Monday, February 14, 2011

When in doubt

Here's a copy of a letter I sent to a Baptist pastor recently who's suffered a lapse of faith. Not having heard back from him, I'll post it here:

Hi Byron,

I read the letter you posted at your blog. A few impressions:

“I think it probably began with a serious spiritual dissatisfaction with God and my life under His providential care (so I believed then). I started getting less and less out of church, so I wondered what I was doing wrong.”

Why assume you were doing something wrong? If we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, then we can expect life to pall over time. The aging process alone can have that effect. The loss of vital energy. The sense of diminishing opportunities. Cumulative regrets and disappointments. The sameness of it all.

It varies from person-to-person, but there’s nothing evidently “wrong” about getting less out of something you used to do.

“I tried to justify my feelings by saying, God just didn't move today.”

Once again, I think this labors under the false assumption that you had to justify your feelings. You mistakenly identify something as a problem. You then go in search of solutions. If the solutions fail, you give up.

But if you misdiagnose the situation, then the solution is bound to fail. You need to go back and question your operating assumption.

“Then I started wondering if I was praying enough. I prayed more. Then I started wondering, is there unconfessed sin in my life? None that I could think of.”

This is all predicated on the initial assumption that something must be wrong, something you must justify, if you get less and less out of church.

Consider it this way: how much did ancient Jews get out of attending synagogue? Don’t you suppose that was a fairly humdrum affair?

“I had (and this is deeply personal but probably not surprising at all to you) problems of lust and covetousness (not of money, but of social success and friendships and relationships and such), but these were ongoing confessions in my prayer life, with associated ups and downs but no real deliverance.”

Why would you expect to be delivered? Don’t people in the Bible suffer from the same problems? Isn’t that part of what it means to be a sinner? Part of what it means to inhabit a fallen world?

“I was desperately lonely and could not understand the providence of God in my life to allow not only crushing loneliness, unanswered prayers (forgot to mention, a rather big omission that) in various and numerous requests to God, but also the apostasy of near and dear friends who held devoutly to the same religion of Christianity that I held to, and the absence of saving faith in so many family members (again, more unanswered prayers) who were variously Catholic, or nominally religious at best, some not hostile but completely apathetic to religion (something I just for the life of me could not understand, especially with all the wonderful experiences in the Christian faith I had, wonderful relationships inside the church at least, at one-time a very growing and healthy spiritual life, and the like, and how could anyone not want more than the daily grind of a never-ending rat race offered by the world?).”

i) If you were desperately lonely, then isn’t that a reason (maybe the main one) you got less and less out of church? So your experience with church doesn’t require any special explanation, over and above your mundane circumstances.

It’s hard to be lonely. Of course, that’s a common condition. Emotional and social isolation is part of what it means to be fallen creatures. But it’s harder to be lonely without God, than to be lonely with God.

ii) I can understand how you’d find it painful to see loved ones leave the faith. But how is that a reason for you to leave the faith? Isn’t that circular?

If a recovering drug addict falls off the wagon, is that a reason for you to fall off the wagon?

If anything, shouldn’t you be strong for them when they are weak? Persevere for them? Continue to pray for them? Aren’t backsliders counting on the faithful to pray for them, to stick it out, and then go back for them–like a good shepherd who circles back to rescue stray sheep?

If a hiker is lost, he doesn’t need another hiker to lose his way. Rather, he needs another hiker who knows the way to search for him and find him and lead him back onto the trail.

iii) I’m not clear on what you expect prayer to accomplish, and why. Surely you don’t expect God to answer all your prayers, do you? We are shortsighted creatures who pray, based on what little we know or mistakenly believe. Given the law of unintended consequences, it would be unreasonable to expect God to answer all our prayers, or answer them on our own fallible, often misguided (if well-meaning) terms.

Likewise, I’m not clear on how you view the timing of answered prayer. I had a devout grandmother who prayed for all her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.

