How doubts can empower pastoral ministry

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“The ants in the pants of faith”: How doubts can empower our ministry

March 28, 2023 -

A sitting man holds a Bible between his hands as he rests his arms on his legs. He may be wrestling with faith and doubt. © By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

A sitting man holds a Bible between his hands as he rests his arms on his legs. He may be wrestling with faith and doubt. © By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

A sitting man holds a Bible between his hands as he rests his arms on his legs. He may be wrestling with faith and doubt. © By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

One of the oldest Bibles in the world could soon be yours for a mere $30 million. The Associated Press reports that the Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment containing almost the entire Old Testament, is set to go on sale at Sotheby’s in New York in May. The Bible is eleven hundred years old; scholars say only the Dead Sea Scrolls and a handful of fragmentary early medieval texts are older.

While an ancient Bible is valued as an artifact, preaching what it says feels less so these days.

In his latest Baptist Standard editorial, Eric Black cites philosopher Charles Taylor’s observation that secularism in the Western world has reached the place where “all belief [is] contested [and] fragilized.” Religious claims, no matter what they are, are open to doubt. As Black notes, “One effect of belief becoming ‘fragilized’ in this way is we aren’t certain about anything but what is right in front of us—what we can touch, see, hear, taste, and smell.”

And most of what pastors do, from preaching the gospel to serving hurting people, cannot be measured in such measurable terms.

The secularism and skepticism of our culture are apparently affecting our sense of calling. The Barna Group is reporting that only 50 percent of pastors are just as confident in their calling as when they began, and only 38 percent are very satisfied with their current church assignment. Seven years ago, 24 percent of pastors said they had “gone through a period when they significantly doubted their calling for ministry”; that number has more than doubled to 55 percent in the recent study.

One response would be to encourage you to ignore or reject the faith questions and issues being raised by our culture and our personal struggles.

I would like to suggest just the opposite today.

Why I doubted my faith

I became a Christian on September 9, 1973, at the age of fifteen, when my Sunday school teacher led me to pray a salvation prayer. My first response when I finished was, “Is that all there is to it?” I felt no burden lifted from my soul. I cried no tears. I felt nothing at all.

Even worse, I still had my faith questions. I was the kid in tenth-grade Sunday school asking, “What happens to people of other religions? What about science and faith? Evil and suffering?” Along the way, I somehow came to believe that if you have enough faith, you don’t have doubts.

Since I had doubts, I clearly didn’t have enough faith. Or so I thought.

As a result, I questioned my salvation for many months. Then someone gave me a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. For the first time, I met someone asking intellectual questions about our faith. His example was life-changing for me. In fact, I still have my copy of that small book, now dog-eared and worn with use.

Then I encountered Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). I learned of “doubting” Thomas and his questions. I met other believers who had genuine questions about our faith. And I came to understand with Frederick Buechner: “Doubts are like the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Over the years, I have encountered many people who have doubts about their faith and therefore doubt their faith. Perhaps you are in their number. If so, I hope the following will help you and will help you to help those you serve.

My favorite prayer in the Bible

The Bible does not prescribe all it describes, but it describes what it does with great honesty and transparency. It records, for instance, this statement by Job in the midst of his suffering: “If I summoned [God] and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice” (Job 9:16).

Later in the chapter he says of the Lord: “When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the faces of its judges—if it is not he, who then is it?” (vv. 23–24).

Clearly, faith does not preclude doubt. When the Eleven met the risen Christ, “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Job testified, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15a). And yet he could also say, “I will argue my ways to his face” (v. 15b).

Sometimes we need faith to have faith.

My favorite prayer in the Bible is found in Mark 9, where a father seeks Jesus’ help for his demon-possessed son. At one point he asks, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help him” (v. 22). Jesus responds, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes” (v 23).

The father’s beleaguered reply is the prayer I commend to you: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (v. 24).

Gratitude for grace

When you and those you serve have questions about the faith, I encourage you to follow this father’s example. Name your issues and take them to God. Seek answers from his Spirit, his word, and his people.

Remember that some dimensions of God’s nature and ways are by definition beyond human knowing (cf. Isaiah 55:8–9). Just as I cannot teach algebra to my four-year-old grandson, so God cannot teach finite and fallen humans what we cannot comprehend. If I could fully understand God, either he would not be God or I would be.

Other questions will be answered in the future rather than in the present. God’s progressive revelation works like mathematics: we learn to add and subtract before we learn to multiply and divide. So it is that today’s experiences can help us understand God’s ways tomorrow. And one day “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Still other questions have answers we’d rather not hear. It’s not so much that we don’t understand God’s ways as that we don’t like them. If we’re willing to hear whatever he says, we’re more likely to hear what he says.

The bottom line is that it takes as much faith to trust in God today as when I first trusted in him at the age of fifteen. He still has not revealed himself physically to me. I still have no incontrovertible proof that my faith is true. All relationships, including a relationship with God, require a commitment that transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.

So it is with our faith questions: when we identify them, take them to our Lord, and seek to learn from them and from him, we will. When we measure what we don’t know about our Father by what we do know about him, viewing our doubts through the prism of his grace and remembering all the ways he has proven himself faithful, we find that our doubts in fact keep our faith “awake and moving.”

And that’s a good thing.

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