TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

17 December 2015

Doubt is our friend.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s unbelief. Doubt means we kinda believe. It’s a start.

Matthew 21.21 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
When you have faith, and don’t waver,
not only will you do the miracle of the fig tree:
If you tell this hill, ‘Be raised and thrown into the sea,’ it’ll happen.”

Because of bible verses like this one, where Jesus contrasts ékhite pístin/“[maybe] have faith” with mi diakrithíte/“don’t waver,” people assume he’s comparing opposites. Wavering, or doubting, is the opposite of faith. Either we have faith, or we have doubt. So have faith, and never doubt. Doubt is bad. Doubt is evil. Doubt is how the devil gets us to never do what the Spirit wants.

But because I studied logic in school, I learned a lot of supposed “opposites” aren’t really. What’s the opposite of big? It isn’t small. Those are contrasts, not opposites. Same with hot and cold, black and white, young and old, male and female. Especially male and female.

The opposite of anything is its absence. The opposite of big is, simply, “not big.” The opposite of black is not-black, the opposite of young is not-young, the opposite of hot is not-hot, and the opposite of faith is not-faith.

Does doubt mean not-faith? No; it means not enough faith. There’s still a little faith in there. Just not enough. Sometimes for no good reason: We must put our trust in God way more than we do.

And sometimes for very good reason: God’s not in this. It’s not his deal. He’s not involved. In fact the reason we doubt is because the Holy Spirit is making us hesitate. The Christianese phrase is “a check in my spirit,” a nudge from God that we really oughta look before we leap. To be fair, some of these “checks” aren’t from God at all. But some of ’em are definitely from him, forbidding us and blocking us Ac 16.6-7 lest we go wrong.

So while it’s a great thing to have the sort of mountain-moving faith Jesus tells us of, it’s just as much a great thing to pay attention to our doubts lest we attempt to move the wrong mountains. Doubt is not always our opponent. Often doubt is our friend.

I’ve found Christians rarely understand this. They think—’cause we’re taught—Christians should never, ever doubt. Shove all those doubts out of your mind. Turn ’em off like a lightswitch. Suppress them. Fight them. Psyche yourself into believing.

In other words, denial. And because denial is a lie, it doesn’t legitimately get rid of our doubts. Instead, denial unravels our faith. It turns us into hypocrites.

Whenever we Christians doubt, we’re meant to investigate. Find out whether those doubts are real. Find out whether our beliefs have anything solid at the back of them. If they’re of God, they will. If they’re not, they don’t. Find the evidence before you believe. Use those doubts to get solid about your beliefs, and get closer to God.

Everybody doubts.

Because doubt takes the blame for so much bad behavior, a lot of Christians hypocritically pretend we never, ever doubt. Yet we do. Of course we do. It’s Christianity’s dirty little secret: All of us doubt God.

Isn’t it obvious? If we didn’t doubt, you know what we’d see? God’s kingdom. Far more miracles, more compassion, more healing, more of the earth-moving stuff like Jesus described. Far less hypocrisy. Far fewer ridiculous, godless explanations for unbelief and disobedience, like cessationism and dispensationalism and trying to pass off fruitlessness as fruit.

Everybody doubts. It’s the human’s default setting. If it wasn’t, we’d be taken in by every liar, every salesperson, every con artist, every politician we meet; every news channel we switch on, every Facebook post full of shaky information we read. The world is full of people worth doubting.

But Christians rarely confess to doubting. The few who do, have to put up with the shocked condemnation of hypocrites: “You doubt? How could you? A real Christian would never ever ever doubt. I don’t doubt. The next time you doubt, just pray really hard, and God will keep you from doubting.” (If this speech sounds familiar, the “pray really hard” treatment is most Christians’ go-to solution whenever they don’t actually have an answer.)

Doubt is a taboo only pagans and new believers are permitted to talk about. Pagans are expected to have doubts, and even encouraged to have them: “Oh, you’re looking for evidence, facts, and answers? Good! We got ’em.” Their hunger for certainty is used to lead them to Jesus. As for the doubting newbie, we figure they need a little more time to realize they’ve found the truth and are in the truth. After a respectable period, they should never doubt again.

Right? Wrong. Everybody doubts. Everybody. No exceptions.

But we hide our doubt. We don’t tell one another we have doubts. We might tell our pastors—’cause they hear questions regularly from doubting Christians. “Um… pastor, my ‘friend’ was wondering how we can really know Jesus is God. What’s the best way to explain it?” No, we’re not fooling them; they aren’t stupid. And they often realize if one person has to summon up enough nerve and cleverness to give them a “my friend wants to know” question, there are likely loads more Christians with those very same doubts and fears. It’s why they keep preaching sermons on basic stuff.

