In the first post I made the case that the faith that many people are struggling with or even walking away from is not actually the faith that is described in the Bible. Instead, it tends to be a shallow, superficial version of faith that they picked up somewhere along the way.
In the last post I explored the danger of faith that doesn’t allow for doubt. The next one up is its cousin: faith that is pitted against thinking.
I think of my friend Josh, who is still reeling from this distorted perspective of faith that was presented to him during his teenage years.
Josh is a native of Jamaica, and he and his family all became Christians as the result of a loving missionary family in his home country. Josh’s memories of the Christian experience are fairly positive, until he got to high school. Very few of his neighborhood friends were Christians, and they regularly challenged his faith. This created a set of expected questions that were unreconciled for Josh, and he would regularly bring these to his pastor.
Unfortunately, the steady flow of questions were perceived by the pastor to be seen as a lack of true faith. Josh remembers hearing the same response every time he revealed one of his intellectual questions: “Josh, sometimes faith requires that you don’t have all the answers. You just have to believe.” Josh is an intelligent guy, and this was intellectually dissatisfying for him. Eventually, it led him to the belief that Christian faith has no intellectual substance, and he was unwilling to turn off his brain if that is what faith required.
Now I don’t know for sure that pastor was as unwilling to engage in thoughtful discussion with Josh as Josh remembers him. But regardless of how Josh remembers that pastor, the sad truth is that it still symbolizes a dynamic that I see too often. I see it in a lot of pastors, and I definitely see it in a lot of parents. A desire for “certainty-seeking faith” (a helpful phrase that I picked up from a new book called Benefit of the Doubt) tends to view any intellectual challenges as threats to that desired certainty. So if a child (or teenager or adult) has legitimate questions about science, evolution, sexuality, world religions, salvation, the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, etc, they can easily be mischaracterized as having weak faith.
This is another perspective of faith that really saddens me. Not only is it superficial and shallow – it is just wrong. And it hurts people when we talk about faith that way (not to mention that it makes all Christians look like a bunch of intellectual hacks, which also bothers me, because I actually think of myself as decently smart lol).
I don’t really understand where this view even got started. Jesus is recognized as one of the most brilliant thinkers, communicators and leaders in history – even by secular historians. The Apostle Paul was one of the most brilliant scholars of his day, and consistently used logic to fortify his faith. The idea that great faith requires turning off our brain is just plain stupid.
One of my favorite preachers/authors on this topic is Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. His book The Reason for God is a great one for reconciling this topic, and he often comes back to this theme in his sermons. I was recently listening to a sermon of his on the woman with the issue of blood, and he used her as a case study on faith. It’s a simple verse, but in Mark 5.27 it says that she came to Jesus for healing because she had heard about him. Keller says, “In the Bible, faith is not opposed to thinking; it goes alongside thinking. She did this because she had gotten information about him. We often think faith means going against what we know; it takes faith to move on what we do know. Faith isn’t opposed to thinking; it is opposed to fear.”
He gives a silly but effective example of this principle. Imagine you and 3 friends come to a huge gorge in a jungle, and you can only pass via a rope bridge. You are terrified and are uncertain that it can hold your weight if you try to cross. The first 3 decided to go for it, and they get across ok. Now, what are you going to do? Does it require faith to step onto that bridge? Of course, but it is not the kind of faith that requires you to turn off your brain. You actually have some really solid intel now. The question is whether or not you have enough faith to move on the information and push past your fear.
C.S. Lewis gave an illustration that resembles this quite a bit (at least i think it was him – i’m having trouble tracking down its source). He asks you to imagine being diagnosed with some type of serious illness that can lead to death if not treated properly. You do some research on the illness and are told that there is a well known doctor that has treated the condition in other patients. Despite the riskiness of the procedure, you discover that he has a 100% success rate in dealing with it.
You still feel nervous, so you do lots of research. You study everything you can about that doctor. You ask a number of people who have been her patient, and they all give her high marks. You talk to other doctors in the area and interview them, and they tell you she is the most reputable doctor in her field.
After all of this work, what is it you have done? You have thought it through. You have looked at the evidence and made a thoughtful conclusion. But on the day you have to report to the doctor, you have a last minute panic attack and and don’t go.
He makes an important observation – what happened was a crisis of faith. When the moment came to act, there wasn’t enough faith to move forward.
But here is the critical question – Did you lose faith because you began to reason and think? Was asking tough questions and developing thoughtful conclusions the enemy to the faith you needed? Of course not. You lost faith because you stopped thinking. You took your eyes off of the evidence and instead focused your gaze on the fear.
The bottom line is this – it is a mistake to pit thinking against faith. Developing great faith does not come from turning off your brain – it is exactly the opposite. Faith becomes stronger as it thinks out the implications of that which we say we believe. The enemy of faith isn’t thinking – its fear.
I especially want to underscore this point to parents. I am not a vet yet, as my kids are only 4 and 1. Perhaps I’ll soften my stance as I get older. But a lot of the faith damage I’ve seen in the adults I talk to actually came from misguided attempts by their parents to stifle questions that they had as children. By falling into the mistaken myth that strong faith rebutts honest questions, the parents actually rooted the child’s faith in something that was superficial, shallow, and ultimately too fragile. For when those children went into the real world, the faith was not strong enough to absorb the inevitable challenges that would come its way.
I try to remind myself of this principle all the time. Faith is not opposed to thinking – it is opposed to fear. Its a far better exercise to engage children (and everyone else) in the intellectual quandries they are facing, and then to also help them develop the emotional awareness to name that which they fear. I’m pretty certain that will develop a far more robust and enduring faith in your children… and in you.