Jon Steingard, lead singer of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson, recently announced via a lengthy post on Instagram that he had walked away from his faith: “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band, and having the word ‘Christian’ in front of most of the things in my life—I am now finding that I no longer believe in God,” Steingard wrote. He also wondered how an “all loving, and all powerful” God could exist given all the evil in the world, as well as voicing concerns about a passage of Scripture that he feels is “really oppressive of women.”
He concluded his missive by saying, “I am not sure how much this will rock the boat. I don’t know if this will surprise anyone. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve finally worked up the courage to tell my story. To share my deepest truth. And that feels like freedom too.”
How do we respond when someone walks away from his faith? How would you respond if you could have a conversation with Jon Steingard? Guest blogger Glenn Stanton, author of several books (including most recently The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World) and director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, ponders that question in the open letter to Steingard that follows.
I don’t know you. You don’t know me. I am very sorry for your struggle. I wish life, and matters of faith, were easier and simpler. As you know all too well, they are not.
I want to address you as the friend I just haven’t met yet. You opened your announcement saying, “This is not a post I ever thought I would write …” and that you’ve “been terrified to post for a while.” You add that you hope this can be the beginning of a conversation, and not the end of one. That is a wonderfully mature and healthy perspective. It’s actually very biblical.
God personally invites us, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). In fact, that word reason can also be read dispute. Come let us dispute together. God is certainly not opposed to thinking things through, discussing them, disputing them, pounding on them hard and making sure they can stand up to reality. He is certainly not afraid of brutally tough questions. Often, those are the best ones. He does not see them as disrespectful. He invites them because He has all confidence in His own story.
In fact Jon, I would invite you to write in the palm of your hand, literally, with durable ink that can withstand all the COVID-19 handwashing, “I am right in the middle of where God and His heart toward me are in being honest about my doubts.” I hope that is a revelation of grace to you. This might sound strange to many Christians, but it is not. It’s clear in Scripture.
Jesus’ Close Friend Disbelieved
Doubt is not a sin. One of Jesus’ most beloved friends doubted. Strongly, brutally, and honestly. He doubted that Jesus had really done what He said he would do. You know the story.
Thomas, one of the 12 disciples said, literally, “I will never believe” our Lord has risen from the dead until I see the nail holes in his hands for myself and actually slip my fingers into his side. Two observations here.
First, “Doubting Thomas” did not really doubt, did he? His position was far more definitive. He was sure Jesus was not alive and would only be convinced with radical, irrefutable proof. He would not even take someone else’s word for it.
Second, the scriptures say Thomas carried that unbelief around in his soul for eight days before he was able to meet the risen Savior. Jesus knew what was going on in his friend’s soul. Why didn’t he rush right to Thomas’ side and show him the truth immediately? We don’t know. Perhaps He thought it might be good and healthy for Thomas to sit with His unbelief for some time. It doesn’t make sense to us, but we are not God. But as you know, in time Jesus did meet Thomas in his unbelief.
In John 20:24-29, we are told,
Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
God’s Word is clear: Jesus is not surprised, shocked nor disappointed with our disbelief. He does not want us to pretend it doesn’t exist or brush it under the rug. Nor does He want us to be lost in it. He wants to meet us there. And sometimes that takes a very long time. He desires to meet you there Jon, even if it feels otherwise.
“Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
Jesus knew that believing in Him whom we cannot see will be difficult. And it is totally natural for you to want to ask God why He doesn’t make seeing and knowing Him easier. Jesus is admitting here that this will be tough, and He already empathizes with our struggle. And know this: You are not the only one to wrestle with that struggle. Plenty of others have … faaaaaaaar deeper and more severely. Let’s start with God’s own Son.
Jesus Questioned His Father
We must consider the incredible drama that is, literally, the very center of the Christian story. While on the cross, Jesus asks His Father why He has forsaken Him, why He not only seems, but is totally, utterly absent. This is an unfathomably radical statement that God’s own beloved Son makes, and few Christians are comfortable considering the full implications of it. These are not just words, not just a part He had to speak to fulfill a divine script. It is the utter torment of God who was fully man. Pastor John Piper explains the unimaginable brutishness of Jesus’ lament,
First, this was a real forsakenness. … To be forsaken by God is the cry of the damned, and [Jesus] was damned for us. So he used these words because there was a real forsakenness.
