What Not to Say to a Doubting Christian

     Just have faith. It is a friendly little Christianese phrase that can serve as a source of encouragement in many contexts.  For example, if someone is planning a mission trip and needs God to supply the financial support, telling them to just have faith serves as a reminder that God is faithful and will fulfill their monetary needs; they need only to stifle their doubts and trust that he will provide the needed support through his providence. Here, telling someone to just have faith is supposed to encourage them, helping them to reaffirm their trust in God’s calling, goodness, and provision.

But what if the focus of one’s doubt is not on God’s characteristics or his calling? What if the focus is on the very existence of God? And what if this is serious doubt that is heavily affecting them? Here, this short expression of Christianese support can be dangerous and harmful. I believe, based on personal experience, the testimony of friends, and much reflection. I hope to convince you that you should never say just have faith to a doubter who has come to you seeking advice or counseling.

Overall, the attitude of the evangelical church towards doubt is highly negative. Anything short of absolute certainty when it comes to the existence of God and/or orthodox doctrine is either condemned as sin or heavily discouraged as being hazardous to your faith. This makes doubters weary of asking for help. No one wants to go to a pastor, church leader, Christian counselor, or even friend if they believe that all they will receive is condemnation. Unfortunately, this context is rarely taken into account when a doubter actually takes the frightening step of coming to voice their doubts.

When a doubter finally comes forth out of this context, it is normally after a long period of dealing with the problem on their own…and failing.  Knowing there is no one to talk to about their doubts that they have kept to themselves, all the while feeling ashamed and afraid that the God they grew up believing in is not there. For them this is no small issue; it is something that has caused a great amount of despair. Their entire worldview is crumbling apart and they may feel like coming to someone for help is their last hope to get out of this mess. Furthermore, if they are anything like me or some of the people whose testimonies I have heard, they have been praying desperately that God would grant them faith while searching scripture for answers.

In this context, saying just have faith (and building the rest of the conversation around that central theme) does not come off as helpful support; it comes off as a condemnation. Because of the doubter’s background there is an implicit message that the one counseling does not realize they are giving. It is not as if stating just have faith is going to give them an Aha! moment where they finally realize that just having faith is the solution to the problem they have been dealing with for a long time, because most doubters spend most of their time attempting to do just that. It is going to sound a lot more like this: “You need to stop doubting and just have faith, because your “attempts” to have faith and trust God during these weeks/months/years of doubt have obviously not been sincere since you’re still doubting. You’re either lying to me about trying to have faith or else you’re ignoring God’s help or else you’re not actually saved.”

Here is where it gets dangerous. A doubter, after an extended time of doubting God’s existence and trying to have faith in him––whether by regular prayer, reading of scripture, church attendance, etc.––has come to someone else for a solution. They are then told that the only solution is exactly what they have been doing…which has not worked. Moreover, their plea for help was met with implicit condemnation. With no other solutions in sight, what will happen to the doubter?

What should one say to this kind of doubter, then? I do not pretend to have a working answer to that question, but I do think there are a few things we need to keep in mind.

First, faith and belief are distinct. Faith presupposes belief and belief is prior to faith. Evangelicals tend to erase this distinction, defining their faith/belief conjunction such that it is equivalent to some type of irrational, blind faith. In scripture, faith is much closer to trust. Do you believe that God exists? and Do you trust him? are separate questions that should be dealt with on their own terms. Accordingly, the advice to just have faith given to someone dealing with the former question misses the mark entirely.

Second, there are different kinds of people with different kinds of doubt and different theologies. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This means that there is going to be much more work involved than a single meeting where you deliver the Christianese one-liner. You may have to actually invest in someone’s life.

And third, while this would take a whole other post to defend, we have to keep in mind that God has good reason to allow doubt. Doubt can lead to a more vibrant faith and allows the forming of many Christian virtues.

The only way someone can say just have faith to a doubter of God’s existence is if they have failed to appreciate what the doubter has been through, how they feel, and the biblical meaning of belief and faith. You may never have to counsel a doubter. But if you do, do not make this mistake, and do not think that a solution will be easy.

Photo credit: thegospelcoalition.org

What is a Fruitful College Experience?

This is my 8th college semester, with one more to go (hopefully) due to being a transfer student. This is also the only semester in college where I’ve truly had a great college experience.

In my past semesters I always allowed my introversion to get in the way of being spontaneous and making friends. I normally stayed in my room doing work, reading, watching Netflix, or whatever I felt like. I had almost no extracurricular activities whatsoever. And the worst part is I felt like doing that (and by “doing that” I mean “doing nothing”) was part of a great college experience. I see now that it wasn’t anything close.

I now believe my past semesters to have been terrible, because this semester, one of my last, has been incredibly fulfilling. This semester, instead of staying in the dorm and being introverted, I’ve let my extroverted side out and began to hang out with friends more. I’ve begun to take part in more extracurricular activities, like Ratio Christi, The Theatrical Society, teaching youth at a local church, and of course The Talon. No doubt I’m very busy with all these and my schoolwork, but I think it’s the busyness that’s added much of the fulfillment. It turns out that being extremely introverted takes away from your college experience.

Here’s a list of conditions that I think are necessary for having a fruitful college experience. Of course I’ve only had about half a semester of experience and thus am an amateur, but I believe these points hold:

1). Even if you’re an introvert, make time for social events, time with friends, etc.

2). Be a part of ongoing extracurricular activities. There are many clubs, sports, and everything else on campus. If you’re an introvert, continue doing it anyway if at first you hate it. I haven’t regretted it.

3). Shift around your schedule every once in a while. Be spontaneous. Doing the same thing every day and every week can get boring fast.

4). Do things you never thought you would do, whether it be getting up in front of a group of people and speaking, trying out for a chapel music team, etc.

I’ve followed 1-4 this semester and have no doubt that it has enhanced my college experience. I only wished that I had begun sooner.

Who was Saint Patrick?

St. Patrick’s day is coming up soon on March 17th. I must confess that I never knew anything about the actual man. I knew that St. Patrick’s day was a day where you wore green on pain of pinching and most people drank things that were not TFC appropriate. But that was the extent of my knowledge until I took some church history classes. What I found out about St. Patrick and his holiday was that we know very little about St. Patrick, and that St. Patrick’s day is the day he supposedly died. St. Patrick is truly a man of mystery. So here’s a few facts about the famous bishop of Ireland and his holiday.

Patrick was born sometime around the late 4th century. Around the age of sixteen he was captured and sold as a slave. He escaped several years later and returned to his family, but eventually came back to where he had been enslaved in Ireland and was ordained a bishop.

According to legend, St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration for the trinity, since the shamrock is one clover with three leaves.

Also according to legend, St. Patrick is said to have banished all the snakes from Ireland when they attacked him during a long fast.

When he died is a matter of historical speculation, but it is generally agreed that he died in the second half of the 5th century. March 17th is thought to be the day he died.

The St. Patrick’s day pinching that one receives if not wearing green is an American tradition having nothing to do with St. Patrick. It was thought that Leprechauns made their roundabouts on St. Patrick’s day, pinching everyone whom they could see, and green (somehow) made people invisible to them. The pinches were to remind you of the malicious Leprechauns who were bound to pinch you if you were visible to them.

In short, we know very little about St. Patrick. Most of the stories surrounding him are mixtures of legend, myth, and history. The holiday that celebrates his death has very little to do with him and what he did. This St. Patrick’s day, think about he did do: he served as God’s missionary and bishop to a people group that needed it. He didn’t hop around gleefully with green leprechauns pinching people.

William Lane Craig Argues for Christian Faith

On February 1st, world renowned Christian theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig debated atheist philosopher Alexander Rosenberg of Duke University on the topic “Is Faith in God Reasonable?” at Purdue University. Members from the Toccoa Falls College Philosophy Club and the apologetics group of Ratio Christi spent much of their Friday night watching the nearly three hour long debate together then discussed the presentations and rebuttals made by the debaters about the origins of the universe, the resurrection of Jesus, and many other important topics. Altogether there were approximately twenty-five students watching what I consider to be one of the most interesting debates I’ve ever watched on the topic. The formal judges voted 4-2 Craig, students and guests in attendance voted 1,390-303 Craig, and those watching the live stream (like us) voted 734-59 Craig.

