Case Quote: “They’re Asking Questions Because Something is Wrong with their Heart”.
Since leaving the message, one thing I have occasionally done is to listen to archived sermons from various churches and ministries. I don’t do it to load up on criticism or document my greivances. I do it because I want to remain personally aware of the mood in message churches – and what issues occupy the pulpits. As I still get questions from people, at minimum, I want to be informed.
I recently listened to a service where a message minister said:
“You come to distractors of this message. They come to question, after question, after question. They’re not asking questions because they want to believe. They’re asking questions because something is wrong with their heart. If they could get their heart questions settled, then all these other questions would just disappear.”
(Bro. Timothy Pruitt, December 4th, 2019, https://eveninglight.net/sermons/the-blessedness-of-believing/ – around 1:05:00).
I don’t like cherry picking quotes. I don’t feel one phrase or sentence fully characterizes the depth of what a person thinks on a subject. There is a fuller context that usually deserves to be listened to. As a single sentence within an entire sermon exhorting the church to believe without reasoning or questioning (as former message believers have done), I feel this is a perfect example of my immense concern for what the message leaders do. When fallacy and mental manipulation become a primary tool in the preacher’s toolbox, it’s abhorrent. I have nothing personal against the speaker, nor is it there any reason in particular I picked this sermon, other than it contained a useful example. I though it would be helpful to use a quote like this, should there be someone who hears it while wrestling under the heavy weight of their concerns.
Faith vs Reasoning
I understand the conundrum – how does one have faith if it depends on reasoning? And how does one reason if one depends upon faith? I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. However, in the case of the message, stigma about ‘reasoning’ is often weaponized against the people to prevent them from asking questions. Frequently, believers are guided through a series of cognitive hoops (reasonings) designed to induce shame and fear for moments of questioning. The tactics employed are often “fallacies” – which are faulty arguments deceptively made to sound better than they actually are. These are arguments designed to avoid or distract from issues, not to answer them.
Let’s break down the above quote.
“They’re not asking questions because they want to believe.”
This was referring to those who are ‘detractors’. Fair enough. Clearly, those who have left and speak about it no longer believe the message. Their questions aren’t asked with expectation of an answer that will restore their belief. They’ve been through the gamut long enough to know the message ministers/believers have no good answers, if they bothered to try at all. By asking questions, it helps expose this fact, and it continues to help others realize this problem too.
When the “detractors” first began asking the questions – were they already unbelievers with a wrong heart? Were they believers that felt sincerely shocked when reading / listening to what appeared to be concerning statements, errors from a man they esteemed to be God’s prophet? Were their questions valid concerns that needed to be sincerely and delicately answered? When their questions were asked – how were their questions met or answered?
Given that this sermon is being passionately delivered to a church of ‘message believers’, though referencing the ‘detractors’, it will serve as a scarecrow to sternly warn that asking questions about the prophet will place their spiritual estate in jeopardy. Lest they also become like those who are “not asking questions because they want to believe” – but rather because of their unbelief. If someone were sitting in the congregation that day with a sincere question, how safe does it feel to ask a question? How safe is it to even disclose that they’ve been thinking or reading about the issues? What will the reprecussion be?
As someone who sat in church listening to these situations play out – let me take you through the thought process I experienced. I was aware that the people who were ‘asking questions’ were being labelled as trouble-makers. I could see our congregation was disturbed knowing we had sheep in the flock that might actually be wolves. There was tension in the conversations and meetings between church elders. I was personally asked questions from ‘the detractors’ in our group. The problem was, in good conscience, I didn’t have answers. I dug for them – and found the questions were based on genuinely valid concerns. I could dismiss them – or I could acknowledge that I saw the concern. Rather than dismissing them, I encouraged the individuals to keep coming to church – as I looked to the elders to help stabilize what I could not. Alarming to me, it didn’t appear the questions were being faced or addressed. Not in our church. Not in any church. They were being brushed under the carpet using statements similar to the above example.
As one of the church leaders, I realized if I were to start verbally asking questions myself as though they were my own – then I would be exposing myself as a ‘trouble-maker’ too. I had several growing concerns. First – it might be perceived that I was listening to the doubters too much, because I began to have the same questions. Secondly – perhaps I wasn’t a strong enough believer/leader, as I didn’t seem to have the wisdom to answer the questions myself, nor the faith to withstand them. Thirdly, my faith was possibly compromised, because I was more concerned with the attitude and reaction of the believers than with the “questioners”. There was no appetite in the church to answer questions, only to shut up or remove people. They were being spoken about and treated as if they were our enemy. If those people were ‘the enemy’ for asking difficult questions that deserved reasonable answers, then I could only conclude – so was I.
But it made me stay quiet while I observed and worked though things on my own.
“They’re asking questions because something is wrong with their heart”.
I would argue that in most cases (as it was for me) it is not rebellion, nor weakness, nor malice, nor desire to depart that inspires questions. Usually, it is genuine concern or confusion about something that doesn’t appear to make sense. With an answer, one could just go back to business as usual, per se. However, if a question is met with “something is wrong with your heart” – it turns focus away from the the question, bypasses the need for an answer, and instead it places it on the individual who is asking. It becomes an act of betrayal or a spiritual fault for not believing completely. There is a script of doctrinal antidotes which can be deployed for further effect. “You’ve stopped to listen to the serpent, like Eve in the midst of the garden”. “You’ve acted like the Pharisees, denying the acts of Jesus Christ himself”. “You’ve acted like the denominational christians, denying the vindicated word of our prophet”. It’s you – it’s your fault – you don’t have the right spirit, and your heart is wrong for asking.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone sitting listening to these statements. The minister is verbally casting a questioner as an individual with “heart issues”. We don’t naturally think of these situations in terms of psychology – but indeed, the mind of each listener (including the faithful believer) is being conditioned and impacted. There is immense pressure to behave in the expected way and to show solidarity and agreement. But it also forces others to conceal their questions by ‘acting’ in solidarity too. In a chorus of amens, you have a room full of “us”, the faithful and uncompromised who are now pitted against “them”, any of the questioners. Should there by any soul in the congregation who has the slightest grain of a question, they will feel like an imposter who is at risk of being sniffed out by the spiritual watchdogs.
The outcome is that conversation becomes nearly impossible. It forces questions to go underground – and people like me will sometimes receive their emails asking for my thoughts. Most likely of all – it puts such immense pressure that the easiest solution is to shut off their thinking and join the chorus singing ‘amen’ to every word. Questions die in the hearts of many because of hopelessness and fear. To this day – I think there are a great many people who are nodding their head and singing the chorus – not because the ministers have answered their concerns- but rather, they were too afraid to risk experiencing what happens if they raise a flag of concern.
“If they could get their heart questions settled, then all these other questions would just disappear.”
If settling a” heart question” means throwing aside reasoning, ignoring the unanswered questions, surrendering completely, and recommitting to the message (embracing the message of the hour and receiving the holy ghost) – then yes, the questions can’t remain. They will have to disappear. But so will the freedom to ask questions.