need space to share their doubts. We all do. If serious questions
about Christianity and uncertainty toward God are not recognized and explored,
they remain in the heart and mind, only to surface farther down the road and
often with greater force. Simplistic Christian responses will not
suffice. “Do extra devotions” or “just have faith” don’t do justice to a
student’s real struggle with doubt.
encounter student doubt all the time. My work actually helps to surface
doubts, as I raise challenges to Christianity and then explore answers in my
talks. I remember when Helia, a freshman at a Christian college in
Southern California, approached me after the talk I gave at a Summit Ministries student conference this past summer and shared her struggle with doubt. I was
glad for her honest questions and told her as much. Why? I want
students to get their doubts on the table while they’re with me.
So I always allow space for questions, the starting point for dealing with
what’s the next step? How do you help a student move from doubt to
confidence in God’s truth? Here’s where some prominent voices in youth
ministry are doing more harm than good. Andrew Root, coauthor of the
Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, has an entire chapter on
doubt titled, “Doubt and Confirmation: the Mentor as Co-Doubter.”
Root seems to suggest that doubt is not something to eventually overcome.
Rather, it is an end in itself: “But what if the objective of the
confirmation teacher was not to work to pass on anything but was rather to be a
partner and companion in doubt? …what if the best way to actually pass on the
faith was not through lessons, certainty, and knowledge, but through
doubt?" (p. 194) Here's more of what Root has to say about the role of doubt in
recent youth ministry article entitled, “I Doubt It,” begins
well, discussing the need to create safe places where students can share their
doubt. But after that, what? The authors seem to recognize
that “students need to understand the basics of Christian faith in order
to discuss their faith with others, and training in core beliefs (sometimes
called apologetics) can be helpful.” Alright, sounds great. I’ve
seen confident faith emerge in many young lives as a result of good apologetic
training. But in the next sentence, they undermine the very thing they’ve
just suggested. “However, learning to argue about faith may not be
the most helpful approach.” So, apologetics “can be helpful,” but since
it really amounts to arguing about faith, it “may not be the most helpful
approach.” With that, apologetics gets a quick dismissal. And
parents and youth leaders lose a valuable tool in dealing with doubt.
Jesus offers a different approach. In Mark 9:14-29, the father of a
demon-possessed son pleads with Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
What an honest expression of doubt. And how does Jesus respond? He
casts the demon out of the boy. Jesus provides evidence in the form of a
miracle, confirming His claims about Himself.
is Jesus’ response to “Doubting Thomas?” Before seeing the resurrected
Jesus, Thomas declares, “Until I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and
put my finger into he place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will
not believe” (John 20:22). When Jesus first appears to Thomas, He offers
evidence: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here
your hand and put it into My side; and do no be unbelieving, but believing” (v.
Jesus offers the way
forward for students struggling with doubt. Don't shut down your
students' doubts. Give them all the space they need to share them openly
and honestly. Listen to them. Seek to understand them. Even
cry with them. But then patiently, lovingly, diligently, and
intelligently guide them to the truth. Yes, offer them apologetics.
When students are given sound apologetic instruction, they discover the
rich storehouse of evidence confirming the truth of Christianity. Such
evidence can move them from unbelief to confident faith.
I don’t want students to
merely believe true things. That’s a start, but it’s not
enough. I want students to know true things. So what’s the difference?
What would you think if I
said I know it’s raining outside, but I didn’t believe it was raining
outside? You’d be puzzled. It doesn’t make sense to say I know
something that at the same time I don’t actually believe. All the facts we think we know are also
facts we believe, so knowledge includes belief.
What if I said I know it’s
raining outside, but it’s not true that it’s raining outside? Again, you’d be confused and wonder,
“How can you know something that’s not true?” You can’t. A
belief is true if it matches reality and it’s false if it doesn’t. So to say someone’s belief is false
means they don’t know. Therefore, knowledge not only includes
belief, but truth as well.
Now, what if I said I know
it’s raining outside and it turns out that I actually believe it and it’s true? Would you say I have knowledge
it’s raining outside? At first
glance, you’d probably answer yes.
But what if my true belief is the result of a lucky guess? I don’t have any good reason to think
it’s raining outside, it’s just pure speculation that happens to be accurate. In that case, it doesn’t seem my true
belief rises to the level of knowledge.
We wouldn’t equate dumb luck with knowledge. So what’s missing?
What would transform my true belief into knowledge? Justification.
Justification is simply the
reasons we believe things–it’s the “why” behind the “what.” We may think our beliefs are true, but
how can we be sure? We justify
those things with reasons and evidence.
Justification gives us confidence our true beliefs are not merely
guesses, but actual instances of knowledge. The more justification we have for the truthfulness of a
particular belief, the greater our confidence will be.
This is why I’m not
satisfied if students merely believe true things. Indeed, many students attending our churches today will
affirm all kinds of Christian beliefs while in our midst. They believe God exists, they believe Jesus
is the Savior of the world, and they believe the Bible is God’s Word. All true. But in a few short years, to our dismay we’ll discover that
many have deserted those beliefs.
Why? According to the groundbreaking
study by sociologist Christian Smith and the National Study of Youth and
Religion, student’s “intellectual skepticism and doubt” will overwhelm mere
true belief. Students who fell
away from their faith reported, “It didn’t make any sense anymore,” and there
were “too many questions that can’t be answered.” Students often abandon belief because they have no good
reason to continue holding them.
And that’s why I’m not
satisfied if students know what they believe. They must also know why
they believe. We must arm them
with good reasons to think that what they believe is actually true,
transforming mere true belief into confident knowledge.
Not only will this
knowledge prepare them for the secular skepticism of the culture, it will play
a key role in their spiritual transformation. Unlike much of what is offered by contemporary writers on
spiritual formation, the Bible paints a picture where knowledge is absolutely
central to our spiritual transformation.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of
this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Dallas Willard summarizes our
discussion and its implications:
“Knowledge has a unique and
irreplaceable function in human life.
Unlike any other human capacity, it authorizes individuals to act, to
direct, and to teach, and the lack thereof disqualifies one in those same
respects…Knowledge therefore lays the foundation for confident and successful
dealings with reality and, as such, is one of the most precious things one can
acquire. People ‘perish for lack
of knowledge,’ as the Bible tells us, precisely because, without it, disastrous
encounters, or lack of encounters, with reality are certainly to occur; most
importantly, they occur with reference to God, God’s Kingdom, and any
possibilities for an eternal kind of living” (in Willard’s foreword to
the book, The Kingdom Triangle, by
If we want to give our
young people a “foundation for confident and successful dealings with reality,”
we must see apologetics as necessary, not optional. Apologetics offers students the “why” they so desperately
need and ask for.