In December I was interviewed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who devotes an annual Christmas column to a conversation with a believing Christian. Kristof asked honest questions about such issues as miracles, failures of the church, and the reliability of the Bible. Within two days, 830 Times readers posted comments, and taken together they offer a snapshot summary of the skeptical culture we live in. How can any sane person defend medieval texts! The church does far more harm than good. If God exists, why doesn’t that God do something about the 15,000 children who died today?
Reading through these overwhelmingly negative comments gave me a stark reminder of the modern obstacles to belief. Around the same time, polls from the Pew Research Center [PEW REPORT] confirmed that millennials are leaving the church in droves. The trend brought to mind an old proverb on the decline of faith over generations: “The grandfather believes, the father doubts, the son denies. The grandfather prays in Hebrew, the father reads the prayers in English, the son does not pray at all.”
Although Christianity is booming in some parts of the world, in the U.S. and Europe faith has been on a steady decline. Our ancestors experienced times of doubt while continuing to practice their faith. In contrast, many moderns live in a sea of doubt, and find faith incomprehensible, or at least outmoded.
Doubt has a stubborn power, as the Bible itself reveals. During their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites had clear proofs of God: a pillar of fire leading them, daily provisions of manna, God’s own presence with Moses on Mt. Sinai and in the Tent of Meeting. Yet we look on that time as an example of unfaithfulness. The very people liberated from slavery by the Ten Plagues, who had manna digesting in their stomachs, whined about missing the pleasures of Egypt and fashioned pagan idols to worship.
John the Baptist, who had seen the Spirit descend like a dove and had heard God’s own voice of approval at Jesus’ baptism, later sat forlorn in a prison and sent a messenger to ask if Jesus was really the promised one. You might think that miracles would silence doubts about Jesus’ identity. Quite the contrary. The religious authorities, far from finding their faith stirred by miracles, instead tried to suppress them. They put a man healed of blindness on trial, and scolded Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
Miracles upset the comfortable status quo. When Jesus raised Lazarus, the religious authorities determined to kill Jesus: “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
And even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some of his disciples could not bring themselves to believe, until Jesus made a personal appearance. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus told Thomas, one of the holdouts; “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Out of my own experience with doubt, I have reached the following conclusions:
We are, after all, material beings relating to an invisible God who often seems silent, and deaf to our cries. Instinctively we want God to micro-manage life on earth, by constantly performing miracles that alter the laws of nature. The Bible describes such events, but as unusual pulses of God’s activity, followed by long years of what may seem like inattention.
In 1527, Martin Luther, that bulwark of faith who wrote the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” recorded, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” He later reflected, “the content of the depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me.”
I have yet to find a single argument against God from the New Atheists—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins—that is not included in the Bible, in such books as Lamentations, Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Ecclesiastes. I respect a God who not only acknowledges our doubts but also gives us the very words to express them.
God has no need to “prove himself” by impressing us with supernatural reality. As spirit, perhaps God instead wants us to work on the spiritual disciplines—prayer, silence, contemplation, fasting, study, Sabbath—that connect us to a nonmaterial reality, God’s native environment. Jesus refused to perform miracles on demand, to dazzle onlookers. Miracles attract fans, whereas he sought disciples with faith tough enough to withstand doubt and disappointment.
God “remembers that we are dust,” wrote the psalmist. God must understand that on a broken planet invaded by evil, occasions will arise when for us puny humans nothing makes sense and we feel unloved and abandoned. Surely Jesus understands, for from the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Jesus uttered that cry from the cross after his nation had turned against him and his closest disciples had melted away in the darkness.
For me, doubt works in an inward-curving spiral, much like self-pity. I begin with a complaint against the church, or confusion about some doctrine, and end up in a ‘Slough of Despond.’ I see only the contradictions, the negatives, the darkness. At such times I need a Doubt Companion, a compassionate listener who does not judge but will walk beside me in strength.
Ideally, the church should supply these companions, yet local churches often react to doubters with suspicion and judgment. More commonly, a trusted small group, or even a single friend can provide what we desperately need: someone unthreatened by doubt who rewards rather than punishes honesty, and who can gently bring light into darkness.
In her poem “Exodus,” Annie Dwyer writes:
I surround myself with belief,
The way the Blind surround themselves
With those who can see.
As a writer, I tend to lean on literary companions who have helped form my faith: stalwarts such as Augustine, Pascal, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, the ancient poets John Donne and George Herbert, and the modern ones W. H. Auden and Gerard Manley Hopkins. During times of doubt I read their words again and pray for God to give me a similar faith, one as resilient as my doubts.
The struggle between doubt and faith often leads to spiritual growth. John Drummond points out that Jesus consistently made a distinction between doubt and unbelief. “Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.”
When wallowing in doubt, I face a choice. I can either assume a “victimization” attitude about this messed-up world, blaming God for its defects—or somehow, despite my doubts, actively contribute to the solution.
