On Sunday I spoke at a church on the topic “Does Christian belief have a place for doubt?” The talk is available here. (I delivered the same talk at another church back in January, so you may have already heard that one.) This issue of doubt and questioning remains one of the areas where evangelical Christianity is weakest. Here is the interesting thing: Evangelical Christians widely reject prosperity (or health and wealth) theology. That is the theology that says God’s people (or the “King’s kids”) should always be physically healthy and financially prosperous and so the extent to which you are neither is, to put it bluntly, your own fault. Most evangelicals recognize that such teaching is a damnable cancer on the face of Christianity which needs to be cut out with the sharpest knife available.
On that much we agree. But then why do we essentially adopt a qualified prosperity theology about belief? In short, we say that the Christian can be sick and poor but shouldn’t have doubts about God, questions for God, disappointment in God, and even seething rage toward God. Isn’t that simply bizarre? How did this “Prosperity theology 2.0” ever become so widespread within the church?
Within standard prosperity theology confession creates reality. That is, verbally confessing certain things leads to those things being actualized. To a certain degree there is some truth here. If I constantly gripe about the weather then eventually a negative feedback loop will be established and I will begin thinking the weather is even worse than I did before. But an intentional shift in attitude, a refusal to gripe and complain, can do significant things to change my real attitude about the weather.
But that isn’t Christian theology, it’s just positive thinking. And positive thinking can’t pay the bills or reverse a diagnosis of cancer. God can, but often he doesn’t. So when he doesn’t and the doubts, questions, disappointment and anger come, what do you do? It is at this point that so many evangelicals who eschew prosperity theology generally allow it in the back door: don’t express your doubts, questions, disappointment and anger.
Unfortunately, in many cases the doubts, questions, disappointment and anger are more like unpaid bills or a cancer diagnosis than a sour attitude on the weather. Consequently, not expressing them honestly only makes them worse.
One time when I spoke on the problem of doubt a gentleman came up to me and shared how his grandson had received a bruise at eight months that kept getting larger. The parents took him in to the hospital. The doctors immediately suspected abuse, and the police seized all three of their children. Days later the hospital diagnosed the child with hemophilia. On the same day that the parents were exonerated the child received a life sentence. He would never be able to climb on a jungle gym or swing on a merry-go-round. All such activities would now, and forever, be verboten.
What do you say to a grandfather who shares this story? Do you encourage him to think positively? Or do you allow him the space to express all the natural emotions he is feeling? Until the neighborhood evangelical church is a safe place for expressing the full range of real human emotion, it will remain irrelevant to many of the people who need it most.