Friendship Through a Faith Crisis

Lessons in Counseling Others

Article by

Professor, Houston Baptist University

What do we say to someone who’s going through a faith crisis?

Of course, it depends on what exactly the person is going through and what is specific about this crisis. As we get to know someone in such a crisis — let’s call her Mary Ann — we might discover that she is bothered about God’s portrayal in the Bible and has begun to feel attracted to another worldview that is “more positive” than Christianity. Or maybe we start to wonder whether her doubts about God are mostly due to an unwillingness to let go of a sexual relationship with her best friend. Or we find out she was traumatized this past year by being taken advantage of by a leader in the church.

Every faith crisis is unique, and recognizing its uniqueness is an important part of caring for people well and treating them with the respect due to anyone made in God’s image. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). Listening carefully to Mary Ann builds trust, and our obvious concern, the kinds of questions we ask, and our body language lets her know that we believe she’s worth listening to.

Drawing Out Deep Waters

Of special importance is the listener’s responsibility to take seriously the reason(s) that a person gives for the struggle — even if we come to believe that there is more going on than what he is aware of (which is often the case). “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5). Human finitude and sinfulness being what they are, we often don’t know ourselves very well, especially early in the healing journey called Christianity, so we may not be aware of the reasons why we’re struggling with something. Such a recognition, for example, drove David to ask God to search him and open him up by helping him become aware of any “grievous way” in him that was an obstacle to the everlasting way of life in God (Psalm 139:23–24).

“Every faith crisis is unique, and recognizing its uniqueness is an important part of caring for people well.”

So, let’s suppose that after talking with Mary Ann for half an hour, we learn that she was baptized a few years ago and has been going to church regularly ever since, but she has recently come to believe that she’s so terribly unworthy of God’s love that God no longer wants anything more to do with her. However, she doesn’t seem to have any concrete sins that she has recently committed or currently is living in that might explain her overwhelming sense of shame and guilt. As a result, we begin to wonder if her problem may be due to having a distorted view of God.

Knowledge of God and Ourselves

To help us understand her, we are going to rely on a fundamental psychological insight implied by biblical passages like Psalm 139, Genesis 1:28–29, and the twofold love command (Matthew 22:37–39). This insight is developed considerably by Augustine and clearly articulated by John Calvin in the opening of his magisterial work, Institutes of the Christian Religion: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of oneself are intimately interwoven, and which one comes first is hard to discern. Our gifts and our poverties, Calvin wrote, differentially point us to God’s riches, and understanding oneself as an image of God would seem to require some knowledge of the personal Archetype we were made to be in relation with. So, it seems likely that a lack of either of these two interrelated forms of “true and sound wisdom” (to use Calvin’s words) could contribute to a crisis of faith.

In Mary Ann’s case, we can see how her knowledge of God and of herself seem thoroughly interrelated, for she insists that her sense of God’s displeasure with her is due solely to her wickedness and selfishness. She says it’s because he’s so good and so holy that he has to be displeased with her.

Knowledge of Others

In recent years, I’ve suggested that Calvin’s twofold model of wisdom could be enhanced with the inclusion of the knowledge of other humans (for example, in God and Soul Care). A vast amount of research over the past century has documented a profound correlation between the quality of one’s early social experiences and one’s adult self-understanding that probably could not be adequately appreciated in Calvin’s time.

In addition, what might be the influence of one’s experiences with an earthly father on one’s later experiences of our Father in heaven, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15)? Both fathers and mothers, after all, are images of God of some sort (Genesis 1:27; 9:6) — typological representations, as it were, of the form of God one later encounters, so that countless emotion-laden interactions with them would presumably shape one’s perceptions of the Archetype; and that is just what a much smaller, but still significant, number of studies have found (for one, Pehr Granqvist’s Attachment in Religion and Spirituality).

Among the conclusions that can be drawn from those studies are that adult believers are most likely to experience God as having a relational style that resembles that of their parents, though they are rarely aware of the resemblance; and adult children of believers are more likely to share their parents’ faith the more the parenting they experienced was characterized by both love (a generally positive emotional connection, responsiveness, and support) and structure (establishment of rules and standards and enforcement of consequences), rather than by structure alone (Doug Oman, “Spiritual Modeling and the Social Learning of Spirituality and Religion”).

As a result, I think we are warranted today in seeing that “true and sound wisdom” consists of three parts — the knowledge of God, the knowledge of self, and the knowledge of others. Furthermore, the fact that we grow up fallen ourselves, in families that vary considerably in the quality of the image-bearing of the parents, significantly affects all three aspects of our interrelational knowledge.

“The knowledge of God and the knowledge of oneself are intimately interwoven.”

So, we might ask Mary Ann some questions about her relationship with her parents, and we find out it was not so good. She made her parents angry a lot when she was little, she says, and they have been critical of her throughout her life, especially her dad. But she points out that they needed to be, because she was such a disobedient child — impossible to handle and difficult to be around.

