The Faith Crisis of Francis Schaeffer: How His Shadows Brought Light
One of the beauties of the Psalter is its frank honesty when it comes to the painful experiences of saints. Alongside psalms of adoration and jubilation are also songs of lament and repentance. For example, the author of Psalm 13 expresses a cry of anguish over feeling abandoned by God, and in Psalm 88, the poet describes his experience of living with long-term depression.
Indeed, redemptive history is sprinkled with great men and women who struggled at some point with deep discouragement and despair. A well-known example is Martin Luther (1483–1546), who had bouts with depression caused, for example, by contracting the bubonic plague in 1527, or, ironically, by the success of the Reformation and his doubts about his ability to guide it forward. He called such bouts anfechtung, “assaults” that threatened his convictions. Another example is Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672), the remarkable Puritan poet, who admitted to her children that she had traversed serious periods of doubt. “Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures,” she wrote in a letter she left them after she died. But she remained in the faith.
“Redemptive history is sprinkled with great men and women who struggled at some point with deep discouragement and despair.”
Those who have been affected by the work of Francis Schaeffer may not know of his own struggle with depression due to a crisis of faith, what some have called “the hayloft experience.” It occurred in 1951, not long after relocating his family to Switzerland, and lasted over three months. It proved to be the most influential crisis in his life. During that time, he put into question the major doctrines of the Christian faith and his own adhesion to them. It is certain that had he emerged convinced that these doctrines were false, he would have given up all his Christian involvements and moved in a very different direction. So, what happened?
For nearly two decades prior to his hayloft experience, Schaeffer was caught up in a movement that sought to defend the purity of Reformed evangelical theology and Presbyterian ecclesiology. Having been converted at age 17 out of agnosticism mostly by reading the Bible (and then later through the considerable influence of his future wife, Edith), he had decided to consecrate his entire life to Jesus Christ as he was presented in the Gospels.
In 1935, he married Edith and enrolled in Westminster Theological Seminary. But in 1937, the Schaeffers decided to leave Westminster with a group of separatists, led by the likes of Allan McCrae and the fiery Carl McIntire, to form the Bible Presbyterian Church denomination and Faith Theological Seminary, from which Francis graduated in 1938. According to Schaeffer, the church was to be doctrinal, supernaturalist, evangelical, and particularist. Though he didn’t use the word, the implication of these adjectives is that the church should be separatist — to separate not only from mainline and liberal churches, but also from conservative churches who did not share orthodoxy in all its fastidiousness.
Though Schaeffer’s theological convictions remained essentially the same throughout his life, he came to regret the insistence with which he asserted them, and he eventually left this movement. He grew concerned that he had become cold and doctrinaire.
But the most important factor that led to Schaeffer’s crisis of faith was the lack of love that characterized the movement — and himself. They had treated people with whom they disagreed unkindly. They had expended more energy attacking fellow Christians than advancing the kingdom against secularism and unbelief. They were zealous for theological precision, but not for obeying Jesus’s command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In language Schaeffer would later stress, they were lacking reality — the need for cultivating closeness to God and depending on the Holy Spirit. They were serving Jesus but not enjoying him, as he would later put it. And all this led Schaeffer to ask a painful question: If so many zealous Christians were lacking the reality central to Christianity, is Christianity itself real?
Reality in the Hayloft
Thus, Schaeffer was plunged into darkness. In the spring of 1951, he decided to put into question the basics of the Christian faith and the sincerity of his beliefs. For over two months, he paced and thought. If the weather permitted, he paced and thought outdoors; if not, he paced and thought in the hayloft of their Swiss chalet. He set himself “to rethink the whole matter of Christianity” (The Tapestry, 354–55). He had to know that Christianity was real, that one could experience a true sense of God’s presence and that Scripture was God’s true revelation. If he couldn’t emerge with a deep sense of the reality of it all, he no doubt would have abandoned the faith. We can imagine this had to be a difficult time for Edith, as she had never personally experienced such a crisis of faith but loved her husband dearly.
“Schaeffer had to know that Christianity was real, that one could experience a true sense of God’s presence.”
The fruit of Schaeffer’s hayloft experience was that he emerged from his intense pacing and thinking with an even deeper conviction that the God of Scripture was real and that the gospel was true. As he put it, “Finally the sun came out. I saw that my earlier decision to step from agnosticism to Bible-believing Christianity was right.” He experienced a spiritual renewal. He enjoyed God. He began to write poetry again. He was a free man. He was convinced of not only the truth of the gospel but its power. From then on, he tirelessly stressed the need to join love with truth.
It was this realization, more than anything else — more than his apologetics, more than his official orthodoxy — that drove the work of L’Abri, the ministry he later founded with Edith, as well as Schaeffer’s emphasis on the nature of true spirituality.
Light for Your Crisis
Each of our experiences is different, just as our personalities are different. Our Lord uses different ways to speak to us. Not everyone has to go through the kind of crisis Schaeffer experienced to arrive at reality.
But some of us do. Like some of the ancient psalmists and the saints of redemptive history, some of us endure difficult, painful faith crises. But Schaeffer’s story reminds us that if we seek God sincerely in our crises, we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13; Luke 11:9). And it gives us cause to be grateful that this man was led through his slough of despond to emerge as one of the most compelling voices of a generation.
Credit: William Edgar