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Faith, Doubt, Fear

“For now we see through a glass, darkly…”

I have spent many hours in all three categories. 

Faith

The first category is faith. 

We all believe things. We believe things about reality; we also imagine things that we don’t really know about, but we imagine and believe. I have constructed statements of faith, I have signed and agreed with statements of faith, I have declared and pronounced statements of faith. 

Faith is a great source of confidence and strength. Believing in many ways is what gets us up in the morning. It is that important part of our lives that gives us a sense of purpose, belonging, community, direction.

Sometimes faith is mundane. Sometimes faith is esoteric. Sometimes faith is basic. Sometimes faith is transcendent. 

Mundane faith is believing in yourself when things get rough. I can do this, I will endure, I will be OK. Or maybe believing the Dodgers will win this game or playoff series.

Esoteric faith are beliefs that we hold in common with a unique group of people. Believing in each other when you are part of a family or a team. It is a trust or security that we have with our basic life unit. We believe in each other.

Basic faith is faith in the way things work. Not jumping off roofs is a basic belief in Gravity. Now gravity is a universally accepted truth as well, but we must believe in it to act on it. Climate change is also a universally accepted scientific fact, some of you just don’t believe in it so your actions don’t change as a result. 

Transcendent faith is faith in a god or God, and in our story of God. Over history, this has taken many shapes and forms even within the same faith tradition (i.e. not all Christians believe the same things).

Doubt

As much as faith is a part of life, so is doubt.

We doubt in every category above. There are times I doubt myself. There are times I doubt my place in the eyes of friends and family. There are times I doubt basic things. I often have doubts about God, or how my faith tradition explains God or the details of the story of faith. 

People who say they don’t doubt are lying, either to themselves or others, probably to both. Unfortunately, doubt is seen as a negative and it isn’t. Doubt is a deep recognition of our limits in thinking and knowing. It pushes us to ask hard questions about meaningful and important beliefs. Without doubt and the accompanying questions we are mired in archaic and often wrong-headed and muddled thinking. Beliefs are necessary, but often need reconstruction.

Our beliefs are embedded in us by powerful forces and people in our lives. Parents, teachers, pastors, priests, professors, friends all contribute to our belief system and with those beliefs comes an embedded allegiance to those people and entities. Doubt causes us to call into question their authority and veracity; generally this doesn’t feel right. It feels like betrayal. It feels threatening to our sense of belonging to those important structures. As a result, our doubt pushes our fear button over and over. We push doubt back and miss its value.

Fear

Fear is the enemy of faith, and doubt. It fights both and it doesn’t fight fair. 

Worse than that, fear is used by the faith sources as power tools to control and keep people in line. I ran across a statement in a Twitter profile:

“There’s no undo button in eternity & forever is a long time to realize you were wrong.”

Twitter profile

I really dislike this statement and mentality, yet it is rampant in my world. As a pastor I used to say the easiest sermon was the one that made people feel guilty or afraid. One of the iconic sermons of all time is entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Routinely we are warned that the doctrine of a literal, eternal hell is a non-negotiable necessary belief. It is then routinely used to quell doubt and compel belief – like the above twitter quote.

The antidote for fear and the goal of doubt is truth. Truth, as far as we can know it, is the most important factor in all the above categories. Are my beliefs true? Does doubt help me discover truth? Can I overcome my fears by emphasizing what is true?

Another kind of fear that keeps us from moving forward is the fear of being wrong. It starts early because our education is based more on learning facts than learning knowledge skills. Obviously we need to learn facts. Apparently not so obvious to our educators is the need teach us to think appropriately. Essentially teachers need to teach something that feels subversive to their first goal, giving students the ability to challenge everything that they are teaching!

Even more distressing, pastors generally don’t teach their congregations how to doubt. We tend to do this to some extent when we appeal to Acts 17:11 and the Bereans who tested all that Paul taught them against the Scriptures. We encourage people to be Bereans, yet the doubt encouraged is limited and particular. We doubt the speaker as a protection of presumed beliefs. The speaker becomes the buffer of true doubt. The message causes me doubt but I don’t have the freedom to doubt the “true” message, so I mitigate the process by focusing on the messenger. “He isn’t the most articulate presenter, if there was another it would be more substantive.” If we were more honest we would just say, I am having trouble believing that now.

What I am pushing is that now that we have a settled body of beliefs, those beliefs must be doubted.

Today we must dare to appeal to our faith communities to test the Scriptures against the canon of truth. When we don’t we deny some realities that truly make us look foolish, like the reality of evolution. In my faith context, I was made to fear embracing evolution and when I did people were always surprised that I had departed from the faith in this area. It made them suspicious because they had been made to fear discovering the truth by denying an unnecessary theological construct.

In this world the fight against evolution became a center-piece of the faith community. Scripture began to be seen through this lens, then layered onto the local political and social landscape and ultimately removed from its historical context and meaning. The story of creation became a proof against evolution. The victim in the battle is truth. 

Modern day Bereans measure all things by a broader standard than their peculiar understanding of the Bible. They measure all things by the standard of truth. That includes testing faith, employing doubt, and overcoming fear.

In my life of faith I have found myself in the position of doubt often. I felt guilty about my doubts. I forced my doubts away by study, fervent expression of “truth” in preaching, blogging, debating, etc.  I found that I am afraid to doubt the resurrection. I am afraid to doubt the need for atonement. I am afraid to doubt the veracity of the Scriptures. And yet, in spite of my fears those doubts occur. I have forced myself back into line with what I thought was a spiritual practice to subdue the doubts and re-orient myself in the stable of faith. When I have expressed these doubts about the “un-doubtables” of the Christian faith I have heard the tongue clucking warnings of falling away from the faith and the “indestructible” statements of faith that declare “never will I doubt.” Who hasn’t quoted or had quoted Martin Luther’s strong expression of faith:  “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” Obviously, at times we take a stand, arrive at a conclusion, stand for our conviction. Yet, I have come to see that ignoring doubts is not a valuable spiritual discipline but an undisciplined practice of the mind. The mind pushes, we push back. The mind continues to push, we label the thoughts demonic. Sometimes we need to trust our doubt. 

Here is an encouragement. Let your doubts loose. Speak them in your communities. The challenge is really that our doubts will most likely lean on the most “important” doctrines:  The deity of Christ; the virgin birth; the resurrection; heaven and hell, and others too many to mention here. It’s ok. Doubt them. Grapple with new ways to look at old beliefs. Mix ancient paradigms with new discoveries and let them work together to glean a more clear picture of reality. 

I have spent the better part of the last two years “not believing.” Guess what? I’m still around. I am still loved and accepted by God. Some days it is traumatic and I cry. Some days it is liberating and I am. Some days it is confusing and I grapple. Some days I go to church and I sing. Some days I go to church and am silent. Some days I don’t go to church. My faith is growing, and changing. Some of you will be disturbed by my growth and call it something else, but I will continue to exercise the mind as it struggles to know more about reality and imagined realities. 

 

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The TempleBlog started as my personal blog in October of 2006 with my first post: John Stott – it was a listing of John Stott quotes.

Now it is a different place. I mostly write about two of my convictions: Pacifism and Racism. But I also offer resources: both digital and personal. 

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