Tips on How to Grow in Faith Intellectually

(Anthony Costello ) #1

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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,

(Brian) #2

Hi Anthony and thank you for your thoughts and advice on this topic. I don’t think many people like reading ‘big books’ or harder theological books these days as we do have so many distractions and the ability to switch off is so much easier with social media and other forms of entertainment. It certainly requires dedicated time of study and reflection. But something that the Lord has been showing me over recent weeks is the amount of time spent by great men and woman of God in dedicating time to prayer and reading the Scriptures. How many early mornings and long nights were spent seeking to spend time with their Lord and wrestling with God. It struck me how little many of us are willing to labour before our God and sacrifice our time before Him and for Him and allow Him to renew our minds.

I think much intellectual pursuit in the Christian faith always starts with a hunger to know God and this continued stimulation and growth requires being involved with a Body of Believers as well as private dedicated and self-sacrificial seeking of God. It appears to me that this labouring before the Lord prepared many people for the challenges and sufferings that the world would bring on them. It is still an area I know for myself needs a lot more work!

Thanks again Anthony for your thoughtful writings and am certain they will be a blessing to others as well :slightly_smiling_face:.

God bless


(Tabitha Gallman) #3

Very good advice @anthony.costello. I really liked point #4 as I have been so consumed and overwhelmed with many books I am reading that I do think I need to remember to balance it all. Thanks for sharing :slightly_smiling_face:

(Kelly) #4

@Brian_Upsher Completely agree! Learning to defend my faith and have a deeper understanding has brought so much confidence to my walk with God. But, it’s the time I spend in prayer and meditation that takes me through the tough times of life. It’s the knowing God, not just the knowing about God that is really the anchor. I am certainly not discounting the knowing about God and being able to defend my faith. Whewwww, I spent way too many years not being able to do that. Apologetics has rounded out my faith and strengthened me tremendously and I enjoy it tremendously.

But the power is in the time I spend in prayer, His word and meditating on scripture. I joined the scripture memorization group here in Connect. That is making a huge impact in my life. When thoughts that do not align with God’s word come my way, having scripture memorized has been a powerful tool in my armor!

@anthony.costello Great advice. Agree with tabby68 on point #4. Sometimes ya just have to stop and smell the roses! Laughter is good medicine as the good book says. I feel very challenged regarding your point about reading something that pushes you to read above your level of comprehension, along with reading less challenging books. I have a few challenging books like that and have pushed them aside. I might have to pick those back up and just keep reading.

Thanks for the post.

(Anthony Costello ) #5


Thank you for your kind, and incisive, response. You’re absolutely right, the contemporary world we live in is at war with our spiritual senses. The constant flow of media is not only distracting, it is positively damaging. That is another good reason, I think, to grab one of those “big books” off the shelf: the kind that demand a lot of focus, concentration and effort. Contemporary entertainment stimulates us, but in a superficial way that doesn’t engage with our whole person. I bet there are probably neuro-scientific studies that would further ground my intuition. We want to be “whole-brained” Christians.

I think another reason to spend focused and dedicated time preparing our mind for Christ, is because when suffering really hits us, either physical, emotional or intellectual, what comes out in those moments of real crises is going to be reflective of what we have been putting in. If we are spending the vast majority of our time on cheap entertainment (not to contradict myself with regards to point #4), but if we are filling our souls with only worldly content, or just very shallow Christian content, then when real pain strikes, the temptation to react out of vice as opposed to virtue will be that much greater.

On that note, here is an excellent book, not terribly “big” in size, but certainly in content, that I recently read and that is just really worth sitting down with and reading through carefully. I think you would definitely enjoy it.

Grace and Peace,

(Anthony Costello ) #6


Point #4 is also the most difficult for me, because I obsess over the idea that I always need to be advancing in knowledge. However, knowledge of God is also not confined to just books: Scripture, for sure, but we also need to enjoy what God has already provided for us. Also, regarding Scripture, sometimes just thinking about a single line of Scripture, maybe a single verse, as opposed to trying to cram a whole book into your devotional time, can be very rewarding.

So, I’m there with you. Learning how to take breaks, sometimes even longer ones, especially if we are “knowledge hounds”, can be very healthy spiritually.

God bless,

(Anthony Costello ) #7


Kelly, I actually like to clean the house, especially vacuuming! I know, sounds crazy, but I love the look of a freshly vacuumed carpet. Some honest housework can really be a way to balance out all of the learning, at least for me.

Of course, probably I should also make the point that not every “big” book is necessarily a good one. However, if you know you have two quality books on the Resurrection, for example, one is maybe “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, and the other is “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N.T. Wright, then you know both are worth reading, but you also know that Wright’s book is going to be that much harder to get through.

Still, to read “The Resurrection of the Son of God” is going to deepen your intellectual life in a way that the Habermas/Licona book cannot (nor was it meant to). I’m of the opinion that many of us can actually be scholars, or at least scholarly, if we just take those hard steps by challenging ourselves to keep reaching beyond our immediate capacities. You just never know how God is going to bless consistent and determined effort within a life of already existing faith.

In Christ,