C. Michael Patton has some good thoughts on how doubt works in people’s lives and how this is operative in a number of people moving away from the faith as they reach their twenties. Patton’s focus is primarily intellectual in nature. He does recognize there are other kinds of challenges. He states the challenges this way:
Intellectual challenges: Often, the doubt comes from intellectual challenges. Challenges to the Bible’s reliability. Challenges from science. Challenges to the very need for a belief in God.
Experiential challenges: These type of challenges come from God’s actions (or lack thereof) in our lives. This is exemplified by prayers that don’t get answered, the apparent silence of God in a person’s experience, or a tragedy out of which you or someone else was not rescued. These experiential challenges are normally the catalyst which eventually ignite intellectual challenges.
As the rest of Patton’s discussion makes clear his primary focus is on the intellectual challenges and how to best address them from an early age through a good grounding in the “intellectual viability of the Evangelical faith.” All of this is good and ought to be affirmed. In what follows I want to broaden Patton’s thought to include other perspectives—especially focusing on the “experiential challenges” to faith.
J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler have written a wonderful book entitled In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting God (IVP, 2008). In this book Moreland and Issler tackle these categories of “intellectual” and “experiential” challenges in an insightful manner. They begin by making some important distinctions that are helpful:
First, one must distinguish among (1) unbelief (a willful and sinful setting of oneself against a biblical teaching), (2) doubt (an intellectual, emotional or psychological hindrance to a more secure confidence in some teaching or in God himself—I believe something but just have doubts) and (3) lack of belief (I don’t believe something but know I should and want to—I need help).
Second, as we shall see, not all doubt is explicitly intellectual. There are deep affective, psychological issues involved as well. For example, if you had attachment issues as a child and were not regularly connected to warm, strong, loving parents, you may have difficulty believing that God the Father is tender and kind. If so, then what is essential for developing greater confidence in God includes participating in healthy relationships and engaging in spiritual formation exercises, perhaps also being involved in therapy.
Third, confidence is not an all-or-nothing affair. If one doe not have confidence in something, he or she may lack trust to varying degrees. The same may be said for having trust in something. (pp. 21-22)
These are important distinctions that people need to be made aware of for their spiritual health. The pangs of doubt are not an indication of sinfulness that needs to be suppressed. Confidence in God is something that ebbs and flows because it is a relational category. We are in relationship with God and we have the ability to grow closer to him or move away from him. Failure to understand these distinctions leads to problems in the church, as Moreland and Issler point out:
Thus, we now have a stifling, stagnating situation in the evangelical community: People do not feel safe in expressing doubt or lack of belief about some doctrinal point—even the question of whether they actually believe in God. The result is that people hide what they actually believe from others, and even from themselves, all the while continuing to use faith-talk to avoid being socially ostracized in their local fellowship. Because we do not fully understand assensus (and fiducia; see below), we have unintentionally created a situation in which people do not know how to distinguish what they believe from what they say they believe. Thus, they substitute community jargon for authentic trust.
This is a powerful point! The language of faith (“community jargon”) is not the same as faith. Unless we recognize the potential dangers of this our churches will not be healthy communities of authentic faith.
To effectively address this situation, we must create safe, honest, nondefensive fellowships in which people are given permission to be on a faith journey, with all the warts, messiness and setbacks that are part of such a journey. We must also address general and specific intellectual doubts, provide insights about the affective, emotional hindrances to growth in confidence in God, and become more intentional about bearing credible witnesses to each other regarding answers to prayer and other supernatural experiences that strengthen faith. (p. 22)
That last sentence lays out three categories to be addressed: (1) intellectual doubts, (2) emotional hindrances, and (3) the need to share with one another God’s active presence in our lives through answered prayer and other supernatural experiences. We must beware of attempting to focus only or, even primarily, on the intellectual issues to the exclusion of these other areas. Later in the book Moreland and Issler make these important comments:
If you had to guess, what would you identify as the most prominent source of doubt in America today? Is it certain discoveries of science? Incredulity about some stories in the Bible? The intolerance of Jesus’ claims to be the only way? These are not even close. In his study of doubt and defection from Christianity, sociologist Christian Smith claims that far and away the chief source of doubt comes from God’s apparent inactivity, indifference or impotence in the face of tragedy and suffering in the respondents’ lives and in others’ lives, and the apparent lack of God’s interventions and help in the toil and fatigue of daily troubles.
Notice that this is not simply the traditional “problem of evil.” It is the “problem of evil” personalized. It is the “hiddenness of God”—his seeming indifference and aloofness—that is the main issue.
In light of his study, Smith claims that spiritual experiences are a major source of development in trust in God and strengthening of that trust: “Very many modern people have encountered and do encounter what are to them very real spiritual experiences, frequently vivid and powerful ones. And these often serve as epistemological anchors sustaining their religious faith in even the most pluralistic and secular of situations.”
With two qualifications, we believe Smith is onto something very important. First, spiritual experiences in themselves can be dangerous and misleading, so they cannot sustain on their own the weight of religious, especially Christian, conviction. However, given a framework of objective biblical revelation (e.g., Jesus’ promises developed in the last chapter) and a biblically pregnant view of God-confidence that includes the various factors covered in this book, experiences of the triune God, his love and mercy, and his responses to prayer are powerful sources of encouragement and confirmation of reliance on God. Second, since Christian growth is a communal and not merely an individualistic endeavor, we would expand Smith’s frame of reference from personal experiences of God to include hearing of, even experiencing, his presence and actions vicariously in and through the lives of others. (pp. 133-134)
In light of this there is needed more than simply traditional apologetics—as needed as this is! What is needed is an integration of the intellect and the experiential. Our youth must be taught how to think (apologetics, theology, philosophy, etc.) and how to experience God (what to expect, what happens when God feels distant, how do I develop an interactive relationship with an invisible Being?). There is the need for what once was called “spiritual direction.” Moreland and Issler move us in the right direction with their book. May we heed the message.