I know of only one person who I believed was being used by God significantly who had not been though some sort of faith crisis that caused them to doubt their beliefs at their deepest level . . . I am getting ahead of myself.
As many of you are aware, I deal with many people who are doubting their faith. To be more specific, these are Christians who are going through some sort of faith crisis where they no longer believe with the simplicity that characterized their belief before. This is becoming increasingly common in a world where sheltered or isolated beliefs are not only impractical, but a thing of the past (and this is good!).
However, most of us really don’t know how to deal with this. We don’t know how to deal with it when it comes to our own doubts, much less other peoples’!
At the risk of presenting a bit of a caricature, let me give some tongue-in-cheek ways in which various theological systems deal with Christians who are going through such a crisis of faith:
Baptists: They are still saved, no matter where their doubts take them. They just need renewed assurance.
Calvinists: They were never saved to begin with. They need to have the Gospel presented to them.
Charismatics: They are demon-possessed. They need to have an exorcism.
Arminians: They are in the process of losing their salvation. They need to stop sinning or be argued back into the faith.
I don’t know if I agree or (necessarily) disagree with any of these options. What I would disagree with is that we can address these situations with a neat, one-size-fits-all response to individuals in crisis.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, but I thought I would try to give some points of advice not to those who are in the middle of this faith crisis, but to those who are seeking to help those whom they love through this crisis in a positive way.
1. Have mercy on them.
Jude 22 is a verse that is quite neglected. It says for us to “have mercy on some who are doubting.” If we don’t approach people with genuine mercy and love, we cannot expect to be Christ for them in what might very well be the biggest struggle they have ever faced.
One of the things I have been exposed to since “entering” the ministry to those who are doubting is how traumatic this time of life truly is for them. If you have never been through it, it will be extremely difficult for you to understand. In fact, the default position for many of us is to judge and condemn those who are doubting. When someone’s doubts are not processed properly, and all they find is condemnation and judgement from the community of faith, this intensifies and prolongs the problem. You would not believe how many Christians who are going through this crisis are seriously considering suicide. From their perspective, their entire worldview is collapsing beneath them.
I won’t get too much into the story, but I have been through this crisis at the deepest level. It nearly killed me. Simply to have someone there having mercy on me, being there for me, not waiting for the other shoe to drop, but in full support and love was so important. Those in doubt need to know that you are not ever going to leave or forsake them. That is being Christ to them (Heb. 13:5). Be as understanding as you can even if you have not been through this.
2. Realize that these are often the birth pangs of deepened faith
I almost put “these are the birth pangs of true faith,” but that is saying too much. You see, when we are children, we receive our faith from our parents in a mediated way. This does not mean that this faith is not true, but for the most part, it is untested. It is the trials, temptations, and suffering of life that test our faith (Job; Rom. 5:3-4; Luke 8:5-15; Jam. 1:3).
For those of us with children who are going through this, we cannot panic . . . please don’t panic. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to watch your child (or friends or loved ones) go through this. Just like when your child is hurt, you want so much to endure their pain in their stead. When our children are going through a faith crisis, we want God to shift the burden to our shoulders. I will talk about how we can bear this burden with them, but we cannot (and should not want to) bear this burden for them. Our faith must be tested if it is to grow. Periodic faith struggles are the norm of the Christian life. When I am at my best, I worry most for those who have never been through any faith crisis. To me, this normally means they don’t take their faith too seriously. But for those who do take their faith seriously, the crisis is sure to come. And to those whom God is going to use in a particular way, the crisis will be more particular.
Whether it is an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual difficulty, we must realize that God uses these trials to deepen faith. In this, while we don’t like to see loved ones in pain, we can rejoice in what God may be doing through this time.
3. Be ready, but don’t manufacture answers
The last thing those in the throes of crisis need are manufactured, cliché answers. In fact, these will almost always make the crisis worse. People normally go through these trials because they are thinking deeply about their faith. They are critically examining it, possibly for the first time. Sound-bite answers from us only reinforce a naive picture of faith. People in crisis have a new ability to tell if you are being fake, even when you don’t know it yourself.
