Thursday, February 10, 2022

Big Questions and the Loss of Faith

A few years ago, this little brain-teaser was making the rounds. Take a run at it, and let’s see how you do:

Three old ladies go to a hotel one evening, hoping to save money by sharing a room. The hotel manager charges each $20 for the night, though he knows the room is only worth $40. Shortly thereafter, the manager feels guilty that he has charged them too much, so he sends the bellboy to return $20 to the old ladies. On the way, the bellboy realizes that he cannot split $20 among three ladies, so he pockets $5 and hands them the remaining $15.

Here is the problem. The ladies paid $60 initially. Since they received $5 each, the net amount they paid for the room was $15 each, which adds up to a total of $45. The bellboy has $5 in his pocket, which if you add it to the $45 makes $50. Where is the other $10 that they paid the manager?

Now, if you’re normal, your instant reaction is, “This is amazing … a hotel room for only $20!”

Then maybe you start to wonder what kind of flea-infested hellhole these poor old ladies ended up with. But then maybe you think, “Hey, something’s wrong: $60 doesn’t just morph into $50.”

So maybe you go back and have a second read. Then maybe a third. And maybe after that you still find yourself boggled.

Okay, so now I’m supposed to tell you the answer, right? Well, just hang on a bit.

Uncertainty and Faith

I want to pause to ask you a different question: what should you do when you don’t know the answer to something? What is the rational way to proceed when you have run into a problem that challenges your fundamental assumptions about how the world works?

You’ve been told by your math teachers and professors that the laws of mathematics are the most stable, reliable sorts of things we know. 2+2 is always 4, every time, just as √9 = 3, and π = 3.14 … and so on. Yet you have just seen the laws of mathematics, as you have known them, defeated before your very eyes. $60 has become $50. So what should you do now?

You and I are rational people, we would hope. And while we may be prepared to take the word of experts so long as what they say proves true, rational people don’t simply trust authority. Isn’t that the sort of attitude that got us into all sorts of trouble historically with political, military and religious propagandists? We must remain skeptical, reasonable, and above all willing to change our minds in the face of new evidence, no?

Well, then, what do we rational folks do? Since we don’t have the answer to the math problem, we can only go two ways: first, we could decide that the fault lies with our previous education. We could begin to suspect our math teachers or professors as propagandists or liars, or at least not as competent as they ought to be. We could adopt a new attitude of skepticism to all mathematical operations. We could tell our friends, “You know, they tell you that numbers are fixed properties, but really they’re not! I have discovered the truth: that the mathematics that we have been learning is a lie. Throw off your chains. Open your mind. Deny math.”

Something Worth Believing

But is that really what you’re going to do here?

Naw. You’ll take a second option. What you’re really going to do is this. You’ll say, “That’s a puzzle!” You’ll chuckle wryly, and have another try, and another, and another … and even if you’re totally unsuccessful, you won’t throw over all your faith in math; you’ll say, “Well, there must be an answer; and someone can surely help me with this one.” And even if you end up with no clue as to what the right answer is, you’ll remain as positive as ever that the laws of mathematics have not failed.

Is there anything irrational about that second reaction? Is there even anything unusual about it? Of course not. It’s quite routine. It’s reflective of how any reasonable person deals when confronted by doubt. They don’t just throw over everything they’ve previously believed and declare their allegiance to the opposition. They keep their faith, consider the possibilities, take a reasonable amount of time, consult with knowledgeable others who may be able to help one see the answer, and only if all these strategies prove to be a failure will a rational person be inclined to abandon earlier beliefs.

That’s the pattern that happens if a person has something worth believing in the first place. The laws of mathematics are good information. If you’ve understood them, known them, used them and found them to be reliable in past, you’d be a fool to dump them at the first challenge.

The Challenge of the Season

Well, what about your faith in Christ? How solid is it? Have you understood his word? Have you been walking in his teaching? Have you found his wisdom truthful, practical and reasonable? Have you been finding him faithful? Have you seen and known his beauty and moral excellence? Have you felt his companionship? Has he brought you through deep waters, and has he restored your soul? Has he been light to your eyes and strength to your limbs? Have you been serving and loving him, and enjoying fellowship with those who do likewise?

And now you’re off to university or college. So what are you going to do the first time some imperious professor raises a challenge to your faith? How will you react the first time a skeptic throws you a puzzle and scoffs if you can’t solve it right away? What will you do if you find yourself lying on the bed in your dorm room, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “What on earth is the answer to that one?”

What would a rational person do?

Sensible Doubt

To abandon faith, to depart from known truth, or to completely reorient one’s understanding of reality, and to do so merely based on a momentary doubt is simply not something a sensible person does. That’s true whether we’re speaking of the laws of mathematics or the Law of God. We should not be quickly shaken, or rashly upset our faith. We should persist in sound doctrine, knowing not only the source of our teaching, but also standing firm in the relationship established thereby.

