Friday, February 07, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: I Have My Doubts

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In a poem entitled “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, Robert Browning wrote these words:

“That way
Over the mountain, which who stands upon
Is apt to doubt if it be meant for a road;
While, if he views it from the waste itself,
Up goes the line there, plain from base to brow,
Not vague, mistakeable! what’s a break or two
Seen from the unbroken desert either side?
And then (to bring in fresh philosophy)
What if the breaks themselves should prove at last
The most consummate of contrivances
To train a man’s eye, teach him what is faith?”

Tom: Wow, I can relate. Immanuel Can, are Christians supposed to admit we ever have moments when we struggle with doubt?

Doubt In the Christian Life

Immanuel Can: Absolutely. There are some who think doubt is wrong for Christians, and even more who think doubt betrays disbelief. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.

Tom: Okay, humor me. Doubt and disbelief: how would you distinguish them for those who haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this?

IC: Doubt is a product of uncertainty; disbelief is a refusal to consider. Doubt is a natural state through which all thinking people pass at times; disbelief is an obstinacy that shuts down thinking. Doubt is something inadvertent and human, something God takes into account in dealing with us, and something he helps us to conquer; disbelief is a choice or decision, a hardness of heart that God thoroughly condemns in us, and a sin sufficient to cut us off from him altogether.

Tom: That’s helpful. James talks about the man who doubts when he prays. He calls him “double-minded”, “unstable in all his ways” and “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind”. I think that’s a pretty apt description of doubt. But what I notice there is that James does not talk about him being at risk of his salvation. It is simply that a person in such a condition cannot anticipate receiving the answer to his prayer.

Why Disbelief Is Worse

IC: Hebrews, on the other hand, deals with willful disbelief and what that looks like. Israel was on the fringe of the Promised Land. They had been led there by God personally. They knew the land existed, and they knew God had promised it. They knew there were giants, and yet they knew the Lord expected them to go forward on his word.

They had no real question: only a refusal to trust. Caleb and Joshua knew all the same stuff — including the giants — and yet begged them to go forward in faith: but no go. Then the people wanted to stone everyone through whom God was convicting them of their disbelief, and to return to Egypt. That decision kept them out of the Promised Land ... and so it is today.

Tom: So you’re saying the difference between doubting and disbelieving is considerable. Doubters vacillate, disbelievers double down. They’re very sure about what they don’t want to know, and they’re not going anywhere.

The Essential Feature

By way of contrast to that, a doubter may move forward in obedience even though he is unclear about where he is going and not entirely sure he wants to go there. I think of the children in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Mr. Beaver first mentions Aslan. Lucy and Susan are concerned that meeting a lion might not be safe. And Mr. Beaver replies:
“ ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’ ”
They have definite doubts. They lack the sorts of reassurances that would normally be offered; the things that would make them more comfortable about going. Things like, “I promise he won’t eat you.”

But they still go.

IC: Right on. Doubt is not the opposite of faith: it’s an essential feature of the life of faith.

Tom: That’s a provocative statement. Okay, I’ll bite: how do you figure?

The Response to Uncertainty

IC: By definition, faith is the response to uncertainty. Faith, says the word of God, is “the conviction of things not seen.” This is not because God is limited, far less because he is anything but faithful to his promises; it is rather because we human beings are limited and easily confused. We do not know the future, and we do not even really know much of the present. The past we know only by memory (flawed as that is) and by report. We are awash in incomplete data, lost in partial information, and fixed to our own perspective. We are creatures of uncertainty, of hesitancy, of doubt.

Faith is precisely what comes into play when doubt arrives. In fact, if we had no doubts, what need would we have of faith?

Tom: And how could faith exist in the absence of doubts? I see what you’re saying. I suspect it may not be palatable to some Christians though.

So now I’m doubting. And I feel like it’s a sin, because to me it seems perilously close to unbelief. What do I do? I can suppress my feelings and refuse to admit them to anyone, or I can overreact and think it means I’m not saved at all.

What happens if I just continue to attend church, fulfill my responsibilities and pretend all’s well? (I have a sneaking suspicion what might happen: I’ve read a lot of atheist conversion stories that started with the autobiographer telling us that he was the real deal as a Christian …)

Driving Doubt Underground

IC: Quite … that’s the problem. If we deny our doubts, they don’t disappear: they go underground, and then keep coming back up to undermine our faith. We lose confidence, and doubt turns into despair, and then sometimes to disbelief. In any case, it is paralyzing. But it’s protective: we’re trying to save ourselves from danger, and doing so by avoiding it altogether. If it works at all, it exacts a terrible price on our intellect.

What also often goes unnoticed in this strategy of avoiding doubt is the lack of faith it expresses. Essentially, it assumes that God cannot answer the matter in which I am doubting, and so I must close down the question for him and protect my own belief. This is infantilizing, since it denies us the essential experience of overcoming doubts with answers. We remain naive and foolish, rather than growing in grace and knowledge, because we fear to face doubt. We don’t think God can handle it.

Tom: That’s a good point. Wherever I have found comfort in the middle of doubt, it is because I have totally given up on solving it myself and said, essentially, “Lord, HELP!” Which, by the way, is biblical …

IC: Right. The contrary attitude is this: to face our doubts squarely, admit them in all their difficulty, but respond with faith that God can answer them, and then allow some time for him lead us to the answer we need.

Tom: Ah, time …

Increase My Faith

IC: That is exactly what Habakkuk did. God not only wasn’t put off by it, but he actually honored it and increased Habakkuk’s faith. That’s the scriptural pattern for dealing with doubt.

Tom: Oddly enough, it’s been of great help to me when doubting to consider the alternative. “To whom shall we go” indeed. It’s not like the world has a whole lot of rational options to offer that are free from the accusation of being compromised, complicit or agenda-driven.

IC: God does not want us to hide from our doubts: He wants us to face them and grow our faith. But we can never do this safely unless we’re walking daily with God, reading his word, praying and conversing with him over the issues in hand, so that he can walk us through them.

Of course, he’s also given us other Christians who are also struggling with issues, and sometimes they can help us with their insight and experience too. (That’s one of the things this blog is about, for sure.) But the primary thing is our continued honesty with ourselves and our continued conversation with God.

Tom: Agreed. We do not live in the days in which miraculous healings, tongues or the expulsion of demonic oppressors are commonplace. That is not a surprise. There are good reasons in the New Testament to believe this more monotonous state of affairs in which we currently operate was to be expected. There is, therefore, no magic button we can push to remove doubt. And if we are honest, there was no magic button even in the days in which the Lord Jesus walked the earth. There were many witnesses to the miracles who found reasons to reject them and the message they communicated.

From Doubting to Faith

We are left, then, with the Browning poem you sent me that started this whole thing:
“What if the breaks themselves should prove at last
The most consummate of contrivances
To train a man’s eye, teach him what is faith?”
IC: There’s real wisdom in that. The life of faith is not one that denies doubt; it’s one in which doubt is faced and overcome. To know God is to have found him faithful in meeting our needs, answering our questions, and overcoming our doubts. It is not to have never doubted.

Christians can have doubts: no problem. They have a way to deal with them. For unbelievers, doubt is also a common experience: frequently they even find themselves dubious about their disbelief — maybe there’s a God … what if there’s a judgment … what if what I’m doing is really wrong … and so on.

So everybody has some type of doubt. But the Christian type is much better, because in the Lord, we ultimately have the answers. What has the unbeliever to compare with that?

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