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Philip Yancey on Doubt

The popular author, journalist and speaker has always been known for his willingness to ask the tough questions. Where is God when it hurts? What if I’m disappointed with God? Does prayer really work? Millions of readers have sought answers and comfort in his books when they’ve faced tragedy, wrestled with doubt or just simply wanted to ask a few questions about God. Yancey spoke to us recently about keeping your faith even in good times, why doubt is never the end and how to gracefully minister to those who are hurting.

Your newest book What Good is God? is an exploration of that question in the midst of difficult circumstances. What draws you to those big faith questions?

Several things. When people do polls on why people do not believe, the problem of pain and suffering is one of the largest reasons for people not believing. If you look at some of those books coming out from the new atheists, God Is Not Good, God Is Not Great. Once again, the problem of suffering is right up there at the top. I think it’s important to me as a writer to struggle with those issues that are obstacles to face.

In a couple of my books, I’ve told the story of my own father who I never knew. I was a year old when he died. He died in one of the polio epidemics of 1950, and people in his church prayed, believing he would be healed. He was planning to be a missionary and they couldn’t see any reason why someone with that kind of potential and that kind of Christian commitment would die. And yet, he did, and ever since, my whole life has been lived under the shadow of some of those questions: unanswered prayer, why do bad things happen to good people? And I think unless the church gets that right, unless the church addresses it realistically, we’re just not going to sound authentic and trustworthy to the watching world.

How does our culture and our era uniquely doubt and question?

I would say, from the basis of my travels, there is a huge difference between those countries that are defined by the technological and industrial revolution and the enlightenment that came out of Europe, and the countries that aren’t.

In Jesus’ day, there probably weren’t many atheists. Even the pagans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the people who make appearances in the Bible, they all had their own gods. They all believed there were forces going on. So in that sense, the modern atheism is of a different order, a different kind, because over the years we’ve learned to explain how weather happens, how tornados happen, how thunderstorms happen, how disease happens. And the that more we can explain, the more that we remove from that mysterious area that used to be thought of as, “Oh, that’s God’s area.” We can explain a lot of these things now, and that is a different, new kind of thing that is a challenge to the church.

Is there a way to address doubt differently in these various cultures?

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In this book What Good is God: In Search of a Faith that Matters, I wrote it quite aware that there is this whole new atheism getting a lot of press. There are people like Josh McDowell or Alister McGraff who will take on the arguments, the apologetics, as it were, that the atheists are using, and take them on and answer them philosophically. This is not that kind of book. I’m a journalist, not a philosopher. I ask the same questions, but quite frankly, the biggest encouragement to my faith has not been losing an argument or winning an argument; the biggest encouragement to my faith is seeing it lived out in real life. So in this book, I take a look at 10 different situations, some of them quite different situations, some of them horrific, like the Mumbai atrocities or Virginia Tech, and some of them very personal, like prostitutes or alcoholics struggling with the concept of: “Does God love me? Am I accepted?” And I [ask], “Does faith matter, does it make a difference, does it hold up?” I call it the “tabletop test” because in electronics, when a new gizmo comes out, like an iPad, you can have the greatest electronic gizmo in the world, but when you put it out in the real world, people are going to drop it, they’re going to knock it out of an airplane bin, they’re going to knock it off a table. And unless it survives that test, it’s worthless. That’s really how I examine my faith. I came back to faith largely because I saw it lived out in people who sacrificially and humbly follow Jesus, and do it in a way that serves others.

What is your advice to those ministering to the hurting?

My first advice is to be slow with words. There is a large church here in Denver, it’s so large (several thousand, it’s a megachurch) that they actually have a full-time grief pastor, and he goes to hospitals, he goes to one or two funerals a week. I interviewed him when I was writing a book on prayer and asked what I could learn from his experience. And he said: “Well, I’m also a deep sea scuba diver, and what I learned in diving is that you can go really deep, you can go several hundred feet deep, and there are ways with an oxygen mixture you can still breathe underwater. But the other thing I learned is don’t come up too fast. People who get in trouble, divers who get in trouble are usually those who come up too fast.” And he said, “The same thing applies to people who are grieving. The church wants to get you back to the surface. Part of what we should do is stay down in the depths with them.” One of the first things is to go down where the people are, and when they’re asking questions, let them ask the questions. Point to one of the dark Psalms that asks the same questions and say: “You’re not alone. You’re not the first person. This is OK. It’s OK to feel that. It’s OK to feel angry at God. God welcomes that. But I do want you at some point, and you have to carefully judge what that point is, to understand that God is not against you. God is on your side.” 

For the entire conversation with Philip Yancey, check out the Fall 2010 issue of Neue.

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