I have found that nothing quiets doubts so well as an encounter with transformed lives, and the best way to see transformed lives is to get involved with a ministry that serves the truly needy. God set in motion a plan in which we, Jesus’ followers, are invited into a divine partnership to bring peace and comfort and love to a planet full of strife and pain and division. I dare not let doubt paralyze my participation in that plan.
Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa of Calcutta made the news again when a book recording her doubts was published, against her wishes. In it, she spoke of the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she had undergone. “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.” Amazingly, apart from a few brief remissions she lived in this state of darkness for 60 years, the entire time she was serving the poor and dying.
Some believers were shocked by her doubts, while others saw them as the “dark night of the soul” common to saints who, like the military’s special forces, take on extreme tasks. I was most struck by the way Mother Teresa conducted her life despite her doubts. She refused to succumb, and in the process became a shining example of faith. As the letters to her confessors make clear, she was sustained by loyal Doubt Companions.
Jesus had the opportunity to subdue doubts for all time. He could have appeared with a choir of angels on Pilate’s porch the Monday after his resurrection and triumphantly declared, “I’m back!” Or, he could have staged a spectacular display before thousands in the Roman Forum. Instead, he limited his appearances to small groups of people who had already demonstrated some faith in him—which tells me something about the kind of uncoerced faith that God values.
In one of those small gatherings, the apostle who would earn the nickname “doubting Thomas” confronted Jesus. I love that scene, for two reasons. First, it shows the gentle way Jesus treated a doubter, when he had a perfect chance to scold him or pile on the guilt. Listen to Jesus’ approach: What proof do you need, Thomas? Want to touch my wounds? Shall I eat something for you?
Second, I note the poignant fact that the other disciples, who had already encountered the risen Jesus, included Thomas in their midst. To them, Thomas was a heretic: he defiantly refused to believe in the Resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Even so, they welcomed him to join them behind closed doors. Had they not, Thomas may never have met the resurrected Jesus.
Perhaps that gives a model for how the church should handle doubters now. Can we provide a safe, welcoming place for those who need more light?
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So far, I have read ONLY ONE of all Philip Yancey’s books (Where is God when it hurts?). It interested me, inspired, helped me realize that “pain demands the attention…”
and it helped me open my eyes, ask myself deep questions about Christianity. BUT after reading all the comments and replies, I’ve attained clarification. As a high school student, its hard to have people who share my experiences, views and feelings, its also hard to find truthful people among people who are trying to find themselves. The truth is, one First has to find God (seek the Kingdom of God) before knowing who he (or she) is, where he is going and what he posses to prevail.
There are a lot of hypocrites in the professing ‘church’, who engage in the world’s lust, fornication, and adultery. Perhaps these are among those who turn people away from the truth.
David G wrote on 12/22/19 “Go walk into the pediatric oncology wing of any major hospital, and let me know if you still believe in Jesus’ compassion.” Every time we walk into such a scene, we see dozens and hundreds of people ministering compassion to the patients and their families. David G has his perspective, I have an altogether different one. This reminds me of what dear Mr. Rogers’ mother said: Whenever something terrible happens, look around for the helpers. You’ll always find helpers.
Following up on Damien and Philip’s exchange on Jan 12th. A question I would have is whether Job or Abraham or Thomas admitted to themselves their doubts, and whether they felt that those doubts kept them from communicating with God? They each did reach a good “place” with God, but I wonder more about their process. There is actually a lot to read about Job’s, not so much on the other two. Just thinking out loud here. – Ralph
“The Bible describes such events, but as unusual pulses of God’s activity, followed by long years of what may seem like inattention.”
I like how you phrased that, “pulses of God’s activity.” I’ve long awaited physical healing in my broken body. Almost 20 years now of battling a brain condition I can’t fix, doctors can’t yet fix, but only God can fix. He could fix me right now if He wanted to! Many times I’m able to still abide in God’s love and peace and can be patient with my limitations but as time drags on and I remain “unhealed” and I take steps backwards in my healing process, I doubt God and His involvement. Has He forgotten me? Does He care? Will He indeed bring this good work He started in me to completion? Or will I only experience the healing I desire when my life on earth ends? So many questions, heartache and doubt. I thank God that He is patient with me when I’m impatient. God help me. I have an MRI scheduled for early Friday morning to see if I’ve had yet another bleed and taken steps backwards. I hope not and pray not.
Thanks for your word, Philip.
I am praying with you, Megan. This reminds me of the attitude of Daniel’s friends thrown in the fiery furnace: “But if not…”
Brilliant, Philip! Love your response. Thank You!
