Losing God

I had Matt Roger’s new book Losing God: Clinging to Faith through Doubt and Depression on my night stand the last week in the “to-read” pile. Ever since iMonk reviewed it I have put it as priority one on my wish list. Since I was already in the middle of the books listed on the sidebar I did not want to start a new one, but since each was so deep and challenging to read, I thought I would pick up Losing God and at least get started… and I finished it in one sitting.

I am not a fan of the spiritual memoir writing. I discovered this, not by reading many, but as a blogger who wrote about himself way too much. The only other books I’ve read in the spiritual memoir genre is Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, which was another quick and interesting read, and Philosophers Who Believe in which each of the essayists bemoan the project of autobiography as inherently narcissistic. This, no doubt, is true. And yet it can be deeply compelling.

Matt Rogers’s story is very much like my own in some important ways. First, Rogers and I share a memory of despair at a powerful conference. His was at Urbana ’99 and mine was at Faithwalkers ’06. He remembers God falling forever silent during those five days of powerful worship, and I remember wondering why I didn’t believe anything that was being taught. He experienced the dark side of Calvinism that reads Romans 9 as a passage about a capricious and cruel God who arbitrarily saves some and dispatches the rest to a fiery furnace, and I too wondered if I was one of the “chosen” as I awoke from terrifying dreams. He struggled with loneliness and depression in ways that seem unbearable, and I have had my history with the dark night of the soul as well. He was a member, and now a leader, of the GCM church New Life Christian Fellowship on Virginia Tech’s campus and had JR Woodward as a pastor. I’ve attended GCM churches for the last 9 years.

And then there are ways in which we are not alike. I never batted an eye at taking medication for depression and think the whole fear of antidepressants Christians have derives from a misunderstanding of the relationship between science and religion. When the implication of Calvinism’s dreadful logic became readily apparent to me I rejected it completely. His trials lead him to leadership in the church, where mine lead me out of it.

But one thing is for sure: the experiences of doubt, depression, and eternal anxiety will leave a mark.

The book’s endorsements all come from Emergent writers, but there really is no reason the Reformed should be upset with the text (see Trevin Wax). The author retains conservative views, values the counsel from a Calvinist pastor, and rightly finds the eternal divine decrees incomprehensible and mysterious. It should serve as a warning, though, to those who are obsessed with Calvinism’s resurgence and how affections of piety are to be counted as evidence of true conversion. My favorite line in the book is when Rogers says, he didn’t want evidence, he needed proof!

Those that find comfort in the Doctrines of Grace will probably not find much in this book to appreciate. There can be a blessed assurance and confident life in Christ lived out in a Calvinistic framework. But for those tender soles that have been bullied into Calvinism and have been taught to see psychiatric problems reduced to spiritual problems will find balm for the wounds in its pages. For these I heartily recommend it.

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11 thoughts on “Losing God

  1. Nick says:

    Sounds really interesting, Adam, I’ll check it out! I know from personal experience (witnessing others primarily, though a bit myself) that a strong does of Calvinism misunderstood or unbalanced/out of proportion (since I do, of course, think the Reformed worldview is basically true, though with my own differences) can be a very dangerous thing pyschologically, but I’m not sure I would identify the reluctance to participate in medical treatments for anything, even depression, as originating particularly with Calvinists. If anything, historically the reformed tradition has been at the forefront (in a good way) of the science/religion dialogue, and I would assign this phenomenon to modern fundamentalism (which, of course, has Calvinists in it, though that isn’t what moves it towards this trajectory).

  2. Good thoughts, Nick, as always. You are definitely right about the fundamentalism factor playing a big role in the resistance to antidepressants. And I think you will appreciate this, but Dr. Candeday’s book was a huge help to me in overcoming unassurance. I saw that you taught out of his book, and I’m glad to know there are other Reformed people out there aware of his writings.

