This situation would have scared the crap out of me 10 years ago. I had to do a funeral for a young father. Cancer made his children fatherless and widowed his wife. She’s a really nice woman. She doesn’t deserve this. She’s scared. The kids have become grief zombies.
All this is hard enough to manage pastorally, but the kicker is they are spiritual drifters, probably more skeptical than anything else. They have only been casually attending our church for a few months. I’m unsure what they believe. They’re unsure what they believe. This death could push them away from God forever.
It could also push them closer.
Mom is very skeptical of all the “Christian stuff” she heard as a child, which still echoes through well-meaning friends who go to church. She wants to believe, it seems, but has some serious hesitations. Her questions are deeply personal. She’s not just spiritually curious, she’s gasping for one skeptical breath of faith at a time.
And she’s asking me for help. Gulp. Then her skepticism becomes contagious. I drive away from her house asking God the very same questions she was asking me. She makes some good points. Why did God let this happen? Is her husband in heaven? Why is there cancer in the first place?
This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered about these things. As a matter of fact, I have wondered them over and over again most of my life (especially since the day I started taking Scripture and Jesus seriously almost 20 years ago).
I even wondered them out loud as I studied theology in two different seminaries. The “answers” I heard weren’t really answers. They seemed only to beg the question. All of the proof texts and explanations often made God look either incompetent or just plain mean. My heart couldn’t let me embrace a God like that. I kept asking questions. I still do. At my core, I think I am a skeptic.
The dictionary defines skepticism as “a questioning attitude that believes inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty.” A skeptic may start from a point of doubt, but her objective is to examine the evidence thoroughly in search of truth. A skeptic may initially be unconvinced, but she is actively seeking truth. It’s not that she doesn’t want to believe; she does. It’s just that her honest hesitations cause just that—hesitation.
At first, my skepticism felt like it got in the way. Part of faith is accepting things we can’t understand. Maybe I just don’t have enough faith. Maybe my faith is weak. Maybe not. Either way, I had to figure out how to handle my skepticism. There were too many questions to ignore. On the other hand, “dumping” my Christian faith never seemed any better. I have as many questions—if not more—looking at life outside of Christianity than I do looking from within.
I don’t know if it’s the way I’m wired or what, but I have always been this way. I ask a lot of questions. As a kid, sometimes this got me into trouble. As a theology student, sometimes this got me frustrated. I know I frustrated some of my professors.
But lately, my skepticism is launching me God-ward somehow. Not only that, but I am seeing more and more skeptics hang around the faith a bit longer. Some of them even come around, eventually.
I’m sure you’ve been ambushed by your own doubts too. All thoughtful Christians are. And often it’s when we are at a gravesite or in a hospital room or courtroom. We might be there to help as a pastor or leader. Yet our own questions and doubts seem as deep as anyone else’s. How can we help give birth to (or nurture) someone else’s faith when our own is still so unfinished.
Let’s not forget, questions can be a smokescreen. Sometimes we ask questions just to prove that there is no answer. Somehow that lets us off the hook. Since there is no intellectually polished way to handle our objections to faith, we put the whole thing on the back burner of life and move on to more interesting and exciting issues. This kind of skepticism is just another way to avoid facing the reality of God.
But this is just a game. It’s neither honest nor patient, two essential ingredients of authentic skepticism.
If someone really wants help with their questions about God, expect it to take a little time. And deception—with ourselves or with God—pollutes the whole process.
Is there a place for skeptics in Christian faith? What about Christian leadership? I think there is, both in faith and in leadership. Skepticism can be a good thing. Sometimes it springs from a brutal honesty with our intellect, our God and our soul.
Somewhere along the way in my own skeptical journey of faith, one of my professors was lecturing on this very thing and relayed a story from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is helping his friend Jim escape from slavery in the South to buy freedom for his family. At one point, Huck realizes that according to his caregiver, Miss Watson, he’ll go to hell for helping a slave run away. Just as he is about to confess his sin and turn in Jim, he is torn by his love for Jim. Finally, he decides, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
We look back on that, and think, “Of course. Everyone knows American slavery was reprehensible. Huck was doing the right thing.” But Huck only knew that at a very deep level. And it was his skepticism that led him there. Huck’s conviction of human dignity was deeper than the theological conventional wisdom of his day. It lead him not only to a good decision but a biblical one. The right one.
Honest questions, asked humbly and with patience, push against the muscles of our faith and resist it. Faith can be squashed under this kind of weight. Or, as anyone who has worked out knows, this kind resistance can also make faith much stronger in the end. This has been my experience personally and professionally.
Authentic skepticism is not only a good thing, it’s essential for growth as Christians and leaders. Over time, as we become more accustomed to dealing with our doubts, we also become more comfortable and skillful in helping others deal with their skepticism or doubts.
When I looked into the tear-filled eyes of that widow and started to offer her hope in Christ, I wasn’t just reaching back into my mind and giving her prepackaged, mostly believed stuff from other people. My journey of skepticism connected to hers. I told her about a God who is beyond her husband’s death, beyond her doubts, beyond our wildest dreams of perfect love, goodness and fairness. She could trust God to do the right thing with her husband and with the family he has left.
She sighed a skeptic’s sigh. That’s enough faith for now. But more questions will come later. That’s OK. We’ll deal with them as they come. In the meantime, relish this hope and faith.
If you find yourself battered by skepticism from within and without, consider these four things. You probably already practice these, but possibly not with as much care, intention or awareness as is necessary.
1. Be brutally honest with yourself. Admit out loud that you’ve got serious unanswered questions. This will help you face the truth about yourself and others. It will also make you more like the people you are trying to reach.
2. Be humble with God. Give Him the benefit of the doubt. Assume on the front end of that He is transcendent, as a being and as our Father. He is, and forever will be, beyond our ability to comprehend. This will give you patience as you move forward.
3. Be transparent with others, regardless of their faith. When they realize you wrestle with doubts and questions too, you are part of their world and speak their language. You partly take on their posture, standing with them in faith, rather than against them.
4. Be hopeful throughout the process. Expect God to bless honest seeking, just as He promises. Over time, you will develop a track record of coming out of your questions, even the unanswered ones, with a stronger faith rather than a weaker one.
God meets us not only in answers, but also in our questions. There is a place for skeptics in the Church. Somewhere behind all of the memorized formulas and quoted Scriptures is where our deepest convictions live. I’m convinced this is where real faith lives.
We can embrace things with our hearts, even while they are still unsettled in our minds. We can end up helping runaway slaves and skeptical widows, even when we don’t have all the answers. The place for skepticism is right behind faith, pushing it to become honest, more authentic, more real—which is what we all really want in the first place.
Chris Mitchell is the founding pastor of New England Chapel in Franklin, Mass. He is the co-author of A Place for Skeptics (Regal).