I don’t always tell you

I don’t always tell you about the mornings I wake up and feel the absence of God as though it were a presence—thick and certain, remembered all over again the way you remember in the morning that someone you love has died. 

Or about the days when the idea that a single religion can stop the CNN crawler from reporting one more missile strike, one more downed plane, one more bombed hospital, strikes me as freshly stupid, dangerously naïve. 

(They keep using words like “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” to describe the violence, but let’s be honest, there’s nothing unthinkable or unimaginable about all this. It’s as routine to us as eating, as breathing, as hating. We dream this stuff up all the time.) 

I don’t always tell you about how sometimes I’m not sure I want to bring kids into a world like this one, a world so full of suffering. 

Because that sort of thing doesn’t exactly sell off the shelves at Christian bookstores, does it? 

What do you do when the religion that is supposed to give you comfort and direction is the cause of your pain and confusion?  

What do you do when religious people respond to your questions by calling you names? By mocking you? By casting you out? 

I don’t always tell you about the depth of my doubt. 

I don’t always tell you about how the cynicism settles in, like a diaphanous fog. 

Or about how sometimes, just the thought of reading one more Christian book I only half believe exhausts and bores me. 

There is no need for a diagnosis. This isn’t the sort of clinical depression with which so many good people struggle. Privileged as I am, I can cut off the flow of information—shut the laptop, turn off the news, and head outside—and my mood lifts. I can gaze into the dizzying blue of a clear sky and believe in God again, because at least for me, that sky isn’t filled with missiles or bombs. I have the luxury of forgetting. 

Sometimes it frightens me, how effortlessly I can move from belief to unbelief as one would move from room to room. 

Kathleen Norris called it acedia, the noonday demon, a religious and relational apathy that “makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all.” 

That sounds about right to me— stuck in the unforgiving glare of midday when every truth has a sharp edge. 

I don’t always tell you, because when a reader says, “I love it when you write something VULNERABLE!” I wonder if she really means it, if she really wants to know that the demon whose voice she thinks she's quieted in her own heart is screaming like hell in mine, and that the scariest thing about being VULNERABLE, about exposing myself to the world without a religion or a platform or a “brand” for protection, is that I might lose them for good...or, perhaps, learn that I can breathe without them. 

And that’s not exactly the sort of born again experience the publishers pay for. 



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Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd

“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd 

Today I am just thrilled to share an interview with theologian and teacher Greg Boyd, whose new book, Benefit of the Doubt, releases this week.  Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and The Myth of a Christian Nation. Greg has also been featured on the front page of The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. 

What I love about Greg’s work is his commitment to both intellectual integrity and faithful obedience. His books always challenge me to not only think, but to act. And his latest, Benefit of the Doubt, is right up my alley…and likely many of yours too…for it tackles issues related to faith, doubt, certainty, and obedience. I think you will find many of Greg’s thoughts here helpful and profound. Enjoy! 



Rachel: First of all, thank you so much for this book.  I really related to your personal experience with doubt and found myself underlining paragraph after paragraph of Benefit of the Doubt, praying your words would reach those who need it the most.  To start off, tell us a little of your own story. What triggered your first doubts about your faith?

Greg: Thanks Rachel, I appreciate the opportunity to talk.  I don’t know if I can say when I first had doubts about my faith, because my faith has pretty much always been accompanied by doubt.  But it was a prayer meeting I attended twenty-some years ago that first got me questioning the very concept of faith that most Christians embrace today.  A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.”  She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed. 

As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick.  And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of.  It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke! 

This motivated me to begin to seriously question whether the notion that our faith is as strong as we are free of doubt is really an accurate understanding of faith. The Benefit of the Doubt is really the outcome of that line of questioning that began in that prayer meeting so many years ago.  

 Can you explain what “certainty-seeking faith” is and why you claim that it's a problem today? 

 “Certain-seeking faith” is the sort of faith that people were trying to exercise in the prayer meeting I just talked about.  It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. I’ve found that this is how most Christians today think about faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters in my book fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with the Christian faith and behind most of the negative things non-believers associate with the Christian faith. 

