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:
- Demonstrate that Christianity is a safe place to be for the rational seeker.
- 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.