Greg Tonkinson: How Does Doubt Fit Into Faith? In 2010, a life-changing event challenged the way ordained minister Greg Tonkinson related to God. Having dedicated his life to his faith, Greg had to rethink the way he saw God's plan.
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Greg Tonkinson: How Does Doubt Fit Into Faith?

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Greg Tonkinson: How Does Doubt Fit Into Faith?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So a lot of us have some sort of plan we're following - a vision, a path we set out for our lives. But for some people, it's more than that. It's the path that God has laid out.

GREG TONKINSON: Exactly. Faith is trust. I just assumed that this was God's path for me.

RAZ: This is Greg Tonkinson. And his path became clear to him in 1986 when he was a student at Arizona State University, and he decided to dedicate his life to his faith.

TONKINSON: When I did that, I just - no angels, no trumpets. But I knew that God had gotten a hold of my life. So I went to Phoenix Seminary and began taking classes and, I guess, really fell in love with the academic side, the thinking side of the Christian faith.

RAZ: And a few years later, when Greg met his wife Leigh Ann, he thought that was part of the plan too.

TONKINSON: Yeah. We met at church. I was teaching our college ministry, and in walked this beautiful woman. And I just thought, boy, I'd love to get to know her. And so we decided to go out on a date, dated for two years. And we got married in 1996.

RAZ: And Greg and Leigh Ann built a life for themselves based on this plan.

TONKINSON: She started working at Phoenix Children's Hospital in '97. And then I planted a church in 1998. And so our journey was definitely embedded in, again, a solid faith. We both knew we wanted to pursue a Christian marriage, raise kids in the Christian faith.

RAZ: And for the next decade, that's exactly what they did.

TONKINSON: We had three kids. We lived on a cul-de-sac - two dogs, a minivan. I felt like we were living the Christian life. And so, not to paint the suburban typical picture, but that's honestly where we were at. We were comfortably enjoying life up until 2010.

RAZ: Up until March 6, 2010.

TONKINSON: I received that knock on the door. And the only thing I remember is looking back into our living room, seeing my three children, and opening the door, seeing a police officer and then two people flanking him in black windbreakers. That was a police chaplain and a child care worker. And the rest did play out like a movie. And words have never had weight up until that moment when he said, at about 7:30, your wife was killed in a car accident. Those words brought me to my knees.

And I remember my kids rushing toward me. And I could only muster the words, Mommy had an accident tonight, and she's in heaven. And we're not going to see her again this side of heaven. But she's OK. And we have a lot to live for, but we need to do that as best we can together. And then one day we'll see Mommy again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONKINSON: And that was all - about all I could get out. And within 20 or 30 minutes, my house was filled with relatives - people who loved me and loved Leigh Ann and loved our kids. And we were all weeping and grieving together.

RAZ: Greg Tonkinson continues his story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

TONKINSON: So on March 6, 2010, myself along with 10-year-old Kayden, 6-year-old Bailey and 4-year-old Malia began our journey of life without our wife and mother. But what has made this trek so especially demanding for me is that I'm a man of faith - not casual faith, but a faith that has defined me for over 30 years. So what do you do when your faith has been traumatized by such a traumatic event? What do you do when you've told people, time and time again, to trust and follow and obey? What do you do when you earnestly begin doubting the very subject that you've been promoting your entire adult life?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONKINSON: So the why questions just, you know, flooded my inbox, if you will. Why did this happen? Why did you take her from me? Why can't I just go on living the life I was? I thought everything was good between God and I. I thought that - I just assumed that this was God's path for me.

RAZ: Leigh Ann's death shook Greg's faith. It threw what he thought was his path, his ability to trust, into question. Things like this happen to people every day around the world. And many of them still choose to believe. But how? How can billions of us believe in something we don't physically see? And where does doubt fit into this belief? Well, today on the show, we're going to explore stories of people grappling with faith and belief. And for Greg, in the face of doubt, in the darkest moment of his life, he had to rethink his faith. He had to rethink how he saw God's plan for him.