Among other things, as I stated earlier, this model reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants.  Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it!  So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.

You go so far as to claim that certainty-seeking faith is “idolatrous.”  That is a huge claim, especially since this is the kind of faith most Christians today embrace! Can you explain it further? And how can we break free from it?


In the book I make the case that we are created with a core need to feel fully alive, unconditionally loved and worthwhile, and ultimately secure, and God created us with this need because he wants to meet it, and is the only one who can actually meet it.  An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs. This form of idolatry is a danger whenever people assume (rightly) that they are saved by faith while also (mistakenly) equating faith with their sense of certainty.  For it means they now feel “saved” – uniquely significant and secure before God – on the basis of their psychological certainty. 

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, the only way to get free from this without falling into some other form of idolatry is to realize that biblical faith isn’t about feeling certain, but about a willingness to commit to living for God in the face of uncertainty.  We need to accept that uncertainty is simply part of what it means to be human and to trust that God’s love for us, revealed most perfectly on Calvary, isn’t dependent on how certain or uncertain we feel.  The God revealed on Calvary isn’t a God who is impressed with people’s ability to make themselves feel certain that their beliefs are right.  He’s rather a God who simply wants us to trust him, in the face of uncertainty, by lovingly laying down our lives for him in response the way he has lovingly laid down his life for us. 

What difference do you see between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?  And why do you believe this distinction is important?

 As I define them, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of that opinion.  When I married Shelley, my wife, I had to first believe a number of things about her, but I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to living the rest of my life as her husband. 

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal, relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising faith. And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of faith is simply about how willing one is to trust God’s character and how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite the uncertainties they may have.  

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other “Christian” things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.   It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that means anything to God is how faithful his people are in trusting his character and in living in relationship with him, regardless of whatever level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

In the book you write that, “God enters covenants, not contracts, with people.” Could you share a little about how the court-of-law framework of theology has affected how we read the Bible? 

This is a very important point that I spend a lot of time on in my book. Whereas a “contract” is a deal between parties, a “covenant” is a commitment that involves the parties themselves.  Contracts involve exchanging money, work or possessions, while covenants involve a commitment of our life. And while covenants are rooted in people trusting one another, contracts are only necessary when people don’t trust one another. So too, while contracts are about what different parties can get from one another, covenants are about what different parties pledge to give of themselves toward one another.   Buying a car or house involves a contract: getting married involves a covenant.  

Unfortunately, while covenants permeated the lives of people in biblical times, western culture is entirely contractual. Indeed, marriage is the only remaining covenant we have, and people today are unfortunately increasingly viewing even this in terms of a contract.  Because of this, most contemporary western Christians interpret Scripture’s covenantal concepts as if they were contractual, and as I show in Benefit of the Doubt, this has fundamentally screwed up our understanding of a number of theological concepts in Scripture. 

Can you give us an example? 

Sure. Consider the way most Christians think about “salvation.” They think of it primarily in legal and contractual ways. God the Father is the judge, we are the guilty defendants, and Jesus is our lawyer.  In this view, the Father was going to send us to eternal prison (hell), which we deserved, until Jesus stepped in and worked out a strange deal with the Father in which he somehow takes on our guilt and our punishment, while we are acquitted, assuming we can believe these things are true with a requisite degree of certainty. 

It’s of course true the Bible uses some legal metaphors to describe salvation, but as I demonstrate in my book, the primary framework, and the framework in which even the legal metaphors should be understood, is covenantal.  This dramatically changes everything! Understood as a covenantal concept, salvation, isn’t about a deal that takes place between us and God. It’s rather about entering into a marriage-like relationship with God – a relationship that involves us pledging ourselves to him in response to the pledge of himself he offered us on Calvary. So too, whereas the legal model was focused on belief and therefore didn’t involve our character transformation as a central consideration, the covenant model is all about character, for its anchored in faith, and as I’ve said, covenantal faith is about our willingness to trust another and to live in a trustworthy way in relation to another. 

