Monday, May 11, 2009

The Benefit of the Doubt- May/June, Faith Today (Cover Story)

The Benefit of the Doubt

God wants us to wrestle with him

Doubt is a much maligned reality of a living faith. If you have it, don’t despair – most of the people in the Bible were ”a questioning lot” writes Carolyn Arends,
an evangelical author and award-winning musician from Coquitlam, B.C.

Sarah is a deep thinker. She wishes she could just accept things on the surface, but she can’t. A theological question about God’s sovereignty began to haunt her in her early 20s. She took her question to the spiritual experts available: her pastor and a local “Bible Answer” radio personality. They both told her it was arrogant to question God. But she found it difficult to be dishonest with God. So she stopped talking to God altogether.

Jenny grew up in the church and laughs that she’s saving her “rebellious phase” for her upcoming 40s. She’s had many faith-building encounters with God and loves to share them. What is harder for Jenny to talk about is the long, dark season after her first pregnancy when she had a colicky baby and a whopping case of post-partum depression. Worse, she had an agonizing sense of being cut off from God. For several months she begged God to break through the haze of her exhaustion and hormonal desperation with some reassurance of His love. The breakthrough didn’t happen. Gradually, she stopped feeling so desperate. But she also felt a little abandoned. Even now, when others testify about the times God met them in an hour of need, Jenny’s eyes well up with tears.

Richard was a minister but he’s not anymore. When a bridge collapsed unexpectedly in his small maritime town, so did his faith. His teenage son was on that bridge and drowned. After that, Richard couldn’t think of anything to preach about.

I’ve believed in Jesus since I was old enough to believe in anything. I can barely imagine a world or a life without God. And yet, now and then, I find myself sitting in a church service suddenly struck by the thought that perhaps the whole thing – faith in a personal, knowable God and all the creeds and prayers and the relationship that follow – is only a lovely dream, a benign fabrication that gives meaning to an otherwise achingly futile human existence. I refute these ideas as quickly as I can but I’m troubled by the fact that even now, after all these years of discipleship, such thoughts are possible.

I have questions about … doubt.

My research on doubt is informal. I’ve simply listened to my own heart and the half-whispered confessions of other pilgrims. But I’ve become convinced that most Christians experience doubt at least now and then. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, of believers who seem never to falter. I often wonder (as I fight back my envy) if perhaps they have received the particular spiritual gift of “faith” the Apostle Paul says has been given to some (1 Corinthians 12:9). Whatever the explanation, these unflappable Christians seem to be the exceptions who prove the rule. The rest of us eventually (or periodically) run into some set of variables – tragic circumstances, theological quandaries, physical or mental illnesses, or our own reflective temperaments – that leave questions welling up inside us.

We must determine, it seems to me, if doubt is always destructive or if it is potentially helpful. Are doubts the enemy of faith or, as American author Frederick Buechner puts it, “the ants in the pants of faith,” the very things that keep faith “alive and moving”?

The Bible encourages us to move toward faith and away from doubt. And yet, the “Hall of Fame” believers held up as examples in Hebrews 11 were almost unanimously a questioning lot. The point seems less that they never doubted and more that they came to God with their doubts. Some of them argued with or even hollered at God. But they didn’t walk away.

My favourite example is Jacob. Genesis 32 describes a mysterious encounter with a stranger whom Jacob eventually understands to be God Himself. Jacob wrestles with God all night long and tells Him “I will not let You go until You bless me.”

In the morning Jacob gets his blessing and a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel [‘God-Wrestler’], because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28). Imagine that. God names not only Jacob but also His people, His nation, His church: Israel. God-wrestlers. It seems God wants us to wrestle with Him, to fight for Him, to grapple with the Mystery, to hold on tight and refuse to let go.

The more I read the Bible, the more I am convinced that God has empathy for our situation. I don’t think our doubts offend God. But I do think He is concerned when we swallow our doubt, when we pretend He is not beyond our understanding and when we attempt to hide our true feelings from Him (as if we ever could!).

So how do we let doubt be a fire that refines faith rather than consumes it? In my own experience, the following four principles have been extremely helpful.

Expect Some Turbulence
The other day I grabbed a cup of water from the kitchen table. It turned out it was not my water but my daughter’s lemonade. I like lemonade, but the tart flavour was so unexpected I did a classic cartoon “spit-take.” Expectations are powerful.

Many Christians expect a doubt-free walk with God. When trouble comes, we must contend with not only the questions themselves but also with the stress and shame at having the questions at all. Our panic will be significantly minimized if we understand that the majority of believers who have gone before us (from biblical heroes and Early Church Fathers to more recent saints like Henri Nouwen and even Mother Teresa) have encountered seasons of doubt.

I suspect a great number of Christians discover as they journey with God that the more they believe (the more they perceive of God) the more doubt springs up as a natural response to the gap between what is and what is understood.

To have real faith – faith that hopes for things that are not yet seen – we have to be confronted at least occasionally with a keen and painful awareness of just how unseen some of those things are. That awareness often manifests itself as doubt.

The author of Ecclesiastes claims “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

The Bible is wonderfully candid when it refers to this incredibly good news (that we bear something of the eternal right at the deepest part of who we are) as a burden. The truth is, if we flesh-and-bone, finite creatures really do house something infinite, we can expect to feel at odds with ourselves a good deal of the time. Accepting that tension can go a long way toward helping us do something constructive with our doubt.