God Concept, God Image

Over the past few decades, some psychologists, many of them Christian, have begun distinguishing between what they term the “God concept” — one’s conscious, mental beliefs about God, mostly shaped by one’s religious tradition and education — and the “God image” — one’s emotion-laden, often unconscious sense of God, especially shaped by one’s early-childhood relational history. These two psychological “models” of God often correspond to each other in adult believers. Specifically, those who grew up in loving, well-structured families are more likely to believe that God is both loving and just, and experience him that way; whereas people who grew up in less loving or structured families are more likely to believe that God is rather punitive or uninvolved (respectively).

In some cases, however, well-taught adults who grew up in families where negative relational experiences were common are split in these two perspectives of God. They hold beliefs that God is loving and just (intellectually), but they have difficulty experiencing him as loving (in their heart). Such findings suggest that one’s early childhood experiences of parents are more deeply internalized than the information one learns, and the resultant self-other perceptions become the creational/fallen filter through which we have relationships with other persons, including God.

Knowing something of a person’s developmental-relational dynamics, then, might help illuminate a particular crisis of faith. At the very least, it might help explain why having good theology (sound knowledge about God) doesn’t necessarily affect one’s deeper perception and experience of God accordingly (knowing God personally and feeling known by him).

Some might object that such reflections are really more psychological and social than they are theological, and that we should avoid the former and focus exclusively on the latter. But if Calvin is correct that our knowledges of God and self thoroughly interpenetrate each other, then building on Calvin’s insights by incorporating the social/relational dimension might give us some additional resources for making sense of someone’s crisis of faith.

In addition to the underlying influence of humanity’s original sinfulness and the possibility of some degree of personal sin, perhaps Mary Ann’s knowledge (and past experience) of other humans damaged her self-understanding and relational understanding, which is affecting her current experience of God in relation to herself. Making such connections does not offer an excuse — all normal adults are responsible before God for the light they’ve been given (Romans 1:18) — but it could offer a partial explanation, as well as a partial pathway to recovery, with help from the Holy Spirit.

We Know in Part

Considerations like these, moreover, might help us understand some of the specific conditions of the widely acknowledged limits we have in our knowledge of God. Because of our finitude and God’s infinitude, many theologians have argued that we can know (and perceive and experience) God only analogically (for example, Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2). This means we can know God truly, as much as we can know him, but there is far more of God that lies beyond our knowledge and experience (Romans 11:33). Creaturely limitations in knowing God can obviously be due to poor theology (one’s God concept), but some limitations of some believers could also be due to damage to their relational-perceptual capacities that occurred long before they became personal agents.

If so, supposing that one’s representations of God — one’s God concept and God image — are the necessary psychological means by which one can know, perceive, and experience the true and living God, we could prayerfully seek to expand Mary Ann’s understanding of God by exploring with her what she believes about God (her God concept, for that is far easier to change than her God image), and if distorted, we could encourage her to read a good book about God’s nature that summarizes the divine self-revelation recorded in the Bible (through education/catechesis), like A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy or J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.

“Having good theology doesn’t necessarily affect one’s deeper perception and experience of God accordingly.”

If her doctrinal understanding of God seems relatively sound, however, then we could consider with her the possibility that the cause of her faith crisis could lie in a distorted God image, and suggest she explore how her knowledge and experience of her parents may have affected it, perhaps with the help of a Christian therapist trained for such (often lengthy) work. Such an explanation can enable a bruised believer like Mary Ann, overwhelmed with shame, to gain some necessary objectivity, in order to disidentify with a faulty God image that seems so true experientially.

Healing a Broken Image

It is God’s intention that a biblically shaped God concept, together with the Holy Spirit, guide the transformation of one’s God image, so that it too gradually becomes more conformed to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. This deeper knowledge through experience, however, occurs through many, many times of communion with God through the reading of Scripture experientially (and not just intellectually), Christian meditation, and deeply relational prayer (as modeled and described in the writings of saints like Samuel Rutherford, Richard Sibbes, and Jonathan Edwards).

Moreover, it also seems to be God’s intention that this experiential knowledge of him be concretely confirmed and reinforced in the mutual, experiential knowledge of others through close personal relationships with those who resemble God more than their early caregivers did (for example, in pastoral counsel, spiritual friendships, and therapy relationships). And then there is the good God does in the Christian soul, week in and week out, through corporate worship as together, with fellow believers, we receive his word afresh by the Holy Spirit and faith, and are enabled to respond in prayer and praise.

Crises of faith are unpredictable, and sometimes people fall away in spite of our best efforts to help. Nevertheless, those who suffer from a distorted perception of God may benefit from conversations with a pastor or friend who is steeped in the threefold wisdom that Christianity has been working out since its founding.