For many Christians, the very idea of having doubt is unthinkable, even sinful. Solid Christians are those who not only know what they believe, but are ready with an answer to tell you why it is the way it is, and why – if those around them would simply read scripture as it should be read – they would come to the same rock solid, unshakable conclusions. Enter Barnabas Piper, who is bold enough to ask the question “what is belief?” and explore the critical difference between doubt based in belief and doubt that undermines belief.
Through personal and often painful story, Piper recounts his journey from being a born-and-raised Christian who went on to graduate from seminary, always having the right answers, to one who learned the stark contrast between knowing God in relationship and simply knowing a lot about him. Many of us (myself included) will find resonance with Piper’s discussion of mental assent; knowing the facts, defending the arguments, even brushing aside wise counsel designed to penetrate and change us with the terse “I know”. Christians need to move beyond mere mental assent – Piper urges – to allowing what we know to transform us. That kind of belief is what the Bible calls faith. Faith is belief that transforms into action. When we only have the mental assent part, we base our actions on something other than God, namely our own emotions or reasoning. Piper writes:
“When people say they believe in God, what does that mean? It may mean they believe God exists in some form. It may mean they acknowledge God’s moral standard as a genuine guideline. Or it may mean they believe fully in God’s word and God’s way and look to him as the object of their faith. While each of these is an accurate statement and a proper use of the term belief, only one of them is real belief. That is the third use.”
As risky or uncomfortable as we feel doubts and questions can be, Piper argues that it is much more dangerous to live in a safe Christian world refusing to exchange curiosity for comfort over the long haul. The only way to disarm the danger posed to faith by things like divorce, destitution, and disease is to engage the questions (especially with our kids) before they wreak havoc.
Through the prayer of a desperate man in Mark chapter nine (“I believe; help my unbelief”), Piper unpacks the struggle of every Christian; that we will always hold tension between believing and not believing, but we take comfort from the fact that even this prayer takes a shred of faith to pray in the first place, so all is not lost. He discusses evidence of true belief like repentance, prayer, and humility and he effectively shows how doubt is not the opposite of faith, but is in fact a healthy part of it.
As beings created by God, our finitude simply cannot grasp his infinity aside from what he chooses to reveal to us. Scripture doesn’t offer every answer. But it reveals exactly and completely everything God wanted revealed – no more, no less. This is where our belief takes comfort. When we question and wonder in ways that are firmly planted in relationship with God, then it will serve to strengthen our belief. And so our faith seeks understanding and we pray “I believe; help my unbelief”.