Multiple Christians with celebrity status have mentioned recently that they have either lost or are struggling with their faith. A couple of weeks agao, Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye in the 90s and pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland from 2004-2015 said he was no longer Christian. Most recently Marty Sampson, the former lead singer of Hillsong, has said that his faith is standing on shaky ground. Such high profile cases of losing faith or struggling with faith grab the attention of Christians and the reasons for such can be speculated upon.
I saw one person on Twitter, who I will not name, suggest it was due to the lack of theological depth. But such an answer sounds more to be like the intellectual pretensions than a solid answer and explanation. While the study of theology can contribute to solidifying faith, it an also run it around. This is not to mention that theology can readily become a source of projection upon God if we think it is our theology and ability to keep ourselves thinking right that keeps us secure in faith. At the end of the day, to explain the loss of faith is due to a lack of theological depth is to treat human reasoning as the condition of faith, rather than theology as the response of faith in God’s power and love.
Rather, I was to suggest a different way to look at the nature of unbelief from those who have had one point had faith. But it will need us to stop asking the implicit question “What did they do wrong?” as if people’s struggles with or loss of faith is solely determined by their actions and thinking. This is to embrace and individualist view of faith that blurs into methodological solipsism: a person’s faith or the lack thereof is solely the consequence of their actions and thinking. When analyzed up close, assuming that people did something wrong that lead them to lose faith is not just exhibit a bad implicit theology, but it also overlooks how human thinking is conditioned to our experiences and environment, much of which they have little direct control over.
This isn’t to embrace a fatalistic view of faith and the lack thereof, but it is only to not assume that people’s loss of faith is attributable to something that is wrong with them. Perhaps, there is something seriously wrong elsewhere, like people being misled about what God is like, people enduring tremendous suffering, etc. But the idea that unbelief automatically condemns one to eternal hell has lead us to place too much of an emphasis on people getting to belief, trying to control their thinking so they come to faith, manipulate them with false ideas to get them to believe, etc. As a consequence, we overlook other factors, including our other people’s contribution to a person’s struggle and/or loss of faith. The sermon to the Hebrews readily exemplifies how in the midst of people’s struggles, others are to encourage people in faith and support them in the midst of their struggles.
I am personally familiar with this. As a Christian who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have had to endure some storms where I seriously questioned my faith and some people who were more concerned with me getting it right rather than helping me became to me like Job’s friends: accusers who could not understand. In Job, we have a story that should be a reminder to all Christians that their response to the suffering can become a source of hurt and, ultimately, risks speaking falsely because they don’t understand what it is they are talking about.
So, allow me to approach an explanation of unbelief from a different direction. I want to explore the cognitive conditions that lead to the lack of faith. And I will take a much broader view of faith in this based upon a certain principle: while our faith in God is specifically conditioned to God’s Word and Spirit, the conditions that allow for any form of faith is analyzable in general fashion. In other words, the explanation for when people do or do not believe in God is separate from the explanation of how people come to believe in God.
Here is what I posit: the necessary condition for faith is when our remembered experiences are consistent with our expectations. The corollary to this is that the necessary condition for unbelief is when our remembered experiences are dissonant with our expectations.
Allow me to use trust in marriage as an example. A person has a certain expectation of their spouse will not cheat. This expectation itself is not faith or trust, but it is a value. Now, if the person does not have a problem with persistent mistrust, then by a combination of experience the ways their spouse is honest with them in addition to the lack of any evidence of cheating going on, that person’s experience will match their valued expectations. They have not proven that their spouse has not cheated, but their experience is such that what they remember from their experiences, which is most often an implicit rather than explicit remembering.
But even then, one instance of cheating may not entirely evaporate trust. Say a person obtains evidence of their spouse cheating once. This would certainly be a blow to the relationship but does it automatically erode all trust forever? Not necessarily. If the cheating spouse takes responsibility and owns what they did, then a severely broken trust may be restored if the other spouse is willing to risk. In this case, the cheating partner takes responsibility and through that restores trust over time, thereby strengthening the faith that had been seriously weakened.
However, this example I present only focused on the first “variable,” remember experience. However, it tries the expectations as fixed. But sometimes, faith or the lack of faith is also the result of our expectations changing rather than our remember experiences.
