When thoughtful christians begin to doubt

In my previous post (When sensitive and thoughtful people begin to doubt) I looked at 4 different sets of musicians who were christians earlier in their lives, but had struggled with faith since then. Now I want to share a few thoughts on how churches and parents might help their youth to be able to face doubts sensibly and on a good basis.

Not everyone doubts for the same reasons

It seems that, often, when a christian expresses doubts, other well-meaning christians tell them they need to trust God more, get back to reading their Bible and praying everyday, keep attending church, as if all doubt is spiritual, stemming from a lack of trust in God or a failure of spiritual disciplines.

But there are many reasons why people may doubt, and each one requires different responses:

  1. Intellectual arguments against God and the Bible.
  2. Difficult experiences of christianity.
  3. Loss of trust in God (not an intellectual thing).
  4. Other lifestyles are more attractive.

I hope it is obvious that each of these reasons is very different to the others, and so each requires different responses, and different ways of preparing young believers. Let’s look at each one.

1. Intellectual doubts

For many people, doubts need resolution, questions need answers and sceptical arguments need counter arguments. Some people won’t be able to continue to believe what they were taught as a child if they are not given good reasons to believe.

Intellectual doubts can arise in several ways – for example, they may come from good arguments against God and the church, from weak arguments persuasively presented, from doubts about the truth of some christian doctrines, or from a loss of confidence in belief.

No more Mickey Mouse apologetics

One of the biggest problems I see in christian apologetics is the use of weak christian arguments and responses that may give the young christian a false sense of confidence. This leaves them vulnerable if confronted with information that leaves the weak christian argument looking untenable.

An example is the often-repeated statement: “Archeology confirms the Bible.” This statement is misleading at best and sometimes quite wrong. The truth is that some parts of the Bible are confirmed, some are shown to be almost certainly not accurate history, and many parts are unable to be confirmed or disproved. Christians need to be aware of these facts, lest their confidence in God and the Bible be misplaced and easily undermined.

Another trap christian ministers, youth leaders and bloggers often fall into is to quote committed christian scholars on contentious points where the consensus of secular scholars is against them. An example would be quoting the views of christian scholars about the historical justification of the resurrection. These views can easily be presented by non-believers, or misrepresented, as simply the words of apologists, with alternative sceptical views presented (often equally incorrectly) as the objective view. This can lead young christians to doubt the teaching they have been given. Far better, I believe, is to build young faith on the consensus of the best scholars, whether christian or not, so that in any later debate, the christian is able to take the intellectual high ground against sceptics quoting fringe scholar whose views are not in the mainstream.

Arguments against God

There are many arguments formulated against God, and believers have developed arguments opposing each one. These arguments and counter arguments are of varying quality, but these days young christians generally need to be not only aware of them, but familiar with the main ones so that they are not just vague ideas, but arguments they understand and can use if necessary – on their own behalf, or to assist fellow believers. Young believers need to be comfortable with criticism of their beliefs and not overly impressed with counter arguments.

It is equally, or more, important for christians to understand why they believe, to have good reasons which they can express clearly. Most christians won’t need to delve deeply into the philosophy, but for those christians whose faith is more intellectual, this means thinking through issues and reasons, getting expert information on science, history and philosophy as well as apologetics.

Some christians try to counter every argument against God, but I think this is a mistake. I don’t think it is very honest, for there really are some troubling things about God and this world. The better response, in my opinion, is to admit there are troubling facts which we cannot explain, but point to the many more reasons to believe God exists and is involved in the world, providing a stronger reason to believe than to disbelieve.

Youth groups and church study groups need to provide options for those christians who need it to develop their understanding of intellectual and evidential arguments in an encouraging environment.

Doubts about christian doctrines taught to them

Sometimes doubt and loss of faith comes not from the arguments of atheists but from within the church and within the Bible – in fact I think this may be the main reason why thoughtful people leave the faith. If a young christian has been taught that the Bible is totally true and this belief is the the basis of their faith, then doubts about any part of the Bible may lead to wholesale rejection of the Bible and christianity.

The obvious example is Genesis vs evolution, where an understanding of the science may not just lead to a re-evaluation of creationism, but to doubts about everything from Genesis to Revelation. Other examples of doctrines and Bible passages that can kill faith include the Canaanite genocide and the Old Testament portrayal of God as fierce and warlike, the doctrine of hell, Old Testament prophecies that have not apparently been fulfilled, and conservative understandings of social issues such as homosexuality and the place of women.

On virtually all of these issues there is more than one understanding and interpretation by christians. Coming to a different understanding may save a person’s faith, even if it means they change their doctrinal position and even their church. Ministers and leaders should, I believe, consider more carefully whether their primary aim is to see people following Jesus, even if it is in a tradition different to their own, or whether they’d prefer people leave the faith rather than change their doctrine.

Loss of confidence

Sometimes christians aren’t driven out of faith by arguments and facts, but they simply lose confidence in christian belief. It just all seems to be less probable than they once thought.

This is harder to respond to because it is so unspecific. But teaching and encouraging young christians to think through why they believe may help them to never get to this point.

Difficult experiences of christianity

The behaviour of christians and churches can really turn people off believing. It is bad enough when christians observe others christians behaving badly, but it is much worse when they experience anger, disunity, sexism or sexual abuse, exclusion, pettiness, or abuse of power themselves.

