Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Doubt: Seedbed of Despair or of Spiritual Growth?

I am no stranger to doubt.

Since my late teens I have from time to time lacked a strong conviction about the Christian faith. At one time or another, I have seriously entertained notions like:

Maybe it is all just atoms and physics and chance.

Is there really a heaven?

If there is, why won't God accept my unbelieving friends and family if he loves them so much?

The purpose of this confession is not to sow confusion amongst my fellow Christians. And I'm not going to give you 20 answers to those questions. Instead, I want to encourage any readers who have struggled with these or similar notions that you are not alone. Moreover, you can use your doubt as an opportunity to grow spiritually. I'm confident of that because I am no spiritual giant, and yet I have managed to grow as I've dealt as honestly as I can with doubts. Or rather, God has grown me.

A Story from the Gospels

You have no doubt heard evangelical Christians talk about the evils of doubt, as I have. Doubt is unequivocally a sin in the view of many pastors and leaders, and I refer my readers to this free online book for a primer from this perspective. If you are doubting, this view goes, you should just shut the devil's voice up (that's what doubt is) and get strong enough to believe with all your heart. Once you're strong in belief, you'll be free of doubt and have all the answers you'll ever need. Just believe and stop doubting already!

Alas, many of us do not seem to possess the kind of brain that can just suppress thoughts and arguments that rattle about our skulls. We have to deal honestly and try to get some sort of answers for life's persistent questions.* Is there hope for us?

Let's read about the man sometimes referred to as the patron saint of doubt:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” - John 20:19-25

I can so identify with Thomas. I don't need enthusiasm, I need evidence! Fortunately, the story does not stop there:

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:26-29

"Stop doubting and [just] believe" is the message you so often hear among Christians. But we need to see the rest of the story. As in: if Thomas was doubting, why was he even present when Jesus appeared a week later?

This is a critical question, so think about it with me carefully: what does the fact that Thomas was hanging out with the other disciples tell us about doubt?

Two Principles for Dealing with Doubt

The first thing we can learn from Thomas' story is that the church must be merciful and very, very patient with those who doubt. After all, the other disciples didn't kick Thomas out, right? And I doubt that they were shouting "Stop doubting and just believe!" at him all week. They were practicing, instead, the kind of mercy and patience that Jesus had demonstrated when Nicodemus brought all his questions to Jesus late one night. Indeed, one of the other eleven in the room later wrote:

"Be merciful to those who doubt." - Jude 22

Secondly, we see that the one who doubts must not just give up. Thomas kept hanging around the community of faith. He was willing to give God a chance to answer his questions. Doubt is not an excuse to just run away! The kind of doubt that the Scriptures warn against is the kind that people use as an excuse to just go off, be selfish, and reject hope.

A New Definition of Faith

The Greek word that we translate as faith in the New Testament is pistis. The interesting thing about this word is that it has very little, if anything, to do with intellectual assent. Instead, it refers to faithfulness. A Scriptural view of faith equates it to being faithful, not to suppressing questions. This is why James talks about faith as inevitably producing good works: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds!" (James 2:18) Faith is not intellectual assent, it is a faithfulness that bears fruit.

This new definition of faith demands a new definition of doubt. We usually equate doubt to wanting answers to tough questions, but that is not what the Biblical admonitions about doubt refer to. If doubt is the opposite of faith, then the doubt the Bible warns us against is faithlessness.

Are you willing to try an act of faithfulness in the midst of your questions? Are you willing to hang out for a while with the convinced believers until you encounter Christ? If so, you may one day find yourself evangelizing south Asia, as Thomas did!

God Can Use Our Anguished Questions

Usually we equate doubt with anguished questions, but we have just seen that the Bible defines doubt somewhat differently than we do. To maintain clarity, then, I'm going to use the term anguished questions in place of doubt. And the conclusion of the matter, for me, is that God can use our anguished questions to rebuild us.

We saw this in the story of Thomas: once he encountered the risen Savior, he knew he had received the answers that he needed...and not just for himself, but for the world around him.

We also see this in the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We all know about her beautiful and radical ministry to the poor, but it was only with the posthumous release of her letters that we learned of her decades-long struggle with serious questions. She often wondered whether God was listening to her, or even if there was a God. But she did not let her doubts lead her into faithlessness. Instead, she actively pursued the ministry of mercy to which God had called her, in the company of the faith community to which God had called her. And as she did so, she realized that she was encountering Christ, just as Thomas had. Her encounter was a bit different, though; she was encountering him as she ministered to "the least of these." God gave her the grace to see, in the face of the poor, Christ's face. God used her hunger for his light in the midst of her darkness, for his presence in the midst of her loneliness, to help her encounter him in her daily work with the poor.

I hope to have the occasion to share a little more of my own story soon. In the meanwhile, I encourage you to let God write yours, just as he wrote Thomas' and Mother Teresa's.

* Are you reading this, Guy Noir, Private Eye?

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