Did she expect to see her prayers answered in her lifetime? How could that be? Many whom she prayed for would outlive her by decades. She was old and they were young.

I view prayer like a family farm. Something we pass on from one generation to another. One generation may sow, while another generation may reap the harvest. My grandmother planted seed which blossomed at different times, in many cases long after she departed.

Perhaps you’ll say this is special pleading. That explanations like this can reconcile prayer with any outcome. But I’m not trying to prove prayer. I’m merely pointing out how the theology prayer is fully consistent with what you describe.

And this is not an ad hoc explanation. This follows from the nature of prayer if Scripture is true. Your disappointment is fostered by false expectations. Things you’d like to be the case (don’t we all?), but for which there’s no good reason.

“I even began doubting my election in the sovereign grace of Christ, having no real proof for it with which I could satisfy myself…”

I don’t know what proof you’re looking for. The evidence of election is no different from the evidence of saving faith.

It sounds to me like you were just depressed. (Maybe still are.) That’s understandable. But that’s not a spiritual condition, per se.

“Finally (and I wish I could pin it on the calendar, for reference's sake if for nothing else) one day came the fatal thought: what if it is all bogus?”

Well, since God has endowed us with a faculty for abstract reason, we have the capacity to imagine self-delusive scenarios. But the capacity to imagine a self-delusive scenario is hardly a good reason to think you really are deluded. And if you really were deluded, then your doubts are deeply untrustworthy.

“I bought and began reading atheist books. I learned to doubt the Scriptures, and see real contradictions (sorry, this is my personal view) that I could not resolve intellectually.”

i) Sorry, but I don’t understand how an ordained Southern Baptist pastor could suddenly discover a host of hitherto unsuspected contradictions in the Bible. It’s not like this is the first time you ever read the Bible. The very fact that you have this overnight revelation should be reason to doubt your doubt.

ii) I also find it ironic that at a time when we have secular Jewish literary critics like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who challenge the claim that many stock contradictions are, in fact contradictions; who, instead, explain the same phenomena in terms of studied rhetorical strategies, despite the fact that these critics have no prior commitment to the inspiration of Scripture, we still have folks who recycle the same dog-eared list of “contradictions.” 

“I began to see other Biblical problems that made plenty of sense intellectually from a theological standpoint, but which I could no longer justify emotionally and ethically.”

That’s too vague to say much about, but again, the fact that you suddenly began to “see” a lot of things in the Bible which were there all along, which you’ve been reading and rereading for years on end, should give you reason to question the soundness of your newfound perception.

“I had for some time been secretly in heart doubting rather strongly anything in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. I could not make myself believe any longer in a global flood. Miracles or not, the operation of such seemed absolutely absurd and the reasons for which have made the Christian God in my view to be a moral monster worse than and less deserving of worship than Hitler. Christianity, according to Calvinism, is one of the most diabolically absurd and hateful systems of religion ever invented by man.”

i) I’m not clear how you link Calvinism to a global flood. Is Calvinism the only theological tradition which espouses a global flood? No.

ii) Of course, some scholars don’t even think Genesis teaches a global flood (e.g. John Walton, Ronald Youngblood).

iii) How is the operation “absolutely absurd,” “miracles or not?” Surely the possibility of miracles make a difference in evaluating the possibility of the flood, global or otherwise.

iv) How does the flood make God a moral monster? Here is the stated rationale for the flood:

“9These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
 11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”

How is it morally monstrous for God to bring judgment on the wicked? How is it morally monstrous for God to rescue the godly from a wicked world?

“To think that God who could save a billion worlds filled with billions of souls in a billion different galaxies decided to save only a small remnant on a single planet in an obscure part of a lesser galaxy, and predestined these elect before time to salvation and them alone, is a horrible decree beyond my personal ability to describe.”

