Monday, November 16, 2015

BookPastor >> "Help My Unbelief" (Barnabas Piper)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on May 22nd, 2015.


TITLE: Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith
AUTHOR: Barnabas Piper
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2015, (176 pages).

Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Unbelief is not necessarily bad. In fact, for author Barnabas Piper, it is necessary for authentic faith. As a son of the famous evangelical, John Piper, Barnabas is no stranger to the Church or all things evangelical. Go to Church. Join the Sunday School. Have faith. Be baptized. Pray. Obey your parents. Believe in the Bible. Be well behaved, especially when you are a pastor's kid! Growing up in such an environment, there is a strong tendency to dumb down doubts so as to raise up the level of faith. It may work for kids, but as kids grow into young adults, they will start to be more inquisitive, to probe, and to question the norms. Looking at the famous words of Mark 9:24, which the book's title had borrowed from, Piper moves beyond the "Lord I believe" toward the "Help my unbelief" phase of life. He eases readers toward the tension of faith and doubt; belief and unbelief; the ups and downs of the spiritual life. There are parts of the Bible that are very clear to us, and parts that are mysterious. The reason for the tension is because both sides shed light on truth. The Bible does not simply spout out answers to life, it raises questions too. Asking questions does not mean a lack of faith. It simply means wanting to know the truth at a more profound level. It is acknowledging the mystery without giving up our faith. Such an attitude brings us back to what faith and belief is about. Knowledge without experience is incomplete.

Several topics are covered. Probing the topic of belief, we learn that even devils believe. Belief is not mere "mental assent" but connected to obedience and affirmative actions because of it. Belief is not just the right thoughts or concepts but actionable. Belief is about transformation of the individual from the inside out. Just having the right knowledge and belief is not enough. It demands a response. Just listening to a sermon is not enough. We need to act upon what we have heard. On knowing God, Piper helps us appreciate the place of mysteries, asking the question: "Would we love mysteries if we couldn't solve them?" Can we truly and fully comprehend God? While we may have intellectual agreement, the emotional and spiritual assents are quite different. Here, Piper adopts an apologetic angle, asking what it means to say God is infinite and God is perfect. The trouble with many people is that they tend to equate goodness and perfection according to their own world standards or some metaphysical level that is impossible to understand. Knowing God is not about knowledge. It is about a personal relationship. When this personal relationship is established, trust, confidence, assurance, and faith will come into play not merely at an intellectual level but something deeper. He tackles some contemporary responses to God and religion, addressing secularist culture as well atheists like Richard Dawkins. In trying to see from the perspectives of world under the umbrella of relevance, we may have unwittingly failed to see more from the perspective of God under the context of reverence. On prayer, Piper goes back to Mark 9:24 to ask about the origin of the father's five words, "I believe; Help my unbelief." It is not a statement but a request. It is not a request aimed anywhere but directed at Jesus. It is not a prayer of disbelief but a desire to want to believe. We may not have perfect faith but we can certainly ask.

The central theme of the book is faith and doubt, which Piper compares and contrasts it to the "already"/"not yet" tension. Two main categories are described. The first is "unbelieving doubt" which is a crippling kind of idea that refuses to let God be God. It is rebellion. It does not want to seek out answers other than self-revelation. Whatever questions raised lead one toward unbelief. The second is "believing doubt" which is a kind of questioning that leads to faith and a desire to want to believe. There is much grace in it. It is this second category that the author places more emphasis upon, to encourage us to be bold to ask questions and also to be conscious that there will always be a point of mystery that we simply had to wait and trust God to reveal in good time. Another important topic is the "how do we believe" question. Aware that methods and strategies are limited by themselves, readers are encouraged to avoid the kind of faith that remains only at a mental level. There must be transformation. There needs to be a desire to honour God, not just believing the right things or winning the correct arguments. It is ultimately about that relationship with God. The more we know God, the more we can trust and not become victims of atheistic slander or secularist doubters. Those who do not know God will fall prey to all kinds of doubt. The assurance Piper has for us is that our spiritual journey is less of "arrive at belief" but more of living in the "not yet." The five word prayer is a statement and prayer of desire to know God more.

So What?

The world is more broken than what some of us may think. N.D. Wilson's foreword is rather shocking, "This book is a tragedy" in reference to why the book even needs to be written in the first place. We are living in a postmodern, post-post-Christendom era where creeds and statements of faith are no longer taken at face value but questioned at the deepest level. With Western society being secular, and in some cases very atheistic, Christians need to learn to deal with unreasonable attacks without surrendering honest doubts. This is where this book comes in. It helps us to address the deeper questions of faith. It enables us to ask questions that respect the tensions between faith and doubt. I sense the author's burden for the generation of Church-going children growing up into teenagers and young adulthood. A good Sunday School that teaches the Bible and religious knowledge is not enough. This generation are not content with glib answers or merely being told to trust God or to repeat the mantra, "Jesus is the Answer." They want to know why. They want to go beyond being told what is the right answer. They need to search out who is the Person of Christ.

I think that is a very important question. It is not what we believe or what we do but who we know and who we trust that is going to help us in our spiritual walk. If we do not know God, we will be vulnerable to all kinds of attack. If we know God, we are ready to remain faithful even when we do not know all the answers to the questions thrown at us. Even adults will need a reminder that they must also grow in the knowledge and relationship with God. People can question our theologies or our thoughts about the things of God. They can even doubt our beliefs and statements of faith. When it comes to a personal relationship and a testimony, they will not be able to penetrate the shield of a tight relationship with God. At that point, it is not because of our experience that protects us. It is God.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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