Thing is, these pastors also have doubts. Sometimes even more doubts. It’s their job to help God grow his kingdom, and their most powerful tool is faith—and the kingdom’s enemies assault that first. And because it’s taboo for Christians to admit we doubt (way more so for pastors), they rarely share those doubts with anyone. Maybe spouses. Maybe fellow pastors or superiors. But usually no one—the people of their church are too immature to handle it, or would rat ’em out, or get ’em fired, ’cause they demand certainty in their ministers, not doubt. They want strength, not weakness; might, not humility. (I know; God wants otherwise. But we don‘t.)

So yeah, pastors doubt. Deacons doubt. Bishops doubt. I’ve known longtime ministers who finally decide to stop doubting and pick a side—and they quit Christianity altogether. It’s a shame. They never dealt with their doubts, and finally swapped them for unbelief.

Fearing our doubts.

Why do Christian teachers tell us we should never doubt?—that we should stifle all the doubts we have, and not venture down those dark corridors?

Again, it’s their own doubts. They don’t trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to the truth like Jesus said he would. Jn 16.13 They worry we’ll discover something which’ll unravel Christianity like a cheap sweater. (And in the case of false teachers, they worry we’ll find out they’ve been misquoting the bible like crazy.)

Because they’ve heard horror stories. You’ve probably heard ’em too: Some kid grows up Christian, then goes off to some godless university and gets their Christianity debunked by activist atheist professors. They find out other ancient religions had creation stories like ours, or that Moses didn’t write Genesis singlehandedly, or that some of the bible’s genealogies don’t line up, or that there are other gospels and books we didn’t include in the bible. It made the poor kids doubt so hard, they quit Christianity and never come back. Next thing you know, they’re gay vegan Wiccans who live in a bus and sell gluten-free soap for a living.

Of course none of these things should make anybody quit Christianity. Heck, I learned ’em in seminary. The difference between me, and some kid who quits Christianity in college, is really simple: They wanted to quit Christianity, and any excuse would do. I didn’t wanna quit; I’ve seen too much, so I really didn’t consider quitting an option anyhow. When any Christian is on the fence, doubts don’t push ’em off the fence. Desires make ’em jump off to one side or the other. Doubts are the excuse. Or not.

I’ve met plenty of those kids who lost their faith in college. (Thank God, some of ’em picked it back up.) They claim they “seriously investigated Christianity,” but never did any such thing. They claim they were “raised Christian,” but that isn’t really true either. Their parents and pastors never helped ’em deal with their doubts. They saw so much hypocrisy, they assumed it’s all hypocrisy. In college they found a safe place to quit, so they did. They found skeptics who claimed to have better answers than the Christians, so they joined the skeptics.

More often I’ve encountered this horror story: The potential new Christian who has a thousand questions about God—including a thousand doubts. They visit a church, meet some elders, and ask questions, understandably expecting Christian elders to have answers. Problem is, some of our “elders” aren’t actually mature Christians: They’re just old people. Might’ve gone to church for decades, but know neither diddly nor squat, much less how to put ’em together. So they either pretend to have answers… or pull the common stunt of saying, “Stop asking so many questions. Just believe. Just accept these things on faith.” As if a newbie’s faith is any deeper than a quarter inch. Of course they leave.

It surely doesn’t help when certain Christians proclaim, “If just one belief in our faith turns out wrong, the whole of Christianity falls apart.” Their whole theological system is one big Jenga tower, and don’t you dare knock away any of those blocks. As a result they never investigate their beliefs or doubts, lest the wrong block comes out and their faith “suffers shipwreck.” 1Ti 1.19 I knew an ex-Dispensationalist who became an atheist: After he discovered his theology was based on nothing but out-of-context bible, he felt atheism was the only other option. He came back to Christianity eventually, but I’ve known other ex-Christians who didn’t.

The wrong way to deal with doubt.

When I was young and had doubts, I went to my youth pastors, nearly all of whom were pretty useless. They gave me the “pray really hard” spiel: “Ask God for faith, and he’ll give it to you.”

Meh. You realize the Mormons do the very same thing? Pray really hard, and they claim God’ll give you a “burning in your bosom”—a warm sensation in your chest which proves he’s real, or that you’re on the right path. But as I pointed out before, it’s really easy to manufacture the emotions and sensations of “God’s presence,” and all you really proved is you can create a psychosomatic event—which you credit God for.

My pastors also pointed me to Christian apologetics. They recommended Josh McDowell’s books, which’d prove Christianity is logical and historical and rational. But who ever said my doubts were rational?

By and large, that’s the usual advice we Christians are given when we doubt: Psych yourself out of doubting. Read some books. Pray a lot and memorize verses—they’re good distractions. Stop thinking so hard. Push the doubts out of your mind.