I believe that one of the reasons the Church is losing people by the droves is because we have been taught in church to not be critical thinkers or doubters if you will. The egos of some church leaders will not allow challenges that may threaten their authority. We have a crisis in our churches because we no longer know what truth is. The existing political climate has proved that truth often gets in the way of the goals of those who want to manipulate. I’ve been rereading Philips book, “The Jesus I never knew.” Page 81 of that book goes on to say, “Sometimes the church joins hands with a government that offers a shortcut path to power.” Helmut Thielicke writes about the German church’s early infatuation with Adolf Hitler. “We could observe in the first years after 1933 the almost suggestive compulsion that emanates from great successes and how, under the influence of these successes, men, even Christians, stopped asking in whose name and at what price….” Yancey goes on to say, “Sometimes the church simply borrows the tools of manipulation perfected by politicians, salesmen, and advertising copywriters.” I am a retired professional firefighter who also served as a Fire Chaplain for over 28 years. The men and women I worked with wanted to know one thing….does the Christian life work? It will only work if we measure what we hear with the truth that Jesus taught To disregard His life and teaching will only insure a weak and divided body.
What, exactly, are we doubting?
Wow….Phillip, your gift is your insight. I thank God for you, as you articulate what believers struggle to express.
May your journey continue as God has planned, for it seems we all benefit from your insights. Your words encourage me to walk out my calling in the jail, on the street & in the homeless shelter where I’m privileged to serve. Bless you my brother…..
I spent a solid couple of hours going through the comments from the NYT interview. It was pretty clear to me that most of the responses failed to engage with the content of the interview and most of them seemed driven by emotion. It always makes me think what is going on in the hearts behind those keyboards. I just wanted to say thank you for your honest approach to what you do. Your work is always encouraging to me, as I also find myself doubting. I am just thankful that God always points me to the write source to strengthen my faith…sometimes that is your work. Thanks for what you do. It has brought clarity, insite and at times has helped strengthen my faith. Keep up the good work!
I recently went through a period when I felt unloved and abandoned by God, partly in response to the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in a precious young loved one. It threw me into a spiritual tailspin. The main impact was feeling like the God that I’d trusted for years had wounded me deeply.
Suddenly there was this wall between us. I threw it up quickly and I built it out of solid materials.
But God patiently tore it down. Slowly at first. Then all at once, through a supernatural, peaceful acceptance that far transcended all my understanding (Philippians 4:7). The pain was still there, but so was the peace. And it lasted. Day after day after day.
A few weeks later, as I was once again thanking God for knocking the wall down flat, some words entered my mind uninvited, unintended, “Help me to forgive You.”
I was shocked by my own thoughts, but to be perfectly honest, it felt like the pain ran so deep that of course He must have done something terrible to me, something wrong, something evil, something that I had a right to either forgive or continue to hold against Him. (Adapted from my blog at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com/2018/11/wounded-by-god.html.)
I can’t help wondering if many of those who responded to your interview are in a similar place. Rather than looking at the question from a rational perspective, as they think they’re doing, are they actually expressing an emotional reaction to the evil in this world and the God who allows it to continue?
Thank you for your clarity about unbelief and doubt. It is amazing that the approach of Lord Jesus Christ and the disciples with Thomas. Praise God for the light He has given in this darken days. Once again thank you for this valuable article.
Thanks again for being a witness/spokesman to the light in the wilderness.
Rob and Rita Little, I too am a bereaved parent. This week marks five years: my daughter’s memorial day is January 16. Your moving post brought many thoughts to mind. You mentioned that your work for others has kept you grounded. I’m reminded of a grief counselor who also lost a child. She often quipped that what might seem extravagant service to observers was for the grieving merely a means for survival. In being of use to others we find solace, an echo of the compassion and kindness we found in fellow sufferers and a merciful God. “Incredible doubts,” as you wrote, seem part of our lives now, just as our grief is and our love for our child will always be. Yet as you hinted, I have found, for myself at least, that it is in the assurance that God hears me that I find my deepest solace. Another bereaved parent, Job, seemed to have taken this as the only comfort that spoke to his deepest hurts. As had King David, who lost two sons, proclaiming with hard-earned conviction that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted. Writing of David’s most famous hymn, Rabbi Harold Kushner saw the twenty-third psalm as a work of profound comfort for the grieving and the fearful. Kushner spent fourteen years watching his son slowly die in front of his eyes, a victim of the cruel aging disease progeria. Kushner suggested that Psalm 23 echoes the same assurance that ours is a God who hears us. “God’s promise was never that life would be fair,” Kushner wrote. “God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone for He would be with us.”
David Musick, you wrote of the silence of God. I watched my mother battle cancer for eight years before it finally took her. I also watched my daughter struggle with drug addiction until an overdose took her five years ago. Of course we doubt: Where was God? Why did this happen? I asked just these questions and many others, including wrongheadedly blaming myself, fashioning in my guilt the silliest reasons that God was blaming my child or my mother for my own flaws. It was nonsense, but then we are desperate! We would gladly take the blame, and the disease, if it would save our child! Alas, for reasons that we cannot comprehend, it is not to be.
I recall that grief expert Rabbi Earl Grollman identified in the original Hebrew sixteen separate occasions where Job asked the same question: Why? Yet God did not condemn Job; rather, He praised Job for speaking honestly about Him in all his anguished questions.
Doubt, it seems, may well be our truest sign of faith. In it our broken hearts are laid bare; we seek truth and care little for easy answers. This has been the case for me, at least.
Another father gave up on making sense of it all. Author and theology professor Lewis Smedes lost his son within a day of the infant’s birth, yet years later he dedicated an entire chapter of his memoir to the death. “Doris and I cried a lot,” Smedes wrote, “and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours.”
Smedes wrote that even if God explained to him why an infant child had to die in some grand scheme of things, he would not care. “I cannot accommodate that thought,” he added. “In fact, I have given up asking why such bad things happen . . . It seems to me that the privilege of being the delicate organisms we are in the kind of world we live in comes at price. The price is that things can go wrong, badly wrong sometimes, which should come as no surprise.”
Many of us find such non-answers vexing. I certainly would have before my daughter died. We want a world that is neat and tidy, as the proverbs and Job’s friends promised. Yet for those we truly suffer, the neat and tidy are unsatisfying. We seek more profound truths. For myself, it is in the silence of God and the mystery of the invisible world that I find my deepest solace. Only there do I hear Him most clearly.
Where else can we turn in our hurt and doubt but to God? What other prayer may we offer other than “Help!” May He help your son, David; may He help you; as He knows best, this is my prayer.
Thanks as always for your genuineness and honesty Philip. Growing up in the church, I was taught that it was never a good thing to doubt or question God. But as I’ve grown older and experienced life more, both in beautiful and horrifying ways, I’ve seen that doubt and wrestling with God has mad my faith stronger. I’ve seen over and over how God handles my pushing back and questioning with compassion and patience. He is always sitting in it all, with me, sometimes even I believe just waiting for me to come to the end of myself and to fall into His arms. God is so much bigger than anyone can ever imagine and loves us more than we can ever comprehend. To not be open with our questions or doubts is to try to hide ourselves from Him. It keeps us from having a closer more genuine relationship with God. He can handle us and knows us inside and out. So in a way, maybe it’s more about being honest with ourselves than with God. He knows it all anyway and He will always be there waiting. That’s what I believe any way. I love your thoughts and what you share Philip. Thank you.
I wonder what people want from God, really, if they’re honest with themselves. The atheists I know tend not to believe because they can’t believe a loving God would allow the pain and suffering they see all around them, the 15,000 children who die everyday. I wonder how they think God would act if he existed. Would he send a miracle of the loaves and fishes every time a child was in danger of starving? Or maybe he would send a magic shield every time an innocent person was in danger. Maybe he should just wipe out all the truly evil people. Would we get a say in who’s truly evil and who’s not? Maybe God should show up in bodily form periodically and remind people how they’re supposed to live, threaten them with punishment if they don’t live well, and perform a few miracles to make sure everyone believes. Maybe skip the threats. He’s loving right? How often would God need to show up and show off to make sure people don’t start doubting and behaving badly? What about all the other tragic deaths that don’t involve evil people, sudden heart attacks at age 40, car accidents, drownings, tornadoes, etc? Should God intervene directly in all those as well? Maybe God should ensure all people have fixed lifespans during which they live happy productive lives with no more than a modicum of suffering and inconvenience. Sounds like the Truman Show. Then at the end of life they get on an elevator to heaven where things are truly great and luxurious. Would people live the lives they’re supposed to if God did all that? Would anyone want to live in that world? Moment of truth, I didn’t come up with this exercise just for the atheists. As a devout Christian AND perpetual doubter, I came up with it as much for me as anyone. When I’m raging against my average middle to upper middle class life, or am doubting God’s existence, I have to ask myself, what do I want from God, really? Would world peace or an end to world hunger do the trick? Would the occasional voice from heaven be too much to ask for? Maybe the Buffalo Sabers could win the Stanley Cup or I could win the lottery. Usually what I think I want would turn me (or the entire human race) in to God’s lapdog rather than an a son of God, heir to the throne of Christ.
Thank you! I so appreciate your insight and am so encouraged by your writing. Please continue…
You are a blessing.
I felt that way when I was watching while someone I know was dying in the World Trade Center. I was the only one who knew him, in fact, who believed he WAS in the building at the time it happened and that he was already dead when they put up a Missing poster of him a day later. His mom, sister and roommate thought they were going to find him alive. He used to leave the building to go on business runs and for almost a week, his mom thought that’s where he was, unable to get.in touch with anyone due to the communications being down all over Manhattan and N. New Jersey. She refused to believe he had become part of what happened on Sep 11. Even when she talked to the NYTs, who did his remembrance, she talked about his Missing poster. Then she never spoke to the public about it again.