That doesn’t mean we just refuse facts and cling to whatever we’ve been taught. We have an equal responsibility to show our dedication to truth, whatever the cost. And it sometimes happens that the “faith” we’ve been taught, or which we have previously practiced, has been shallow, misinformed, confused, insincere, and just plain wrong.

And it’s at the precise moment that we realize that, that we discover if we really love truth or only say we do. Those who cling to their traditions mindlessly or in terror are no lovers of truth; not only that, but they insult the God of truth, because they act as if he will lose his ability to lead them if they pursue the truth. But he will not.

Our God is real. He is not a God of illusions, deceptions or errors. If something we have previously believed actually turns out to be flawed, then even if we’ve previously cherished that belief, then after we have given it due consideration and prayer, we ought to be willing to change our minds.

That’s how a rational person behaves.

Good Bread and Bad Attitudes

Okay, let’s see this from scripture. The disciples are out with the Lord in Tiberius. There he works this amazing miracle where he manufactures food out of thin air and feeds the multitudes. Then they go off to Capernaum, and the hungry masses track them down.

They want to make him king … but not because they particularly love him or his teaching, but because the food really rocked. Besides, scrubbing up a meal in the ancient world took a lot of time and effort. In their view, a king owes his subject lunch.

So when they see him, they say, “What are you going to do to give us a sign that you’re the right man? Here’s a hint: our fathers ate bread from heaven in the wilderness … so … so …?”

Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life.”

“Uh, okay,” they say, “whaddya mean: You don’t want us to …?”

Jesus does it again: “He who eats this bread will live forever.”

“Uh … right … okay … no way you mean you’re giving us your flesh to eat …”

Jesus hits them again: “My flesh it true food, and my blood is true drink …”

“Right,” they say, “You’re obviously hinting at something, but you’re making our heads hurt. Could you just explain?”

“Does this cause you to stumble?” Jesus replies, “The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and life … but there are some of you who do not believe.”

“Listen, whatever”, they say, and they’re out of there.

In one move, the Lord alienates most of his disciples. He clearly does it deliberately, and he does it by taxing them beyond the limits of their shallow “faith”. But even his true disciples are gobsmacked by the whole thing. What kind of strategy is this for the Messiah? They don’t know what to think.

Jesus turns to them, “You do not want to go away also, do you?”

They swallow. Maybe they cough, look around and the stub their toes in the dirt.

Then Peter speaks, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Good answer, Pete.

The Point

That’s your answer too.

In times of doubt, remember whom you believed. Remember who he is. Remember that you signed on to follow the Lord; and since he’s the Lord, he’s the only one who’s entitled to have all the answers all the time.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

That’s the same lesson, OT style.

That being said, in my years in the academy I can personally attest that every time — every single time — that I ran into a difficult question and didn’t have a ready answer, when I turned to the Lord he would show it to me. Sometimes it took a day, a week, a few months or even a couple of years, in some cases — but always, always he has come through for me.

Now, what if I’d thrown over my faith at the first moment of doubt?

But then, wouldn’t that have been irrational?


You want me to give you the answer to the brain-teaser at the start of the post?

Sorry, I won’t. You’re just going to have to decide what you believe.


  1. Hmm, when you watch a magician perform, I think he uses a strategy called misdirection. I am sure you don't want to do that to your readers, right, IC :-) ? Since no one is taking a crack at this, let me try. Simply ignore the misdirection to the bell boy at this time, and stay with the ladies. For simplicity, assume each had $20.- in their wallet to start, then zero, and then $5 after the bell boy came. Thus, in their mind the room cost them $45 as opposed to previously when it cost them $60. They simply did not know the bell boy stole $5 and that the room really costs $40. So, to set the math right to them they simply add their $15 to the $45 and the world looks OK to them.

    1. I think that misdirection -- or even misinformation -- is precisely what throws people about these "unanswerable" questions from the skeptics.

      People often mistake their first moment of perplexity for some sort of more profound intuition that an answer doesn't exist at all, and this throws them. But sometimes a moment of perplexity is no more than that...a moment.

      And if it's a long moment, so what? That also doesn't turn "I don't know the answer" into "There is no answer." Either way, if an answer actually does exist, we'd be fools to abandon our faith.

      But how are you going to account for the fact that although the old ladies do not know it, even if the world looks okay to them, the bellboy still has some of their money in his pocket? :)

    2. You’re right, Qman – look for the misdirection. I had to read it twice, but the error is in letting IC frame the question. If you simply ask yourself (1) how much was paid at the beginning ($60) and (2) how much was left at the end (still $60: $5 for each lady, $5 for the bellboy and $40 for the manager), you’re fine.

      The laws of math behave themselves perfectly. It’s the questioner that cheats, by getting you to perform a calculation based on adding together apples and oranges (money paid vs. money held).

      Oh. Wait. IC beat me to it.

      Fine. What he said …

    3. "But how are you going to account for the fact that although the old ladies do not know it, even if the world looks okay to them, the bellboy still has some of their money in his pocket? :)"

      They don't have to know that he stole 5 bucks from his manager. The story could also be that they give 45 to the manager with the instruction to tip the bell boy 5.