false message also led people to do the wrong thing— keep on keeping on.

Harold Camping.  Harold Camping is a different type of false prophet. For those who don’t know, Camping made several predictions over around 17 as to the return of Christ. He would probably be described as a Christian. Most would probably use the term “born-again” to describe him. As such, we might be uncomfortable calling him a false prophet. Also, he may not have self-identified as a prophet. Instead of saying that he is an accurate sharer of God’s message. However, he did claim to accurately discover and share secrets in the Bible. In reality, he was filtering the Bible through the dubious frameworks of numerology and pretrib-style dispensationalism. Unfortunately, bad came of it. Many Christians bought into this message… and then were disappointed.  100 million dollars was siphoned into a world-wide Christian message campaign that was false. Camping sold off many of his radio stations for this (at least he wasn’t doing this for the money). Non-Christians were given added confirmation that Christians were gullible. And since the message was linked to the Bible as if the predictions actually came from the Bible (although they didn’t), so some people would understandably reject the Bible.

Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj.  This is a recent self-styled prophet in a somewhat classic stereotype (claiming special powers to foretell based on information from God). He has made lots of prophecies with very little success. But in each case there is a contingent aspect to the prophecy to cover his back side. There is nothing wrong with that I suppose. But after awhile one must wonder if he is just a faker. Certainly, he has benefited from the celebrity status accorded him by those faithful to him. Some people have been able to overlook his bad foretelling, and his bad theology (like the Prophet Joel floating around the conference that he was speaking at). But some believed one of his predictions so much, that they either (1) fooled a major network to create a false news story, or (2) a member of that network did it intentionally. Certainly not good stuff. Falsifying news stories to provide veracity to a false message is truly wrong. Instead of rehashing this painful story… please just review my previous posts on this.

Dem Pesky False Prophets (Part 1)

False Prophets

Next week in church I will be preaching on false prophets. Truthfully, this is not one of my favorite topics. I am doing it because I am working my way through the Sermon on the Mount. One reason it is not a topic I prefer is that there is such a temptation to name names. The problem with that is that to do this one risks drifting into subjectivity. There are a lot of people who are self-described prophets that I don’t care for, and many more who take on a prophetic role who are more embarrassing to the faith than edifying. I don’t want to name a lot of names. But at the same time, if one stays too focused on abstractions, it is hard for many to understand the topic.

Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’

                        Matthew 7:15-23

This passage actually gives several reasons why we false prophets often appear to be true prophets.

1.  Verse 22 says that these prophets may think of themselves as true prophets. To be a false prophet does not require one to intentionally delude others. A false prophet may also delude himself or herself.

2.  Verse 22 also says that that false prophets may prophecy in the name of God. This is important. One of the characteristics of a true prophet in the Old Testament was that the individual prophesied in the name of the Lord, as opposed to some other being. However, Jeremiah 14:14 and following, for example, makes it clear that this is no proof of being a true prophet. In other words, saying “God/Jehovah/Jesus/Spirit told me to tell you _______” is no proof of them speaking the truth. I might even add that it can be more of a “doubling down.” Saying that one’s words literally came from God Almighty adds status to both the message and the alleged messenger.

3.  Verse 22 says that false prophets may also do signs and wonders. Some people find this strange, because the assumption is that such things validate the message. It is understandable that people would think this. Jesus did miracles partly out of compassion for the people in need, and partly as a sign of the coming Kingdom. But signs are not enough. Apparently Judas could do signs and wonders and yet was also described as the “Son of Perdition.” We are pretty sure that Judas did miracles because the Bible said that the 12 did miracles, so if he did not, when Jesus said that “one among you is a demon” (John 6:70) presumably all of the other 11 would have looked straight at Judas, rather than be confused.  Deuteronomy 13:1-6 notes that a prophet who does miracles and teaches a false doctrine is a false prophet despite the miracles. Actually, that passage suggests that the miracles could actually come from God as a test of faithfulness to the people. But that doesn’t have to be the only explanation. The priests of the Pharoah in Exodus could do some miraculous signs, and the false prophet of Revelation also could.

4.  Verse 16 states that false prophets produce fruit. Of course, later on, it notes that the fruit produced is bad… but it is fruit nonetheless. I feel like I can suggest from this that getting things done, or being successful is no reliable evidence of being a true prophet.

5.  Verse 15 states that false prophets may look like us (look like sheep to the sheep). It is easier to assume that a prophet is false if they act different than we expect. In fact, Jesus was rejected by some because He was not what people expected. However,  it is easy to trust people who use the right terminology and style– providing a comfort to us that they must be of us because they act like us.  Often however, looks are deceiving. A somewhat parallel passage is Ezekiel 34. There the analogy is slightly different. The wolves are described as bad shepherds— bad religious and civil leaders in Israel. Despite the language, the imagery is the same. They destroy and scatter the flock out of disregard for the sheep’s well-being, and to satisfy their own selfish appetites.

So, if one looks at this passage, one may be excused for being doubtful of being able to identify a false prophet. After all, the passage seems to say that a false prophet may:

  • Look and act like us… and use language that is comforting to us.
  • Use the language of a Christian teacher/preacher (referencing God, the Spirit, Jesus, the Bible and such).
  • Be successful and even accomplish things that are pretty impressive
  • Even be able to do things that seem to demonstrate that they have the power of God on his or her side.
  • Actually believe himself or herself to be a true prophet of God.

This last one is especially challenging. How can we identify a false prophet when the false prophet may not even realize that fact himself/herself?

You may see why it is uncomfortable for me to name names. Looking at the list above, I am tempted to call false that which doesn’t look or act like me… and give more grace on those who I can relate to better.

I will continue in Part 2, and will use three examples:  One from the Old Testament, and two from recent times.

 

Mindfulness on the Planet of Hats

Image result for bowler hats

Imagine you were a director of a low-budget sci-fi TV show (think first series Star Trek or early years of Doctor Who). Your intrepid band of travellers arrive on a strange planet. But how do you make it certain that people will understand that the planet is, indeed, strange? “Worldbuilding” is difficult for writers, but expensive for directors. So often a place on earth is chosen as representative of that planet. But most of the earth is not all that strange. So one might try putting actors in rubber suits… but rubber suits are often not very convincing. Additionally, it is hard to effectively emote when the face is obscured. (Sadly, aliens need to look a lot like humans in the face area for us to connect emotionally to them.) Consider when William Shatner teleports onto a world that looks a lot like the Mojave Desert. We need him to meet an alien. The choice was to make the alien bipedal with bilateral symmetry, so a human can readily serve as the actor. So to make it clear that the Captain is not in the Mojave Desert, they put a lizard mask on the other actor. That worked well enough… but just not that convincing.  The lizard alien could express menace through the lizard mask but could not really emote anything beyond that. So how does one show emotion and still make the alienness of the world convincing? Make the aliens look basically like humans but slap a weird alien hat on them!

That is okay for cheesy sci-fi… but the “world of hats” trope can be thought of as related to the first level of acculturation. When one enters a new culture, one tends to see the most obvious characteristics— the things that make the people or the culture seem “weird.” That is understandable as a tourist, but it is also lazy. We often picture a people by simple, and often incorrect, stereotypes. Picturing a Redneck? Give him a baseball cap… or maybe a ‘took’ if he is a redneck from the Great White North. Old-school Brit? Derby or Bowler hat. Rugged outdoorsman? Cowboy hat. Rich dude? Maybe an Arab headscarf, or a homberg, or gold watch. Druggie? Maybe dreadlocks. It is symbolic shorthand.

Symbolic shorthand is lazy as a director, but it can be quite insulting in missions. People have the tendency of being rather stubbornly unique. Cultures are never totally uniform.  And stereotypes are not only rather broadbrush… but often dead wrong. I remember a politician going to the state of Iowa (in the US) and decided to greet the farmers (“We got any farmers out here?!!!”) only to discover that despite Iowa being known as a big farming state, only 3% of the population are actually farmers. The stereotype was not only incomplete, it actually was 97% incorrect.

If a missionary goes to a “strange place” (pick the strange place of your choice). What if he went there with a “world of hats” mentality assuming that his surface level understanding of that culture defines its society? And what if he discovers that like that politician in Iowa he was 97% wrong? Do you think that might lead to misunderstandings and failures?  Sure.

When entering a new culture, one needs to have mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of one’s environment, one’s own reactions/feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. One needs to set aside one’s own culture that may tend to pidgeonhole this new culture into a world of hats trope. Osoba Otaigbe notes that mindfulness is a key aspect of cultural intelligence. We need to be able to step out of our culture (which is driven by the power of habit) to see the unity and diversity of a new culture.

I recall going to Montego Bay, Jamaica a few decades ago and being overwhelmed. Getting of the USS McCandless (my ship) we were deluged with locals with dreadlocks trying to sell us ganja (marijuana), or set us up with prostitutes. Going into the town, I felt like I was surrounded by people constantly “on the make.” But I was wrong. I was focusing on the people who were accosting me. But most people there were not accosting me. They were just living their lives in their own ways. I will be honest with you. After about an hour or so of wandering around Montego Bay in a state of culture shock… I and my friends grabbed a taxi to escape to a foreign-friendly beach resort.

Looking back, I am a bit sad I did that. I picked up a belief of “All Jamaicans are…” when that simply was not true. It just felt like it as I reacted to those I would culturally driven to  struggle to relate to.

Here in the Philippines, I have met Americans like that. “Oh, all Filipinos are…” and then they would add various descriptors. Almost always the descriptors are negative and mostly not true. It just feels like it is true as the meet a few individuals who were difficult and they reacted to them. In fact, their reaction could often reinforce the stereotype a spiralling of stereotypes and misunderstandings build.

I am using “world of hats” somewhat incorrectly. You can “Google” it if you want to see it as it is meant in terms of storytelling. But the term is sadly quite appropriate in our tendency to stereotype and create an oversimplified picture of a very diverse and nuanced culture or people group. A missionary cannot be effective in a culture that he sees in terms of “world of hats.”