You can also see the significant difference between these two models of salvation by the sorts of questions they inspire. If a person is thinking in terms of the contractual model, there are all sorts of legal-type questions that need to be addressed. For example, since salvation is a legal deal, it makes sense to wonder if the deal can be “undone” (the debate about eternal security)?  If it can’t be “undone,” it makes sense to wonder what, if any, are the negative consequences for living in ways we know God disapproves of?  

On the other hand, if the “salvation-deal” can be undone, it makes sense to wonder what are the precise legal conditions that would undo it? Is the “salvation-deal” undone if a person fornicates, for example, and dies before they can repent? And (here’s one I’ve found Christian engaged couples ask frequently), what exactly does it mean to “fornicate”?  How close to “vaginal penetration” can you get before you “cross the line?  In the contractual framework, it naturally makes sense to want to get away with as much as you can without “crossing the line,” for contracts, recall, are predicated on a lack of trust and are about what individuals can get from one another. 

The mindset behind these questions makes perfect sense in a contractual, court-of-law framework, but that make no sense whatsoever in a covenantal framework. No one in a remotely healthy marriage would ever wonder about how much they could get away with before their spouse would divorce them, for example.  And if a spouse ever did wonder about this, it would simply reveal that he or she was already dishonoring their covenant.  For one only resorts to contractual thinking when the covenantal pledge to give of oneself to another and to trust and be trustworthy toward another is absent. 

In this light, and in light of how pervasive the legal paradigm is in contemporary Christ thinking, is it any wonder we see so live covenantal trust and trustworthiness in the lives of professing Christians today?  

You acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges confronting people who believe the Bible is “God’s Word” concerns the violent portraits of God in the Bible. and you spend a whole chapter on this topic. What advice do you have for people who are deeply troubled by these portraits?


There are three things I share in Benefit of the Doubt about this incredibly important topic.  The first is that I attempt to show that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ isn’t just one revelation among many others in Scripture. He is rather depicted as the supreme revelation that culminates and surpasses all others. God spoke in many different ways in the past, the author of Hebrews tells us, but in these “last days” he has spoken “through the Son.”  And in contrast to all that came before, the Son is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of his being (hupostasis, meaning “essence,” Heb. 1:1-3).  This is why Jesus could say such radical things as; “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn.14:9) and could claim that all Scripture points to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-7; 44-7). What this implies, I contend, is that, whether we can explain the violent portraits of God in the OT or not,   it would be unfaithful for us to ever allow anything we find in the OT to compromise what we learn about God in him. 

Second, I argue that as the NT depicts it, the cross sums up and supremely expresses everything Jesus was about.   This is why John said, on the basis of what he learned about God from Jesus, that “God is love” (I Jn,.4:8) and then defined the kind of “love” that God is by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16). God’s very essence, in other words, is cross-like love. On the one hand, this increases the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God, for the cross reveals a God who would rather did for his enemies than use his power to crush them.  So we have to wonder, how do portraits of God commanding genocide or causing mothers to cannibalize their babies point to the enemy-loving, non-violent God revealed on the cross?!  On the other hand, however, I argue that the cross itself holds the key to solving this problem, which leads to my third point. 

The cross reveals that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, God is willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of their sin. Yet, in doing this, God reveals his true nature, for as we look upon the God-forsaken, guilty-appearing criminal on the cross, we know that it was God who voluntarily stooped an infinite distance to become this for us.  Now, if the cross reveals what God is really like, then it reveals what God has always been like. And this means we should read Scripture with the awareness that God has always been willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and take on appearances that reflect the ugliness of their sin.  

I thus suggest that we should read all Scripture “through the lens of the cross,” and when we do this, we can begin to see how even the most horrendous portraits of God in the OT bear witness to the God revealed on the cross.  The cross reveals God to us only when we look past the surface appearance that reflects the ugliness of our sin and discern in its depth our gracious God stooping to bear our sin and take on this ugly appearance for us.  In this light, I suggest we should read Scripture always asking, where else might we find that God is revealed not by how he appears on the surface, but by what faith can discern as we look past the surface to discern God humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people? 

