Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Healthy Doubt

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts–not only their own but heir friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt. 

--Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg. xvi

I have long argued the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Doubt is a very important part of the process of growing in faith.  Without doubt, you become certain of your faith.  There is no longer any questioning that one needs to do.  There is no longer any growth that can take place.  You believe you have all the answers and you know all there is to know about God.  Is this even possible?  I would argue, no.  Living in absolute certainty is not possible.  In fact, I'd argue it's dangerous.

Living in absolute certainty leads to two very different conclusions--both of them very dangerous.

First, if one is absolutely certain in their faith and belief, they turn into a fanatic.  Fanatics who are in this state of mind are willing to blow up buildings, people, and themselves for faith.  In the middle ages, when Christianity was infected with such fanatics, folks were willing to kill Muslims with impunity, send children on crusades, and torture others to get professions of faith.  How in the world are such actions compatible with a Lord who teaches us to pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us?  How are such actions compatible with a Lord who teaches us that even hating another is tantamount to killing them and a breaking of the commandment?  In short, such actions are not compatible; yet, there were those who were (and are) absolutely convinced they are correct in their faith and are willing to still commit such atrocities.  The absence of doubt also leads to the absence of humility and the abundance of self-righteousness.  Very dangerous.

Not only is this dangerous, but I challenge anyone to try evangelism--spreading the good news of Jesus Christ--with such behavior.  Tell me just how many souls are truly saved by such actions.  Do you honestly believe that folks are converted by beating them over their heads with "The Truth," as you see it?  Do you honestly believe that people are fully won over because you can out shout them?  I personally haven't seen that work too well at all.  Yet, I have seen the fruits of a humble heart and how they have really and truly made a difference.  (More on that to follow the second dangerous consequence of absolute certainty.)

The second inevitable conclusion to having a faith absent of doubt is the damaging effect of having such a faith shattered.  For instance, if you believe, with all your heart, if you do the right things--if you believe in Christ fully--you will never experience suffering.  And you strive to do them day in and day out, and then something tragic happens--you get diagnosed with a terminal disease, your child becomes paralyzed in a horrible accident, you lose all your possessions in a fire, etc--what happens to your faith?  Either it gets shattered an you turn your back on it or you walk away with a tremendous sense of guilt because you feel like you didn't have enough faith or you didn't work hard enough at your faith.  Such a tragedy has befallen more than a few people I have come across in life.  They were so certain in their faith until something happened that was outside the realm of their belief.  It shattered them and their faith.  Some still haven't recovered.

However, if you have doubt; if you believe you don't know all there is to know; if you find yourself wondering sometimes where in the world God is at and what He is up to, I would argue that you open yourself up to truly growing in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.

I use the example of Mother Teresa.  Recently, documents were revealed that she struggled with her faith.  She entered a prolonged "dark night of the soul," one that lasted many, many years.  It's not surprising since day in and day out she walked among the poorest of the poor and experienced human suffering on a level that most of us could never dream of experiencing.  When you walk amongst such tragedy day after day after day, it has to affect your spirit.  I get small glimpses of this in my own work among people who are suffering.  After staring into the face of someone who is dying, who is in great pain, who is burdened with depression and sadness, not only do I need a beer, but I need some time to wrestle with God and ask Him what the hell He is (or isn't) doing.  I can't imagine having to do that day after day after day as Mother Teresa did.

And yet, despite her doubt, who can question this amazing woman's capacity to draw people to God, both saint and sinner alike?  Who can doubt her capacity to inspire atheist, agnostic, and believer?  Who can doubt her willingness to engage a person: Hindu, Muslim, or Christian in a respectful, kindly manner, without judgment and full of compassion?  How many souls do you think she won with this kind of disposition?  Even with her doubts?  Perhaps, just perhaps, her doubt enabled her to do the things she did because it brought her humility.

And, in a crazy way, I believe her doubt strengthened her faith.  Yes, her doubt was great, but is there anywhere anyone has found where she out and out renounced her Christian faith?  Was there anywhere she entered into such a state of doubt and darkness that she forsake her God?  No.  One who goes through such doubt and yet believes has, without a doubt, faith the size of a mustard seed.  It has to be strong.  I can imagine the conversations going on in her head because I have some of my own.

There are days when I wonder about this faith that I have.  There are days when I am amazed at the almost stupidity of it.  Yes, you heard me right when I said that.  I mean, what person in his or her right mind would believe that God became human to die for us and save us from our sin.  God is almighty.  God could have done anything He wanted.  Furthermore, even though God chose to act in this manner, we haven't done a very good job in living out what Jesus told us.  Believe me, I deal with the political crap of church all the time. While many believers get along well together, there are always petty jealousies, disagreements, and disputes.  Folks will argue about what color to paint the restrooms or whether or not adding another church service is a good thing.  Hearing such things on a daily basis is enough to make one very cynical--not only about the church but about faith.  There are even brief moments where my mind says, "Do you really believe all this stuff?"

It is at such moments when I am forced to take a good, hard look at myself.  I have to dig deep within to the recesses of my memory and into the recesses of my heart.  As I dig, I rediscover the things God has planted there.  I rediscover the goodness I have received when I didn't deserve it.  I rediscover the times when God touched me in a way that was totally unexpected.  I rediscover the amazing capacity of God's people to make a difference in the world.  As each of these things comes forth, my faith is renewed and strengthened once again. 

"Yes."  I say to myself.  "Yes, I believe this stuff.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord..."

Such doubt may be seen as weakness to some, but I celebrate it.  It helps me relate to others who share doubt.  After having wrestled with my own, I am better able to talk with them about what they are sensing, what they are feeling, and why they are doubting.  I can do a better job of sharing this faith that has been given to me when I do so with humility and understanding and compassion.  I've been there.  At times, I'm still there.  But, each time, God provides me with what is needed to work through the doubt and become even stronger. 

One day, the cycle of faith and doubt will be broken, but on that day, I'll be breathless.  Until then, I hope to have healthy doubt.

No comments: