Eric Miller, director of ministry operations for CE National, talked with Tim Sprankle, lead pastor of Grace Church in Leesburg, Indiana, about helping students overcome doubt.
Tim has three kids who are in the space of their life where they will start asking questions and, hopefully, make faith in God their own. He wants his kids to wrestle with what their faith will look like.
Tim became a Christ-follower when he was in middle school. As a young person he wondered if he could get things right. He stumbled on the little book More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. When he read the chapter on the resurrection, he realized his faith has a rational and historical backing which was powerful to him. Tim still wrestles with big questions, but always comes back to the resurrection as the basis of his faith (see 1 Corinthians 15). He’s hoping his kids cling to the person of Jesus. Tim’s been a pastor for 13 years and loves apologetics because it allows us to claim our faith.
A lot of times people are having self-doubt, not theological doubt. What we’re working through today is that sometimes Christians read the scripture and it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes there are contradictions. For example: one person will pray and not get answers, but other people get answers.Doubt is uncertainty that sets you in a direction. Click To Tweet
The doubt Tim is talking about is defined as uncertainty that sets you in a direction. That direction could be a good place, a place of better discovery of God, or it sets you in a direction of deconstructing your faith.
How do we come alongside people with doubts?
Doubt is a personal, very heavy thing. Be prayerful. You want the Spirit helping us enter into a person’s doubt without judgment. The other thing is to be an empathetic listener. The first response might be to give the answer, but doubt is the opportunity for discovery. If you help someone discover, they’ll take that learned material forever forward. Listening and asking questions helps them get to the root of their doubt. Maybe they don’t trust the Bible. Maybe they question themselves and their ability to understand the Bible. Try to get to the lower level. Are they trusting God or are they trusting in themselves?Doubt is an opportunity for discovery. Click To Tweet
Tim talked about two models from Scripture. The Bible is a compressed narrative. Abraham lived over 100 years and his story is tucked into 12 chapters. Do you know how many nights Abraham looked at the stars wondering when the promise of God was going to happen? God’s methodology is to work slowly (2 Peter 3:8-9). Abraham had faith and God credited that to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). When Jesus talked with his disciples he used parables, irony, and rhetorical questions (e.g., Matthew 13). He didn’t give them direct answers to his questions. He let them live within that tension and develop trust. There’s a good model in allowing people to slowly work through their doubt in a relational context.
Is doubt a sin?
A book came out by Pete Enns called The Sin of Certainty. Enns suggests that Christians mistake “certainty” and “correct belief” for faith when what God really desires is trust and intimacy. Tim says we’re living in an age that if you are certain about something, you are viewed as arrogant.
Some people would say certainty is a sin. When we push back too hard and immediately want to shut down people who have doubt, they continue to move away from evangelical belief to a place of certainty. Doubt is not a sin, but since doubt is a direction it can lead to sinful places.
Sean McDowell has spoken several times at Momentum Youth Conference. Sean told the story of when he was a kid and went to his dad with doubts about if God was real. Sean was nervous about talking with his dad, but was surprised when his dad replied, “Good, because I want you to discover Truth. I know that you’re hungering for Truth, but I’m confident that God will reveal His Truth to you and have the certainty that you need.” If doubt sets us in a direction to discover biblical truth, then doubt is a good thing.If doubt sets us in a direction to discover biblical truth, then doubt is a good thing. Click To Tweet
If one of your kids comes to you about doubts, what process would you walk them through?
Tim said he would pray that the Spirit would lead in what he said and then listen empathetically. Tim doesn’t want to be the only resource. There’s tremendous value in connecting students to other believers. Studies from Fuller Youth Institute suggest a 5:1 ration; 5 caring adults speaking into the lives of each student.
Parents are the primary spiritual leaders, but there’s tremendous value in connecting your students to other believers. Tim might encourage his kid to talk with a youth pastor or mentor to learn from their experience with God. Doubt is a direction. I want to steer my kids into a direction. Tim says he doesn’t need to be the person with the answers. He can give them good resources for them to work through doubts they may have.
One of the reasons Tim has loved working with CE National and writing the Replay curriculum for Momentum Youth Conference is because he has learned from Sean McDowell’s apologetics.
Is there a connection of spiritual disciplines that could prevent doubt?
Tim defines spiritual discipline as a form of training his heart, soul, mind, and body so it’s accepting of God’s grace. A spiritual discipline says that I am a sinful being. If left to my own devices I can give my body to the slavery of sin. A spiritual discipline says that I want to give my whole body, heart, mind, and soul, to God. It’s a form of training to become more like Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are not just things people do alone. Attending church, worshiping corporately, confessing sins to each other can be helpful. But doing a spiritual discipline because Mom and Dad want me to check off a list, might make questions or resentment toward God more.
Tim says that he makes a point to bring his whole self before God regularly and have a meaningful relationship to God and His people, anything can happen in his life. A calling that takes his family to a different state, economic disaster, Coronavirus, or whatever, can be devastating. But if he has a heart connection to God through Bible reading, prayer, and spending time with other Christians, as examples, it can help keep doubts away.
Tim and his wife adopted their son from Ethiopia. Their son has special needs and there are days that they wonder if they did the right thing. But they absolutely know that they did the right thing. He can look back at the journals and see all the way God pieced things together so they could adopt their son.
The spiritual discipline of journaling has helped him see that what he’s struggled with 10 years ago, he struggles with today. He has victories in some areas, in other areas he still struggles. He could use that as a way to doubt God because He isn’t being transformed, but he uses it as evidence that transformation is a slow process.
Every youth leader questions if God is really using them. The spiritual discipline of silence and solitude, where you pull yourself away from ministry and let it be you and God, can provide powerful moments where God has affirmed you as a follower of Jesus. All the mistakes made aren’t what makes us a delight in God’s eyes, but silence and solitude is what calls us away.
Should someone wrestling with doubt look to discover Truth on their own?
Tim says self-discovery is cautioned because the heart is deceptive. We tend to be biased for what we’re looking for. The internet is a horrible echo chamber. Just recognize that your heart is capable of leading you astray. There’s no problem for a brief period of time to step away, but come back into Christian community. If you try to discover outside of Christian community you’re being a little bit arrogant.
Would you recommend that students pursue both sides?
Timothy Keller’s book Reason for God says that a little bit of doubt is a good vaccination. If you’re so certain that you can’t be uncertain, you should question that. Keller encourages asking tough questions.
The question Tim often asks is, “So what’s the alternative?” How do you see wandering away from God play out? When they wonder away from the faith, there’s a new found freedom because wrestling is so hard. Once you decide you’re not wrestling, you’re free from wrestling. You have a new community because other people embrace you. Whereas, the church might have said, “I don’t like your questions.” But that newfound freedom doesn’t last forever. You’ll start questioning again. Be aware that it’s probably going to happen. Because this is where it gets messy.
Church, parents, youth leaders; if students walk away from the faith, maintain a relationship. Don’t Bible thump then. When and if they come back, don’t say ‘I told you so’. Be the prodigal father, open up your arms, and say, “We love you, we miss you.”