Honestly, I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.

i) Are you saying God is blameworthy because there are actually billions of worlds filled with billions of hellbound souls? If that’s what you mean, how do you know there are actually billions of worlds? And even if there were, how would you be in any position to know that most of their inhabitants are damned?

ii) Or are you saying God is blameworthy because there are billions of merely possible worlds containing hellbound souls which God never created? But that doesn’t make much sense. Presumably you don’t fault God for failing to create more hellbound souls.

iii) So what are you saying? Are you saying God is to blame because there are billions of possible worlds containing billions possible souls whom God could have saved, had he made them? Is so, how does that follow? How can God wrong nonentities? How can he wrong them by not creating them? Where’s the argument?

Does a couple have a duty to conceive as many children as physically possible? Did they wrong a nonexistence child by failing to bring him into existence?

iv) Assuming that there are actually billions of worlds containing billions of souls, why assume they are fallen or damned? Why assume they even need to be saved? What about unfallen worlds?

v) And for all you know, there are alternate worlds in which everyone is heavenbound. As far as speculation goes, you can speculate either way.

However I try to interpret your objection, it comes out nonsense. Seems to me you have some inchoate emotional repulsion which you’ve attempted to articulate, but you clearly haven’t thought through the implications of your objection.

vi) What makes you think the remnant is “small”? Does Calvinism have an official position on the size of the remnant? Not that I’m aware of.

vii) Finally, assuming the remnant is “small,” how is that “monstrous” or “Hitlerian”? This is not like a capsized vessel where we have an obligation to save as many innocent drowning passengers as the lifeboat will accommodate.

Rather, a basic presupposition of salvation is that the lost are evil. There is no duty to save the evil (including you and me).

“That hell is an inescapable death camp for the eternal torture of souls created by God solely for His glory in their judgment and damnation, and according to some Calvinistic perspectives, for the enjoyment or at least spiritual enrichment of the saved elect who can perpetually view such a monstrosity of injustice and evil, and glorify God for the same, is absolutely abhorrent to me. If such a God does exist, I would never worship Him, and would gladly rebel and suffer eternally than offer so much as a hint of praise to such a monster.”

i) Is your objection to hell, or to Calvinism? It’s not as if hell is unique to Calvinism.

ii) What makes you think the damned are “tortured.”

iii) Why is punishing the wicked a “monstrosity of justice?” Isn’t allowing the wicked to go unpunished a monstrosity of justice?

iv) What, exactly, is wrong with the saints taking moral satisfaction in the fact that innocent victims will finally see justice exacted on their assailants?

Do you find it equally abhorrent when Bernie Madoff was convicted and sentenced for defrauding his clients?

“My morality such as it is, imperfect as it is, wrongly exceeds that of the Biblical God, which leads me to believe either He does not exist, or is not correctly identified by the Bible.”

What’s the basis of your morality?

If atheism is true, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being an atheist.

If Christianity is true, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being a Christian.

There’s no parity between these two alternatives.

When in doubt, don’t doubt God–doubt yourself.



  1. "When in doubt, don’t doubt God–doubt yourself."

    A really terrific letter, Steve.

    Thanks a bunch for sharing it with the rest of us.

  2. This was SO beautiful, I needed this SO much!!!

  3. A good reply to this pastor.

    What one sees is the full flowering of the "autonomous self" in the points made by the Pastor.

  4. Great advice Steve. :-)

    Byron, I'm not a minister, however I am speaking from personal experience as well as the experience of other people. I recommend you spend time with Christian friends who can support you, listen to you and lovingly counsel you. Ideally all pastors should have other fellow pastors who can do that for them and for whom they can be that support. Every pastor needs "Jonathan"s in their lives, just as every pastor needs to be a "David" to others.

    Being a pastor you have an especially large and bright spiritual target painted on you back and front. Demons know that if they can cause pastors to stumble that that can lead others to stumble along with them. Like lions, demons target stragglers and the weak or sickly. There's no special shame in that since we all will be weak at various times in our Christian lives. That's why Christians need each other. You never know who's going to be weak or strong and so who will be needing the other's strength at any given time.

    Being a pastor can be especially lonely since people look up to them and there's always the pressure to be an example. Sometimes it becomes such a burden that they feel like they have to fake "The joy of the Lord" or holiness it so as not to disappoint or discourage other Christians. And so, it's difficult to be real or to find people one can be real with to share struggles, doubts, fears, even questions. That's also why illicit relationships can be so alluring in such a time because you can be "real" in such relationships. But they will bring you down instead of bringing out the best in you or you out of them. They can also destroy all that you've worked for. But as Scripture says, "be sure your sins will find you out". It goes without say that the busy life of a pastor itself doesn't allow much time to cultivate one's devotional life; or study time to find satisfying answers to questions one might have. One can feel like a hypocrite giving other people pat answers to questions one is also asking, when those pat answers doesn't satisfy oneself. And the "feeling like a hypocrite" is often a common feature in the testimony of those who fall away. Something which the enemy uses to lead people away from Christ (either temporarily or permanently).

    Steve is right that your condition might not be (or have started out as) a spiritual issue. But in your condition, it's likely that you're now also being attacked by the enemy. The enemy likes to kick us while we down for whatever reason we ended up on the ground (either because we tripped, someone else tripped us, or the enemy himself/themselves, or just the circumstances of life). Know also that because evil spirits would like to convinced you that Christianity is false, that the attacks will be VERY subtle. Lest you recognize the spiritual source (or aggravation) of your troubles.

    There are no quick fix solutions to your situtation.

    My basic advice to you would be:

    1. to be honest with God in your prayers. You don't need to fake anything with God (you can't since He's omniscient). Whether fake righteous fake faith, fake strength, fake courage. In fact, knowing that God knows you completely and entirely and welcomes you nonetheless because you're accepted in Christ is one of the most conforting realities of Christianity. Many people in this world are surrounded by other people and still feel lonely precisely because they can never find someone who completely understands them. That's not the case for the Christian because God knows them exhaustively. A Christian might "feel" lonely (subjectively), but he or she is never actually alone (objectively).


    Confession to God is not just about confession of sin, but of anything else. Develop your relationship with God by speaking to Him as you would a father you respect. Confess to God your doubts or questions. Ask Him to help you resolve them.

    2. While God commands us to believe and have strong faith, He does so for our good and His glory. When other fellow Christians admonish us to do so, it can be counter-productive because often it's said in an insensitive way based on ignorance of what the struggling Christian is facing. So, instead of merely telling you to have more faith (which is easier said than done), I would just recommend that you place youself in situations that foster faith. Anything that will give you a new train of godly thought. The "fresh" perspective of atheological literature can be attractive because it's novelty. New perspectives and ideas can be exciting even if they are dangerous. Also, spend some time with truly Godly Christians who have been in the faith much longer than you have. Read books by the puritans like "A Divine Cordial" ( The puritans can give you a perspective on life that's real and in contrast to the extravagance often taken for granted as "normal" in the 21th century. There are a lot of distractions in our world are appealing; but as the saying goes, "Not all that glitters is gold." I would also recommend listening to sermons like Sam Waldron's "When the brook dries up", or "Elijah's struggle with carnal fear" or "Elijah's Death Wish" (^E.^Waldron)

    3. Find answers to your doubts and questions. Don't automatically assume that non-Christians (like atheists) have the better arguments. Or that they have objections that have no answers. That's what's so great about blogs like Triablogue.

