Wineskins Archive

February 10, 2014

Faith And Doubt for Today’s Christians (May-Jun 2003)

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by Mark W. Hamilton
May – June, 2003

Doubt frightens us. We censor doubters and wonder how Christians can doubt and believe at the same time. Yet no matter how hard we exhort ourselves to believe without question, doubt does not go away, and we wonder, if God is truth, why do we question so much?

Two recent conversations reminded me of how painful doubt can be in churches that silence it. At a seminar, a Christian sister asked, “Does God think of me as a second-class Christian because I’m a woman? Why are there so few stories about us in the Bible? Why can a ten-year-old boy pass around communion trays, but his mother can’t? Who set up this system anyway?” Her tears and quavering voice said this was no ordinary question. Doubt, fear, disappointment—all these she directed at her church—and perhaps at God.

About the same time, a fellow minister wrote me about his “doubting faith.” He lived out his Christian ethical commitments but questioned significant doctrinal claims. Underlying the message is his recognition that the church values “simple childlike faith” undisturbed by cold reality, a kind of faith he no longer (or not yet!) has.

These conversations haunt me. Two people speak of their experiences in church: the fostering of guilt, the silencing of dissent, the dismissal of often legitimate questions, the demands for absolute certainty. Certainly their questions deserve better answers than they usually get. Certainly we need to honor their sincerity and to rethink the ideas that are now incontestable. But lying behind all this, a bigger problem nags at me. When and how is doubt legitimate in the Christian life? Does Scripture, the church’s word from God, say anything positive about doubt?

Yes, but first we must distinguish between doubt and disbelief. Not only are doubt and disbelief not synonymous, they may be opposites. To disbelieve is to conclude that ideas or beliefs are false. To doubt, on the other hand, is to experience uncertainty, even profound questioning of widely held beliefs or ideas. While disbelief may mean rejecting God, doubt involves only uncertainty. Doubt, in fact, is necessary for a growing faith.

We doubt when our ideas do not square with our experiences. Since humans are thinking beings, we persistently question our ideas and interpretations of reality. Not to do so is to wither, to die. Christians search for deeper understanding because we recognize that, in our human frailty, we do not have a broad enough grasp on reality. Only God can comprehend things as they are. Scripture gives us the best available vision of the way God perceives reality. We will always know in part, at least until the End when all of God’s creation will experience the redemption for which it groans. The intensity of our belief in any given feature of Christianity may vary, even while we continue prayerfully to trust in the God to whom the church’s (and the Bible’s) words and ideas point. Doubt does occur, whether we like it or not, within the life of faith.

The doubt that accompanies faith arises when our theology no longer adequately explains life’s experiences, with God or other human beings in the created world. For my friend at the seminar, her present experiences (the “man”made traditions of her congregation) did not square with her day-to-day experience, with Scripture, or with her encounter with the grace and love of a God for whom there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. For my fellow minister, the church’s persistent clamor for affirmation of all its ideas obscured the vision of God that we seek.

One could solve such doubt in several ways: (1) abandon God in favor of a non-theological view of reality (why would God set up an unjust system?); (2) pretend it away (the problem is not real, and unfair treatment does not exist); or (3) prayerfully rethink one’s theology so that it both honors the Bible’s overarching vision of the gracious, sovereign Lord and makes sense of Christian (not secular or pagan) life today. The first two options are unacceptable for Christians because they violate the two greatest commandments of the Bible (“Love God” and “Love your neighbor”). Nor do these solutions really solve anything. Such approaches simply fill us with anxiety because they are both forms of unbelief, doubt’s evil twin. The third solution must be the real one, but how does it work in practice?

A biblical model for using doubt to advantage does exist. It is the book of Job. Notice that, far from dodging the problem of doubt, the Bible itself embraces doubters like Job and even extols them as models of the faithful search for greater understanding and growth. The book places doubt in its proper perspective as the inevitable result of human limitations—we are not God and do not have perfect access to God’s entire mind or will. It also argues that the community of the faithful need not defend its orthodoxy by silencing the doubters, but can learn from them how to be more faithful.

Our focus is not on Job’s specific theological problem—the suffering of the innocent—but on the process, explored in the book, of rethinking our beliefs in the light of a growing understanding of Scripture’s revelation of the nature of God.

Job the billionaire enjoys a huge family for whom he sacrifices routinely, just in case they might have sinned. His religion, while well intentioned, is transactional and legalistic: “if I do X for God, God will bless me in ways that I and my culture define as most relevant.” Like his friends, he has no way of understanding his new experiences because he has not learned the ways of God deeply enough, being overconfident both in his own righteousness and in the tidiness of providence. When suffering rains down on him, this theology of blessing no longer makes sense, no matter how hard the book’s various characters try to pretend it does.