Intellectually, bad behaviour by christians shouldn’t be a reason to disbelieve, for we know people are often weak and behave badly – that’s part of what Jesus came to save us from. But we need to recognise that we are feeling as well as thinking beings, and discouragement and mistreatment can lead people to not want to believe any more. We are all responsible for the effects of bad behaviour.

Further, we all need to be on the lookout for wounded soldiers, people who have been hurt and are in danger of dropping out. Sensitive support may be crucial, giving answers less so.

Losing trust in God

If someone goes through difficult times, like sickness, bereavement, apparently unanswered prayer or disappointment, it is perhaps natural that they will question God. Sometimes estrangement from God can come through guilt, feeling that we aren’t good enough or that God couldn’t forgive us this time.

Walking with these people without judgment, listening, praying for them and not trying to give intellectual answers until and if they choose to discuss them, are all important aspects of being a friend and a christian brother or sister to them.

What they do not need, generally, is any condemnation or implied criticism about their doubts. We don’t know how it feels to be them and to have experienced their life, so we need to be careful in diagnosing their issue. We could easily think, or give the impression, that God’s grace to us to give us confidence was somehow because of the excellence of our faith, and their doubts are somehow a sign of a weaker faith.

Other attractions

The world, or at least some aspects of it, is always going to be attractive and a potential temptation to christians, especially younger ones, and advertising is very carefully prepared to maximise that appeal. So we need to be wise in how we prepare our youth.

Preparation can start when our children are quite young. Talk about the values we hold as christians (we should be non-materialistic, putting the kingdom of God first, behaving with integrity and servant-hearted love towards all people, etc) and make sure we are living them out. Explain to our children what the advertising they see is trying to guide their thinking into channels that will focus on self, possessions and pleasure. Help them to see, because they see in us, that we live by different values and this gives our lives greater meaning and wellbeing. And listen without judgment to their questions and answer them seriously. Encourage discussion of issues of faith, ethics, relationships and life.

It will help greatly if our teens grow up with a supportive and like-minded peer group, and in a church family that knows how to have fun, be encouraging and not set the boundaries too close.

It will help, too, if we understand the culture our children are living in. We all know that the culture of today’s 16 year old is very different to what it was when we were 16, but it is also likely to be very different from what 16 year olds experienced just two or three years ago. If we take an interest in, understand and are sympathetic to youth culture, we are less likely to make mistakes and bad assumptions.

All of this will help, but it still may not protect our youth from finding the world more attractive than christian living. So above all, pray for your children and the youth in your church every day.

Make it attractive and meaningful now!

So I believe the best way to prepare our youth for doubt and attacks on their faith is to ensure their experience of christianity is attractive and meaningful.

Attractive doesn’t mean gimmicky or trying to provide what the world already provides very well for them, but rather helping them see and experience the good side of christian living. Some forms of christianity focus too much on sin and what we have been saved from, and don’t emphasise enough the blessings of life with God as our father and Jesus as our brother.

Studies show that we have a meaningful life when we have purpose and values, and feel we have significance and can make a difference. This will usually mean serving others in a cause we really believe in. Christianity can provide all these things.

So youth will benefit if they see their parents and leaders living meaningful lives serving God and the people around them, and if they are encouraged and given opportunities to express their youthful idealism by serving in meaningful ways.

This form of active christianity is much more likely to engage and hold idealistic youth than a christianity built around passively listening to sermons, keeping to fine points of doctrine and working in maintaining the church.

Promoting a healthy climate of questioning

Churches and families need to make it a positive when a person questions the established wisdom. We need to understand that just telling people stuff, whether in sermons or at home, achieves very little unless the person is interested and engaged in that particular topic and respects the person speaking. Learning and growth occur most when it is self-learning, motivated by wanting to know and developed in discussion and in practice.

Questioning is a sign that self learning is going on, or is at least possible, so questioning should be encouraged. And like Jesus, we need challenge them to think for themselves. (He told ambiguous stories that invited a response, and often responded to a question with a question, such as “how do you see it?”) We need to give them enough to go on with but not so much that we stifle them

So Bible studies shouldn’t just aim to straightjacket people into the approved doctrine and thinking of our church, but should rather try to anticipate the questions and issues that participants may be wondering about, and legitimise their questions and encourage them to explore. Sermons will only be effective if they address relevant questions, provide encouragement for self learning and don’t go for too long (15 minutes is about all our short term memories can deal with).

Doubt can be the gateway to a renewed and improved understanding if we respond to it constructively.

Accept diversity of opinion

We don’t all have to think the same. We can believe in Jesus and follow him faithfully without all having the same doctrine on relatively minor and arguable matters. If our main aim is seeing our next generations growing into active adult faith and christian living, we don’t have to worry about a little diversity. In fact, it can be a good thing, because it shows our love and fellowship transcends minor matters, and means people of varying doctrinal backgrounds can find a place in our church.

The take-home message

Mature christians don’t just happen. They are built on prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.

But we have an important part to play in preparing youth for the rough and tumble of a pluralistic world, by helping them to build an adult faith that they can respect and defend because they have built it themselves with God’s help. We can give them space, we can encourage them to question and explore, and to find their own way to follow Jesus. We can walk with them, demonstrate a living and active faith and answer their questions honestly.

I don’t doubt there is much more to be said on this topic than I have covered here. If I review this in a week I’ll probably think of things I wish I hadn’t left out. You can probably think of more that could have been included.

But I hope this sets you thinking and praying, and that that will assist some future questioner and doubter to resolve their questions and doubts and endure to the end.

Photo by Mike Greer from Pexels

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