Keep the faith

Keep the faith: Shift your Thinking on Doubt is a book that I was very keen to get my hands on. This has been a year spent fighting for faith in the face of a range of struggles and doubts. Any help in dealing with issues of doubt and battling from a biblical standpoint in this area has been warmly welcomed. So I was full of anticipation as I began reading Keep the Faith and I dearly wanted to ‘love’ this book.

I liked a lot of it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. I’m very encouraged by the approach and direction that shapes this book, but it didn’t leave me satisfied that it had achieved all it could.

The central thesis is very sound. In today’s world Christian thinking and ways are no longer mainstream. Many intelligent and articulate people dismiss Christian faith as outdated, irrelevant, unsubstantiated myths, and sometimes even downright dangerous. We live in an atmosphere of unbelief and this can wear away at Christian faith.

Faith is helpfully explained as ‘trust’ or ‘reliance’. Faith is more than an intellectual assent or belief that something is true. It is a willingness to act on the basis of this belief. The distinctive of Christian faith, as opposed say to trusting the accuracy of the weather forecast and not taking an umbrella, is that so much rides on it. We’re dealing with matters of life and death, meaning and purpose. So both faith and doubt are hugely significant when it comes to Christianity.

Ayres warns the Christian of the importance of taking preventative measures so that we are not easily swayed, and so that we understand where people, including ourselves, are coming from. His key point here is to demolish any claims to neutrality when it comes to considering God. This is true both for those who reject God and those who follow him. We all bring our prejudices and predispositions to bear on our thinking and choices. He argues clearly from Romans 1, that every person has an awareness of God, that’s displayed in the creation. And that rather than accepting this revelation and honouring God, people choose to suppress this knowledge and replace God with other things in their lives.

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…  (Romans 1:18-23)

The implications of this run deep. He demonstrates that there is a moral component to rejecting God. It’s not simply that people are persuaded that the evidence doesn’t stack up. It’s that people do not want there to be a God who has a right to direct their lives. It’s a picture of a creation in rebellion against its creator. This might seem a rather harsh or insensitive analysis, but we should remember we’re not talking about abstract intellectual ideas. We’re talking about a relational God who lovingly desires a relationship with those he has made in his image. Ignoring God is to turn our back on this offer of relationship.

Martin Ayres describes atheists, and others who dismiss God, as being guilty of wishful thinking. I found this a somewhat refreshing change, because I’m more used to hearing arguments from the other side that Christians are the wishful thinkers (or non-thinkers!). While acknowledging that Christians are also guilty of wishful thinking, the bulk of the argument focuses on why we do not want there to be a God. He quotes the intellectual atheist, Thomas Nagel, saying:

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.  (p52; quoting T. Nagel, The Last Word, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, pp.130-31)

The first part of this book helpfully critiques the claims to neutrality in assessing Christianity. It just can’t be done. I know a number of people who’ve sought to step away from Christian faith, for a time, to reassess their beliefs and the evidence for them. They’ve wanted to sit on the fence as an objective observer. The fact is, there’s no fence to sit on! One friend, decided to give himself 12 months to weigh up his beliefs. He read Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and others. But this was nowhere near a neutral stance. He gave all the airtime to hearing from the atheists for that period. It was, sadly, no surprise to see him giving up on his faith.

The latter half of Keep the Faith encourages the reader to shift the way they act. This is not merely an intellectual struggle, it’s a spiritual one, and there are helpful strategies to follow. Ayres moves away from such approaches as learning about the reliability of the Bible, or the evidence for the resurrection, or the scientific or philosophical arguments for the existence of God. While acknowledging their place, and also recognising the benefits of focusing on how God has transformed lives, he offers another approach:

There are three things, however, that will equip every single Christian – regardless of who they are or where they are in their faith – to face doubts. Remember these three things as you begin to shift the way you act and continue on your journey in the Christian faith. When you’re struggling to keep the faith:

  • remember the Fall
  • remember your redeemer
  • remember the stakes.  (p83)

Ayres encourages us to doubt our doubts, and not let them dominate our thinking. Keep remembering what you are persuaded by, what you don’t doubt, rather than feeding and watering the doubts until they outgrow everything else. He encourages us to keep investing in our Christian lives and ministry, as this helps us keep perspective as we grapple with issues. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, from God in prayer and from mature Christians who may well have travelled a similar path.

