How do you deal with doubts? When you are hit with a barrage of rational, popular, and culturally acceptable challenges of your faith, what do you do? Do you respond or do you react? How does the truth of the gospel impact the manor in which we answer questions of doubt? How does the gospel change the way we act towards those who challenge and disagree with us? We can either co-opt the gospel, react with prideful arrogance, or respond with the gospel.
In college, my discipleship was mostly a ‘Christian’ reaction to modernism. I was well equipped with an ensemble of proofs, philosophical argumentation, historically verified facts to react to critiques of Christianity. I was well educated in the craft of Christian arguing. I witnessed it in class, and perfected it in my studies. You could say, I sought a altered version of Nehemiah, I had a brick in one hand and a copy of Aquinas in the other. With all the studies and arguments I tried to fend off all objections to my faith. “If I can defend my faith, I won’t doubt it,” I thought.
Overtime, the pursuit to ‘cleanse’ myself of modernistic doubts soon brought about stronger and deeper doubts. Similar to the use of antibacterial: you take care of a few germs, but ironically, stronger ones emerge. I shifted gears and tried something new. Instead of fighting against modernism, I found myself with a greater problem: meddling with the gospel. So high strung to make the gospel “work” for those whose claims I was hearing, I began to co-opt the gospel. If I got them to accept Jesus, there was a large chance Jesus was more like David Hume, than the incarnate resurrected Word of God.
Co-opting the Gospel
Instead of allowing the gospel to stand on its power to save, we mold it to fit the thinking of the day. Such was the case with the first Christian apologetics towards the Enlightenment. Christianity’s central doctrines of the atonement and resurrection were deemed untenable, a consequence of the elevation of ‘human reason’ as the infallible standard. The apologist’s opposition was performed by appealing to “human reason,” as set out by the thinkers of that time. Leslie Newbigin has pointed out how this was problematic. In reacting to an opposing worldview they domesticated the gospel.
…it is plain that we do not defend the Christian message by domesticating it within the reigning plausibility structure. That was surely the grand mistake of the eighteenth-century defenses of the reasonableness of Christianity. Leslie Newbigin
They sought to show the ‘reasonableness’ of the Christian gospel in the opposing arena. No one paid attention to the foundation though. Changing the gospel is not the answer to doubts and objections.
Reacting to an Ideology
What if we were to become attack dogs, quickly pouncing on any opposing view or thinking to Christianity? The focus discipleship cannot be offensive destruction of world-views. Disciples are not meant to be wrecking balls for Jesus. When we’re solely reacting to rebellious persuasions, we lose sight of the joy, grace, and dependence we have in the gospel. We rely on our own brains, studies, and rational arguments to beat the other side. We don’t believe the gospel can stand on its own. We don’t believe the gospel we are defending. As Luther once quipped, “Human reason is like a drunken man on horseback; set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other.” Our reactions can often fail to have checks and balances in place to ward off the vulnerabilities of human pride and self-righteousness. We can quickly come under a false narrative of, “The righteous shall live by answers…” This leads to two common lies:
1. Questions and Doubt Are Sinful
There are two ways to ask a question: cynicism and doubt. Cynicism says, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Doubt says, “I don’t know, but I’d like to.” Wish the first one luck and grab coffee with the second (Prov 18:2). Cynicism is sin because pride is sin. Doubt isn’t sin. Whether it’s theism or the death of a saint, questions inevitably arise. Normally, it’s when we bump up against our finite limitations. Questions are a fundamental aspect of our creatureliness. Our questions distinguish us from God. In Mark 9, we see Jesus interacting with a father who has more than bumped up against his finiteness. After Jesus makes the case that belief is necessary, the father responds, “I believe; help my unbelief.” (v24) Jesus doesn’t recommend a doubt “detox.” Jesus gives grace to doubts and questions. Questions are not the enemy.
