Have you ever had doubts about God? The Bible? Eternity? You're not alone.
Recently I had the privilege to ask Barnabas Piper a couple of questions about his new book Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith. Barnabas writes regularly for WorldMag.com, The Blazing Center, and his own site Barnabaspiper.com. He is author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity which documents his life living as the son of Desiring God creator, John Piper and how 'PKs' can navigate the deep waters of living in the same house as their pastor.
Brad: What lead you to write your recent book Help My Unbelief?
Barnabas: I am a questioner, someone who leans cynical. In the Christian faith – at least in the conservative evangelical church – questioning is often viewed with suspicion. “Doubting Thomas” is a pejorative term for those who don’t easily believe what they’re told. That means that over the years I have felt friction between my natural way of learning and exploring and what is deemed acceptable or safe in a church context. The other significant piece is my own personal struggle to connect what I have been taught about God and the Bible with what I actually believe – that set of values and convictions that drives me.
Combined, these two experiences lit a fire in me to take on the big set of concepts that are faith and belief to see if I could offer something helpful. I wanted to draw the person who never questions into a confrontation with the big mysteries of God while also offering some peace for the soul of the person who perpetually questions.
Brad: Why are many Christians so afraid to share their doubts and unbelief about God with other believers?
Barnabas: I think it’s important to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is simply not knowing, not being sure. It turns to unbelief when, rather than seeking truth and submitting to God, we reject answers or assume we know all that can be known and turn away from truth. The implications of this are wonderful and terrible. It means that doubting is not a sin so long as you are straining to see. We can be free from guilt for our doubt as long as our hearts yearn after God’s truth. But unbelief is rebellion against God. It can even disguise itself as belief, cloaked in right answers and truisms.
However, many Christians have been taught either explicitly or implicitly that doubt is sin, so they feel guilt about their questions. They fear they’ll be judged. And like most shameful things kept secret it leads them to believe they are alone and nobody else has questions. In reality nearly everyone does, and more openness about it would build everyone up and help more people see more truth about God.
Brad: How did you see unbelief and doubt dealt with in your home growing up? What can parents do to help their doubting children?
Barnabas: shouldn't fight unbelief in their kids. At least they shouldn't think of it as fighting. Belief, ultimately, is a miracle, death made life by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can work in myriad ways, and questioning is a significant one. If your child has questions, isn’t sure about the Bible, or doesn't know what to believe those are just as likely to be opportunities for the Spirit to liven his heart as for a drift into rebellion. As parents our job is to declare and display the work of the Spirit, our relationship with God, so that children can see where the answers to those questions truly lie. Don't argue; answer. Don't fight; exemplify. Don’t give up; pray.
My parents did a wonderful job of praying for us kids, for always being welcoming to us no matter where we were in life, and of always upholding God’s word. It was hard having parents with a faith that looked unassailable because it put my doubts in such stark contrast. But that isn't their fault.
Brad: In what ways can a Pastor help the people in his congregation who are struggling with doubt and unbelief?
Barnabas: Pastors should respect their doubts. Questions are a means of learning and discovery, and isn't that what we want for people, to discover Jesus? From there I don't know where else to start but the Bible. I would point them to who Jesus says He is and the accounts of His life and work. I don't think people are argued into faith; they come to that by meeting Jesus, an introduction made by the Holy Spirit. If the conversation turned philosophical or evidential I would draw on that aspect of God that fractures most philosophical arguments: his infinity. If God is infinite that means that we, by the very nature of being finite, cannot possibly expect to understand and know Him in full (or really even close to it). That means that much of God is shrouded in mystery and what we have to go on is exactly what He wanted us to have, the revelation of Himself in the Bible.
Brad: There are surely some people reading this who are struggling with doubt and unbelief. What do have to say to encourage those people?
Barnabas: It sounds counter-intuitive, but often doubt can be evidence of belief. Like the dad in Mark 9:24, he was not sure what Jesus could do, but he believed enough to seek help. If you have the inclination to cry out to God you have belief. Too often Christians get overwrought with guilt and despair about their doubts instead of realizing that belief is woven throughout them. It’s like someone training for a race. If they get discouraged every time something hurts and think “I'm just not good enough” they are missing the point that the pain is the improvement.
So I would say that strengthening your belief comes from recognizing the heart behind the doubt. If your doubts come from a place of wanting to know God more deeply they are born from belief, not sin. They will lead you deeper into faith and obedience, not further away. It reframes doubt from sin to hope, from guilt to growth.
Buy Barnabas' new book on Amazon here.
I am a Husband to Clarissa, Pastor at Liberty Baptist Church, reader of many books, and tweeter at @brad_merchant.