The reason I read Disappointment With God was because of what happened but I’ve never questioned if there IS a God. I don’t exactly understand why people think the only proof of a God is that you achieve perfect lives on earth but I don’t understand why Eric was one of the people who died on September 11th either. He was good and kind and loyal and fair. Because of what type of person he was, I’m more confused than ever about why he was one of the victims. It’s one reason it has taken too long to “accept” it as being “a part of life.”
Thank you for writing this! I too was struck by the overwhelming negativity, make that hostility, from the commenters at the NYT website when I read the original article. I nearly wrote my own comment of support for your article, but it felt like it would be pointless to people who had so firmly made up their minds. But maybe I should have done it anyway. I notice so much anger toward religion, especially Christianity, whenever there is an article about it at the NYT. Methinks they doth protest too much? Makes me sad for the future.
Thank you Philip. I’ve been experiencing some real doubts in my own faith recently, and this article gave me encouragement. If Mother Teresa had doubts, that helps me feel better about my own.
As the scriptures say, Mr. Yancey, the gospel is hidden “to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). And without the Holy Spirit one cannot come to faith or know God (John 6:44). Your experience and the quotes from the unbelievers in this article are proof of these scriptures even to this day. Blessings to you.
Thank you for the ways you addressed the doubters….which include us who struggle with a too often silent God.
I am not a young woman yet this I have learned. Jesus’ majesty, the Spirit’s interventions and the Father’s compassion always, always reveal themselves in the middle of my pain. He simply is always there. I look back after a serious time of struggle and find Him sitting in silence beside me, understanding my pain and whispering, ‘I am still here. You are not alone, and I don’t plan to go anywhere.’
May my life reflect His glory in my brokenness.
Thank you, Philip. Thank you.
David Musick – my heart goes out to you. Our 15 year old son lost his life to cancer 24 years ago. Of course we and hundreds prayed for his complete healing over the previous 5 and half years. When he was ’Promoted to Glory’ (as we Salvationists persist in saying) I can assure you it hurt then, and continues to do so now…. but we can honestly say that in all that time we never doubted that our Simon acquired complete healing – just as we had requested in our heartfelt, urgent, believing prayers. Was this the way we wanted our prayers to be answered? No. Emphatically. But we maintain our faith in, and trust in our suffering Saviour. We have a hope that is steadfast and sure. In our weakness we have no doubt and certainty that he is enjoying being in the presence of Holy God. Our prayer is that we remain faithful, maintaining our faith, renewing our commitment daily, and resting on the Saviour’s Love for us ‘sinners saved by His grace’. Yes we have incredible doubts about so many things but coming through the trial of ‘losing’ a son we, the parents, seem to have been Strengthened in our faith in Christ. Not least because so many of God’s people, loved us and held us close during the darkest days with such sweet and simple acts of love & kindness – that, and so many who, not knowing what to do or say, simply held us and wept with us.
Our work for OTHERS thru our Church (the Salvation Army) keeps us grounded and focussed on loving others, praying that they’ll seek Christ for themselves and find Him.
This work will not save us…. only the unmerited favour of God has done that.
Our prayer life has changed somewhat thru this experience – and personally I find it more difficult to pray believingly for specific ‘things’. I am so much more content just ‘to know that You are there – this is my Simple Prayer’. I want and crave that comfort. And of course Jesus said he would send a ‘comforter’…. thankfully the Holy Spirit provides that comfort. For which we praise Him.
David Musick – May God keep your son and your spouse safe and in His care and keeping – that you will know He’s there suffering with you.
We must thank Philip Yancey for committing to print those things we ordinary folk just cannot explain.
Thank you for your kind response Mr. Yancey. As I said before I’m surprised about your statement that certainty and faith are opposites. Abraham was so certain about God’s character that he was willing to obey him to the point of killing Isaac. How are we to worship a Being who’s very existence we think we doubt? The arguments against God’s existence and goodness (the article sidebars) are far removed from the “dark night of the soul” experiences you are referencing in your response to me. The doubts of God’s children would be more like Job’s….”why have you turned against me?” And God’s response would seem almost cold-hearted to modern ears….”stand like a man and listen to your Maker and the Maker of all things.” In God’s presence Job forgets all his arguments and affirms God’s absolute right to rule as He pleases…even if it pains Job. And the outcome of God’s ways are displayed in the culmination of Job’s earthly life: He received double back from the Lord and died an old man, and full of years. We may doubt, but not ultimately like unbelievers. And we may mourn, but not as those who have no hope, willful in estrangement from God.