Four chapters in the final section focus on Jesus and the incident when he raised his friend, Lazarus, after he’d been dead for four days. We’re given an insight into the character of Jesus, his love and compassion for others, his power and authority even over death, and his call for us to trust him. Jesus is shown to be able to do anything – even eradicate our doubts. Ayres claims that the more we focus on Jesus, the more delighted we’ll be. It’s a bit like any relationship, the more we avoid someone and choose to spend time with others, the less likely we are to stick together. How dangerous this can be for a marriage. How dangerous to our Christian faith, if we pay no regard to Jesus and only listen to the naysayers.

The final chapter calls us to remember the stakes. Unlike choosing a hobby or sport, making a decision about Jesus has eternal consequences. Take your doubts seriously. God has spoken and he calls us to listen to his word, not to be like those who chose to ignore him and perished. Doubts are not to be ignored and pushed aside. They’re to be confronted by listening carefully, with a humble heart, to the life-giving, life-changing word of God.

What I’ve described above is a book that offers an important and helpful perspective on how we can shift our thinking on doubt. It’s worth seriously taking these things on board. This isn’t really the book for those wanting to get the guts of the Christian message, or for the unbeliever to be persuaded of the truth of Christianity. They’d be better off reading Ayres’ first book, Naked God. Nor is it a book of apologetics, answering the questions or defeater beliefs that are challenging Christianity today. Something like Keller’s The Reason for God would be more useful. And I would argue that these types of books, together with honest reading of the Bible, are also very important in confronting our doubts. Keeping the Faith is a complement to these approaches.

So then, what are my concerns? What bothered me about this book? I will list a few points.

I felt there could be a stronger sense of empathy with those who are seriously struggling with doubt. Ayers’ concern for those who are struggling is evidenced by his writing this book and I’m very grateful to him for writing it. However, I would have been helped to hear of his struggles, or perhaps more case studies of those who have struggled, how their struggles impacted them, what they found helpful and unhelpful, and how their thinking shifted. I think a book like this needs to demonstrate that the author understands me, and more could be done to show this.

The section on wishful thinking is very helpful but, I fear, rather unbalanced. Far more attention is given to the unbelievers’ wishful thinking, than the Christian’s. This is appropriate at one level in such a book, but I felt that more could be said to help the believer who is being attacked for their wishful thinking – more than simply ‘atheists do it too’.

At a couple of points I was disappointed by short-hand references, even jargon, that assumed the reader was thinking in line with the author. The most significant of these was the reference to ‘the Fall’ in the chapter 10. When I remember the Fall, I’m taken back to Genesis 3. However, Genesis 3 doesn’t get a mention in the book and I’m guessing Ayres assumes we will link back to his exposition of Romans 1 instead. I think it was unhelpful to use ‘the Fall’ as a heading without reference to Genesis 3. Indeed, it could have been helpful to go back to Genesis and talk about the spiritual challenge to doubting God’s goodness and his promises, the human desire for independence, and the disaster we create as we defy God.

I had a similar concern over the references to ‘worship’ and ‘spiritual disciplines’ in chapter 11. While I agree that, if we worship straight, we can think straight (p103), there is too much confusion over worship to assume that people will understand what Ayres is meaning. He does go on to show that true worship focuses on Jesus, our redeemer, but I wonder if people will get stuck reading their own definitions of ‘worship’ into this equation.

One last concern I will mention is the final chapter. Ayers takes the reader to Hebrews 6, one of the most disputed and difficult passages in the Bible, in the closing part of the book. This is a very important passage and warrants attention in a book on this topic. His explanations of the passage in its context are very insightful. But the discussion is brief and to drop it into the final chapter seemed strange to me. People need time to work through this passage, to be satisfied they’ve understood it, and to feel its weight. This is a tough call in the final chapter of the book.

Having read this book over a couple of times now, I want to thank Martin Ayers for addressing this massive pastoral issue. I’ve seen it trouble new Christians and long term missionaries. We need to help one another through these struggles. Read over the book and take on board its lessons. I think you’ll find it helpful, and it should help you to help others.

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