Many people, including those within the church, are wrestling with the fundamental character and nature of God, with questions concerning his goodness and trustworthiness. So how do we who identify ourselves as Christians help others see the hope of the gospel and persevere in hope ourselves in a world where the biblical view of a loving and good God is constantly challenged?
I attempted to suppress my stunned disbelief with a question: “What do you mean?” I listened as a dear Christian friend of more than 25 years shared with me that she was considering moving in a direction that was a reversal of what she had long held true and what the Scriptures clearly proscribe. Over the days that followed I tried to refrain from continually pointing her to numerous Bible passages that would challenge her intentions—after all, she knew them well. Rather, I spoke about God’s compassion in our brokenness and the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in our lives, and encouraged her to talk with a counselor who could help unravel her deep and knotted burden. Sadly, a few months later, she chose to leave her church home and move in the direction she expressed.
“I’m happy,” she told me—and how does one counter that?1
I have had the privilege of working with Ravi Zacharias for over twenty years. If my experience with my friend and the emails and letters we receive are any reflection of the wider evangelical culture, there has been a noticeable shift in the questions raised by those who would identify themselves as Christians. Less than ten years ago, the predominant questions were, if you will, intramural ones: “What is your view of predestination?” “Which version of the Bible is most accurate?” “What is the unpardonable sin?”
More recently, however, many questions resemble ones we usually receive from skeptics or seekers at university engagements: “How can God be morally good if He ordered genocide in the Old Testament?” “Why should I believe in a God who sees my suffering and doesn’t answer my prayer?” As such, I would suggest that many people, including those within the church, are wrestling with the fundamental character and nature of God, with questions concerning his goodness and trustworthiness. 2
Think, for instance, of the confusion generated by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Yes, numerous pastors, scholars, and bloggers revealed its flawed exegesis and arguments. Yet the book created profound cognitive dissonance for some readers and accomplished its purpose: to stir an emotional response to a depiction of an angry God and unfair judge.
Even we who may seek to hold fast to what we cognitively affirm—that God is sovereign and good—sometimes struggle to make sense of our emotions when we encounter a difficult passage of Scripture or an experience such as betrayal or loss that challenges our view of an all-loving and powerful God. Indeed, consider bewildered Job under the scourge of suffering, or Joseph or John the Baptist languishing in prison, or faithful but barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, and countless others in the pages of Scripture who strained to discern God’s presence and purpose.
So how do we who identify ourselves as Christians help others see the hope of the gospel and persevere in hope ourselves in a world where the biblical view of a loving and good God is constantly challenged?
A Deeper Question
As we seek to address tough questions, Ravi Zacharias has observed that it is critical to understand there is often a deeper question behind the one being posed. Hence, we must listen carefully to hear and respond to the actual question raised. He recalls how a young couple came to him after a speaking engagement in a church and asked how God could allow suffering and evil. As he began to offer a reply, he noticed that the woman was holding a child with a severe physical deformity. He surmised that the couple’s theological inquiry masked a deeper existential struggle and so he set aside the standard arguments of theodicy to consider the pain and confusion they were experiencing.
This is not to suggest that many people do not wrestle with the philosophical arguments for the problem of evil or God’s existence, but rather, that we need to take time to listen to our questioners so that we might truly hear their concerns. Sometimes, as with my longtime friend, we might even ask, “What do you mean?” In apologetics, this approach uses the law of identity, which involves identifying unspoken assumptions and presuppositions. This law states that everything that exists has a specific nature; for example, “A = A” or “A sheep is a sheep” (and not a cow). Thus, if someone remarks, “Sure, I believe in Jesus,” we rely upon the law of identity when we ask the person to tell us more about who this Jesus is. Is this the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament or The DaVinci Code?
Or, we might follow up by asking the person to tell us what he or she means by “believe.” Does the individual’s understanding of belief amount to reasoned confidence or “blind” faith?3 A common misperception is that science involves facts and evidence, whereas religious belief is based on myth, feelings, or a wish-fulfillment for a benevolent God. And yet, science is unable to answer basic metaphysical questions such as “Why are we here?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And atheism itself can be seen as a wish-fulfillment for no God and no absolute foundation for morality.
In such conversations, we may discover that “belief in Jesus” may be radically different from what the Bible presents. Thus, it is critical to listen carefully to those we seek to engage so that we might hear their underlying questions and unspoken assumptions. The art of listening and responding to questions is a learned craft honed with humility, patience, and careful study. As my colleague Alister McGrath writes, “Apologetics is not a set of techniques for winning people to Christ. It is not a set of argumentative templates designed to win debates. It is a willingness to work with God in helping people discover and turn to his glory.”4
Learning To See
Like those we encounter who struggle with questions, sometimes our own unsettled questions and unexamined assumptions can cloud our hope in God and our confidence in the gospel. When relationships fail, health deteriorates, or vocations are lost, our understanding of God can be tested to the core when we, as philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek suggests, “labor under the misimpression that we see what we see, that seeing is believing, that either I see it or I don’t.”5 The evidence for God’s existence and Christ’s uniqueness looks quite clear to me in light of the historical Scriptures, the pattern of the universe, and conflicting worldviews. But there are times when I have questioned God’s goodness because I perceived Him to be unresponsive and unmoved by my troubled heart. Studying the Scriptures didn’t lead me to this misperception; rather, my experience of loss did.