I do see the difference you intended, between the doubts of those who have a relationship with God and those who don’t. Abraham makes an interesting example, though. His “certainty” over Isaac was preceded by loaning his wife to a foreign leader and seeking an alternative way around Sarah’s apparent barrenness through Hagar. Sometimes certainty takes a long time to develop. And the quotes by Luther and Mother Teresa show that strong believers are not exempt at times from doubting God’s existence. I could have included many others. You’re right about God’s response to Job–and yet God praised “my servant Job” and said He would only listen to Job’s friends through Job, though the friends were the ones with the “certain” theology. Good dialogue, thank you!
Dear Philip, your understanding of the Lord’s response to Thomas is so encouraging. Recently I came to understand his response to Martha’s rebuke about Mary in a similar way – full of compassionate correction and not any attempt to drill into others belief that they had not come to by themselves. I am always encouraged by your writings and their reminder that God rewards our faith with greater understanding, even in the midst of continuous doubts. Thanks.
When it comes to Religion (and the Philosophy of Religion), I have thought of almost nothing else for the last 35 years or so. Part of the problem is surely that moderns have deep reactions against typical evangelical castings of what Christianity IS. Can one be skeptical of much of what is commonly preached and practiced in these times, and still be a Christian? Absolutely! We just don’t hear much along those lines and the fallout is all around us.
Frederick Buechner taught a lot of us that doubt is an element of faith, evidence that faith is living and active. I’ve long appreciated that approach.
The comments from NYT readers are telling. I think ‘skeptical’ is a charitable term. They seem hostile to religion, especially Christianity.
Thank you, Phil. I very much appreciate that you confront the so-called intellectual or sophisticated world around us and share your faith without compromise. I don’t read doubt in the responses but just outright rejection or confrontation. Doubt goes with our faith as you express. Any faith including that of an atheist must have doubts as well. It is intellectually and closed-minded to deny or refuse to confront this human reality. If one is to reject faith on the basis of pain and suffering, one must consider the source of beauty and joy as well.
When I read the critical responses, I have a gut reaction to argue and defend my faith. Oh that I could instead listen to their words with compassion and try to understand their hearts. In the gospels, we often see Jesus bypassing the question posed to him and answering the question of the heart.
Philip, I appreciate your ability to look beyond the criticism and accusations and to see the painful issues that lead so many to doubt. It’s not about winning an argument. It’s about being a light to the world. Thanks.
Philip – thank you for an excellent post on an important conversation. Your comments hit home on a number of fronts for me. Through a hard, dark season of life ultimately leading to my wife leaving and dismissal from the church, I’ve struggled with my share of doubt. Reading your books and blog as well as those of Larry Crabb have helped to sustain me. The honesty an integrity of both your writings let me know that its OK to struggle with my faith, to ask hard, honest questions but at the same time to not stop searching for answers.
Your comments about aloneness and service also hit home. A faithful friend, my doubt companion, has stood by me throughout my struggles. Allowing me to doubt and have questions while still pointing me to truth in Gods word. I don’t want to imagine where I would be without his faithful friendship.
To get outside myself and what was becoming a self pity party, I began to serve with a faith based ministry to the homeless. I get for more from them than they from me. Its through rolling up my sleeves and getting out of my head that I invite God in and can see Him at work. I see Matthew 18:12-14 come to life.
Keep writing the truth with the same honesty and integrity you always have. You are touching and encouraging more than you know.
I am reminded of a quote that I saw several years ago: “Feed your faith and your doubt will starve to death”
I must be more intentional in this matter of faith standing up against the loud voices of doubt. God bless us, everyone!
I have had these conversations with Atheists on a number of issues. I have found that many express their doubts because of abuse as a child, drug addiction, hope is lost because of the condition of our world and more. However, I sense a need from these people that has gone unfullfilled. I’ve talked with people that are enraged that someone would believe in God or Christ. Why? I think they honestly can’t see the Creator and his creation as beautiful. They will bring up all kinds of scientific explanations as if science and it’s procedures of proof are the final answer and yet science really is bits of knowledge that explain the Marvel of creation itself. We have only scratched the surface of the Marvels of God and that is what is so telling about an Athiests world view. They often ask for evidence of God as if someone could truely explain the vastness of God. When you look at the beauty in the world, oceans, new species, trees, the vast connections of all things on the earth I don’t really understand how anyone could question God or Jesus for that matter. To me, it is unrealistic to believe that God can’t or doesn’t exist. There is just no other way to understand our creation because of it’s exactness and perfection. WE are the ones that have turned Gods creation into a question mark or denial. When you look into the backgrounds of some of these people, it really is a denial of responsibility. They want it a certain way so they question the nature of God himself. Why? The mind is not the brain. If it were, we would all function in a similar manner. The mind is outside of our physical being, it is our individual being called the soul. When it comes to spiritual matters, science doesn’t even speak to it, yet it exists, just like an atheist will tell you dark matter exists, or nothing becomes something. I don’t know about you but I have never seen nothing become something. God bless you Mr. Yancey.
Oh, David Musick, I am so sorry for your trials. Keep clinging to the faith that you have.