Be ready. Be honest about your faith. Enter into the crisis with them and find answers together.
I remember when my mother had her ruptured brain aneurysm at age 56. This came just on the heels of my sister’s death. We were all at the hospital groping for hope and wondering why God was attacking us (as we saw it) in such a way. My little sister was in the deepest crisis of us all. When my cousin came in to offer spiritual support, he said this: “While the pain you are going through is bad, you have to remember that God lost his own son.” My sister would have none of it. She responded without hesitation, “Yeah, but at least he got his son back after three days.” Now, my cousin could have stuck to his guns and continued to promote the validity of his wisdom, but he did not. He joined with my sister and said, “By God, I never thought of that.” He then remained silent. That meant a lot. It meant that he was not just trying to offer advice that he had never thought through himself, but he was willing to shoulder the burden that unexpected difficulties bring to our faith.
4. Help them to focus on the things that make or break their faith
Often, during this faith crisis, it is not just a room getting rearranged or a bathroom remodeled, it is as if the entire structure is falling down. It could be something as small as someone at school ridiculing them for believing that a donkey talked, a discovered discrepancy in what Christ said in Matthew compared to Mark, or a science class presentation on the theory of evolution (none of which affect any issues foundational to our faith). However, for those who have never been prepared for these challenges, they can not discriminate between essentials and non-essentials. For many, everything is an essential. Their theology is a house of cards. Once one card falls, no matter how small, the entire house comes tumbling down.
I remember when I had an existential crisis in the mid-nineties. It was over tongues. I grew up as a hard cessationist, believing that the gift of tongues ceased in the first century (I am still a cessationist). The way I was taught was that if someone speaks in tongues today, they are demon-possessed. There was simply no question about it. I was as sure (emotionally) about this as I was anything. Why? Because that is what I was taught and no one ever told me there were other options, much less other legitimate options. When I read Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, I was thrown into a mini-crisis for two reasons (even though I was not close to becoming charismatic): 1) I could not work into my practical theology the idea that Jack Deere – who, though a tongue-speaking charismatic, believed just about everything else I did concerning Christ – could be demon-possessed; and 2) I wondered why I was misled (from my perspective) for so long into thinking that all tongue-speakers were demon-possessed. My thought was, if I trusted my former teachers for so much (and they seemed so certain), what other things were they wrong about? Christ’s resurrection? The Bible’s authority? The Baptist way? But the issue of tongues is certainly not an essential issue. Why should the entire house fall when this card is taken away?
As people go through this crisis, we can do much to lessen the its effects if we can help those going through it gain some perspective. Someone may be questioning the legitimacy of their belief in the rapture, whether or not the Apocrypha is part of the canon, if Hell is eternal, if God changes his mind, whether Christ can work through other religions, or whether the Bible is inerrant or not. These are all important issues, but not foundational issues. Where you land on these issues does not speak to the ultimate truthfulness of the Christian faith.
Whether the crisis of faith is brought about due to intellectual or emotional reasons, it will help to encourage people to look to core issues of the faith and then move out from there. I think the core issue of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Christ. All dominoes fall from there. It is also the easiest to rest our intellectual heads on. I have yet to meet someone who was going through a prolonged crisis of faith who was well established in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.
5. Encourage them to live according to the faith they still have
Doubt is not unbelief. Doubt is the bridge that moves our current faith to perfect faith. That bridge will always be there until death (or until Christ comes). However, those who are going through a faith crisis don’t naturally see things this way. Once doubt comes in and infects their life on a conscious level, they interpret it as outright unbelief. They don’t know how else to process it. They think that they are on an inevitable road to complete unbelief. Unfortunately, because they think this way and because many Christians treat them as if they had the plague, they begin to immediately live as unbelievers. If sin were not the instigating problem before, it definitely becomes the chronic problem now. It is important for those who are struggling with doubt to not let their doubt influence their lives to a point that they start living as if they are unbelievers. Encourage the doubter to continue to live as a Christian, even if they don’t feel like one anymore.