But this isn’t how we grow faith. This is self-hypnosis, or self-programming. It has nothing to do with faith. It’s just another form of fake faith. Some people pursue fake faith with all their hearts, programming themselves to believe everything they think they oughta, and teach others to do likewise… and as a result stop thinking altogether. You can’t teach them anything; they only know what they’ve conditioned themselves to accept. You can’t stretch their knowledge, for that’ll reintroduce doubt. Instead of their souls growing into a great saintly life, they contract into a small, narrow one. And someday it’ll crack, to be replaced with real faith, or real atheism.

Okay, enough worst-case scenarios. Time for hope.

Take up God’s challenge. And challenge him.

Doubt means our beliefs about God are on unsteady ground. We didn’t base them on anything solid. We built ’em on sand, so to speak, and need to put ’em on rock. Mt 7.24 We need to start following Jesus.

“But I am following him.” Yeah, but how far? Are we passively obeying his commands, actively taking steps of faith? By that, I mean are we obeying those commands of Jesus which look impossible? Do we hesitate because we don’t think the miraculous will kick in at the right time, or do we figure, “I don’t know about this, but I’m gonna try it and see what happens”? You know how you learn whether you can walk on water? By getting out of the boat.

When I have doubts, it’s because I need experiential knowledge. I need to do the stuff. Not just know the stuff—secondhand, from biblical and theological study. That only goes so far. We gotta follow Jesus, not just know about him. We gotta do as he did, 1Pe 2.21 not just know what he taught.

So you have doubts. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. Doubt isn’t the problem. Unbelief is. Doubt just means we’re not sure. Hopefully we wanna become sure. If that’s true of you, good for you: It means you wanna settle this God stuff once and for all. If you don’t, what else can you have but doubt and unbelief?

That’s what I needed to do. I needed to stop dabbling in Christianity and do it. I needed to stop believing a bunch of things I’d never acted upon, and act upon them. I needed to stop taking God for granted, stop being a Sunday-morning Christian, take up my cross daily, Lk 9.23 and work on my fruit of the Spirit. And I needed to challenge God: “Okay, since you exist, show me something.”

Hypocrites tell you to never, ever do this. Never challenge God. Never put him to the test. Why, that’s evil. God might smite you. (Which, I should point out, answers my prayer just fine: He did something.)

They say this because deep down they’re afraid God never will never show up, and this’ll prove their Christianity is a fraud, and they’ve been wasting their lives, and now what’ll they do? And they never wanna face that fear—so they don’t. It’s faith without guts. Which isn’t dead; more like the living dead. Zombie Christianity.

Nor is it biblical. God is totally okay with the challenge to show himself. Elijah challenged the Israelites to call for their god while he called upon the LORD, and obviously God showed up where their god didn’t. 1Ki 18.20-39 Hey, anybody remember Thomas?

John 20.24-29 KWL
24 Thomas, one of the Twelve, called Twin, wasn’t with the others when Jesus came.
25 The other students told him, “We saw the Master!”
He told them, “Unless I see the nail-marks on his hands,
and put my finger on the nail-scars,
and put my hand on the scar on his side, I can’t believe it.”
26 Eight days later the students, Thomas included, were indoors again.
Though the door was closed, Jesus came, stood in the middle of them, and said, “Peace to you.”
27 Then he told Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.
Put your hand on my side. Don’t be an unbeliever. Believe!”
28 In reply, Thomas said, “My Master and my God!”
29 Jesus told him, “This you believe because you saw me?
How awesome for those who don’t see me, yet believe.”

Sure, Thomas was freaked out a little, but was it worth it? Thomas would sure say it was.

So take the risk. Ask God to show up. Don’t limit the way he’s got to show up; leave it up to him. If he doesn’t make himself in some way obvious to you, it means he’s either not there, or he doesn’t want you, or you’re not sincere—you won’t really follow him when he shows up. But it’ll definitely sort things out for you: Either God’ll show up and your doubts are gone forever, or he won’t and you can go in peace. Problem solved.

You willing to risk it? If so, you’re exactly the sort of person God wants, and I’m certain he’ll show up. If not, if you’d rather stay suspended in doubt… well, he’s already got two billion Christians just like you. What’s one more?

I risked it. People ask me from time to time, “Do you ever doubt God exists?” Not anymore. Used to. Now I can’t imagine otherwise—just as you can’t imagine the people you’ve met don’t really exist. Yep, I still have other doubts. I’m working on them, and I expect God will help me through them. He has so far.

This is what God wants to do with our doubts: Erase them. And in faith, we trust God to do it. So when you doubt, start with the correct assumption: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” Then investigate. Find answers to your doubts. Ask God for help.

Often the Holy Spirit is provoking those doubts: He wants us to grow, and he knows we’re not gonna do so when we think we know all the answers! He’s entirely willing to lead us to the evidence we seek. He’s entirely willing to help us away from unbelief. We have to trust him—not fear the truth, and pretend our doubts don’t exist. All truth belongs to God, and God is no one to fear.