Book Review: Why I Still Believe by Mary Jo Sharp

In a culture where deconversion stories have become all too commonplace, and often leave faith in tatters, Mary Jo Sharp shines a ray of hope. She brings the reader along on her own journey from atheism, to belief, through doubt, and onward to her destination as a bold apologist for the Christian faith. She draws the reader into her story as she faces head-on the threads of ugliness woven into the fabric of the human experience, and demonstrates in a compelling fashion that even when our stories threaten to become unraveled, we have hope in Christ. Mary Jo then systematically proves how the evidences for the truth of the Christian worldview can be used to weave one’s faith back together again into a beautiful tapestry even in the midst of pain and hypocrisy. She reveals the amazing complexity of the Christian faith, stating that “To reduce Christianity to a neat-and-tidy recipe for happiness is to miss it almost entirely.”

I was eager to read Why I Still Believe because Mary Jo Sharp provided my first serious introduction to apologetics three years ago. I have followed her ministry since then and observed her passion for equipping believers to defend the Christian faith with truth and compassion. I’m impressed by her honest reflections about coming into the Christian faith from an atheistic background, and how despite painful experiences within the church, she still has reasons to believe in a good and gracious God. Through anecdotal snapshots and glimpses into personal conversations, she walks the reader through her experiences as a new Christian and candidly describes the challenges to her faith she faced even as a minister’s wife. Those who have experienced hurt from within the walls of the church will see themselves in her story, and appreciate her encouragement to find hope on the other side of disappointment.

Mary Jo walks the reader through some of the core apologetics arguments she considered while investigating the viability of the Christian worldview. She invites the reader to listen in on her conversations with both scholars and skeptics regarding the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, the problem of evil, the divinity of Jesus, the moral argument, and the argument from beauty. She ultimately concludes that the Christian worldview is the best explanation for the reality we experience all around us, while honestly acknowledging that a tension exists in the Christian life between how things are and how we know they ought to be.

Reading Why I Still Believe has prompted within me a desire to display a greater boldness in my witness, and to better equip myself to defend the faith. I finished Sharp’s latest book realizing that while each person’s story is unique, we all explore similar questions about the meaning and purpose of life. It has affirmed to me that questioning our beliefs as followers of Christ doesn’t indicate a lack of faith. Rather, it demonstrates complete trust in Him to provide answers to our deepest questions in His perfect timing. The author concludes that “To question my beliefs takes trust…it takes the control away from me and hands it over to God.” This book is an excellent resource for those struggling with doubt and working to reconcile painful experiences, often even at the hands of other believers, with the goodness of God. I recommend it to anyone interested in a refreshingly honest look at how to wrestle well with the ultimate questions of life.

Does My Doubt Disappoint God?

Uncertainty is much more easily addressed in childhood. Remember the magic eight ball toy? You could ask it anything, give the ball a couple of shakes, and an answer would mysteriously float to the top. Another option for finding answers to life’s deepest questions was the folded paper fortune teller game. It was as easy as picking a number, watching a friend move the contraption back and forth a few times with their fingers, and lifting up a folded flap to reveal the answer. And what about twenty questions? We could easily pass hours on a road trip when my boys were young discovering answers through the process of elimination.

When it came to learning about God, I was fully immersed in church as far back as I can remember. My Sunday school teachers and youth leaders prepared lessons and engaging activities that taught me stories from the Bible with application on how to live from a Christian worldview. I don’t know if it was explicitly or implicitly implied, but in my mind, faith was defined as “just believing hard enough.” My typically compliant and trusting nature compelled me to unquestioningly take for granted the stories, verses, and Biblical principles authority figures diligently and lovingly taught me. I did believe then and I do believe now, but I now know that faith is more accurately defined as trust in what I have good reasons to believe.

The problem for me, and I’m guessing for others, too, is that life happens, and difficult circumstances require us to dig deeper for answers beyond “just believing hard enough.” As we grow up and experience broken relationships, disappointing losses, and confusing circumstances, we find that answers are harder to come by. Simple bumper-stickered or Instagrammed Bible verses are no longer enough. We seek to reconcile what we feel within us with the reality around us. This often leads to tilling up the soil of our minds, planting seeds of truth from God’s Word, and waiting for those seeds to grow roots deep down into our hearts. This process can be painstakingly slow and while the roots grow, weeds of doubt may unexpectedly spring up.