2. Discipleship is getting answers and having arguments.
When questions are sin, answers become righteousness. While I’m not advocating intellectual immaturity (1 Cor 14:20), we can be like Peter and relegate God’s Kingdom for another. When that kingdom is attacked, we’ll draw our human weapons and strike off ears. If the Kingdom is won by intellectual beat-downs, have at all the arguments you can get your hands on. The Kingdom isn’t won that way. We come equipped with the sword of the Spirit and pierce hearts. The Kingdom isn’t a matter of talk, but of power (1 Cor 4:20). A farmer doesn’t see fruit spring up by continually striking the ground constantly. It’s part of a greater process of planting and growing. We plant and water with our confidence in God who gives growth (1 Cor 3:7). It is his gospel that bears fruit (Col 1:6). See, at the root of our co-opting and reactionary attempts to win arguments, we are placing our own minds at the center. We think we are God and we want to be God.
Responding to the Gospel
The gospel is the word of truth (Col 1:5). Not just for the 1st century or just the 21th. It is the trans-generational, transnational and trans-cultural truth of God for all the world all the time. We don’t react to the gospel, but receive it and respond to it. As our whole lives become oriented around the gospel, they progressively become a response to God (Rom 12:1-2). This being the case, it will inevitably confront the unrighteousness in any ideological flavor of the week. We will see problems in the unbelieving mind as it continues to detour around who God is and what he has done. However, Paul told the Colossians, “Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col 2:6-7). After Paul reminds them what the Christian life is, he warns them to not submit to life and practice that isn’t “according to Christ”(v8). As we respond to the gospel, we will have the courage to confront and correct, not from being a intellectual jock, but a humble servant. The gospel changes our posture towards objecting views in four significant ways as we recognize it isn’t our work, but God’s.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. – 2 Tim 2:24-25
1. It Makes Us Humble and Hopeful
When it’s all up to you and your mind, you lust for the triumphs. People aren’t stupid though. If you are in it simply to win it, they’ll sniff that out a mile away. If your hope comes from winning arguments, you’ll leave real people in your wake as rubble. As soon as you come up against someone who can spit game better and win, you’ll be absolutely devastated. However, we can be hopeful even in conversations that come to a stalemate, because God gives the growth. I’ve learned from Douglas Wilson, “Win men, not arguments.” We can go into discussions humbled under the weight of knowing it is God who is mighty to save, not us. This gives us a humble and hopeful posture for our conversations with others.
2. It Makes us Patient and Kind
When it’s all up to you, walking on eggshells is normative. You will be fear tripping over your words and lose sleep over proper sentence structure. Every poke and prod at your argument will feel like an attack against you. However, the gospel is God’s power, not your eloquence (1 Cor 1:17). We can breathe deep, walk humbly and carry a big cup of coffee. The converting power they need is God’s power. With this in view, kindness will be genuine since we aren’t trying to spin the plates of arguing while standing on the wobbly stilts of self-righteousness. Kindness doesn’t not mean being a door mat, but it does mean we are as welcoming as one. Enduring evil is a unique hallmark of the Christian. There will be times when you may need to simply endure. The gospel frees us to be patient with the banter, endure the ad hominem, and persevere with the strength of Christ who endured evil on our behalf. Do not repay evil for evil. Because God is at work and not us, we can be patient and kind.
3. We Can Correct While Being Gentle
When it’s all up to you, you don’t just correct wrong thinking, you win arguments. You say things like, “Whatever the cost, win the argument.” Paul reminds us the truth ought to be vindicated against falsity. There is no reason to think the gospel makes you check your brain at the door. We can and should correct where correction is required. Jesus didn’t leave bad thinking alone, but he also didn’t go around breaking bruised reeds. Because the gospel is true and good news for everyone, we must speak it and defend it, but we will do it out of love.
4. We Will Trust in God
We know it’s not all up to us and that God is gracious and sovereign. God would have been just in leaving us in our unrighteousness. Things could be way way worse than modernism and post-modernism. God upholds things by the word of his power. Paul exhorts Timothy to trust in God who is sovereign. He is the giver of repentance. It is his good pleasure to give. This means we pray. Pray like the father would have prayed for his prodigal; so they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the enemy. We don’t rely on our mental metal but on God and his grace.
For more on this, Tim Keller on “How the Gospel Shapes our Apologetics”
Ben Riggs resides in Dayton, Ohio with his incredible and lovely bride Emily. He is Gathering Assistant at Apex Community Church and a house church leader in that area. He is the proprietor of pageflipping.blogspot.com. Ben has a passion to see the power and depths of the God’s gospel be drawn out for all aspects of life for God and others in God’s world.