  3. Nick says:

    Yeah, I taught a class based on “The Race Set Before Us” twice, once in the Twin Cities, once later in Pittsburgh. Some of my old class handouts can be found here:

    http://www.3riversgrace.org/resources.aspx

    Definitely one of my top recommendations to anyone wanting to dig deeper into biblical theology, and–as you’re aware–it is a great antidote to any fatalistic drifting in those of us who have a high view of God’s sovereignty. Schreiner has a shorter, updated version of the book coming out here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Run-Win-Prize-Perseverance-Testament/dp/1844743691/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245290517&sr=8-1

  4. Nick says:

    P.S. Given your bad experiences with a Calvinist understanding of election, particularly the Puritan variety that puts so much emphasis on “evidences of grace” in us (which is, certainly, a biblical–though secondary–emphasis; cf. II Peter 1:3-11). Even J. Edwards, I would say, got the biblical balance a bit wrong here. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on John Calvin’s (!) understanding of how believers come to recognize their election:

    “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.5)

  5. Nick, I like your Calvin quote a lot. I think it is much better than the Edwards approach. With that said, however, it still must find the reason for assurance in the subjective responses of the believer. For me, the Arminian insistence that we can be assured that God really does love us and wants us to be saved is more comforting because it is objective proof that the Promiser is for us and not against us (like the Roger’s quote about needing “proof” not “evidence.”)

    Now it may be true that Arminianism is shaky because the response of the believer isn’t guaranteed. But that doesn’t seem relevant, because the Calvinist believer’s response IS guaranteed and yet can have the same troubling doubts. And those same troubling doubts shared by both the Calvinist and Arminian may be calmed by Calvin’s wise instruction.

  6. Nick says:

    I. Howard Marshall, who is my book is about the best exegetical biblical scholar out there on the Arminian side, wrote an interesting book on assurance and warnings (Schreiner & Caneday interact with it a lot in their book), and though I ultimately disagree with it, I find there what I usually do in other matters–that those who are willing to just let the biblical texts speak on their own without always trying to conform them into a previous theological system, will usually wind up being pretty close to others even of different theological persuasions. Marshall is so close to me on so many issues in terms of what he emphasizes, and though I disagree primarily with how (in my view) he gives typically Arminian short shrift to the promises in the NT about the security of believers, he points out that at the end of the day both Arminians and Calvinists are under the tension between God’s promises and His exhortations/warnings, and that the only difference is where the locus of uncertainty is: for the Arminian, will I freely choose day after day to endure, since God’s attitude and power is disposed equally towards believer and unbeliever alike; for the Calvinist, in whether I am actually elect and belong to Him, since His promises cannot fail, but my own self-perception of my trust in Him can be deceiving. But for both faith is called for, an active, wrestling faith, not a passive smugness that rests content in past gains or experiences. I think that’s basically on target.

  7. Nick says:

    Just had one more thought (and I hope you don’t mind me commenting so much on this post!). In I Thessalonians 1:4-5, Paul says that he “knows” that these Christians have been chosen by God, BECAUSE of their faith response to his gospel proclamation (i.e. that it didn’t come in word only, but also in Spirit and power, that is, with conversion!). On your understanding of election above, it seems that you would hold that we just flat out know that all are elect, whether in Christ or out of Christ, and that (I would presume) some reject God’s purposes for themselves, etc. But on Paul’s logic, it seems Calvin has it exactly on the head: our knowledge of our election is found precisely in our response of faith in Christ. If I am believing, it is due to my election. Thoughts?

  8. Nick, good verse you bring up, and very cleverly does it line up with Calvin! For an Arminian response, I think the “because” in the text cannot be read as purely causal, but as explanatory (see the differences in the ESV and NLT). If it is causal, then a sign of being the elect is having a clear, crisp and maybe dramatic conversion experience. But a lot of people can’t point to one instance (Calvin himself never did), and so what the passage may be saying is that Paul knows the are elect because of how the message was so well received. Thus a conception of election that is conditioned on a people’s response may be in view. Either way, I don’t think these verses really tell us much, because they are introductory, but I would submit that if it is causal, then would we not expect EVERYONE who is elect to have the same kind of conversion? And if you didn’t, could we question our status?

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