And when our view of God is misguided, doubt eclipses hope and we may be tempted to take the seemingly “happy road” rather than trust in his sovereign but unforeseen plan. Yes, God is consistent and faithful to his Word, but He is not predictable. If He were, there would be no place for grace or mercy.6 He sends rain to the just and unjust. He rewards a prostitute’s shrewd deceit with a secure place in the Promised Land, while barring his prophet Moses from it because of a rash act of rage.7
In such places of doubt and discouragement, we need the fellowship of other believers to help us see what we cannot see, to pray when we cannot pray, and to hope when we struggle to hope. As Meek contends,“Sometimes, apart from someone else’s insistence and guidance, we don’t even get it right about the thoughts in our own head. We need to be taught how to see.”8
I ran a trail half-marathon recently. I have competed at this distance and longer on roads but never on the trail, so the first couple of miles I was careful to note every root and rock as I tried to run fast. By the third mile, I felt at ease dodging obstacles and began to settle into a competitive pace. I turned a corner and descended a hill with a massive rock just below its crest, and Wham! Suddenly, I was sailing headlong and my splayed body hit the ground. I had seen the rock but somehow its presence didn’t prompt me to alter my stride. With ten miles left to the finish, my throbbing, bloody knee suddenly sharpened my focus for the rest of the race.
The evidence for God’s existence and Christ’s uniqueness looks quite clear to me in light of the historical Scriptures, the pattern of the universe, and conflicting worldviews. But there are times when I have questioned God’s goodness because I perceived Him to be unresponsive and unmoved by my troubled heart. Studying the Scriptures didn’t lead me to this misperception; rather, my experience of loss did.
Like listening, seeing is a learned craft. For example, experienced trail runners can fly down a hill with seeming ease, nimbly dodging small and large obstacles on their path. Their bodies have a heightened sense of proprioception (literally, “one’s own perception”), which is the ability to orient to an environment with limited visual clues. “The special balance that is so key to trail running is … proprioception,” writes elite endurance runner Adam Chase. “Proprioception comes through muscle, joint, tendon, and inner ear sensory nerve terminals that respond to and adjust posture and positioning through stimuli originating from within the body. When trail runners complain that they are bad at running down rocky or otherwise sketchy descents, it is usually a testament to the fact that they need to work on their proprioceptive abilities.”9 Trail running is an art that requires keen awareness and practice.
The prophet Daniel and the apostle Paul overcame obstacles in their pagan, foreign environments by a resolute focus on a sovereign God who alone “changes times and seasons” and “reveals deep and hidden things” (Daniel 2:21-22). Both were given the gift of vision, but they were “taught how to see” through persistent prayer, a community of friends, and a humble understanding that all wisdom and ability come from God. “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened,” wrote Paul, “in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19a).
A Gift to All
This hope to which God has called us is a “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Like any living substance, hope must be nurtured and exercised for it to grow. Isaiah tells us that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31). Hope can expand even as we endure trials, for “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
Like the fine art of listening and seeing, I am discovering that persevering in hope is a learned craft. This is not to suggest it is something we must earn. No, hope is a gift to all who call upon God. Yet just as an Olympic sprinter gifted with speed must sharpen her skills consistently to succeed, so our hope matures when we “run in the path of [God’s] commands” and “feed on his faithfulness.”10 “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes that we must be taught both to recognize and to exercise hope:
Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more—food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilization as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.
Most of us find it very difficult to want “Heaven” at all—except in so far as “Heaven” means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.11
Ultimately, hope grows as we sit before the mirror of God’s Word, for it is the one true and trustworthy reflection of who God is and who we are becoming. Here we are exhorted and comforted, chastened and encouraged by the One who loves us and can speak into our lives like no other. Here we can bring our longings, fears, and questions before his throne of grace and let the light of Jesus’s presence shine into every dark and confusing place in our lives, “for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”12 This is the hope of the gospel. And God promises that all “who hope in him will not be disappointed” (Isaiah 49:23).
Hope is a gift to all who call upon God. Yet just as an Olympic sprinter gifted with speed must sharpen her skills consistently to succeed, so our hope matures when we “run in the path of God’s commands” and “feed on his faithfulness.” “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
A shorter version of this article was composed for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Contact Magazine.Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, GA.
1 This question is intended merely to be rhetorical. There are several approaches one might use as a follow-up depending on the person’s struggle and faith commitment.
2 In his conversations with Christians wrestling with doubt, philosophy professor Gary Habermas has observed a similar trend. See his chapter “Evil, the Resurrection and the Example of Jesus” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, eds. Chad V. Meister, Norman Geisler, and James K. Dew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 163-174.
3 For a fuller discussion of reasonable belief and so-called blind faith, see chapters 3 and 4 of Alex McLellan’s A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
4 Alister E. McGrath, Mere Apologetics: How To Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2012), 41.
5 Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing To Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003), 99.
6 I am indebted to Roslyn Harden Scott, Ph.D., for this insight.
7 Of course, a close reading of Joshua 2 and Numbers 20 reveals that Rahab’s act of deception (risking her life to harbor the spies) was precipitated by her faith in the God of the Israelites, whereas Moses’s display of anger grew out of his lack of trust in God. Hebrews 11:31 commends Rahab for her faith and James 2:25, for her works (faith in action).
8 Meek, 99, emphasis added.
9 Adam Chase, “On the Trail …Core Strength” (November 1, 2003), accessed on February 19, 2013 at http://www.runnersworld.com/trail-running-training/trail-core-strength.
10 See Psalm 119:32 and 37:3 (NASB).
11 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1960), 118-119, emphasis added.
12 1 John 3:20.