Do the results of the debate prove anything? Perhaps. Are debates like this important? The twenty-five in attendance thought so. Does loving God with your mind include thinking about hard issues that make you uncomfortable? I think the answer is definitely a yes. Jen Doll, who attended our streaming of the debate, gives an account of why she thinks Christians should participate in events such as these: “The Craig/Rosenberg debate was important for Christians because Craig showed that the Christian worldview is logical and defensible. It also served to give light on how Christians should act in the face of opposition: humbly defending our position and not trying to force it down a person’s throat simply because he or she disagrees with us.”

The members of the TFC Philosophy Club and Ratio Christi get together and think about pertinent issues related to faith, theology, and society. The Philosophy Club plans discussions and activities related to events such as the Craig/Rosenberg debate, and Ratio Christi meets to discuss and learn how to defend the Christian faith, to show that it is reasonable. The two groups often work together to plan events since many of the themes of the groups merge. If you are interested in belonging to a group(s) that emphasizes the life of the Christian mind, contact myself at jordanbradford@tfc.edu for questions related to The Philosophy Club, or Tom Loghry at thomasloghry@tfc.edu for questions related to Ratio Christi.

Skunky

A few nights ago, I was in one of those “contemplative moods”. I’m a philosophy major so this tends to happen a lot, but this time it was the weekend and most TFC students were visiting home or hanging out off campus, so I decided that I’d take a leisurely walk knowing that I wouldn’t be bothered.

Doing this reminded me of all the times that I would walk into the woods by my granny’s house to get to a nearby river. After a nearly thirty minute walk, I’d find a tree next to the flowing water and sit down, listening to all the sounds. After several minutes of being quiet, some animal or another would eventually make its way to the bank of the river for a drink, and I’d sit and watch without making a sound. It was something I always enjoyed.

When I got to walk around the outskirts of campus without having to avoid students, it was a pleasant reminder of those times at my granny’s, when I’d “be alone” off in the woods. It was also one of the first times that I contemplated something that didn’t relate to my major. I just walked around and contemplated the things that were surrounding me.

First I saw a shooting star. It shot through most of the sky, and it directed my attention to the rest of the stars. So I walked for a while with my head in an uncomfortable position, remembering that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the
skies proclaim the work of his hands” Psalm 19:1.

After some more time walking, I started past the small cemetery, and something immediately caught my attention. My nose singed from a horrible smell. I then heard something moving around, and soon from the corner of my eye I noticed a small creature wobbling around the counseling building. It was a skunk, confirmed by both smell and sight. And in my contemplative mood, I watched it as it scurried around in search of…whatever it is skunks search for.

In extremely south Georgia, skunks are incredibly rare. I had never seen one until coming up to TFC. When I would walk into the woods at my granny’s, I’d see animals like deer, or a fox, or rabbits, i.e. pleasant animals. Watching a deer take a sip of water from a river, or a family of foxes running along a path, or a rabbit nibbling on some grass  makes a wonderful photograph. You could take a picture of any of those scenes, frame it, then look at it and relay how beautiful God’s creation is; how he has made delightfully charming critters out of his wisdom, how the ecosystem is perfectly balanced because of
the workings of his creatures, etc.

But then you see a skunk near a cemetery. What are you supposed to think about that? Does that make a beautiful picture of God’s wisdom and power? As I looked at this little skunk scuttling along and minding his own business, I began to think about why my thoughts had made an extreme U-Turn, going straight from contemplation and wonder of God’s creation, to “Ewww”.

I had no reason to be prejudiced against the skunk. Skunks were made by God and declared to be good by him. Of course, I may never completely understand why God made skunks. But after staying back and watching him (and smelling him) for a while,thinking about the skunk’s place in God’s creation, I began to get a partial picture. This picture didn’t come as some immediate revelation. It came through believing that the skunk was created by God and placed here for a purpose, whatever that may be.

Deer, foxes, and rabbits aren’t the only creatures that point to a loving God. Even the weirdest of creatures show his glory through what he has done.

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