Monday, January 14, 2019

Anonymous Asks (22)

“What if I have doubts about my faith? What should I do?”

I’m going to try to answer this in a very general way, since you don’t specify any particular issue that is troubling you.

I like to think of faith as that not-quite-quantifiable thing that bridges the gap between the evidence I already have in front of me and my will to act on that evidence. That’s not a theological definition, but it works for me. Properly understood, the biblical definition, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” seems to me to amount to much the same thing.

Blindly Into the Void

Critics of Christianity often imply faith is some sort of blind leap into the void; belief in the absence of evidence. And if we were to read Hebrews 11:1 with that in mind, we might even think its writer agrees with them. “The conviction of things not seen,” he says.

Then we read verses 2 through 40 and realize that isn’t it at all.

The examples of faith that fill the rest of this chapter enable us to say with certainty that these men and women were not acting in an information vacuum. Abel did not pull the idea of animal sacrifice out of the air; he had seen with his own eyes the garments of skin God made for his parents. Presumably Adam and Eve had clothed both Abel and his brother after the same fashion, and there may well have been more specific revelation to Adam and Eve on that subject that is not recorded for us. In summary, in a fallen world, it requires the death of an innocent party to bring men and women into the presence of God.

So Abel had a series of data points from which to work. He was not flying blind, and neither was Cain. For whatever personal reason, Cain simply didn’t draw the same inferences Abel did. He lacked ... faith.

Data Points in the Old Testament

Abram too was not without information. The Lord spoke to him. He made him promises. We do not know exactly what Abram saw, but we are told he heard. Later, God appeared to him. These are not trivial experiences, and it is obvious Abram did not attribute them to the vagaries of his digestive tract or to an incidental knock on the head. Abram’s faith was based on an even more dramatic series of data points than Abel’s. He was no fool to obey.

When Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau, he too was not without evidence. He had witnessed the outcome of his father’s life, both when his father exercised faith and when he did not. Further, just as God appeared to Abram, he also appeared to Isaac. He knew the promises, had been told they were for his children, and had experienced the One who made them. So when the patriarch blessed Jacob and Esau, he was not simply shooting off his mouth. He had a personal relationship with the God of his father, who up until that point had demonstrated his faithfulness repeatedly. Isaac’s eyes may have been dim, but his faith was not blind.

The whole chapter of Hebrews 11 can be parsed this way. Men and women believed, yes, and their trust in God pleased him. The evidence they had to work with was different from person to person, more in some cases and less in others. Rarely was this faith the result of witnessing an obvious miracle. No, it was the evidence of past history. It was the beauty of creation. Sometimes it was personal. In other cases it was a rejection of the status quo as inadequate. But the famous decisions made by these men and women of faith were never taken without some supporting evidence, and the conclusions they drew from that evidence were the correct ones.

Dealing With Doubt

Now, if you were able to ask them, I suspect every one of our Christian readers here would tell you they have had times when they struggled with doubts. Doubt is not an uncommon problem. Ask Thomas, or any of the disciples who found it difficult to come to grips with the reality of the resurrected Christ notwithstanding the fact that he had repeatedly told them exactly what to expect. I have had my own struggles over the years with faltering faith, and I may have them again.

Thank God that while it is faith that saves us, it is not our ability to perfectly sustain that faith without ever faltering over the ensuing years that keeps us. Scripture assures us it’s the Lord who does the keeping, not you and me.

So my thought would be this: When you doubt your faith, it means it’s time to review the evidence again. Why exactly did I believe in the first place, and what have I learned since? Has my experience with God confirmed or denied the original reason for which I came to trust him? Has he shown himself faithful in my life and in the lives of others around me?

Inevitably, under careful consideration, the sheer, staggering weight of accumulated evidence for the reliability of God and his word overwhelms any immediate theological or practical issue I may be struggling with.

To Whom Shall We Go?

I have done this more than once when confronted with difficulties in the word of God or in my life, and I find it tremendously reassuring. Peter went through an intellectual and emotional process something like this, I think, when confronted with a bit of doctrine he found almost impossible to digest, and saw other disciples giving up all around him. He asked himself, “If not Christ, then what exactly is the alternative?”

Then, when faced with the question, “Do you want to go away as well?” he answered with this gem: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

He does.


  1. Faith:
    1. trust or confidence in someone or something.

    2. strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

    3. a strongly held belief or theory.

    So, people are, basically and universally, capable of faith and are actually constantly applying it without necessarily thinking a lot about it.

    This quality of faith, namely, that it does not stand on it's own but is defined by the object of faith can be downright misleading and even dangerous. Think of all the horrible results with misplaced faith in the wrong person, organization, ability, and so on (including modern materialism, scientific knowledge, and know-how).

    The distinction comes in when one talks about what you are having faith in. And it's pretty clear why that distinction is made. Point 1. suggests that the most common type of faith is grounded in the fact that the object of the faith has actually been perceived (seen) and/or encountered by you or others as a verifiable object or experience. This faith is related to the concept of Reliability as faith in your car, dishwasher, light bulbs, etc. which are known to work reliably and you have faith in that fact.

    Hence, the difficulty with faith in the supernatural is therefore that generally it is not observable and you are supposed to accept it based on someone else's passed down testimony in somewhat obscure controversial writings, word of mouth, and/or tradition (by people who lived thousands of years ago and obviously have not been certified as having all their marbles properly in place by modern psychiatric standards).

    Consequently, how can one even think about having faith in the seemingly unverifiable just based on some form of communication by ancient unknowable personages? Are we really being asked to engage in something that speculative just because some current modern personages suggest it to be the right thing to do (and how many of them have and continue to fail in competency and being worthy of personal and public trust?).

  2. Faith part 2:
    The only way I can explain that for myself is therefore by paying some attention to the details of the passed -on communication the same way I pay attention to the details passed on to me currently by modern communication. They both have a very significant ingredient in common in that then and now that type of communication always contains what we call promises (in modern times we might even call those promises specifications). The purpose of a promise, and I think most people will agree with that, is to provide a path and a means towards verifiability of the promises made for the group and purpose they are intended for. If the promised facts don't happen, then they might be conditional and the conditions have not yet been met or you are dealing only with fiction and don't have to take the communication more seriously than that. So far, I am definitely on board. Note that this must also apply to material promises involving Reliability in the scientific sense and not only to less material promises in the social, personal, supernatural, and public sphere.

    Obviously, the main characteristic of the promises in Christianity made directly by God, in order to be seen as genuine, must then have the property of being verifiable by one or more of these, the individual, group and society. As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that they are actually verifiable cook book style even coming with receipes. (See some of the previous discussions on this site concerning the verifiability of God's presence to individuals and society).

    Concerning promise keeping and verification it is clear from the Bible that this works both ways. You must promise to do your share to expect God to fullfil his (although he is much more generous than that and will take your current abilities, background, and standing into account). What you must learn though regardless is to trust in a God that has promised to do so. You are being asked for that relationship and its promises to be willing, if not done yet, to embark on a new spiritual and emotional journey certainly only within your capabilities.

    1. I think you're on to something there, Q. I assume you're using "promise" in the most expansive possible way, because God's threats, general predictions ("this conduct will reliably produce that sort of result") and the worldview presented by the Bible are each in their own way verifiable by the individual too.