Benefit of the Doubt, Part 2

April 29, 2020 | Church | Kevin McGill

“Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking.” ― Oswald Chambers

I read a story in the New York Times about a pastor in the Bible belt who became an atheist leader.[1] His name is Jerry DeWitt. He first experienced doubts about his religious beliefs when he questioned the idea of hell.

He could no longer worship a “god” who would torture people forever, but he was convinced that was what the Bible said. When he expressed his doubts, many people in the church, the people he loved, basically damned him to hell. Because of his doubts, he lost his marriage, his job and his friends.

I empathized with this pastor and posted his story on Facebook. I thought I could challenge friends who read it to be merciful to those who doubt, but some people argued that I shouldn’t be sympathetic. They wondered why I would defend an atheist who was “leading many people astray.”

I believe wrestling with questions is the best way to learn. A math book helps you learn math by giving you problems. If you only memorize the answers in the back you don't learn the math. Likewise rehearsed answers for Bible problems don’t help. Giving people answers without helping them wrestle with the questions isn’t education — it's indoctrination.

Before judging someone for not believing in God, we should seek to understand the “god” they don’t believe in. We need to stop arguing for the existence of God until we can understand the true character of God. In many cases we should be affirming people's unbelief rather than arguing against it.

Heather Thompson Day is a communication professor who shares an example of what this may look like. She had a conversation with a secular friend who said, “I don’t like this idea that there is this man who demands my worship. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Heather replied, “But God is not a man. God is love.”

Her friend paused in reflection and said, “I could worship love … that makes sense to me.”[2]

Many times when we argue with people over terminology, we miss an opportunity to listen and connect to their heart. As the mathematician Blaise Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.”

Author Donald Miller demonstrates what it means to connect to the heart in his book Blue Like Jazz:[3]

In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn’t do it, and moreover, that I didn’t want to defend the term. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. "Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?" he asked, confused.

I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won’t do it. Stop 10 people on the street, ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers.

How can I defend a term that means 10 different things to 10 different people? I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus, and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that He likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked me if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity, but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God.

Christianity isn’t about defending theological terms. Christianity is about helping people find life-changing encounters with Jesus. The greatest argument for Christianity today is loving and lovable Christians[4] who point people to a loving and lovable God.

Give the benefit of the doubt, seek to connect with others before trying to correct them. Prioritize defending hurt people above defending theological opinions. Be empathetic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed it like this: “Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don't do, and more in light of what they suffer.”

Jude, the brother of Jesus said it best: “Be merciful to those who doubt.”[5]

 

[1] Robert. F. Worth, From Bible Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader, Aug. 22, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/magazine/from-bible-belt-pastor-to-atheist-leader.html.

[2] Theology in the Raw Podcast, "Effective Communication, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Politics, https://www.prestonsprinkle.com/theology-in-the-raw/776-heather-thompson-day.

[3] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, p. 115.

[4] Ministry of Healing, p. 470, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/135.2462.

[5] Jude 22.