How do you turn a believer into an unbeliever? How do you extinguish the flame of faith?
These questions have been on my mind lately because I have seen people reject that which is good and shipwreck their faith. Perhaps you have seen this too.
What causes someone to walk away from the Lord of Grace?
I can understand how dead religion keeps people from meeting him in the first place. Religion kills grace and presents a distorted and unattractive image of the Father. But religion can’t be blamed for those who have walked out of the so-called grace camp. Those who leave are well aware of the dangers of religion.
Why do some who have feasted at the table of grace walk away? What seduces them from the secure place of their Father’s love?
These are important questions because I don’t want to walk away. I don’t want to be seduced. But if it happens to others it could happen to me and it could happen to you – if we’re not careful.
We are supposed to encourage and strengthen one another in the faith (1 Th 3:2). How do we fail to do that? How do we discourage and undermine faith? We do it three ways:
1. Ask bad questions
The strength of any relationship can be measured by its tolerance for questions. Grace declares that God can handle all your questions. There is no question that can stump your Father.
But there are good questions and bad questions. A good question is one that leads to a new understanding of God’s grace and goodness; a bad question is one that distracts you from Jesus. A good question encourages you to trust in God; a bad one encourages you to trust in self (Jer 17:5-8). A bad question leads you away from Wisdom, distracts you from Truth, and keeps you from finding the Answer. As I explain elsewhere, a bad question can curse that which is good, including your relationship with God.
Where do bad questions come from? Religion is not to blame, for religion tolerates no questions, either good or bad. Philosophy, in contrast, loves questions, but says the answers are found by drawing on reason, logic, and your own limited understanding. This is fruit off the wrong tree.
There is nothing wrong with reason and logic, but if you think an infinite God can be contained within the finite box of your mind you’re fooling yourself. We are to walk in step with the Spirit, but philosophy would have you walk after the flesh. “Look into your mind,” says the philosopher, “and what do you see?” But faith is about what you don’t see. Faith concerns matters which are greater than what you can conceive or understand.
I have read theology books that were full of bad questions. What made them bad? They engaged my mind but didn’t resonate with my spirit. In short, they didn’t teach me anything about Jesus. It is good to discuss the things of God, but questions that engage the flesh often lead to strife and confusion (2 Tim 2:23). In the Garden of Eden the serpent appealed to reason by asking a bad question and the result was misunderstanding and disaster.
I love asking questions but I have learned to beware of any question that is sold with the line, “Here’s a question to make you think.” There’s nothing wrong with thinking but some truths are greater than we can know. When it comes to receiving spiritual revelation, the mind is the caboose, not the locomotive. Truth, with a capital T, comes only by revelation.
Philosophy is a useful tool but it won’t help you learn about God. Jesus is the way and Jesus is not beholden to your logic and reason. Substitute a spiritual journey for a philosophical one – one marked by a reliance on your own understanding – and you’ll undermine faith in God. You will have taken the first step to unbelief.
2. Cultivate an appetite for ambiguity
The serpent asked a bad question – “Did God really say… ?” and the result was ambiguity. Did he say? I don’t remember. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he said it but didn’t mean for us to do it. Perhaps he was testing us.
Ambiguity is the enemy of faith because it undermines certainty and faith is being certain (Heb. 11:1). To the degree that you are uncertain, you are not walking in faith. If you are in two minds about who God is and what he has said, you will not experience his grace (Jas 1:6-7).
How do we cultivate ambiguity? Ask questions nobody can answer. Talk at length about the ancient past or the distant future. Get obsessed with heaven, hell, and the after-life. Emphasize the teachings of early church fathers over the teachings of the New Testament. Honor uncertainty over conviction.
Where does ambiguity come from? Again, religion is not to blame for religion prefers dogma and orthodoxy. Philosophy, in contrast, trades in the market for ideas, and the more the better.
Philosophy will have you fall in love with an idea instead of a Person. (Christian philosophy specializes in the idea of God which can be distinguished from God himself.) But trust in an idea and you’ll be unstable, tossed and turned by every new teaching that comes along (Eph 4:14). In the turmoil you may comfort yourself with the thought that “I’m a learner,” but really you are a prisoner of empty philosophy (Col 2:8). Because your faith is misplaced, every new teaching will only reinforce your deception.
It’s fun to debate ideas and it’s healthy to entertain contrary notions. It’s how we learn. But if we are always learning and never coming to the knowledge of the Truth, something is wrong (2 Tim 3:7). As someone once said, “Don’t be so certain of your uncertainties that you reject Truth.”
The gospel is unambiguous. It is the singular message that reveals one Truth, one Way, one Spirit, one body, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph 4:4-6, Gal 1:9).
3. Glorify doubt
The only way to cope with bad questions and ambiguity is to embrace doubt as a virtue. “It’s in doubting that we grow,” says the philosopher. But doubt is not always a stepping stone to growth. Doubt is a door that leads either to faith or unbelief.
Both religion and philosophy are fueled by doubt. Religion requires doubt to sell its work-based insurance products. “Are you saved? Are you sure? Have you confessed all your sins? Are you confident that Jesus won’t blot out your name?”
By sowing uncertainty the religious doubt-dealer can capture a market in which to push his faithless goods. And by promoting doubt the philosopher can stay in the business of inventing and trading ideas, even ideas about God and his grace.
Doubts are a fact of life, but doubt should never define your life. Doubt will take you out of the game, kill your dreams, and crush your creativity. You were born to fly but doubt will keep you grounded like a dumb, doubting duck.
Choosing to live in a place of doubt is like spending your life at the airport. You may be packed and ready to fly but you won’t go anywhere. God gives us grace to conquer doubts and rise above our circumstances. His grace will help you soar in life, but only if you believe it.
My friend Ed Elliott has said, “It used to be ‘feed your faith and starve your doubts,’ but there are some groups today that seem more interested in feeding doubt and starving your faith.” Such groups are doing the serpent’s work for they turn God’s exclamation marks into question marks.
Contrary to what you may have heard, doubt is not a healthy aspect of any relationship. If you doubt your spouse, you will undermine your marriage. It’s the same with your relationship with God. His love and your doubt cannot coexist. Either you will walk through the door of doubt into the resting place of trust, or you will keep the door closed, like an unbeliever. I’m not saying you will lose your salvation – your faith in Christ may fail but he remains faithful. Yet there are still consequences for Christians who stray.
One step back to faith
Ask questions that go nowhere, cultivate an appetite for ambiguity, and glorify doubt, and you will surely erode the confidence on which you once stood. If this describes your life, let me remind you about Jesus, who is the Answer behind every good question, the Conviction that settles all ambiguity, and the Certainty to end all doubts.
Jesus is still the Good News!
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