Theology matters. And we all “do theology” — whether we’re aware of it or not. Theology is “thinking about God.” The question is not whether we do theology but whether we do good or bad theology.
This is why my one of my biggest passions as a pastor is trying to help people begin to think critically about their beliefs and understanding of God, the Bible, the gospel and worldview issues.
I was reminded of the importance of doing good theology when I received an email from a former student who is now in college and having significant doubts in his faith. His struggle however is not the typical slide away from belief that often happens in college. He is not sure if he is still a Christian. But it is not because he doubts God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the truthfulness of the claims of the gospel, and so on. No. This young man is doubting his faith because he doesn’t “feel” like a Christian should feel and his personal “experience” doesn’t seem to line up with his expectations for what a Christian should feel and experience.
I believe his self-analysis and doubt stems from a number of common misguided theological beliefs. These are significant issues many of us face along our journey of faith and worth sharing today. Let me offer a few thoughts on the issue.
1. The problem with a “feelings based” faith.
Our culture is pervasively “feelings” and “desires” based. This obsession with how we feel is creeping into our views of the Christian faith as well. This young man’s entire self-analysis is based on his experience and feelings (or, more significantly, his lack of feelings and desires for God). So many Christians today are buying into this experience based, feelings based spirituality.
The problem with this view is that it is the opposite of biblical Christianity! The true heros of the faith are heroic because they said “yes” to God and stepped out in faith and obedience precisely when they didn’t feel like it. Abraham probably didn’t feel like leaving his homeland, his comfort zone and wandering around not knowing his destination at an advanced age. Moses certainly didn’t feel like going to Pharaoh but he obeyed. The rich young ruler didn’t feel like sacrificing in order to follow Jesus and so he missed out. He should have acted in faith against his misguided desires and feelings.
As a youth pastor I told our students often that they should never base their faith (or any other decisions) on their feelings alone. I remind them of Jeremiah’s warning: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things. It is incurable. No one can understand how deceitful it is” (Jer 17:9). We must stop basing our faith or lack thereof on our heart’s desires or feelings. True faith is trusting God precisely when He is silent and our heart’s seem far away and pulled toward other desires. The Psalms are full of desperate cries for God to draw near. The desert is a common stop on many Christian’s journeys, and we’ll all likely experience an occasional dark night of the soul.
2. One danger of Calvinism misunderstood.
Calvinists (following Augustine) believe that conversion/new birth experience is a completely supernatural and unilateral work of God. We play no role in the process. Like Lazarus dead in the tomb, we can only be born again by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. We just wait and pray and hope God waves his supernatural wand over our dead heart and makes us alive so we desire him and begin to hate our sin.
A misguided understanding of Reformed thinking at this point will sometimes lead Christians like my friend to conclude that this supernatural moment hasn’t happened yet because they don’t “feel” and can’t recall a big moment when their heart was “suddenly transformed.” This young man concluded that “If God is really working on my heart and mind then I won’t be able to resist looking for answers and reading the Bible, praying, and talking to people; I will be compelled by Christ.”
Furthermore, he is now doubting the authenticity of his entire high school church experience, believing none of his experiences (prayers, retreats, leading worship, etc.) came from a genuine faith. All of this because he now doubts whether that “new birth” moment ever happened in his life because he doesn’t “feel” like one of the born again “elect” at the moment. He now lacks assurance of salvation as he waits and prays for an unmistakable, supernatural “new birth” that will result not just in a new commitment but radically transformed “feelings” and emotions.
3. Faith is a marriage not an experience.
The divorce rate is high for many reasons. But chief among them is the widespread fanciful myth today that true love is a feeling that overtakes you and an experience of romantic bliss and chemistry that is outside our control. It’s either there or it’s not. When the honeymoon phase ends and the gooey romantic feelings fade, people conclude, “We’re no longer in love” and many will eventually end the marriage and try to recapture those feelings in a new relationship.
Christians should know that true love and Christian marriage is not based on a fleeting and unpredictable feeling, but rather a sacred“covenant” to be faithfully honored regardless of our feelings. Even more tragically is the fact that many have applied this thinking to our faith relationship with God. We have turned faith into a feeling, and then begin doubting the genuineness of our faith when our desire for the things of God ebbs and flows.
This young man’s email revealed a heart that “wants to want God” but desires other things more right now. Yet, his very struggle with God itself is not an indicator of faithlessness but rather a vital sign that he has a relationship with God—even if a rocky one. Nobody who is “not saved” would even care about this and be wrestling with it.
The issue we should concern ourselves with is strengthening our “marriage” with God. This young man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God. The problem is that his marriage with God needs some maintenance and spicing up. He should stop worrying if he’s “save” or not, and instead invest that energy into ways to grow and increase his intimacy with God. All believers are in the same boat here. We are all a bit like the man who cries out to Jesus in frustration, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”
4. Factoring in the Enemy.
Finally, we are mistaken if we believe once we are saved and God’s Spirit comes into our lives suddenly we are free from sin and the schemes of the Devil. We should expect periods of doubt, ongoing bouts with sin, ups and downs, mountaintop highs and desert valley experiences, moments when our sinful nature speaks louder than God’s Spirit. We should expect Satan to get us believing lies such as this young man is dealing with. Some of the lies he tells us include:
- You still struggle with sin so you must not have the Holy Spirit.
- If you were a real Christian you would only desire Godly things.
- You still have doubts so how can you really be a Christian?
- If you only had enough faith you would not struggle with these things.
These are the moments where we need to be reminded of the simple truth and grace of the gospel. “If we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved”—regardless how we feel or act or how much we continue to sin. Jesus is looking for covenant relationship, he’s a groom looking for a bride who’ll say “I do” even though we’ll often make a lousy spouse and let him down time and time again. His grace is sufficient and “He who began a good work in us will carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).
Theology matters and beliefs have serious consequences. Bad theology can shipwreck one’s faith and bring about much unnecessary pain and spiritual anguish. God has given us the community of believers for us to wrestle together through periods of doubt, despair and our common struggle “in the flesh.” Let us, like my friend, bring our doubts into the light so that we can be comforted and reminded of the truth by our brothers and sisters in the faith.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (or FEEL!). This is what the ancients were commended for” (Heb 11:1-2).