My short answer to this question is that, whenever we come upon portraits of God that, to one degree or another, fall beneath the beautiful, non-violent portrait we are given in the crucified Christ, we should assume that the revelatory content of these portraits is, to this degree, not found on the surface of the portrait itself, but in what faith can discern happening beneath the surface as it beholds God stooping to bear the sin if his people.  Hence, I submit that the ugliness of portraits such as the one of Yahweh commanding his people to slaughter “everything that breathes” or of causing mothers to cannibalize their children reflects the ugly, fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people, not God himself. What rather reveals God is that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, he was willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people by being willing to take on this literary appearance in the inspired record of his covenantal activity (viz. the biblical narrative). 

You are such a prolific writer and theologian, and you’ve written about everything from open theism, to Satan and demons, to politics (The Myth of a Christian Nation is among my most often recommend books), to the problem of suffering. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are you feeling most passionate about right now? 

Right now I’m in the final stages of a massive research project I’ve been working on for five years that develops and defends the thesis I just outlined in response to your previous question.  It’s entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. To say I’m “passionate” about this topic  is a massive understatement! I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this Scripture’s’ violent portraits of God, for I believe these portraits constitute one of the biggest reasons why many abandon the faith while many others refuse to take the Bible as God’s Word seriously. It’s also the primary reason why most Christians today refuse to accept that God is altogether as beautiful as he’s revealed to be on the cross and/or that God is unconditionally opposed to all violence.  

Because I’m proposing a new hermeneutic, I needed to make my case as airtight and as comprehensive as possible, which is why the book has taken me five years to research and write and has now evolved to over 600 pages! But non-academics need not worry, because I plan on following it quickly with a much shorter work that will capture the gist of my argument, but without all the scholarly material that’s packed into the larger academic book. I hope to have both finished by the beginning of 2014 which means they should be published (by InterVarsity Press) by the end of 2014. 

 When it comes to theology, you seem to have a curious mind and an explorer’s heart. How do you handle the inevitable criticism that comes along with that? 

I make it my primary goal of every day to get all of my “life” – my core need to be loved, to feel worthwhile, and to feel ultimate secure – from what God thinks about me as revealed on the cross.  I believe this is the most fundamental objective for disciples of Jesus.  To the extent that Christ is our “life,” we don’t need to be trying to get “life” from what people think about us, or from any other potential idol I might latch onto.  But to the degree we don’t get all our “life” from Christ, we can’t help but try to get it from what people think about us, or from some other idol.  This is sheer bondage.  Only to the degree that all our “life” is from Christ can we live in true freedom.  And only to this degree can we “die to ourselves” and live out the radical call of the kingdom to imitate Jesus by lovingly sacrificing ourselves for all others, including those who would identify themselves as our “enemy.”

Thanks so much for asking such great questions Rachel! Keep up your great Kingdom work! 

Thanks for this profound and thought-provoking responses, Greg. You are ALWAYS welcome here! 


Be sure to check out Greg’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt. And if you haven’t found Greg’s ReKnew site, you’re missing out; there are tons of great resources, articles, and discussions there. And if you’re interested in hearing Greg speak on the topics covered in this interview, consider participating in the upcoming ReKnew conference on Faith, Doubt, and the Idol of Certainty, September 27-28 at Wooldand Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. 




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Some helpful critiques of Friday's post (“Is doubt an STD?”)

I'm travelling today, but hoping to get a few superlatives up later this afternoon. In the meantime...

I got a little bit of pushback on my post on Friday about Derek Rishmawy’s article “Who are you sleeping with?” and when that happens, I try to listen up and take your input to heart. (Okay, so first I get super-defensive; then I listen up and take your input to heart.) 

Perhaps because I wrestle with doubts and questions of my own, I still take issue with the article’s generalizations about young adults, particularly the comment that “it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience.”   And I maintain that the tactic of responding to such questions with, “Who are you sleeping with?” is a bad one, for a lot of reasons. The point of the post was to address the common assumption that doubt is typically a result of sin or a guilty conscience and that we should treat people with thoughtful questions about their faith with suspicion.  That's wrong, and it should be addressed. 