For consistency sake, I will use a similar but subtly different example: two unmarried people who are not dating and there are different expectations about what relationship they have. In the ambiguity that often occurs prior to the initiation of a romantic relationship, people’s expectations are forming about the other person, but they do not necessarily form equally. The first person is slower to warm up and thinks they are friends but that they have an interest in the other, whereas the other person is head over heels in love and thinks they are basically in a romantic relationship. Because of these varying expectations, their communication and behavior towards each other can become rather crossed. For instance, the slow and more deliberate approach by the first may make the second person respond evasively or become avoidant. In the case that the first person, thinks the other person isn’t interested because of their avoidant and evasive behavior, they might then develop an interest in someone else. The second person might find out about this and think the first person has essentially cheated on them. At this point, we are left with a situation much like the marriage situation: both people have different expectations that are dissonant with their remembered experiences. This creates a lack of faith: in the first person, they don’t have faith the other person is interested in them. In the second person, they don’t have faith the other person is honest.
Often, these types of problems end up in conflict. Usually, it is because one person or the other does not respect the perspective of the other and refuses to listen to them. However, there are cases where communication can lead to the changing of expectations. Say the second person is actually willing to listen to the first person and the person says “I thought you weren’t interested.” If the second person is willing to believe that this is genuine and not some manipulation, then they might adjust their expectations, which means they would look at their remembered experiences differently. They would no longer think the news that the first person went out with someone else as evidence of cheating but as a person moving on because of a (mistaken) belief.
Now, analysis of remembered experiences and expectations and the way they can change can become endlessly complex as there are various factors that go into what we remember and what we expect. Further complicating the matter is that what we remember can change our expectations, and our expectations can change what we remember, while at the same time being different from each other. So, I don’t present these necessary conditions for faith and unbelief as intending to portray it as being simplistically reducible to two factors. It is rather presented as a lens that can help us to assess what is going on.
What does it tell us about the Christian faith in God? I want to suggest that when cautiously considered, the greater, although not, the sole cause for the struggles with faith is our expectations about God rather than our remembered experiences of God. Now, we see this theme throughout Scripture. For instance, in 2 Peter 3.9 explains that the apparent slowness of God is God’s allowance of an opportunity for people to repent. Whereas humans are inclined to expect God to hurry things up with His promises, God is operating in a way that brings other people into the fold. Whereas we can be rather inclined to have egocentric expectations about God doing what we want when we want it, God works differently than human expectations.
But, rather than just focusing on trying to get people to change their expectations, I want to additionally focus on the source of expectations that can lead us to unbelief. It is what Paul refers to the flesh and what later theologians like Augustine and Barth referred to as incurvatus in se: it is living life according to the expectations of our own embodied nature, isolating our thinking away from the presence of God. We should avoid reverting to some sort of methodological solipsism as if false expectations simply emerge from the errors of individual thinking. The inward thinking of the flesh is why we are unable on our to come to know God, but it doesn’t rule out the social elements that are responsible for expectations about God. The source of false expectations may come from other people, who acting from their flesh, propagate false expectations about God, either directly or indirectly.
One salient way this can happen is in the prosperity “gospel” and its multiple variations. Take, for instance, Matthew 17.19-20. One common way of reading Jesus’ answer to the disciple as to why they could not cast out the demon is as a chiding for the little faith, as if their faith wasn’t even to the level of the mustard seed. As a consequence, the parable Jesus gives gets interpreted as “if you just have enough faith, you can get what you seek and ask for.” This idea then gets spread with the expectation that God gives us what we ask for, especially in an immediate manner. But, many people deeply believe and trust something to come from God, and it doesn’t happen. If their expectation of God is that having enough faith will get them what they seek, then their faith may turn to unbelief the more they are let down.
