A Questionable Doubt

In my last post I discussed my experience at the RZIM Academy. The topics for the next few posts will be based on the written interactions and reflections that were part of the experience.

In one conversation towards the end of the Academy, a man posted questions he had about doubts that he was experiencing. He explained that certain situations cause him to severely doubt the truth of Christianity, such as someone making an intellectual attack on a Christian concept, or a Christian having a completely different view than his own.

He wondered what the nature of these doubts were. Were they an immediate emotional response to the situation at hand? Were they “doubts of the will”, where a deep-seeded attitude caused doubt about something he knew to be true? Or were they truly intellectual doubts?

I discussed the nature of certain types of doubt in a previous post, but still wanted to share my response to these questions. Below is my unedited response:

I identified with just about everything you said here. Especially the part about Christians having different views, and people poking fun at Christians on their beliefs. In fact, a few thoughts/doubts sprung up today after watching a clip of an interview between Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. In the clip, Maher takes a few shots at Christianity, such as it’s all made up stories.

It seems like your primary question is how to differentiate between the different types of doubt. When you have a moment of doubt like I did today, is that just doubt due to some emotion you have, or are there legitimate intellectual doubts involved? I think it can be difficult to make that judgement when going through doubt, but there are a few things that could help.

One thing you could do is a self-reflection at the moment of your doubt. Why am I having this doubt? Is there good reason to have this doubt? I think if you’re doubting immediately after hearing someone insult Christians or Christianity, you’re likely experiencing emotional doubt for the most part. You’re reacting to a one-time event based upon how you feel at that moment. But if a serious doubt about some intellectual topic is lingering in your mind for weeks, or months, or longer, there’s good reason to think that your doubt is primarily intellectual.

The doubt of the will is a newer concept to me, so I’m unsure of how you would “diagnose” that. I’m sure prayer and having conversations with others would be a big part of it. It seems like doubt of the will is something we would often be “blind” to through our own self-reflection.

Here are some questions I would have for someone in your situation, and I’ll also explain why I’m asking the question:

Have these doubts that you talk about been present for a significant amount of time? (If the same doubt has been present for a long time, there’s probably more going on than pure emotional doubt).

Assuming your doubt is about an intellectual topic, would there be a substantial change in your lifestyle or central belief system if your view about that topic changed? (If not, you may be worrying too much about the doubt you are experiencing).

What caused these doubts to spring up in the first place? (If the doubts stem from an insult about Christianity, they might be more of an emotional response to someone trying to tear down your views).

I gave this answer directly to a Christian, but I think the three questions I listed above can apply to people who hold any worldview.

 

 

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My RZIM Experience

A few months ago, I signed up for the RZIM Academy, a twelve week course run by the ministry of Ravi Zacharias. The course is set up to train Christians how to engage “questioners” – people of various worldviews that may have questions about the Christian worldview. It also helps Christians to better understand their own worldview and several other prevailing worldviews.

Going into the course, I expected the focus to be on learning about Christianity through videos of RZIM speakers. Now, after the course is done, I realize that the focus wasn’t on the learning – it was on the application. The practical experience of engaging in conversations was the thing that challenged and changed me the most.

This experience came through assignments set up at various points during the course. Some assignments were reflection-based, like writing a summary of how morality is incorporated into my worldview. Those assignments were helpful as they challenged me to narrow down the components of my worldview that are most important.

Two other assignments involved setting up an interview with someone who had a different view than my own. During the interview, I asked the person I interviewed to explain his views on four topics that apply to basically every worldview. These topics were origin (where did everything come from?), meaning (What is the meaning of life?), morality (how do we determine what is good or evil?), and destiny (What happens to you after your death?). During the interview, I could not express my own views unless the other person specifically asked what my views were. I simply needed to listen and ask clarifying questions when I wasn’t clear about something the person said.

Listening to the person I interviewed helped me to get an in-depth understanding of what he believed about reality. The questions provided an opportunity for the person to open up more than he would have otherwise, sometimes diving into personal background about how he came to the conclusions he had. I was amazed at how natural these conversations were, and very surprised when one person asked me what my views were.

You might be wondering why all this stuff I’m talking about matters. Why do I care so much about talking to people about the things they believe? For one, I believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have a responsibility to relay truth about reality to the people around me. But more specifically, God has given me a huge passion for learning about various worldviews and talking to people who hold those views. I cannot fully explain why I have this passion, but I know it’s there.

So yes, I have some knowledge about what different people believe and sure, I enjoy having deep conversations with people. But the RZIM Academy has made me realize that while knowledge and passion are important, they are not as important as my attitude and tone within a conversation.

Let me give a few contrasting examples to show you what I mean. I could either use my knowledge to spout out my views until the day’s end, or I could share that knowledge out of compassion for someone who is asking difficult, sincere questions. I could either use my passion by tearing down someone’s view in order to show them that I’m right, or by taking an opportunity to learn what someone believes and respond to them in a way they can identify with.

The first halves of the sentences above show scenarios where knowledge and passion are used in selfish ways. The second halves show scenarios where the person I am talking to is the focus. And for me, that is the big takeaway from the RZIM Academy. When engaging in conversations, the focus is on the other person, not myself. My goal isn’t to win an argument for the sake of winning. Instead, my goals are to listen to people, to respect who they are, and to extend love and compassion in a matter consistent with the God I follow.

I don’t know exactly how my knowledge and passion will be used in the future, but the RZIM Academy has helped me to understand the manner in which I should use them.

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Why Happiness Isn’t the Answer

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous conversations about my future. In these conversations, I’ve noticed one piece of advice presented more often than any other: “Do what makes you happy”. I felt uncomfortable when this phrase became the instant answer to what I should do with my future. But I couldn’t pinpoint why.

It seems like a common sense notion. We want to be happy in what we do for a career. Happy in relationships or marriage. Happy in sipping a cup of coffee in the morning. A life full of happiness, it seems, is the best life to have.

But as I thought about it more, I realized why I still felt uncomfortable. Something seemed wrong with using happiness as a foundation to base all of your life decisions upon. Specifically, I considered three factors that cause happiness to fall short of being this dependable foundation.

If falls short because it’s feeling-based. There are many ways to define the word “happy”, but the definition almost always revolves around some sort of feeling. While this feeling is a desirable one to have, basing your life predominately off a feeling creates a problem: it leaves you holding on to an unstable foundation.

As humans, our feelings fluctuate; we can feel happy one moment, sad the next, and angry later on. Since our feelings change so often, depending on any one feeling will leave you unstable as you go through the ups and downs of life. A good foundation would involve something that stays constant as feelings fluctuate. Happiness is not that foundation.

Happiness also falls short because it’s temporary. Something that causes us to have an overarching sense of happiness can easily fade away, whether in ten years or tomorrow. For example, if you are working at a job that makes you consistently happy, and you are laid off from that job, the feeling of happiness you received from that job disintegrates.

When happiness becomes a life foundation, we can try to solidify the foundation with things we think will make us happy. But once those things are gone, the foundation crumbles. A good life foundation would involve something that lasts at least a lifetime, and doesn’t rely on things that could be gone tomorrow. Happiness, again, is not that foundation.

Finally, happiness falls short because a focus on happiness leads to an unrealistic view of the future. When people think about the future events that could make them happy, they often idealize future outcomes – everything will go right, and nothing will go wrong. This mindset may lead to comments like, “If [insert event here] happens in my life, I’ll finally be happy.”

A common example of this idealization involves dating relationships. Let’s say a man who is single thinks that a dating relationship is the one thing that will make him happy. The man enters into a relationship and begins to experience plenty of happy moments. But the relationship eventually leads to moments of anger, disappointment, and jealousy. The man may overall be more happy than he was before, but the the ideal sense of happiness he visualized never came.

Just like this man, we might think that a particular event will give us a constant sense of happiness. But any event in our lives is bound to bring both happy and unhappy moments. The prediction that we will finally be happy if only something happens is simply unrealistic. A good foundation would provide a realistic picture of the future, even if we don’t know exactly what will take place. Happiness is not that foundation.

What is that foundation? I may tackle that question in a future post. But for now, I’ll say that it’s not happiness because it fails to:
1. Stay constant as feelings fluctuate
2. Last for a lifetime or longer
3. Offer a realistic picture of the future

This post is not intended to be an “attack on happiness”; I hope that all of our lives are abundant with happy moments. Instead, I wrote this post because I see an over-emphasis of happiness permeating throughout our culture, where it becomes the main thing that drives the decisions people make.

But happiness doesn’t deserve to be the driver. Our lives can be used for purposes much greater than the purpose of being individually happy. And that’s why “do what makes you happy” is an incomplete answer to an important life decision.

More simply put, happiness isn’t the answer.

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The Four “p’s” of Decision Making

I have not written a post for a long time, and there is a reason for that. In my last post, I mentioned that I am in a significant life decision process. And over the past few months, I have been in the midst of that process, facing decision after decision in rapid-fire form. This process could continue on for months – I really don’t know. But I wanted to write about some resources that have helped me thus far.

In the beginning of this process, I wanted to establish one main thing: I was going to seek God in this decision process. I set aside one day to fast from food. The fasting was a way to physically express that I was going to need to depend on God and to focus on Him throughout this process. I also prayed that day, and prayer has been happening on a daily basis since. I’ve been asking God to help me with the confusing aspects of the decisions I’ve had to make, and to provide clarity where it is needed.

As I’ve talked to people about my situation, they have offered to pray for me as well. It’s amazing that several people volunteered to do so without me asking them to. People haven’t only helped me through prayer. They have taken the time to listen as I explain all the complexities of my decisions, and to offer thoughts that have helped me in many cases.

In one case, I talked to Greg Koukl, who hosts a radio show called Stand to Reason. After listening to my situation, Greg offered some thoughts that were very helpful. My big take-away from that conversation came when Greg basically summarized what I told him. He said that I seem to be asking, “What opportunity or situation is more consistent with my abilities or my propensities or my goals?”

After hearing that summary, I immediately thought, “YES! That was exactly what I was thinking this whole time – I just never thought to put it in that way!” That conversation changed the way I thought through my situation, and how I described it to others. Conversations like this one have slowly given me clarity in spots where I was once confused.

When clarity comes slowly, I have found it difficult to be patient. There are plenty of moments when I want it all to be over – to see the end result now. But I know that patience is needed when making a big decision. I wouldn’t want to make a decision “on a whim” only to regret that decision later. Time is needed to be in prayer, to consider the various factors involved with the decision, and to gain confidence in making the right decision.

One practical resource that has helped me in this process is the classic “pro-con” list. In its simplest form, this type of list lays out the advantages and disadvantages of making a particular decision. But the format that has most helped me is a little more complex, and could be called a “comparison chart”.  Perhaps this format could help you as well, so below is a sample showing how this chart is laid out. In this sample, I made up a decision someone needs to make between two job options – Viewing Corp and Out Inc:

PC list sample5

In a sense, this type of list spells out the pros and cons of a decision, but it does so by analyzing each specific factor involved in that decision. I like using this comparison chart because it helps me to make sure I am considering all the factors that are important in making a decision.

I’ll call all the resources I described the four “p’s” of decision making for Christians – prayer, people, patience, and pro-con lists. Prayer to seek God through your decision-making process. People who listen and offer support through prayer and advice. Patience to take the time needed to make the best decision. And pro-con lists to sort through the factors involved in your decision.

Even as I’ve gone to these resources, the decisions I’ve been facing have been hard. But all I can do is trust God, make the best decisions I can, and move forward.

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decisions. Decisions. DECISIONS. AHHHHH!

My decision of which topic to write about next was an easy one to make. I am currently going through a major life decision process. And to me there seems to be no better topic to write about in the midst of this process than, well… decisions.

I’d like to begin by saying that decisions have never been easy for me. In fact, in a previous post I listed decisions among the top three areas of struggle in my life. I’m not talking about the mundane decisions that we make every day – what to eat, what to where, or how to spend you free time. I’m talking about some of the bigger decisions – where to live in the long term, what career path to commit to, or who to pursue in a relationship and potential marriage. And I’ll be talking about these types of decisions from the perspective that I use to make them – the Christian perspective.

If you’re a Christian, the decisions you make should be in line with the primary purpose of life: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. When making a decision, if one option is not in step with that purpose, the option should be eliminated immediately. But what if you’re making a decision between options that all seem to glorify God? Then the decision becomes more difficult.

This is the scenario that I am faced with. Every option I can take seems “good” in the sense that I can continue to glorify God. And sure enough, processing through that scenario has been difficult. In the past few months, I have considered several factors involved in my decision, and have used a few resources to assist in the decision making process. These factors and resources apply to just about every tough decision a Christian makes, so I would like to share them with you. In this post, I’ll discuss the factors, and then move to the resources in the next post.

When you have an important decision to make, the factors involved in that decision become very complex. The complexity can cause you to become completely confused about which option is the best one to take. But there are at least a few factors that can help you sort through the cloud of confusion in your mind:

The long term effects – A decision may result in something good for a few months, but then lead to devastation when carried out for years and years. A significant life decision is bound to affect your relationships, career, ministry, and many other important things. While you won’t be able to pinpoint all the effects a decision will bring, you can attempt to foreshadow those effects. If one decision clearly has an undesirable long term outlook, you might steer towards another path instead.

The trump factor – This term refers to a factor that you consider more important than any other factor involved in your decision. Even if this factor points to one direction and all other factors point to another, you will not choose against your “trump factor”. You may not have a factor that trumps all others when making a decision. But if you do, and it clearly points to one option, that option may be the best one to take.

Spiritual impact – In your current situation, you may have significant opportunities to lead others towards Christ in some way.  If so, the best decision may be to trust God and take those opportunities. God could be using them for great things now and even greater things in the future. Undoubtedly you should pause before making a decision that will cut off the opportunities that are before you. But you can also assess if making that decision will provide opportunities for you to make an even greater spiritual impact in the world. If it will, leaving the opportunities you currently have may be worth the risk of moving on to something new.

Interpersonal relationships – We were all made to enjoy relationships with others. The trust and closeness needed to build strong relationships take time to develop.  If a decision will cause relationships that have built up over time to suddenly break away, there can be significant pain and regret in your decision. Of course, that same decision could lead to new and exciting relationships. But the relationships that you currently have with the people around you are important. This factor cannot be ignored when weighing out all the factors involved in a decision.

Actual vs. potential – When you make a decision, there are usually some things that you know will happen if you choose one option. You can call these things “actual” outcomes. There are other things that you think could happen, but are not really sure. You could call these things “potential” outcomes. When making a decision, separate the actual from the potential. It’s possible that the potential might lead to greater actual results, but it also may be a bad idea to only base your decision solely off potential outcomes. If there is a way you can get a better understanding of what things will be like if you make one particular decision, take action to get that understanding. It can help you compare the different options and the outcomes that each will result in.

Of course, there are more factors you can consider. But these factors have stood out to me in my current decision process. After reading through this list, you might be thinking, “For a post about Christian decision making, it doesn’t seem like you involved God in a lot of it!”

It is true that some of these factors do not explicitly mention God. But keep in mind that for Christians, the #1 factor in decision making is to glorify God. As the Apostle Paul wrote to people in the Corinthian church – who were making some significant moral decisions – “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”.

From that point forward, we have freedom in our decisions. Freedom is a great thing, but with the freedom of choice comes the difficulty of choice. The factors I mentioned above can alleviate this difficulty and bring what was once fuzzy into focus.

The decision making process does not only involve sorting through the factors and trying to pick the best option yourself. There are also some key resources that Christians can turn to when making decisions. In my next post, I’ll describe a few of these resources.

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The Truth about White Llamas and Gold Catfish

In my last post, I talked about 3 events that happened this past week, and explained that the events present three problems in our ability to know truth:

1. You are limited to your own perspective

2. Extreme skepticism limits your ability to accept truth

3. Video evidence is commonly demanded but not always available

With all of these problems, is the search for truth a hopeless endeavor? I don’t think so. It’s not always easy to determine what is true and what is not. However, there are a few principles that help in this process.

One principle involves outside verification. The idea here is to step outside your own perspective and look for complimentary evidence to support a claim. Other people can then look at that same evidence, and will hopefully come to the same conclusion. This process can help you to gain more confidence that a view that you initially thought was true is actually true.

An example of this principle being put to use goes back to the dress debate, where people pasted the dress photo into editing software like Adobe, and used the software to determine the actual color. Even after that process, there was continued debate about the color of the dress. However, the use of Adobe allowed people to use a basis outside their own perspective – outside verification – to help determine what the true colors were.

Another principle is to compare your view with others. Doing so can at least help you start to analyze your view. This principle is what caused the dress debate to take off. People made a claim about the colors of the dress, and asked for their friends’ thoughts. When people were not in agreement about the correct color scheme, there was confusion about what the colors really were.

Like in the dress debate, comparing your view with others may not result in a consensus about what is true. But it does challenge you to consider the legitimacy of your own view and the views put forward by others – even for something as simple as the color of an object.

The third principle is to incorporate a healthy dose of skepticism. You shouldn’t just accept every claim people make. A person making a claim should be able to provide evidence or rationale to support that claim. Skepticism involves placing the burden of proof on the claim-maker by asking for this support.

A skeptical mindset is good to have since it leads to a demand for evidence when evidence is needed. However, there can be a point where skepticism becomes excessive – when any evidence is provided, it’s not enough. You need more evidence. And then more evidence beyond that. The demand doesn’t stop until you attain absolute certainty.

The problem with this heavy demand is that you’re always going to hold beliefs without having this kind of certainty about their truth. You simply don’t have the time or ability to address all the things you believe and alleviate all the doubts you have about them. When it comes to the certainty required to know truth, a standard of reasonable certainty is more practical than a standard of absolute certainty.

The last principle is to accept that there are many ways to discover truth. While some types of evidence are more reliable than others, all types can help to confirm the truth of a claim.

Video is especially helpful in proving what happened in the past. It allows you to see an event for yourself and come to your own conclusion about what happened. It can even convince you that two llamas are galloping through Phoenix traffic.

However, reliable video evidence is not always possible to obtain today. And there’s simply no video available to prove what has happened over the majority of human existence. Other types of evidence like writings, communication with others, and archaeology are needed when video evidence isn’t available, and can supplement video evidence when it is.

These four principles are not the only ones that help in the search for truth, but they definitely related to the pop culture outbreaks that occurred this past week. The next time you respond to the next cultural craze with a What?, Huh?, or Are you sure?, remember that all hope is not lost. Putting these principles into practice can help you to know the truth about white llamas, gold catfish, and so much more.

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The Problem with White Llamas and Gold Catfish

“Llamas are wreaking havoc all over Phoenix!”

What?

“That dress is totally white and gold!”

Huh?

“Some guy caught a 280 pound catfish today!”

Are you sure?

This past week, there were statements flying around our culture that caused loads of debate and doubt. Local events spread like wildfire throughout the world and provoked momentary cultural phenomenons. These were all independent events, but they are tied together by one topic. The events initiate discussion on how we can know truth about the world.

The big example of the week is the picture of a dress that on Thursday night began to be shared across social media outlets. Some people saw the colors of the dress as blue and black. Others saw the colors as white and gold. A discussion began on why some saw one set of colors over the other. Some people even posted scientific explanations about what was causing the division.

This dress debate poses a problem: your ability to know truth can be limited by your perspective. If you only consider your own perspective, you could miss pieces of information essential to knowing truth. As a result, you may not get a full picture of what makes a claim true or false.

If you saw the dress as white and gold, you claimed that those were the true colors because you initially used your own perspective – what you saw when you looked at the picture. You probably started to consider another claim when people rejected your claim and gave an alternate color scheme. You would have no reason to question your initial judgement otherwise.

Another example that relates to our ability to know truth involves a 280 pound catfish that was caught by an Italian fisherman. A picture of the man holding the gargantuan sea creature spread across the Internet from CNN to ESPN. People automatically became skeptical of the whole situation just because of the extraordinary size of the fish.

Of course, there was debate about the authenticity of the fish story. Skepticism even continued after videos of the fish appeared on Youtube. Some of the skepticism was lighthearted, like in one conversation where someone commented that the video quality should be better in this day and age. But some skeptical comments appeared to be serious – such as people doubting that the fish was real since it was not moving in the video.

This fish frenzy leads to another problem: your skepticism has potential to reach a level where almost nothing can be proven to you. This overriding sense of skepticism can inhibit your ability to accept truth that may be otherwise obvious.  For many people, the fish video pointed to the obvious truth that the fish was actually caught by the fisherman. Some people, however, still rejected that truth due to their elevated sense of skepticism.

The presence of doubt about the fish video is surprising considering that video evidence is often demanded in order to prove that an event actually happened. And that point leads to the final example from the week: the llamas.

If someone came up to you and said there were two llamas running around Phoenix, stopping traffic, and causing havoc, all while local authorities are running after them trying to lasso them in, you might not believe that person right away. You would want to have some sort of evidence to support this claim.

This crazy claim describes a real event that happened last week. And supporting the claim was video evidence – a 35 minute video of a news crew filming the chaos. People latched on to this video coverage, and the event became a day-long cultural phenomenon. If the video evidence wasn’t available, there would most certainly be people doubting that the whole event happened.

The “Llamas on the Loose”, the catfish catch, and the dress color debate present three problems in knowing truth:

1. You are limited to your own perspective

2. Extreme skepticism limits your ability to accept truth

3. Video evidence is commonly demanded but not always available

With all of these problems, is the search for truth a hopeless endeavor? I don’t think so. And I’ll explain why in my next post.

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