But I definitely don’t want to misrepresent Tim Keller’s remarks, overstate our differences, or gloss over the fact that, often, our experiences with doubt are indeed influenced by relationships, sin, or other personal factors. Several of you offered some helpful insights in the comment section in this regard, so I thought I’d share some of the critiques/thoughts I found most helpful, just to give us more to think about and to acknowledge that I don’t have this thing figured out. I want y’all to know I’m listening, even when we don't totally agree! 

The first comment comes from Derek himself, who spent a lot of time engaging with us in the comment section, for which I am grateful. He wrote: 

"Rachel was kind enough to tweak a few things but I thought I'd post the same clarifying points that I did at the article here:
1. I did not mean to imply that any and all doubts about God, philosophy, evolution, etc. are REALLY just about sex. What I was, apparently clumsily, trying to point out is that the heart is a complicated thing that will often construct rationalizations to protect itself. That said, sometimes doubts are really just doubts and having been a philosophy major at a secular college who had questions and wasn’t having sex, I get that. When my kids come to me about this stuff, I just talk to them about their questions taking them in good faith. If it comes up that there are other issues in play, well, then that’s a thing. I probably should have made this clearer. I never would want to discourage real, honest questions and wrestling. In retrospect, “It’s a pretty easy bet” was probably a poor choice of words and definitely should not be attributed to Dr. Keller.
2. Nowhere did I or Tim Keller call evolution into question as a scientific theory of biological diversity and origins. It’s just a very common issue that raises questions with college kids. It was an observational/descriptive point, not one about what should or shouldn’t be considered core doctrine. If somebody comes out with a blog post on this saying, “Tim Keller and Some Guy At Patheos say that Evolutionists are Fornicators”–just saying, I you’re misreading it. Which could easily be my fault as a writer too. In fact, Dr. Keller himself affirms some sort of theistic evolution and has gotten a lot of crap for it himself so I'm sure he's not dismissive of people who do as well.
3. As for the “tactic” I did note that Keller said it was almost too cruel to use. I myself never have. I don’t like “gotcha” moments. The point was illustrative. Indeed, I think I might have used the word, “illustrated.” Realize that the man wrote an entire book called " The Reason for God" in which he addresses most of the main, intellectual questions those same people has on their own terms, gently, graciously and with respect and all over the place talks about hearing people on their own terms. He didn't advocate that tactic--it really was an illustration. He never suggested that pastors actually use it or that we should go in and constantly check kids who had questions and demand to know their sexual habits. I know that's not my approach when I first have a kid coming to me with issues.
4. Any infelicities remaining probably should be attributed to my faulty memory, poor listening comprehension, or weakness as a writer and not Dr. Keller."

Ben shared some insights as a college minister: 

“I lead a college ministry and I want to affirm a few things: Doubts and sexuality are on the table for discussion. They are both too important to ignore. Sometimes they are related. Sometimes they aren't. But you don't know until you start talking and asking I ask my students about their relationships (my assumption is that people are sleeping together) because no one else will and our sexuality has a huge impact on how we live and interact with each other and God. Anecdotally: the times in my life where I experienced the greatest doubt/most considered throwing in the towel were the times I was experiencing the most sexual un-health and loneliness. I know that isn't true for everyone, but if that pastor had asked me that question, I would have said, "No one, but I want to."”

Micah reminded us that Tim Keller doesn’t usually talk about doubt in exclusively negative terms, so we should keep that in mind when weighing these most recent comments: 

Tim Keller's own words on doubt: ‘A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends' and neighbors'."

Katie made a good point:

 Rachel...I know that you noted: 'without focusing too much attention on Keller himself, I'd like to address why it's problematic,' and I appreciate that because you're right - there is something that needs to be addressed in this sort of thinking and deducing. But I feel like you went on to loop Keller back into your post several times, which effectively re-focused the issue - and this post - on his supposed-comments. I would be okay with this if we knew clearly what Keller did and did not say. It may be that Keller did indeed say those very things and did mean to imply all that is already being implied. (I went looking for a transcript or video clip last night to hear his words in context for myself, but came up dry, unfortunately). But it seems premature and not helpful to address such loaded topics based on some blogger's take on a brief Q&A exchange. I wish you had held off to see if Keller clarified or responded to Derek's post before writing this - or that you had focused your post on the faulty thinking, and not so much on presuming Keller said and meant. Just disappointed and surprised as this seems counter to how you usually approach things.
...And now the comments are exploding with lots of assumptions about Keller, which makes me sad as it all seems to be puting the cart before the horse and assumptively stirring the pot. Again - the topic itself is valid and necessary to address. I just wish Keller wasn't being dragged into it by so many based off of so little. Any further clarity would be welcome.