    4. Read introductory books on spiritual warfare like Mark Bubeck's "The Adversary" and "Spiritual Warfare: Victory over the Powers of this Dark World" by Timothy M. Warner. I highly recommend these books because they're both conservative and doesn't have the (real and sometimes merely preceived) hype that other books have which I could recommend (as a charismatic myself). Two reasons why I recommend this book are:

    i. it may help convinced you that spiritual warfare is real. The logic being, that if you can be convinced that malevolent spirits actually do exist, then that may help persuade you that benevolent spirits exist; even THE benevolent Spirit, God Himself. Many Christians who were formerly in the occult, as well as non-Christians in the occult or other religions can testify to the reality of evils spirits.

    ii. it may help you recognize if you're being especially targetted by the enemy (likely IMO). I find it sad that many Baptist minsters are cessationists not only with regard to God's power, but also to the enemy's power. I haven't read it yet, but I would assume that Charles Stanley's book "When the Enemy Strikes" might be appealing to a Baptist like yourself. Though, unfortunately, he's not Reformed.

    None of these are silver bullets to kill your doubts or restore your faith. But I think they'll be useful guidelines that'll help you to find your way. I've been there myself and these are some of the things that have helped me in the past.

  6. this pastor is probably just going through a spiritual tantrum of rebellion or just trying to escape some pains in his life through apostasy -- when, deep down he really knows he was made for God and wants God. (been there.) the trouble is, now that he denied christ, he can never come back, even if he will later want to come back (heb.6:4).

  7. I will rework my comments but the point remains this section is very controversial and a person has to be careful with the assertions that they make.

  8. In #4 above I said that the reality of malevolent spirits (what Christians call "demons") would suggest the possibility of the existence of benevolent spirits, and by extension the existence of God. So, I would also suggest reading claims of angelic visitations. There are Christian, non-Christian and pseudo-Christian books that contain collections of claimed angelic visitations/interventions/messages. I doubt that all such claims are genuinely supernatural. Some may even be fraudulent. However, as a Christian, I strongly suspect some of them are truly supernatural (whether really angelic or demonic counterfeits). Here are two titles which I believe (rightly or wrongly) are written by genuine Christian believers that collect the testimonies of people whom *they* believed are/were genuine Christians. 1. "A Rustle of Angels: Stories About Angels In Real Life and Scripture" by Marilynn Carlson Webber and William D. Webber. 2. "When Angels Appear" by Hope MacDonald.

  9. hi said...

    this pastor is probably just going through a spiritual tantrum of rebellion or just trying to escape some pains in his life through apostasy -- when, deep down he really knows he was made for God and wants God. (been there.) the trouble is, now that he denied christ, he can never come back, even if he will later want to come back (heb.6:4).

    This post looks like a joke. But, until it's proven, I'll assume it not. hi, you said you had "been there". Are you saying that you've apostatized yourself in the past and that you're now a non-Christian even though you would like to return to Christ (or be received by Him again)? If you are still a Christian, by returning to Christ (and Him receiving you again), then why can't Byron return to Christ?

    For your information, most (not all) professing Christians would argue that so long as a person hasn't yet died, he/she can return to Christ for salvation and Christ will receive him. Even most Arminians would agree. So would Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans. Calvinists believe that those genuinely saved cannot finally and ultimately fall away but will certainly return to faith in Christ before they die; their regeneration and justification never having been reversed.

  10. correction of major typos:

    "..."The joy of the Lord" or holiness it so as not to disappoint..."
    Should be
    "..."The joy of the Lord" or holiness so as not to disappoint..."

    "...It goes without say[ing] that the busy life of a pastor itself..."

    "The enemy likes to kick us while we['re] down for whatever reason..."

    "The "fresh" perspective of atheological literature can be attractive because [of] it's novelty."

    "There are a lot of distractions in our world are [that] appealing..."

    "I highly recommend these books because they're both conservative and doesn't ["don't" not "doesn't"] have the..."

  11. This post reminded me of Hebrews 11:13.

  12. nope, not a joke, just an expression of my conflict with hebrews 6:4 and how it keeps robbing me of assurance

  13. Hi, not sure if you'll find it helpful, but this might be worth reading:

  14. Hello, I plan to respond to this soon. He makes a few good points and valid criticisms. However, I think he does not exactly realize where I am coming from, and I hope to explain that. I will be posting my answer over on my own blog, however, as it will be quite long.