Don’t Forget to Remember
Every time I hold a friend’s new baby, I’m shocked by how much I’ve forgotten about my own kids’ infancies. When they were tiny, I thought every precious (and not-so-precious) detail would be etched in my mind forever. Now I can barely recall what they looked like back then. If we don’t actively remember things – by writing them down, taking pictures, and telling and retelling stories about them – we forget.

You’d think it would be easy to remember our spiritual epiphanies – answered prayers, Holy Spirit insights and touches of God through circumstances or special perceptions of His presence. In reality, spiritual encounters are particularly difficult to recall precisely because they belong to another realm that seems to vaporize when we get bogged down in our material existence.

The Old Testament prophets understood this problem. They had a habit of marking milestone moments with rocks and altars (they called them ebenezers) so that later, when it all seemed like a hazy dream, they could go back and touch something tangible and remember what God had done for them. It is critical that we do the same. Journal. Write a song. Tell a friend. Take a picture. Read the stories of other believers as a way of accessing the collective memory of the Church. Memorize Scripture. Remember.

Focus on the Who Question
Slowly, I am coming to accept the fact that if God is really God, and I’m really not God, it only makes sense that there are aspects of Him that are beyond me. This awareness allows me to see mysteries that once threatened my faith as actual grounds for belief.

At the same time, there is much that God has chosen to reveal about Himself – through creation, through His Word, through the faith community and, most wonderfully, through Jesus.

We often don’t have answers to so many of our questions. Why does God seem to intervene in some situations and not in others? When will there be ultimate justice? How will God bring it about? But we always have the answer to the Who question. If we wonder who God is, if we need to know if God truly is about justice and mercy and a love for us that cannot be exhausted, we only have to look at Jesus to get our answer.

Knowing who Jesus is allows us to trust God’s character even when our present emotions or circumstances lead us in other directions.

Don’t Stop the Conversation
Pray. Even when you seem to be talking into the void. Even when you have no words. Pray.

One of my favourite prayers is recorded in the Gospel of Mark. A father brings his very ill son to Jesus for healing. He pours out his heart to the Healer, crying, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can?’ ” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

I imagine the father standing there in the middle of the chaos – his epileptic boy twitching on the ground, the voices of others crying out for healing, the crush of hundreds of people jostling for position – and sensing that this is the defining moment of his life. He swallows hard. “I do believe,” he says. And then he adds instinctively, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” The father is too desperate for charades. He comes to Jesus believing just enough to trust that Jesus will help him with his unbelief. And that, it turns out, is enough faith to move the heart of God.

I will not let You go until You bless me. I do believe; help my unbelief.

These are prayers God blesses – the prayers of honest people who understand that doubt is sometimes normal and that faith is worth fighting for.


Anonymous said...

This is real and honest about doubt, yet encouraging and hopeful as we deal with it and pray.

I also like your practical idea of creating modern ebenezers, so that we can touch/sing/hear something tangible and remember what God has done for us:

"Journal. Write a song. Tell a friend. Take a picture. Read the stories of other believers as a way of accessing the collective memory of the Church. Memorize Scripture. Remember."

Anonymous said...

A thought-provoking article, beautifully written as usual Carolyn, accessible to all readers, giving us all something to reflect upon.

It's reassuring to know that doubt does not necessarily mean we are losing our faith, but rather growing in it; not necessarily moving away from God, but perhaps moving closer to Him.

Warner said...

"I don’t think our doubts offend God." I agree. Any time I wonder about how God may "feel" about a situation, I try to put into perspective of me as a parent. Am I offended when my son looks at me, doubting whether I'm going to catch him when he jumps? No. It warms my heart to see he's overcoming that doubt and trusting me and that I've earned that trust. I know looking at my relationship with my son is far from my relationship with my Heavenly Father, but I find it often helps me liven my relationship with Him.

Dave K. <>< said...

Hey Carolyn,

Excellent article, and very timely for me. I am being appointed to serve at a new church and will be moving next month, and leaving behind the church where I've been pastor for the last 10 years.

I've been giving a lot of thought to my final sermon, and had already decided to preach on Jacob's dream with the angels ascending and descending, and then his awakening and noting: "Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place..." and then marking the holy place with a rock.

I have a pretty cool rock in my office that I'm planning to place on the altar that Sunday as a reminder . . . and now I may even quote from the part of your article subtitled "Don't Forget to Remember," since it fits so well. I also may quote from Kathleen Norris' book "Amazing Grace," specifically the chapter entitled "grace." (If you haven't read this one, I think you'd really enjoy it.

Anyway, serendipity for me that I read your article.

Blessings to you and yours!

Dave Kepple
Middletown (soon to be St. Paris), Ohio

Unknown said...

A beautiful example from history of a true believer in Christ that was plagued by a period of doubt is Adrienne de Lafayette, the wife of the Revolutionary War hero. From about the age 11 to about the age of 15, she was in a state of turmoil, agonizing over her faith and praying constantly for the Lord to help her understand His truth. This lady was given assurance by God around the time of her first daughter's birth (she was married at the age of 14!), and I believe she was given this period of wrestling with angels so that God could strengthen her for all the hard times she would have to face in the future. She was a prisoner during the Terror of the French Revolution, and during that time her strength of faith was a blessing to all those imprisoned with her. If you ever have an opportunity to read about her, I hope you will take the chance to get acquainted with her inspiring story. What a lady of faith, love, and courage!