Defining Doubt

Doubt means to “feel uncertain about.” Is God disappointed in us for seeking more certainty by asking questions? I don’t think so. Dominic Done says in his book, When Faith Fails: Finding God in the Shadow of Doubt, “Doubt presses you to reevaluate the story of your life…Doubt is essentially neutral; it’s what you do with it that counts.” Doubt is neither the villain nor the hero of our story. Rather, doubt can be used as a tool to propel us into a deeper faith in Jesus, who is our hero, as He rescues us from the perils of unbelief. As the father of the child with the mute spirit says to Jesus in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

So how can we view doubt in a spiritually healthy way? I don’t believe it is healthy to take the approach that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” That implies that we should be ashamed of our questions. There are lots of things that I believe with all my heart, but that doesn’t mean they are completely settled in my mind. I believe down to my core that God loves me, but I still haven’t completely resolved why He doesn’t always answer my prayers the way I want Him to. I absolutely trust God’s sovereignty, but I am still uneasy with the senseless pain and suffering I see all around me. Does that mean I don’t believe? Certainly not. My human nature compels me to ask questions, and God is using my wrestling with these issues to sanctify and conform me to the image of Christ.

Relating to God in Our Doubt

God relates to us as our Heavenly Father, mirroring the way in which we relate to our own children. As parents, we realize that they are born with an innate desire to ask questions. “Why is the sky blue? Who made God? Where do babies come from?” And a personal favorite asked by my older son, “Does God have legs?” Just as we patiently answer the daily barrage of questions from our children, God in even greater measure awaits and anticipates our questions. They don’t take Him by surprise. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 18:14 that we are to come to him with the humility of a child. It is a humbling process to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and to instead lay our questions down at the feet of the one who does. Just as we don’t think less of our kids for asking questions, our Heavenly Father, who loves us even more than we love our own children, doesn’t either. I think it would be more concerning as a parent if my children were not asking questions. Apathy is a dangerous place to settle in and become comfortable.

God designed us as rational beings who learn by asking questions. We often learn best by struggling with hard issues. God, being the omnipotent creator that He is, could have created us as robots pre-programmed with all knowledge necessary to thrive in the world. If He had created us this way, we would willingly obey Him at all times and would have no need to question anything. He chose instead to create us with free will, giving us the freedom to make choices for good or evil. And if our will is free, then we are also free to question. But God doesn’t fear our questions because the Christian worldview is capable of withstanding any scrutiny. Even the design of creation invites questions. Who hasn’t looked at the stars and wondered at their brilliance, or listened to the roar of the ocean and been in awe of its power? From the tiniest cell in the human body, to the vast expanse of the universe itself, our Creator calls us to explore, discover, inquire, and seek out meaning.

Mary Jo Sharp says in her new book, Why I Still Believe, “To question my beliefs takes trust…it takes the control away from me and hands it over to God.” When my younger son was around three years old, he followed a very predictable pattern every night which could be timed almost to the minute. Our bedroom was directly down a long hallway from his, and at the same time every night he would grab his blankie, his pillow, and his dog (yes, a real live dog), jump out of bed, and hit the floor at a full sprint. We would hear his feet pounding all the way down the hardwood hallway, and he wouldn’t stop until he reached the end of our bed. At that point he would propel himself, his blankie, his pillow, and his dog up onto the bed where he would join us for the rest of the night. We were his safe place in the darkest hours of the night when anxious thoughts enveloped him. God wants to be our safe place, too, when uncertainty creeps into our lives. He welcomes us with open arms when we run toward Him, trusting that He will answer our questions in His time and in His way.

Dealing with Doubt

The Bible is full of accounts of honest truth-seeking doubters who questioned and wrestled with God amidst troubling and confusing circumstances. Sarah laughed in disbelief when God told her she would give birth in her old age (Genesis 18). Moses doubted whether or not God had chosen the right man when He called him to lead the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3). Job questioned God in the midst of his time of trial (Job 3). The Psalms are full of questions as David cries out to God (Psalm 22 and others). John the Baptist even wondered whether or not Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 7:20). Finally, there’s Thomas, the disciple most defined by his doubt (John 20:24-25).

Jude 22 says, “And have mercy on those who doubt.” Having experienced periods of doubt in my own life, even since I’ve been a pastor’s wife, I can attest to the fact that it can be a lonely place. But I can also say that my faith was ultimately strengthened as I honestly sought out answers through prayer and the study of God’s Word. As we experience doubt both in our own lives, and walk with others through times of doubt, the Bible is clear that we shouldn’t condemn, but rather lovingly guide toward truth. As we question, wrestle, struggle, and contend for the faith, we can be assured that God will be faithful to complete His work in us and even create something beautiful out of our confusion.