6. Realize that there is no timetable here
Each person is unique. Just like with depression, the faith crisis has no timetable. For some people, due to personality and life circumstances, their crisis will last a very long time. The more contemplative (and compulsive) might suffer with this intermittently for their entire lives. I know that is a long time to teeter on the edge of unbelief, but this is sometimes God’s method. Who knows how long Job was in his faith-defining crisis? One thing is for sure: it was not an overnight thing. So be patient. Join with the doubting in prayer for as long as it takes. Be kind, knowing that such problems are not uncommon to man.
7. Help people work through their sin
I saved this one for last intentionally. Normally, this is the first place that Christians go when a loved one is going through this crisis. The reason why people jump to this conclusion is hard to know, but I think it helps us to mentally put doubt into a discernible box. It also helps us to find a quick solution. “Oh, you are doubting your faith. Okay, then quit sinning. Next!!” As I have said before, the problem is not always this simple, but sometimes it is. Personal sin is a faith drainer. We cannot live in disobedience to God for too long without it taking a significant toll on our faith. Many times people experience a faith crisis because there is some deliberate sin that they are not dealing with.
However, one thing to keep in mind is that there is hardly a sin that is not deliberate. And we are all sinners. Therefore, we are all in deliberate sin. But God deals with us in different ways. Some sins, in order for us to stay in them, take a toll on our mind and worldview as we attempt to justify them. For example, a Christian living in homosexuality is one thing. This is a definite sin and will take its toll in many ways. But a Christian living in homosexuality and trying to justify this biblically is another thing. The toll here is not only a moral, social, and physical one, but one that corrupts the mind. The mental gymnastics required to make the Bible subjective enough to justify homosexual behavior are not going to remain isolated to this issue alone. Sooner or later, the mental paradigm that was created to make one sin viable will corrupt everything else.
In short, if there is something that we know we are supposed to be doing and we are not doing it, but instead justifying our behavior, doubt will soon spread and the crisis of faith will be hard to overcome. We need to gently ask these types of questions when the time is right. Simply accusing people of some deep-rooted personal sin right from the gun can be judgemental, embarrassing, and will not promote welcoming ears. Ask if there is any sin that they know of which might be causing this. If they say no and there is nothing that you know of which is sure to be the cause (for don’t we all know of some sin in the lives of loved ones), then don’t push this issue. You can return to it periodically when the crisis is not over and faith has not been restored.
Though a Calvinist, it should be obvious that I am not interested in the, “Was this person ever really saved to begin with?” question. It is an important theological question, but does not practically have any relevance here. I treat those who confess the faith as believers and work from there. I also treat each individual as if this person can truly lose their faith. After all, there is a faith that does not save and we need to hold this out as a real option. We may eventually find out that this person was not a believer, but we should cross that bridge when it becomes evident to all parties.
I am a perpetual doubter and am learning to live with it. I don’t rejoice in my doubt and don’t really wish it upon anyone else. However, I have come to realize that it almost always makes my faith stronger in the end so long as I am not apathetic about it.
Back to where I started: I knew of one person who I believed was being used by God significantly that had not been though some sort of faith crisis that caused them to doubt their beliefs at the deepest level. Every other believer that has been of significant influence in my life has their “story.” Though not every one of them is confident enough to make their crisis known, I always make it a point to try to bring it out of them. I just figure it is there and under the right circumstances they will feel comfortable enough to share it. This has always been the case, save this one person. I just held out that this person was some sort of anomaly. He was an example of someone who either was so strong in the faith that doubt could never affect him, or one whom God was content not to put through such a trial. However, this changed one year ago, as this pastor went through his own crisis of doubt. He now has his “story” too. I believe that everyone who is used of God significantly will have their story. So take heart.
I hope this has been helpful. Soon I will write to parents about how to prepare for and prevent this type of faith crisis in their children. There is no way to prevent the trials, but there are definite things we can do ensure that our children do not sink into the depths of despair while their faith is growing.