From Suzannah: 

Keller's wording is extraordinarily careless, but this was an on-the-spot Q&A as recounted by someone else, and I'd be interested to hear his point firsthand. Of course doubt is complex, even necessary, and *not* inherently tied to personal sin, but, I think his point stands: it's easy when I stray from faithfulness to begin to justify my own selfishness and attribute the distance I feel to anything but me. That doesn't mean that all dark nights or doubts are rooted in sin--not at all!--but I think there is a distinction to be made between honest wrestling and my own lazy excuses.”

From Josh (who always has something great to say!):

Cognitive dissonance -- that psychological term that refers to the way our brains respond when our beliefs and actions don't line up -- is also a very real thing. Our brains really don't like it when actions and beliefs don't line up, and more often than not, we change our beliefs to match our actions rather than the other way around. So it's a very real possibility that someone going off to college does some stuff that they were raised to believe was wrong/sinful/evil, and it makes them call into question those beliefs. "Is it really wrong? If it's not really wrong, then what else that I believe isn't real either?"
But even though these doubts might be due to actions, we should never assume that this is necessarily the case. That is hurtful to relationships and dismissive to the very real doubts. So yeah, asking "Who have you been sleeping with?" is just the wrong response. Wrong in every way I can think of -- it's dismissive, combative, shame-inducing, and patronizing.
The right response? "Remember that it doesn't matter if you believe in a young earth or an old earth; it doesn't matter if you question how an omnipotent, loving God could exist in the face of the existence of evil; or what you might have done last weekend -- God's grace is big enough to handle all the doubt you can throw at it." And then listen to the doubts and be with the person in their struggle.

And Catherine shared a little of her own questions/struggles: 

I agree w/ everything you’ve written in this post, but I did read that Q & A from a different perspective than you. As a young adult who attended large, secular universities and moved to NYC right after graduation, I have to say that what separated me most from my peers as a Christian were my personal choices regarding sexuality. Secular young adults care about the poor, community, philosophy and poetry as much as young Christians. Where they differ is on sexual choices, and frankly, the only solid argument the church makes about abstinence (if you are a confident, self-respecting and respectful adult) is that God asks it of us (which is no small thing but sometimes very hard to hang your hat on when you’re 23 and dating a hot poet).
Doubt, of course, can be intellectual and often is, but doubt can also be relational, which for someone like myself NOT rooted in the excesses of fundamentalism, was far more powerful.  I love that you’re doing this series on sexuality and the church, because it’s such a tough issue for young Christians. From homosexuality to abstinence for a generation not marrying until their 30s, what the Bible says about sexuality doesn’t seem to completely add up in our postmodern age. What should Christian purity look like today? I wrestle with this far more than evolution, which I’ve believed in as long as I’ve believed in God.

Of course many of you shared some fantastic points in agreement with my analysis. You can read them all here.

Just wanted to let you all know that I listen, even when we disagree Thank you so much for the community you bring to this space.  It’s such a joy to be a part of it. 



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Is doubt an STD?

'Questioned Proposal' photo (c) 2008, Ethan Lofton - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

For most people, young adulthood is a time of stretching, evolving, questioning, and growing. It’s a time when you start thinking for yourself, making decisions on your own, scrutinizing your past, and dreaming about your future. 

And so it was for me. 

I was in my early twenties when I first encountered a fossil record that didn’t match what I’d been taught in Sunday school about the “myth” of evolutionary theory. 

I was a junior in college when the execution of a Muslim woman, broadcasted on TV, challenged everything I believed about heaven, hell, and religious pluralism. 

I was 21 or 22 when I began questioning what I’d been taught about what constituted  “biblical” politics,  “biblical” marriage, and  “biblical” womanhood, and wondering if it was wise, or even possible, to reduce the Bible into an adjective. 