But allow me to offer a radically different interpretation. Jesus is not connecting answered prayer with the “size” of faith. He is not chiding the disciples for not having even a little bit of faith at the size of the proverbial mustard seed. Rather, I want to suggest that Jesus is directing His disciples to understand the relationship between faith and power. The mustard seed is intended to be a description of the smallness of faith the disciples had, but the employment of seeds also has some agricultural implications operating behind it. Seeds are planted and then they grow. While the disciple’s faith was small, and it was the reason they could not cast out the demon, the point of the parable is to highlight that even a little faith is a sufficient starting point towards being able to cast our demons and move the proverbial mountain, but that the faith must, like a seed, be planted and grown. Rather than portraying faith as the cause of having such power, faith is the starting point that can allow one to grow to have that power that the disciples were seeking. Faith is the beginning of the journey, not the culmination of it. Then, to contextualize this within the rest of NT canon, in faith one can begin to discover the charismatic gifts that the Spirit has given the person and cultivate their using of them for the purposes of building up God’s Kingdom.
Now, I am not claiming this interpretation must be the right interpretation, though I do think it is the right one. Rather, imagine how this expectation changes how people relate to their remembered experiences. Rather than not interpreting their failed prayers as a sign that God is not real, does not love them, they don’t have enough faith, etc., etc., they would see it as part of the journey of discipleship. Their expectations of God change from God as the one who gives us the power to do what we want to the teacher who shows us how to powerfully act on behalf of God’s Kingdom. Remembering experiences that would be dissonant with the prosperity “gospel’s” portrayal of God is not dissonant with the expectation that God is the One who teaches. But thinking according to the flesh and the inward disposition does not respond well to the development across time.
For a more indirect example, people who see themselves as the protectors of orthodoxy, rather than God Himself, can propagate false expectations about God. Due to orthodoxy’s historical reliance on Hellenistic philosophy to express itself, it has an inclination to homogenizing God in such a way that there is no variability of God in any manner as if the God of the Bible must fit into the intellectual, cognitive forms of thinking diffused from Hellenistic philosophy for what the Scriptures testify about God to be true.1 As a consequence, they regard God more like an object that they have scientific theories about. Then, when someone complains about not understanding where God is in the midst of something, they can heap judgment on that person for not seeing God, as if the person complaining automatically has something wrong with them.2 What are they communicating about God in that moment? They are often implicitly communicating that God does not care about your pain and what happened, but only saying and believing the ‘right’ things.
What can happen then in such a hypothetical case? Sometimes, the figure in the position in Job may reject what the human protectors of orthodoxy try to foist upon him. But, in some cases, the protectors of orthodoxy implicitly “convert” the person to this type of thinking and form them into a more radicalized version of that thinking: God simply cares about saying and believing the right things, and not about who we are people. This can then launch that person into a never-ended quest to discover the truth because that’s what they expect God cares about and how he is known. Their faith in God is determined by the expectation that God is cognitively known in a clear, intellectual, analyzable manner, rather than known in the concrete embodiment God in Jesus Christ (and not simply in the abstract idea of incarnation) and the inspiration of the Spirit. But, if in their quest to find the absolute, theological truth to know God because that is their expectation, they find that God is not knowable in the way they expect, their faith can turn to unbelief. Their remembered experiences about their understanding of God is that of confusion, of mystery, of potentially endless skepticism if they discover their theological exploration is nothing but straw with no other expectation about God to replace that failed expectation.
What is the antidote to this false expectation? I would say to help them to grow their faith by changing their expectations from a God who is primarily known in a clear, propositional manner to a God who in Jesus Christ loves and serves through themselves following the leading of the Spirit to become as servants so that they can comprehend Christ’s servanthood, rather than the often implicit competitive attitude that can come with intellectual accomplishment if people’s seeking for achievement is rooted in the flesh. In that case, they will find, discover, and experience the God who serves, because they themselves understand and have that sort of expectation about God. Additionally, by adopting a servant attitude, they can be a servant to those who they deem to be weak in faith, to build them up, rather than act in such a manner to injure the “weak’s” conscience in the name of their “knowledge” much like Job’s friends risked doing.
My task here, in the end, is to offer an illustration of the principle about the way faith in God emerges from the relation of remembered experiences and expectations but is not intended a fuller, analytic description. I offer it as a way to reconceptualize the struggles that people have in faith in the hope that it can help us to let the Spirit direct us in our understanding of and the helping of people struggling with faith rather than addressing it from the perspective and interests of the flesh that often propagates false expectations of God, thereby risking reinforcing unbelief.