Thank you Phillip. Once again I am encouraged by your honest and open expression of your own walk of faith and the revelations you have discovered that you share.
Thank you so much Phillip for the article. It is so hard to hold fast to faith today with all the evil everywhere. I never think of other people having doubts, just me so it was comforting (?) to know that every one seems to. Your books have greatly helped me over the years and although there was a period when I neglected my faith it was always there. I just recently re-read Jeremiah and was reminded how much God cares for us truly, time and time again He asked His people to turn to him and even gave them escape routes. Prayer, charity, the Bible, and an earthly company of angels and the Holy Spirit help me when I fall into the depths of despair and sorrow of what we have let happen to our brothers and sisters, animals and plants and the whole planet.
My mother, who raised me, was a devout but very private Christian. She never made us go to church and rarely discussed religion. I now believe she wanted us to find faith without her guidance or encouragement. For the first 55 years of my life I was a doubting Thomas and science devotee (BS in Chemistry, MD at Indiana University). I had no satisfactory explanation for my conviction that there was more to me than my material self. In pondering what I see and what I believe from observations of others (ie, “science”) I concluded that you can, in fact, find evidence of a spiritual existence, of God, who like Thomas I believe is embedded in the totality of existence. The more I look the more proof I see and the stronger my faith becomes. I currently am reading Halmos’ “Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces” – advanced math – to better understand quantum mechanics and relativity, which I am absolutely certain will be my path to a well lived, spiritual life. This is an idea that has been espoused by many others, and is treated dismissively by many in scientific disciplines. I hope to win them over someday using their own methods, but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t
‘More commonly, a trusted small group, or even a single friend can provide what we desperately need: someone unthreatened by doubt who rewards rather than punishes honesty, and who can gently bring light into darkness.’
The response to the interview is near overwhelming; your response to the tide, desperately honest and hopeful.
Thank you for sharing your gift of contemplation, order, and perspective through your writing.
When I doubt, I look at the life of Jesus. He quietly saved the world. In some ways, that’s all we need to know. While the world was raging, he was hanging out with a blind person or a tax collector. Thanks for your courage, Philip. Thanks for speaking truth while the world is raging.
The conclusion with Thomas is an eyeopener for me. Thanks for the text.
thank you for sharing this. as a christian, i go through ups and downs in my faith. there are days where i think and walk in darkness and disbelief. and the church does not seem to be open about this common struggle.
thank you for sharing this. i found it very helpful.
I had rather believe and be wrong that to not believe and be wrong!
All those that die early that we don’t understand why I believe out of Gods grace and mercy are being saved from something terrible they would experience in the future out of their free will here on earth so God is calling their Spirit ( Soul) that He sent here back home. Ecclesiastes 12:7.
“We’re flawed human beings who get some things right and some things wrong.” A brief musical video on your interview:
Many of these negative comments seem to miss, or at least avoid, the most relevant points that you discussed. This video represents what struck me as the heart of the interview as well as our best attempts to provide a safe, welcoming place for others, and for ourselves.
My doubts and disbelief led me to action instead of waiting on a God that seems unresponsive. I started taking things into my own hand and putting into action the causes that’s most important to me.
I know way too many Christians that hides behind prayers and never do anything. I’m sick and tired of hearing people say “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” In my experience, in my times of trouble, it is the nonbelievers that jump straight to action to help me out, while the Christians tell me their thoughts and prayers are with me. Or bombard me with bible verses, Christian songs, or some link to a sermon on YouTube. In my experience, the Christians I know pray. The unbelievers jump right in to action because they don’t have a proxy to give their problems to. I’m on the side of action driven, solution driven people. They are the people that have picked me up again and again, and accepted me without holy judgement. Church today, sadly, is not where I find my peace and solace, however much they keep saying they’re that place. I think Christians give themselves a lot more credit than they deserve. They talk a good game, but actions speaks louder than words. They need to match their holy words with holy action. Maybe today young people are leaving church because they have seen through the pseudo facade of church.
It was a relief to see doubt and unbelief as two different things. I see how often unbelief is actually blame and fury at God for not stopping evil. But freewill is given us. How we want it but deny that cost of it! We know evil it is not of God because of the question we face when we personally have done wrong – or evil for a better word. How many times do we say ‘What have YOU done?’ To our children or to a person caught in a crime? Why do we not confess, all of us have something we are ashamed of – we hide it, because we know it is WE who are guilty of committing it! Therefore with our tongues and actions we actually acknowledge it is us, not God who committed the evil. We all want free will. So why are we surprised when someone who wants to commit evil uses their freewill to do it? How much are we asking God to control? Because ultimately unless he makes us into robots there will always be one human who wishes to take advantage of freewill to commit evil. As for a crutch, well if that is what my belief in God is I welcome it. Because when I see the evil we do with the free will we have, when I see how we justify that evil and perpetuate more I know there is no hope for me without it.
