Note: This post is written as a response to some of the ideas contained in a blog post by Derek Rishmawy. My response is strongly filtered through my own experience, and the shared experiences of others in similar situations. Derek has been so kind as to comment, and point out some mistakes I’ve made in this post. I certainly failed to clearly differentiate between Rishmawy’s words and those of Keller. I also focused specifically on one element of Rishmawy’s words that I particularly disagreed with, but which did not represent the overall intent of Keller or Rishmawy. I share my story and opinions not to reject either Keller’s or Rishmawy’s beliefs, but to offer some points of disagreement that I feel are worthy of consideration. I pray that these words will carry the humility they should, and for the places where that humility is lacking, I sincerely apologize. -Micah
I remember what doubt feels like.
The terrifying silence crushing me when I tried to pray. The voices haunting my mind with a thousand questions every waking moment. The nagging fear that my entire spirituality was as all-in bet on a worthless hand, a house of cards about to collapse. I remember praying “Dear God, if you still exist…” It was only a few years ago, and I remember it all too well.
That’s why I must so strongly disagree with the ideas put forward by Timothy Keller in “Who Are You Sleeping With?”
Yesterday Derek Rishmawy wrote about his conversation with Keller, discussing the relationship between sex, doubt, and revival. In this blog post, Rishmawy detailed Keller’s assertion that “one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other.” He suggests that “many college students and young adults don’t want to turn to God… because He has opinions on sex we find restrictive.” According to Rishmawy, “the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more ‘doubtful’ for [students] once they’d had sex.” He concludes: “Only when Christians are courageous (and wise) enough to deal with our sex issues will we see …revival.”
Let me begin by saying that I have tremendous respect for Keller; his book The Reason for God provided a glimpse of hope for me during one of my darkest seasons of doubt. However, I believe that his thinking on this topic is deeply flawed. As one who has wrestled with doubt during my college years, I find his narrative inaccurate. And I feel that his conclusion only perpetuates the very problem he is attempting to address.
At the heart of Keller’s argument is the idea that our seasons of doubt are motivated by a desire to escape the authority of God because we enjoy illicit sex too much.
He equates “questions about evolution or philosophy” with a “troubled conscience”. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you my own story. In my own story, nothing could be further from the truth.
My dark season of doubt and questioning came during our first year of marriage. My wife and I had waited until marriage to have sex. We were living in love and purity. I was regularly attending church, giving, serving. I was in Bible college. I didn’t have a troubled conscience; I wasn’t trying to justify sin.
And yet, doubt.
I often hear suggestions similar to Keller’s – that questions are an attempt to justify sin, that doubts are an attempt to escape the moral law of God. Let me suggest a different narrative.
As I’ve said before, we are an entire generation with the broken pieces of our religion scattered on the floor around us. Raised in Christianity, we are attempting to make this faith our own.
Doubt is an essential part of that journey.
Looking back, I recognize my darkest moments of doubt as a turning point in my Christian faith. My temporary agnosticism was a religious deconstruction that has allowed faith take root deep in my heart. I don’t think my experience is unique. As I’ve talked with many of my generation who were raised in Christianity, I’ve found this journey to be something we overwhelmingly share.
This engaging/questioning/deconstructing/rebuilding process defines us.
And it’s not because we’re trying to justify sin. It’s because we’re trying to follow God. It’s hard to follow what you don’t really know; at some point, we need to examine everything we’ve been told since we were children and decide whether or not to make it our own. Doubt doesn’t necessarily indicate a heart far from God. It can be the most difficult season for a heart that is seeking God, but also the beginning of finding Him.
For most of my life, my “Christianity” was a religion of consequence avoidance and sin management.
I “got saved” because I didn’t want to go to hell, and then spent years attempting to “not sin” so that I could “please God”. I had no larger narrative for why I should avoid sin, other than that I owed this to God. Sure, I knew all about how it was “a relationship, not a religion” and how “we are saved by grace, not by works”, but my religion was essentially focused on morality. Do what’s right; don’t sin. A few promises of rewards in heaven, and a few assurances that “God’s way is best.” But altogether, it was rather arbitrary.
In this religious system, I spent most of my teenage years trying desperately to please God.
I regularly heard sermons about how to “be on fire for Christ” or “be used of God”. Always, it was the same thing: Read your Bible more. Pray more. Stop sinning. Do more. Try harder. (Sometimes, I was even the one preaching these sermons.)
Reading Keller’s words on revival, it was liking hearing those sermons again.
I know this is not what Keller believes or teaches, but that subtle current seems present in this particular line of thinking. To be fair, he says that Christians must present sex “within a God-intended framework that imbues it with meaning and value”. I couldn’t agree more. However, he also suggests that we must “deal with our sex issues” before we see revival in our generation. This is backwards. Healthy sexuality grows naturally from healthy spirituality, not vice versa. If we must overcome sin before we can turn to God, where is the power to overcome sin? This was my perpetual conundrum during those years of attempting to please God.
It was an impossible cycle, and I was trapped.
As a teenager, I literally thought I could chart my “spiritual health” on a line graph, with my only data point being how many times per day I snuck an eager glance at the lingerie section of a J.C. Penney catalog. I believed that the sum total of my relationship with God could be measured by my ability to control my sexual urges. Of course, this was a ludicrously flawed approach to spirituality.
If young people today are hesitant to turn to God, it’s not because “His opinions on sex are restrictive”. It’s because they think that following God is primarily about morality, about “not having sex”. It’s because they see Christianity as a list of beliefs to accept and sins to avoid. It’s because, despite all the right teaching and doctrine, it’s so often just about “trying harder”.
Morality should never be the goal of our spirituality, but rather the result.
Through the power of the Gospel, Jesus sets us free from sexual bondage. He heals our brokenness and invites us to live as citizens of His Kingdom. This is the beginning of revival. This is a compelling narrative. This is something worth believing in.
Technically, Keller was right; my deepest season of doubt was shortly after I started having sex. I was newly married, and a junior at college. But it wasn’t the sex that inspired my doubt. It was coming face to face with the deep questions of my heart and searching hard for answers.
Looking back, I’m so grateful for that year when I prayed without knowing if anyone was listening. I realize now that I was never far from God. But it wasn’t my own moral efforts that brought me close to Him again. It was a desperate prayer, whispered in scattered moments, scrawled on my hand so I couldn’t forget:
“I believe. Help my unbelief.”
[ Image: B. Werk ]
Update: Please take a moment to read this clarifying comment on the original post.
Related: Is Doubt an STD? (by Rachel Held Evans)
If you’ve struggled with doubt, would you be so kind as to leave a comment with a bit of your story?