Greg, did you - I mean, you knew or you believed that God had a plan for you.

TONKINSON: Yes.

RAZ: And then the plan that you thought he had for you is upended. Did you begin to doubt the wisdom of that plan or even the plan itself?

TONKINSON: Not only did I doubt it, I wanted to end the plan. If I could be honest, I begged God to take me home. I was not suicidal. But there were very vivid moments being overwhelmed with the tragedy and then the responsibility of raising three children. And so, yes, I began - and it never happened before March 6. I began to talk with God about my plan because my plan had been so radically altered. I really did believe that I could go to him now and start negotiating what the rest of the plan was going to look like. So my...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONKINSON: ...My journal is full of entries that have me lashing out at God, have me being angry with him, with the situation, with the young man that killed my wife.

RAZ: Yeah.

TONKINSON: OK, God. This happened. I can't reverse history. So you need to now make sense of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

TONKINSON: A unilateral prayer I had with God five days after the accident as was recorded in my journal - dear God, the pain that's beginning to set in right now is so intense. I can't see your goodness. I know you're near, but I don't want that. I want my wife back. I wanted us to grow old and to die and to experience heaven together. So what happened to that plan? Why was that plan so wrong? And why do you find it so appalling for me to want to watch my wife love on our kids for a few more years?

And now that you've taken her, God, when's it my turn? And how awful would it be if you decided to take me home and leave our kids without a mother or a father? You couldn't have changed your plan by one minute? One minute, and that stoplight wouldn't have been red - one minute. So, no, I can't see your goodness. All I can see is you allowing my wife to be killed. All I can see is you allowing my kids to live without a mother. So how wrong is that, God?

Somewhere along the journey, I arrived at a question that I needed an answer to. Is this going to be a long-term experience for me? Will my journey of faith now forever be embedded with this overtone of doubt? Are faith and doubt inextricably linked? Some would say, yes, faith has no easy answers, that it's difficult and stubborn, that it involves this ongoing struggle, that faith and doubt will forever be joined and that those who don't doubt really aren't experiencing faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You know, I've - and I'm sure you've experienced this. You've talked to some people about faith. And the way they talk about faith, I'm almost sort of jealous of it because it seems easy, that it's a - it's just a - faith is simple.

TONKINSON: Yeah.

RAZ: It sounds like, when you talk about faith now, that it's hard. It's not actually easy. There is struggle in finding faith.

TONKINSON: I've never found faith to be easy. And so this accident accentuated that. It didn't draw me away from God, it drew me into God. But I've never understood when people have claimed that faith is easy. Faith is difficult. It's hard to define, and it's even harder to live.

And so my understanding, my belief, my trust in God relies heavily on the intellectual side of trying to understand who God is. With that said, faith includes trust, and it's trust in an object that I can't see. I can give evidence by way of God's creation, but I've never been able to prove God empirically. And I think that causes me to continue to get up every day deciding to trust in Him.

Could I wake up one day and decide that all of what I've been doing for the past 40 years has been a farce? I don't want to discount that that could ever happen. But if I can get on the other end of a tragedy as big as losing my wife and still believe, then I'm quite confident that that isn't going to be the case. That said, I don't know if I would have the kind of faith I have if it was easy.

RAZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONKINSON: I always want to be asking good questions that allow myself and those around me to talk to God in a way that I don't believe he's threatened by. God, make sense of this. I don't understand this. I need this to be more clear. And for me, God has, time and time again, answered those prayers.

RAZ: That's Greg Tonkinson. He's an educator at Valley Christian High School and Grand Canyon University. In 2013, Greg was remarried. He and his wife Jennifer are now raising a blended family, complete with five children. You can see Greg's full talk at ted.npr.org. On the show today, ideas about belief and doubt. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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