I’m surprised you would pit certainty against faith and not circle back to explain. James basically tells us that whoever comes to God must be certain that He exists. Romans tells us that we all know about God and are without excuse. Yet we listen to the reasonings and arguments of people being dishonest in their unbelief as if theirs are valid lines of thought in our views of God and faith. Our desires away from God lead to blindness and uncertainty….the profound mark of God’s judgement against those who want to resist the light and the life. “But when anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
There will be a judgement Day and there will be no discussion of doubt on that day. Because doubt, if we are willing to be honest, is not what keeps us from God. It is willful resistance to our Maker girded with foolish ideas about reality. “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world but men loved the darkness because their deeds were evil.”
I’m certainly not saying that we don’t go through times of doubt. But the real doubt we must wrestle with as God’s children is how is it possible that He would “save a wretch like me?” Because as God opens to us the truth about our own depravity, we come to realize that we need a change of heart even more than mind.
When I read the poignant accounts of the “dark night of the soul” by C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, John Bunyan (remember “Pilgrim’s Progress”), and the words of Job, Jeremiah, the psalmists, and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, I see it differently. We do go through such times, and not always because of willful unbelief. –Philip
Oh my! If only all mankind could/would read this today! To really know that in our humanness doubt is normal. Thank you for sharing, Mr Yancey.
Philip, thanks for your honest engagement with doubt and with Nicholas Kristof who is such a thoughtful and respected journalist. I’m disappointed that so many of the article’s respondents weren’t more positive but I suspect that there were many more quiet respondents who “had ears to hear.” BI agree with you that humble faith without an argumentative certitude is indeed a winsome and welcoming witness.
Phillp once again I am inspired and ministered to, thank you for your words. Greatful for you!
Count me among those who commented more postively on your interview with Mr. Kristof than did the litanies of the non-believers you cited here. The good news here for us believers is that those 15,000 children who died that day, aborted or diseased, are now in Paradise.
Seems to me that God is quite busy welcoming new souls to the salvation purchased for all of us by his own Son’s death.
We all seek our own answer to the question of Why. The fact that we are able to ask the question is part of the answer: Love yourself and love your neighbor. Doing so will get us to another life where, like Thomas, we will become believers, and all our disbelief questions put aside with answers.
YES! And AMEN! 😃🙏
The list of literary figures was almost a list l could have written.
Cultural connections defy huge geographic distances and differences of hemispheres.
This is excellent. I wish there were an easy way to make this printable so I could share it with my friends and Sunday School class..
Thanks for all your writing.
You’re welcome to cut and paste it and distribute it as you wish. –Philip
When you read the comments people take the trouble or time to write, one thing for me always stands out – anger.
It’s as though they are angry at a God they don’t believe in!
After years of denying God myself; reading subjects such as evolution and basic philosophy, and then reading the Bible, it seemed to me only Christianity made any sense.
I believe that everyone should spend some time – with an open mind – and read the new testament and a couple of good books, such as mere Christianity or basic Christianity, before rejecting God!
Thank you for this commentary. I face great doubt from the fact that my son has cancer. God seems silent. But I cling to my faith in a God who will somehow make sense of it all.
I have been an occasional reader of Mr. Yancy’s books and, more recently, his blogs, for over 20 years. This one is by far the most impactful and encouraging one so far! What an excellent rebuttal to the unbelieving world!!…and yet, what a wonderful way to show us believers how we can help that world in their unbelief.
Thank you sir!
Dear Mr. Yancey: I could feel my heart literally breaking as I read the embedded responses to your interview. I could not read them all. I consider myself blessed that I felt the tap on my shoulder and the whisper of “you are going to need me” and made the choice to discover whose voice it was I heard. The best “retort” I have ever heard for those who “do not have ears to hear” is this: “What I want and don’t want, what I choose to believe in and what I choose not to believe in…do not change the truth.” –“The Case for Christ.” Best to just leave it at that. Blessings!
Those comments are so very sad to read. One of my first Philip Yancey books was Disappointment With God. I was going through a period of great doubt. You always speak the truth of what we all go through. We all have the same questions about suffering. There is a great song by Mercy Me called Even If. It says even if I don’t see answers or results, my hope is Christ alone. I have a daughter who professes to be an atheist. I must believe as Habakkuk that even though I don’t see the answer I want, I still believe and trust. I once was blind and deaf but 40 years ago I was healed.
Lord, let me be a safe welcoming place for those who need more light.
Thank you, Philip for the very encouragement I needed this morning. At times I feel the pressure to deliver the perfect answer for my friends who are in darkness. I continue to lean in and learn, but I am not an apologist. I can, however, love and be a doubt companion.
Thanks for this wonderful text!
Thank you, as always, for your clarity, honesty, transparency, openness, compassion, graciousness, patience…