I was young and newly married when I first started whispering these questions out loud—Did Anne Frank really go to hell? How does a young earth explain how we can see the light of distant stars? Did God really ask Joshua to commit genocide? Is it possible to follow Jesus with my intellectual and emotional integrity intact? How can we know any of this is true? 

These questions emerged from the deepest, truest parts of my being, after many sleepless nights, long talks with Dan, tears of frustration, intense study and prayer, and seemingly endless periods of silence.  It was my first encounter with doubt, and it was scary. 

The most painful part of the process, though, was when friends and well-meaning mentors dismissed my questions as silly, or, even worse, questioned whether my doubt was nothing more than an attempt to justify some sort of secret sin in my life, usually pride. If they could just uncover my moral failing, they reasoned, all these pesky questions about science and theology and religion would disappear. 

Those responses only alienated me further from the Church, where I began to feel less and less comfortable sharing my thoughts and questions with my faith community. 

This is why I found Tim Keller’s response to a question posed to him at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference this week both familiar and disheartening. 

In responding to a question about obstacles to revival, Keller said that one of the biggest threats to spiritual renewal, particularly among young adults is sexual activity. He connects sexual activity to increasing doubts among young adults, and suggests that when twenty-somethings come home from college with scientific or philosophical questions related to their faith, those questions are just a guise for what’s really at work—they’re having sex. 

Derek Rishmawy summarized Keller’s response in a post entitled “Who are you sleeping with?”

"Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue.  Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex."

I was surprised to see such a dismissive statement from Keller, who has devoted so much of his life to carefully addressing the questions of skeptics with nuance and respect, and who has a generally open attitude toward doubt. (I am hoping that perhaps Rishmawy just didn’t summarize Keller exactly right; he has issued a few helpful clarifying points since the post originally ran.) But this response to doubt is common enough to address here generally, for the sake of those of you who doubt and those who are in a position to mentor those who doubt, so without focusing too much attention on Keller himself, I'd like to address why it's problematic. 

First, the suggestion that the primary reason young people might have questions about, say, evolution and biblical interpretation is because they have a “guilty conscience” is dismissive and hurtful. It unfairly discounts the very real, and often very legitimate questions of searching young adults and treats their doubts as unworthy of addressing directly. 

Believe me. It does not help your cause when a biology student comes into your office to ask how young earth creationism can possibly explain the fossil record and your response to her is ,“Who are you sleeping with?” 

Keller seems to assume that thoughtful questioning among young people are typically the result of sexual activity and their desire to justify it. This was not true for me, and it is not true for many of the young adults who leave college with questions about science, philosophy, politics, and religious pluralism that challenge the fundamentalism with which they were raised. I encountered doubt long before I got married and had sex, (not to mention long after), and I think it’s silly that I would have to share that information with Keller, or anyone else for that matter, in an effort to prove the sincerity of my questions.  

Furthermore, learning that a college student is sexually active does not somehow discredit his or her faith experience.  While sexuality is indeed an important element of personhood, it is not he be-all and end-all of our existence, and as we’ve discussed in the past, connecting a person’s worth to his or her virginity is a serious problem within evangelicalism. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those who do in fact leave the Church over issues related to sexuality do so because they’ve been told over and over again that their value as a Christian, and as a human being, is wrapped up in their virginity, so they no longer feel welcomed or worthy. 

As I’ve written before, the doubts I wrestled with most profoundly as a young adult were doubts related to salvation and religious pluralism. Those doubts often took he form of a single question in my mind: “Did Anne Frank go to hell?”

I cannot think of a more trite, inappropriate response to that question than, “Tell me who you’re sleeping with.”

Second, Keller is a smart guy and he should know that correlation does not mean causation. As I mentioned above, It is often during young adulthood that people begin to think for themselves and ask tough questions about their faith. It is also during young adulthood that people begin to form serious romantic relationships and think about sex. So if Keller sees a correlation, it may have more to do with this particular stage of development than anything else. 

