Amid all the uncertainties of faith, one thing is certain: All of us will eventually have to deal with doubt, and some of us will even battle unbelief. So what do we do? Barnabas Piper provides a treatment for doubt and unbelief in his forthcoming book, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith. Recently, Piper was kind enough to stop by Gospel Relevance where I asked him questions about doubt, unbelief, and the new book:
David: Why don’t you start off by telling us the premise of the book, and why you decided to write it?
Barnabas: Doubt is something many believer struggle with. Most of us are uncomfortable with it because it seems wrong. We know we’re supposed to live by faith, and doubt seems antithetical to that. But is it really? In Mark 9 we see a father bring his demon-possessed son to Jesus for help. Jesus tells him “I can help you if you believe” and immediately the father responds “I believe; help my unbelief.” That is a statement of faith and doubt wrapped into one, but the man acted in faith too. That tension is what the book explores. I try to challenge the apathetic, comfortable Christians who never ask any questions and force them to see that faith without questions is lifeless. And I seek to draw the perpetual questioner, the one who is never satisfied to a place of comfort with mystery and peace with an infinite, unfathomable God.
David: I’ve read on your site that “I believe; help my unbelief” is your favorite phrase in Scripture. Why?
Barnabas: It captures so much of the Christian experience, that perpetual pursuit of holiness while also falling short. It is brutally honest and honestly humble. It portrays the “already, but not yet” aspect of the Christian life so well – I do believe, and I do need help because I am riddled with unbelief too.
David: With that said, what does “I believe; help my unbelief,” mean to you?
Barnabas: I had read these words dozens, maybe hundreds of times growing up and through my early twenties. But there was a time several years ago when I was in the midst of a distinct faith crisis, a time when I was very much torn between what I knew I ought to be and what I actually saw myself to be. Then I read this verse again and it exploded off the page. It was like morning coffee for my soul, soothing and enlivening all at once because I saw that, while belief and unbelief are at odds with one another, belief does not have to be perfect to be effective and connect us to God. That was a turning point for me in my relationship with God.
David: As a wordsmith, I noticed you used unbelief in the title, and doubt in the subtitle. They seem similar, but they’re actually different. From my Christian understanding, doubt is not a sin, but unbelief is a sin. Would you agree? What are some of the differences between doubt and unbelief and how are these differences manifested in the Christian life?
Barnabas: I agree with the distinction you made, though I would say that doubt can be sinful. In the book I draw a distinction between “unbelieving doubt” and “believing doubt.” The former is that kind of doubt that never finds any answers satisfying because it doesn’t actually want to find truth; it simply wants to undermine. It rejects truth, and that is the essence of unbelief. Believing doubt, on the other hand, is that doubt which is unsure but desires to know truth. It can’t see what will happen and can’t understand what is going on, but it trusts enough to press on. That’s what the father in mark 9 shows – believing doubt. He wasn’t sure Jesus could help, but he didn’t reject Jesus. Rather he took his doubts right to Him and said “help.”
David: Have you ever personally struggled with doubt or unbelief? How did you manage to get through it?
Barnabas: My struggles with unbelief have been defined by a gap between knowing and believing. Having grown up in a soundly biblical home I knew lots of truth and answers, but there was a gap for a long time between that mental assent and the sort of belief that transforms lives. That gap led me to ask a lot of questions about what I really believed, what was true, who Jesus was, and how I should respond. The asking was what God used to open my eyes. I think that’s because I asked desiring to know, not desiring to rebel.
David: What are some things that the church can do to help with Christians struggling through doubt and unbelief?
Barnabas: I think if the struggle is doubt then the response is to encourage the questions and walk with the questioner to find answers. Often the answer will be “we don’t know” because so many things about God’s will and plan are beyond our minds. But that is important to acknowledge because it reveals something of God’s bigness and omnipotence which, when balanced with what the Bible reveals of His character, is beautiful. More churches need doctrinal statements that say “we don’t know” about certain things and instead point people to the character and acts of God revealed in scripture. If the struggle is unbelief the response is more complex because unbelief is ultimately overcome by the Holy Spirit opening eyes and softening hearts. Arguments won’t usually do that. Evidence and “proof” won’t either. But the Holy Spirit does use believers to lead people to the truth. Above all this means reflect Jesus and talk about who He is and what he has done in scripture and in their lives.
David: What is the #1 takeaway you are hoping Christians get out of reading your book?
Barnabas: I’m going to cheat and give three.
For those Christians who have never asked a question, never wondered, never been shaken in their faith I hope this book causes cracks in their comfort. They need to ask and confront the big, mind-blowing realities about God and the world because if they don’t one day those things will spring on them and results could be disastrous. For those Christians who can’t seem to stop questioning and are eaten up by doubt I want them to come to a place of comfort in God’s mysteries and realize their questions can lead them deeper into faith not just erode it. For those in the middle I want to help them be free of guilt for their questions. Child-like faith is a questioning faith. And just like children ask out of a place of trust because they know their parents, so we must be with God.
Thanks, Barnabas! Looking forward to your book releasing on July 1st.
Want an unbiased opinion of the book? Read Dr. John Frame’s book review on The Gospel Coalition. You can do that here.
Also, you can pre-order the book Amazon here.
Barnabas Piper is a Christian writer exploring the connections between ideas, faith, and people. Piper lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two daughters. He writes weekly for WorldMag.com, The Blazing Center, and is also a regular contributor to the hilarious podcast, The Happy Rant. Finally, he is also a self-proclaimed overly-committed Minnesota sports fan.
Questions and Comments: What are some practical things that we can do to help other Christians who are struggling with doubt, or battling unbelief? Post your comments below.