Growing in faith inevitably will lead to various forms of suffering. Sometimes suffering just comes to us through nature, either in the form of illness (cancer), or disaster (hurricanes). But even intellectually there are times when as we grow in faith, we can suffer. As we are met with challenges to our most deeply held beliefs, we can become agitated, disturbed, and face real existential crises. If these intellectual challenges are accompanied by relational difficulties, or physical struggles, suffering can compound. But, there are ways we can prepare ourselves spiritually for suffering, even intellectual suffering. These are some tips I think can help as we continue to work out our faith in fear and trembling, particularly as we look squarely at the intellectual challenges from other, non-Christian worldviews.
- Challenging our faith, or having it challenged, can, if done right, help increase the level of confidence we have in our Christian beliefs. Whether or not it ultimately increases or decreases probably depends on God and the person. For me, however, intellectual engagement with Christianity and other worldviews (particularly atheism and naturalism) has increased my confidence in Christianity. Still, this increase has not always developed in a smooth, linear fashion. Coming into a greater knowledge and deeper sense of one’s faith is part of our sanctification, and sanctification is not an easy process, nor is it designed to be. Intellectual sanctification, i.e. the “renewing of our minds” can engender moments of serious soul-searching. However, I have found that on the other side of those dark valleys of intellectual uncertainty, is usually a higher peak from which one can survey the overall landscape.
So, the first thing to recognize is that as we engage with arguments and evidence from skeptics or other religions, or with theological challenges from outside our particular tradition, we have to learn how to balance competing truth claims, holding them in some degree of tension. Sometimes this tension can last a significant time before we finally find resolution. But, resolution can almost always be found, either in the form of actually coming to see one belief as the correct view, or coming to see that neither of the two beliefs in tension was actually as weighty as one had originally thought they were.
- With that in mind, one should be wise about how to go about dissecting, examining, and discussing one’s faith. I would suggest doing the hard intellectual work of either philosophical theology, or biblical exegesis within a trusted community. Thus, I would suggest staying away from some forms of social media, like Facebook, perhaps; at least at the beginning when one is still new in their faith formation. That is why good alternatives like this one are so important. Especially for folks who don’t have a lot of church life right around them, safe forums like Connect can be good places to grow. But, as the name makes explicit, “stay connected:” stay connected to a local church, to trusted friends and family, and to the ministries you can rely on. Don’t challenge your faith alone. God built us to be a church body, not a bunch of dismembered parts.
So, second tip is this: real Christian faith requires real, flesh-and-blood community. I would look either to your own church community, or even a seminary nearby where you can engage directly with other Christians, not only engaging intellectually, but also relationally with both new believers and more mature ones.
- Finally, my suggestion with regard to the process of examining one’s faith is to read good, strong arguments and books from those theologians, pastors, and philosophers with whom you think you probably already agree with. Then, once you’ve read some of those folks who are working within the tradition you hold to, start looking at the work of those outside of your tradition, or who are skeptics. Then once you’ve read some of them, go back to your own camp, and repeat the process. This tends to be a good way to strengthen your faith, where you are neither throwing yourself into unnecessary existential crises, nor are you avoiding the hard challenges that are out there.
Finally, on this point, push yourself to read above your actual level of comprehension, but not all the time. Find a good mix of both easy-to-read, yet well written, popular level books AND the big, hefty technical tomes that you would rather use as a doorstop. So, you can always be reading C.S. Lewis, or, someone I’ve just recently discovered, Philip Yancey, but it’s important to also pick up and challenge yourself with Alvin Plantinga or Richard Hays.
- Lastly, take breaks. The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that “to the making of books there is no end, and too much study wearies the body.” There is a time to stop doing research, to stop reading, and even to stop writing (at least for a little while). Indeed, most things we are never going to just “figure out,” so it’s important to step back and relax. Go on vacation for a week and enjoy nature. Do some hiking, some boating, listen to a symphony, or go play a few rounds of mini-golf. Even though the times are dark, and the day is urgent, we have to enjoy what God has given us. Take time to recuperate physically and mentally, and then come back to books after you are rested.
Hope this helps.
Grace and Peace,