Doubt Can Be a Good Thing
Barnabas Piper on questions and faith.
Barnabas Piper grew up hearing a lot about God, theology and the Bible. After all, he is the son of influential pastor and author, John Piper. But it wasn’t until later in life that he really took hold of those truths for himself. And that process came through questioning everything he believed.
We recently talked to Piper about his latest book, Help My Unbelief, his process of walking through doubt and what it looks like to hold fast to core truths while allowing room for questions.
Would you give us a summary of your new book?
Help My Unbelief came out of my own experience as someonewho grew up in the Church. I had a pretty positive church upbringing, but my experience with faith and doubt had a lot to do with mentally assenting to certain truths, rather than fully buying into them, not having them really change me.
Later on in life, that caught up to me. I hadn’t realized just how cheap it was to claim belief without actually living it. I was confronted with the questions of “What do I really believe? What is really true about God, about the Bible, about all these things I’ve been taught growing up?”
During that time, I connected with the passage out of Mark 9 where a father brings his son to Jesus for healing and Jesus says “I can help you if you believe.” The father responds “I believe, help my unbelief.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since, so much that I have it tattooed on my arm now. Because that, to me, is a microcosm of what it means to be a Christian. On one hand, you cling to belief, and on the other hand, you confess all the areas you need help with, all the things you’re weak in and the openness to not being sure of things.
Through the book, I try to deal with those questions: What can we know? What can’t we know? What are the aspects of God’s character that we just rest in? And what are the pieces of God that we can never understand this side of eternity because He’s infinite and we’re not?
It’s a little bit of apologetics, it’s a little bit of theology, it’s a little bit experience. What I tried to do was weave those things together so that readers could have a fuller confidence in God and a greater comfort level with their questions.
A lot of people are afraid to acknowledge that they have serious doubts. What was the process like for you in finally letting your questions come to the surface?
The thing that tipped me over the edge, in a positive way, was getting to a place where I didn’t have to know all of the answers. Questions can be a good thing.
Belief in God is ultimately rest in relationship. I have two little girls, and they trust me because of our relationship. They come and ask me questions I might not be able to answer, but they show what it looks like to have childlike faith. There’s so much of that I had missed in my relationship with God.
It is a safe and good thing to express doubts to God. To me, that opened things up for me to have this much richer and greater confidence in my relationship with God. Instead of feeling like I had to have everything together, I felt like I just need to have a relationship, and everything else can be a question I take to God and let Him reveal to me through Scripture, through teaching through whatever it is, the things I need to know.
What kind of treatment is the Western, American Church putting on God? Are we missing something in how we teach about God from our pulpits?
I think the answer to that has to be, “Yes.” I guess I see two trends: You have your more traditional, maybe fundamentalist churches. The “treatment” they often put on God [is that] every question must have a neatly buttoned up answer, so there’s very little room for “I don’t know,” for wondering—the kind of things that are so innate to the way so many of us encounter God and, in fact, are innate to being human because we can’t understand God fully.
The other end of the spectrum is possibly too open-handed about God and not enough definitive answers. There are certain things we absolutely can know about God from what He’s told us in His Word. They don’t take the Word of God seriously as God showing Himself to people as “This is my character. This is my beloved son. These are the works that I’ve done. This is how I care about people.”
If you don’t take the Word of God seriously enough, you end up drifting away from God. He’s no longer God of the universe, He’s just sort of a spiritual being, an option instead of “the way, the truth and the life.”
What I tried to do in Help My Unbelief is bring things to the middle. You can’t systematize everything, but you have to claim some things as absolutely true.
What things would you claim as absolutely true?
The things I feel like every believer just has to hold fast to: the character of God. Faith resides in the character of God, so it is God’s goodness, God’s sovereignty, God’s faithfulness to us, His promises. You look at it and you go, “Those things are true regardless of everything we cannot understand.”
On the one hand, we hold fast with one hand to these truths about God. God has told us these things about Himself and we just don’t let go of them. That hand is gripping, and this other hand over here is groping. It’s groping for all the answers we don’t have and all the things we’re not sure of.
If you keep the one hand held fast to God’s character and what He says about Himself, that groping hand is never going to pull you away. It’s just going to search. It’s going to search for “Why does this hurt so much? Why did this bad thing happen? Why can’t I see God?” Whatever those questions are that eat at people’s faith.
If you’re holding fast to what God has said about Himself, you can always say “I believe,” and then from that place, you pray the prayer of “Help my unbelief.”