Jesus’ question was not a stoic proclamation. These are probably the deepest, heartfelt, passionate words that Christ speaks in all of Scripture. C.S. Lewis also gives what is happening here a great spark of clarity. Jesus, from his vulnerable humanity, “found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed.” At least that is what He was feeling there on the cross.
And get this: Jesus gets no answer from His Father. He does not say, “Hold tight son. I’ve got a larger plan.” God the Son gets SILENCE from God the Father.
I say all that to say this: Jon, there is no other faith or philosophy that takes doubt and the seeming quietness of God so seriously. Not only does Christianity address the matter in profound depth, but doubt and questioning are endemic to the very center of God’s own story. And dramatically so. Thus, Christianity is the perfect, and really only, belief system for doubters.
But as we know, the story does not remain a crisis. There are answers, but the answers can only have real meaning if we take the absolute toughness of the questions seriously, right? As such, it’s why Christianity has changed the world more than any other faith system. Billions have found that it can and does answer our toughest questions. It just doesn’t seem to answer them in our hearts “today.” It’s not as efficient as we would like. But it does answer them eventually, and it has for millions upon millions of seekers around the world and through history who are smarter than you and me. More on this in a bit.
Christianity’s Greatest Saints Had Debilitating Crises of Faith
Years after she died, Mother Teresa’s spiritual director revealed she was deeply troubled by not having heard a word from God in her prayer life for some five decades. Decades. Line Dead. She confessed to him in a personal letter,
“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
In 1953, she lamented, “There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead,” adding, “It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’”
In 1956 she confessed to him:
“Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal. (Saving) souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing—pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”
This culminated in this existential crisis of despair in 1959, “If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.”
In fact Jon, you are not alone in the situation of your public ministry contrasting dramatically with your internal darkness. “I spoke [publicly] as if my very heart was in love with God – tender, personal love,” Mother Teresa confesses to a friend who knew her backstory. And she adds, “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.'”
But we know where her story went. Her decades of unbelief were much longer than Thomas’ eight days. Like him, she followed God—sometimes in the midst of her doubt. And God worked incredibly intimately and powerfully in her life.
Consider C. S. Lewis. What Christian doesn’t know of this giant’s remarkable books explaining the reliable truths of God? Few know of one of his last books, the one where he screams at God with red-hot anger, calling him a “The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile.” Many readers thought it was a novel. Who speaks of God that way? It was his personal journal and his very real struggle was not only with the silence of God, but His goodness.
You perhaps the know the story Jon. Lewis lost his beloved wife to an excruciating, painful death: cancer. He said well-intentioned people tried to console his immense pain with the typical sentiments. “She’s in God’s hands now,” they told him. But he responded, “If so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her.” Journaling his most personal thoughts for the rest of the world, Lewis wrote:
“If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears, beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.”
Such was the rawness of Lewis’ doubt at the time. He begged God for “even one hundredth part of the same assurance” that heaven was as real for his beloved Joy as for every other Christian friend or family member who had passed. His question was not her salvation, but of heaven itself.
Did God meet him in his need? Not then. “There was no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain … absolute zero.” Beating on God’s chest, he says bluntly, “I was a fool to ask.”
He wrote all this in his book A Grief Observed, a few years before he died. His questions, his anger, his unbelief, were so brutal he published it under a pseudonym. He was revealed as its author only after his death. But Lewis certainly did not remain lost.
He ends the book on this point, remembering his wife’s final moments of life. His last sentence: “She said not to me, but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God,’” adding, “She smiled, but not at me.”
He is telling us that despite his despair, despite God’s deafening silence toward him, he knew she was smiling toward God, toward heaven. She had faith, and it brought her to smile in the face of death. Lewis ends by confessing, proclaiming even, that he knows she returned to from where she came originally: to God. He knew because of her own assurance in the fact. In time, his faith did fully recover. Indeed. But in that time of utter darkness, he knew his wife believed and thus, so could he.
