I recently finished the new book Help My Unbelief by Barnabas Piper, son of famed pastor and author John Piper. I became familiar with Barnabas (we will pretend we are on a first name basis. He responded to a Facebook message I sent him once and he follows me on Twitter) through a podcast that he does along with Stephen Altrogee and Ted Kluck called The Happy Rant, which is basically the Reformed Evangelical version of a hybrid between TMZ and The Daily Show. Maybe more just like Evangelical sports talk. Anyway, I have fallen in love with that podcast, (I actually think it might be the funniest thing since Seinfeld) so I was curious to pick up Barnabas’s new book and seeing it was on a topic that is often neglected in Evangelical circles, namely doubt, I was super excited.
Help My Unbelief is not the best book I have ever read. In fact, it isn’t even the best book I have read this summer, but it is certainly one of the most refreshing and honest books I have read in a very long time. In the world where it seems like a new Systematic Theology book comes out nearly every year and there are hundreds of Christian blogs trying to answer every question ever asked, it is nice to have a book that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Barnabas really doesn’t act like he has any answers. It is basically 150 pages of “I don’t know, but God is God and God is good.”
The book is honestly worth the price just for the forward by N. D. Wilson. It made me tear up. Here is a taste. Wilson writes,
“It doesn’t matter what we might have, we still are broken. We disobey. We fail. We sin. And every sinful act is an act of unbelief, a failure to live out what we truly affirm.
Thank God out salvation is not dependent on an absence of our own fears. Our failures. Our doubts. In fact out salvation is not dependent on us at all. It doesn’t depend on how we feel. It doesn’t depend on how well we answer challenges and questions, and it doesn’t depend on how deeply and authentically we really, really feel out answers deep down in our hearts.
Our salvation is on the cross. No matter how broken we may be, no matter how much we might struggle and fail to see and to know the truth (every truth) clearly, we can rest in the one who sees all and knows all. When we cannot see, we are atill seen. Even when we stare at out own sputtering joy (and the more we stare the more it stutters) so intently that we lose sight of the cross, the One on the cross does not lose sight of us.
We are His. We cost Him everything. And His clear eyes will never lose track – or ownership – of what He purchased. His confidence never wanes. Feel how you may, struggle how you may, once bought , once loved with His blood,you cannot slip from His hands.
For those who are His but still doubt, for those who have ever loved Him but disobeyed, the task is simple as it is impossible to do on out own. We are to see as clearly, to love as surely, to rejoice as confidently, and to know the Father as well as He does.
It is the journey of journeys, the trek that we shall never finish, and it begins today, with one foot lifted. Now the other. Repeat. The answer to all your doubts and failures begins here: You are not the answer. He is.
Do you want to believe? Then you already do. And that is the beating heart of this book.
Belief is from Him. Ask for it, and in the asking, you have already received.
Do not worry about your own weakness. Stop fearing your own suckling reflections and your distressingly philosophical navel. Ignore your empty emotional hands. Those are your qualifications for His grace. His hands are full. And you are in then.
Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.
And so it will be until the graves are emptied.”
Barnabas invites us to doubt. He invited us to ask questions that may have been frowned upon in Sunday School. He invites us into the tension of doubt and faith. He invited us to say “I don’t know.” And that is exactly what many of us need.
It turns out that I wanted, and often still want, a god that I can pin down or put in a box. I want a god that I can fully understand. A god made in my image. I want a god that answers to me. I want a god that I am sovereign over. I want a god that is unworthy of my worship. Turns out that isn’t the real God. It just so happens that the real God is beyond my comprehension and does what He wants. And He doesn’t have to answer any of my questions.
Evelyn Underhill says “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”
I wanted that small god that can’t be worshiped.
So why is there suffering in the world? Sure, it is because there was sin. But why did God create the world with then possibility of sin? To give us free will to truly love Him. But then that doesn’t really line up with Reformed theology. I don’t know. Jonathan Edwards has this whole book about why God created the world and apparently the amount of joy in the world is maximized with the fall and then redemption. Maybe so, but I’m sure I could find loopholes in his argument. (Not that I think I’m smarter than Jonathan Edwards.)
How is original sin fair? I didn’t chose to be a sinner? Yeah I know the whole federal headship thing, but still.
Why doesn’t God save everyone? Sure I know the right question is why does God save anyone, but I still don’t like it.
Why is unbelief the greatest sin? Why is the greatest sin not acknowledging God when millions of people are in the sex trade and people get raped and murdered? I get that God is the ultimate good and that all sin is a result of unbelief but God doesn’t need us and we can’t really hurt him but we can hurt other people.
Why do bad things happen to “good” people? Yeah I know that only happened once. I know babies are sinners too but childhood cancer just seems cruel.
Basically I just don’t know.
But, Barnabas does not leave us here. He invites us to embrace the unknown and plunge head first into a deeper faith.
God doesn’t give us what we want, but He gives us what He wants to give us. I must trust that. I don’t know why, but I know God. I know the God that knows why. God gives us enough to know what we need to know and follow Him.
Corrie ten Boom has said “never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
I find it really cool (and kind of ironic in a world of Calvinists that think they can answer every theological question) that scholars think John Calvin’s favorite bible verse was Deuteronomy 29: 29 which includes the words “the secret things belong to The Lord our God.”
God says He is good and loving and merciful and that is the only hope I have. I will continue to run into questions I can’t answer. I will continue to stumble and fall. I will continue to doubt. But as R. C. Sproul says “we are secure, not because we hold tightly to Jesus, but because He holds tightly to us.” The God that says He is good and loving merciful is holding on tightly to me and doesn’t have any plans of letting go.
Faith doesn’t always make perfect sense. As Barnabas mentions, it is not illogical, but it goes beyond finite human logic. It is certainly reasonable but cannot be rationalized.
In the words of Fredrixh Beuchner,
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”