The key to the book of Job lies not in the opening wager between God and the prosecuting attorney (the Satan, in Hebrew), but in the dialogues that follow. After Job has lost everything—wealth, family, health, and dignity—he must entertain three friends from the desert who at first sit in silent mourning with him, but then enter into a dialogue that spins horribly out of control. Job bitterly curses the day of his birth, and thus human existence in general. At first, his friends claim, unconvincingly, that Job has sinned, that his suffering proves his sin, and that repentance will lead to healing. At stake, they believe, is the very order of the world. Eventually, to save their preconceived theology, they conclude, “If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a man, who is but a maggot—a son of man, who is only a worm” (Job 25:5-6 NIV). They try to squeeze his experience into their wrongheaded, but pious-sounding theology, and thereby they deepen his doubt so much that it approaches unbelief. They can save God only by destroying human beings.

Job’s radical questioning of the goodness of God drives this book forward and distresses any religious reader of it. No one in the book doubts the existence or overwhelming power of God. They all admit at various times that they do not fully understand the creator’s ways of working. What is at stake in their questioning is the benevolence and attentiveness of this deity. For example, in 9:15-19 Job describes what he fears will be his experience with God should an encounter take place.

Though innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead for mercy. If I cried and he answered me, I am not convinced that he would hear my voice. He would crush me in a whirlwind and unjustly multiply my wounds. He would not let me catch my breath, but would overwhelm me with suffering. If this is a contest of strength, look at him! If a court case, who will subpoena him?

The sufferer cries to God—and against God. Job does not feel that he will get a fair hearing. In fact, he struggles with how to understand his own suffering, which he is convinced God has caused. (And if we read chapters 1-2 we have to agree with him!) He attempts to sue God, absurd as that seems, so that he will at least get a hearing. He realizes, however, that in any legal proceeding, the divine defendant will also be judge, jury, and executioner. Job’s chances of victory are thus almost nil! But God does not crush Job. That’s the wonder of the book, whose author manages to rehabilitate both God and the doubter by bringing them together. The book climaxes with the appearance of the Lord in Chapters 38-42.

Two important observations from this section: First, in the dialogues, no one uses the divine name YHWH, the covenantal name of the God of Israel (see Exodus 3), preferring instead the more generic names Elohim (“God”), Shaddai (“the Almighty”), etc. The surprising appearance of the deity named YHWH in chapter 38 signals to the reader that we are now going to talk about the God of Israel, the gracious deliverer from slavery and the magnificent sovereign of the universe. Job’s inadequate knowledge, which led to doubt, gives way to a fuller understanding, which leads to faith.

Second, God does speak from the whirlwind, does present unanswerable arguments to Job, and does intimidate him thoroughly, just as he had expected. But Job’s worst fears are not realized, for God both allows him to speak and restores his fortunes. God honors doubt, not by answering all Job’s questions, but by offering something more precious, a relationship with the source of all wisdom, the answer to all questions, the God of Israel. And, along the way, Job’s perspectives broaden as God teaches him new questions.

The doubt that accompanies faith leads us to new insights that we would not have acquired had we settled for the old answers. So it is for Job. The fact that the Lord shows up at all completely changes the terms of the discussion among Job and his friends. They have spoken of the central character in the situation only on the basis of hearsay. Now that character has appeared and, without bothering to defend his actions, has completely altered everyone’s understanding of them. He does not try to sort out the relationship between blessing and morality, but points to the fierce beauty of his creation, symbolized by the legendary Leviathan. This monster represents chaos, disorder, and a world in which humans cannot survive. Yet it is under YHWH’s control, a fact that allows human life with its morality and faith and love to exist in a creation that does not revolve around humanity and its beliefs. No longer can Job be satisfied with the inadequate comfort of a theological explanation that pretends to nail down everything. He has received something more—the presence of God.

This book, then, challenges the easy pieties by which religious people are always tempted to live. Easy answers to complex questions, accompanying comfortable portrayals of God, can easily lead to a situation in which we break covenant with the questioner and simply fuel her or his doubt and even render belief impossible. Easy answers block our relationship to God. Faith not seeking understanding is not faith at all.

What should we say to Christians who doubt? If we take the book of Job as a model, we will recognize that doubting long-held ideas is a necessary part of spiritual growth, and that mere intellectual answers do not fully substitute for a living encounter with God. We would be suspicious of pat answers to complex questions, bored with trivial issues, and willing to listen patiently to each other on matters of importance. My friends would find sympathetic hearers and fellow servants within the community of faith. And together they would find God.

In many churches, the doubters hide their questions, afraid of criticism, unwilling to risk undermining the faith of others. And many churches encourage this culture of silence with their excessive certainty about any number of issues, and their incessant drive for conformity. (This is just as true, by the way, in so-called progressive congregations, especially those enamored with evangelicalism, as in more conservative ones. There many ways to silence doubt.) But the time has come for us to stop the games of pretend faith that leave legitimate questions unasked and restrict the search for truth—and for God—that lies at the very center of biblical faith. Let us doubt, so that we may believe!New Wineskins

Mark W. Hamilton teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at Abilene Christian University. His wife, Samjung Kang-Hamilton, teaches religious education at ACU. He and Samjung have two children, Nathan, 11, and Hannah, 7. At the end of the work day, he enjoys shooting baskets with his kids.

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