Look to Others
This is the point I want to end on Jon, and it is very important. Using other believers to undergird our own faith and sustain us in our doubts is a profound gift God gives us through the communion of the saints.
My academic training was in religious studies and philosophy at secular institutions. I had plenty of professors who gave me all kinds of “What about your good God allowing the Holocaust or the continued rape of a girl by her uncle?” challenges. These men and women were far smarter and better educated than I was. I was just a student. I couldn’t put all their critiques of God and Christianity completely to bed. I didn’t have the time nor the expertise.
But I was able to keep believing. How? Not because I ignored their challenges and just kept humming a happy Christian tune. That doesn’t work. You tried it right? I looked for good answers from leading philosophers who were faithful Christians. And I found many reliable answers.
But I also did this …
I knew there were incredibly faithful believers who were universally respected philosophers and scientists at the world’s leading universities who have heard all these problems before and more, numerous times over. I didn’t know all that they would say, what reasons they would give, but I was familiar with the rigor of their work. I knew these heavyweights had wrestled honestly with all these questions and more rigorously than my gadfly professor had. And those answers where wholly satisfying to them. There are thousands of such men and women. They are a gift that God has given to us and to the body of Christ. We must make use of them and looking off their paper is not cheating. Jesus healed a paralytic man based on the faith of those around him.
Too often in Christianity, especially in Western Protestantism, we see our faith as a solitary thing. It stands and falls only in our own ability to maintain it. But to paraphrase the great poet John Donne (also a dauntless Christian), “No Christian is an island, complete unto himself.” We are part of a body. And we can draw strength, faith and security in our doubts from the strength, faith, and security of other wiser, more knowledgeable, older saints. This is precisely what the church is and does. It is a gift God has given us. Your band members could serve that role for you in this season. Allow them to do so.
Sure, we cannot rely on them alone. We must develop our own faith. In fact, in your own telling Jon, it seems as though you adopted your place in Christianity because of your surroundings. Of your faith development, you wrote,
“When you grow up in a community that holds a shared belief, and that shared belief is so incredibly central to everything you believe, you simply adopt it. Everyone I was close to believed in God, accepted Jesus into their hearts, prayed for signs and wonders, and participated in church, youth groups, conferences, and ministry. So I did too.”
If this true, I ask you to consider two very significant questions:
- Is simply adopting something because everyone else around is doing it really a sufficient foundation for something as significant about our belief in ultimate reality?
- Can we really, honestly hold onto and keep something we never really had and owned for ourselves in the first place?
And finally, while the questions you raise are serious ones, they are not new by any measure, as we have seen. Nor are they insurmountable, or really that difficult in the long run. Yes, if people told you, as you say, “Just go to the bible, the answers are there” they did not serve you well. You recognize that if it were that simple, few of us would ever have deep, spiritually debilitating doubts. Maybe tearing down your faith to the foundations is a good thing. Likely, God is right in the middle of that. Draw from the help of the communion of the saints who have gone before us, wrestled with far tougher questions and trials, and are much wiser than you or me. As Lewis limped along upon the strength of his wife’s absolute faith for a while, you can do the same with others. They are a gift of God’s grace in the midst of trial.
Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles: This is one of the most important things we must recognize. Are we simply downloading our own faith onto our children, hoping they do all the right outward things and talk the right lingo? Are we helping our kids build their own faith for themselves? Like spiritual LEGO blocks, are we helping them to put the pieces together for themselves, to feel confident as they carefully click together, allowing them to take parts off that don’t seem to work and rebuild them with what does?
If we don’t have a real, robust, personal experience of our own with God, we don’t have anything to hold on to when life gets really, really difficult. And even when we do, it will not always be easy as we have seen with Thomas, C.S. Lewis and Mother Teresa. Even with Jesus himself.
Here are resources that are helpful in coming along side our children and assisting them in building their own faith through their own process:
- Don’t Panic When You Hear ‘I Don’t Think I Believe’
- Faith: Doubt vs. Unbelief
- Faith Grows in Hard Places — Even for Kids
- What Is Faith? (By Tony Evans)
- Wrestling With Doubt and Disbelief
- A Faith That Sticks
Editor’s Note: Glenn Stanton’s newest book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World, is available now. You can purchase it by clicking here.