I have already heard from pastors and campus ministers who say they too have observed that twenty-somethings seem to be struggling with questions related to both faith and sexuality, and I’m not surprised. While questions, experiences, and struggles related to sex can most certainly generate questions about faith...(we are holistic, integrated creatures after all)....we have to be careful of generalizing or oversimplifying here.  It may be true that young adults are both asking questions about science & faith and having sex, but that does not mean that they are asking questions about science & faith because they are having sex. 

Pastors and mentors will of course feel compelled to offer guidance and prayer as young adults navigate the tricky terrain of sexuality, but they should not be deceived into thinking that the all the questions about faith, science, technology, religious pluralism, politics, justice, equality, and ethics emerging from the Millennial generation are related to sex and can be solved by abstaining from it. This is shallow, reductive thinking, and again points to a somewhat irrational preoccupation among evangelicals with sexuality as the root of all that is evil or good. 

I am often asked to speak at churches and conferences on the topic of why young adults are leaving the church.  I usually begin by sharing a little of my own story, and then I point to research conducted by the Barna Group in which young adults, ages 18-29 were asked the same question. As David Kinnaman explains in his enlightening book, You Lost Me, one of the top six responses among young adults is that they left the church because they didn’t feel like their pastors, mentors, and friends took their questions about faith seriously. 

“Young Christians (and former Christians too) say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts,” writes Kinnaman. “They do not feel safe admitting that faith doesn’t always make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial and fact-focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.” 

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, most young adults I know aren’t looking for a religion that answers all of their questions, but rather a community of faith in which they feel safe to asking them.  A good place to start in creating such a community is to treat young adults like the complex human beings they are, and to take their questions about faith seriously.

(Credit to Chris Cox who gave me the idea for the title of the post. In response to the article he tweeted, “Doubt as a STD seems like a desperate ploy.”  I agree. )

See also:
What happened when I tried to love God with my mind
The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart


Have your doubts and questions ever been assumed by others to stem from a "guilty conscience"? How did you respond? 

I'd also love to hear from ministers who work with college students and young adults. Have you noticed the correlation that Keller observes? Is he on to something?

Several of you have noted that this doesn't sound like typical Keller. I totally agree. He's usually a lot more nuanced about things...so please don't interpret this as a critique of him as a theologian or pastor, just a discussion around this particular idea that doubt is the result of a guilty conscience. 



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Holy Week for Doubters

'wilted roses for you' photo (c) 2009, Bill S - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

It will bother you off and on, like a rock in your shoe, 

Or it will startle you, like the first crash of thunder in a summer storm, 

Or it will lodge itself beneath your skin like a splinter, 

Or it will show up again—the uninvited guest whose heavy footsteps you’d recognize anywhere, appearing at your front door with a suitcase in hand at the worst. possible. time. 

Or it will pull you farther out to sea like rip tide, 

Or hold your head under as you drown— 

Triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in the single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years. 

And you’ll be sitting there in the dress you pulled out from the back of your closet, swallowing down the bread and wine, not believing a word of it. 

Not. A. Word. 

So you’ll fumble through those back pocket prayers—“help me in my unbelief!”—while everyone around you moves on to verse two, verse three, verse four without you. 

You will feel their eyes on you, and you will recognize the concern behind their cheery greetings: “We haven’t seen you here in a while! So good to have you back.” 

And you will know they are thinking exactly what you used to think about Easter Sunday Christians: 




But you won’t know how to explain that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home: 

“What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?” 

And you won’t know how to explain why, in that moment when the whisper rose out of your mouth like Jesus from the grave, you felt more alive and awake and resurrected than you have in ages because at least it was out, at least it was said, at least it wasn’t buried in your chest anymore, clawing for freedom. 

And, if you’re lucky, someone in the car will recognize the bravery of the act. If you’re lucky, there will be a moment of holy silence before someone wonders out loud if such a question might put a damper on Easter brunch. 

But if you’re not—if the question gets answered too quickly or if the silence goes on too long—please know you are not alone. 

There are other people signing words to hymns they’re not sure they believe today, other people digging out dresses from the backs of their closets today, other people ruining Easter brunch today, other people just showing up today. 

And sometimes, just showing up -  burial spices in hand -  is all it takes to witness a miracle. 




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