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.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]