Blog | Topic: Doubt

John Ortberg on Faith & Doubt

KnowDoubtNext Wednesday (October 30) I’ll be speaking at Malone University. I’ll do a chapel presentation in the morning, taking a deeper look at the implications of Colossians 1:15-20 for college students in a talk entitled “The Lord of All Learning.” Wednesday evening I’ll do a workshop with students about the place of doubt in the life of faith in a talk entitled “The Sunnier Side of Doubt.”

While doing a little prep work for next week, and thinking about my previous post, I was reminded of a lecture John Ortberg gave at Calvin College a few years ago. I highly recommend this video as well as the book it was inspired by Know Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith. Enjoy!

Pastor John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church addresses the place of doubt within the life of faith. The lecture was a part of Calvin College’s January Series in 2009.

More resources for helping young people navigate doubt and take ownership of faith can be found here.

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Affirming Doubt: Helping Students Ask and Answer Tough Questions

Affirming DoubtMy wife and I led a team of college students to Thailand in June 2005. We were there to help with the rebuilding efforts after the Tsunami ripped through Southeast Asia in 2004. I had never seen devastation like this before. Our guide took us first to the place where they brought the dead bodies. A memorial signifying all of the countries that had lost people was stretched across one of the outer walls. While the team gazed at the memorial and took pictures, two new bodies were delivered by pick-up truck. Immediately, the tone and posture of the team changed, and the trip took on even deeper meaning. We were surrounded by death and destruction and our “mission” was to bring hope and light into a very dark place. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Not only did we see villages destroyed and families in pain, but we also encountered another issue that we weren’t ready for: rampant prostitution. We visited a beach resort community deemed “the pedophile capital of the world.” Men were paying thousands of dollars to have sex with children, right in our midst. I was personally solicited a number of times by men and women looking to make money. We learned of an orphanage director who was offered $50,000 or more for children age 10 or younger.

How could a place so beautiful on the outside, be so ugly on the “inside?” If God is good, why was there so much pain in the world, especially among innocent children? Where was God the day the Tsunami hit the coastline, and the countless other days that sexual “tsunamis” devastate lives of young girls?

As you can imagine, for the first few days in Thailand, having confidence, faith and trust in the God of the Bible was difficult. Sure, we had all asked the philosophical, abstract question: “How can God be good with all of the pain and suffering in the world?” We even had arrived at some satisfying answers. But our questions were asked in Bible studies in suburban Pennsylvania, not in tragedy stricken Southeast Asia, and not surrounded by this kind of intense pain and suffering. Put simply: we began to have our doubts about the God we worshipped. We voiced these doubts in our conversations, prayers and journals…

Download the full article(.pdf) here.

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Christopher Hitchens and Life’s Biggest Questions

Christopher Hitchens died last year on December 15, 2011. He had a well-established career as a writer, covering a wide array of topics. But he is probably most known for being an outspoken atheist. His book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was a New York Times bestseller, and identified Hitchens, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor J. Stenger as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. According to CNN, “what the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, is an outspoken Christian and author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Shortly after Christopher’s death week he offered a very moving tribute to his brother’s life worth reading: “In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011.” I can only imagine what their dinner conversations were like! Christopher was a fierce debater. In fact, a documentary was made about his public debates with the evangelical Christian Doug Wilson. Shortly after Christopher’s death, Christianity Today posted a eulogy, of sorts, entitled “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects: How to think about the death of the outspoken atheist.”

I never met Christopher Hitchens. I only knew him through his writing and reputation. From what I gather, I think I would have liked talking to him. Doug Wilson described him as “an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman.” That doesn’t surprise me. Religious people, too often perhaps, assume that atheists are malicious and unkind. It is always somewhat shocking to discover that many atheists are not much different than most people of faith. Atheists have well thought out ways of understanding the world, they cling to their ideas, and many genuinely hope that others come to share their beliefs.

I am a Christian of the evangelical variety. I affirm the historic creeds of the church, believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible word of God and pray that all would come to put their hope and trust (faith) in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christopher Hitchens’ death, however, reveals a tension that I have always lived with. As I think about my own interactions with atheists, one word comes to mind: thankful. In a strange, almost paradoxical way, I have been blessed by and thankful for my interactions with people who don’t believe. I have often noted that being exposed to an atheist professor very early on in my college career was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Far from becoming a stumbling block to my faith, the professor forced me to wrestle with tough questions about why I believed what I believed. I learned that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

I’ll never forget the last day of class with my atheist professor. We were invited to ask him anything we wanted. A classmate nervously lifted his hand and asked, “What do you think happens to us when we die?” Without flinching, the professor smiled and said, “Worm food.” I can still see his face like it happened yesterday. No one dared to ask him any more questions.

Here’s my quandary: I’m not sure what kind of believer I would be if it were not for the atheists in my life! Much is made of the mystery of Christmas: the virgin birth, the baby-king in a manger, the bright star appearing, the angels singing. “Veiled in flesh the God-head see! Hail, incarnate deity!” As I get older, I’m realizing more and more that the greatest gift of all is that of faith itself. Indeed, faith is a gift. Now, why was that gift given to me? I’m reminded that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

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A Crisis of Faith? Questions and Doubts for College Students

During a seminar for transitioning high school students and their parents, a parent made a comment that was very helpful. I was discussing the place of doubt within the life of a follower of Christ. One of my main points I really wanted the students to grasp was this: “It is okay to ask questions and to have doubts about faith.” In fact, I explained, doubting is part of the normal process of taking ownership of their faith. I challenged students with these words:

Faith does not deepen through being allowed to stagnate, but through being applied. In this respect, doubt is a positive thing. It is a stimulus to growth in faith. It snaps us out of complacency. – Alister McGrath

The reason many of us do not ardently believe in the gospel is that we have never given it rigorous testing, thrown our hard questions at it, faced it with our most prickly doubts. – Eugene Peterson

A parent raised his hand and made an insightful observation. He turned toward the students and said, “If you come across a difficult problem in algebra, you don’t have a math crisis. You go to someone for help. And you start with the assumption that you will be able to find an answer. Do the same thing when questions arise about the Christian faith.”

Now that’s a great point! Questions and doubts will come. The question is what will students do with them? Will they go looking for answers: asking pastors, reading books, taking them to God in prayer? I hope so. Here’s my advice in Make College Count: “Just know that when you hear a powerful argument against Christian faith, chances are pretty good that you can find a thoughtful Christian response.”

A report from the Barna Group revealed “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.”  Reason #6 states: “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” Now that shouldn’t be the case. Here are a few resources to help us better prepare students for the doubts they will face and for helping the church to be a more welcoming place for those who are wrestling with faith:


Article: “Where Doubt Falls Short” by Jonathan Dunn (Relevant).

Article: “I Doubt It: Allowing Space for Questions” by Kara Powell and Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute.

Video: John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt (Calvin College’s January Series)

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