February 19, 2017

I have my doubts

I Have My Doubts
The many reasons I don’t believe.
by Michael Spencer

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

• Mark 9:24

Let’s start with bugs.

Bugs have always….well…bugged me. They bite me. Wasps hate me. Mosquitoes swarm around me. Gnats head for my ears and eyes like some bad remake of “The Birds.” There are a thousand varieties of bugs that all seem dedicated to devouring me. When I was a kid, my friends called me “bug eyes” because of this curse. Now, I can go for a walk and look up to see a swarm of bugs like a cloud over my head.

Is this right? I mean, even if there is a curse on creation, didn’t mosquitoes always drink blood? Aren’t they designed that way? So why would God make the little bloodsuckers? Why make wasps that sting? Why make me in such a way that bugs want to appropriate my body for their own purposes? Sure, the wonders of biology speak of intelligent design, but wasn’t there some way to do this to the glory of God without eating, stinging and killing me?

It’s one of those thoughts that hit me a few dozen times a day. One of those thoughts that make me wonder if God is real, or if I am a fool to believe that God created and runs this universe of mosquitoes and gnats.

Ever think about forever? I hear the word all the time, but when I get down to thinking about it, it grinds my pea brain to a halt. An atheist friend once asked me if a person would want to do anything forever. No matter what it happened to be or how pleasant the experience. I’ve gotta admit, heaven seems like a wonderful alternative to earth, but every time someone says we will be “praising the Lord forever,” I get a little sullen. I’m sure to get bored.

It makes me stop and wonder if Freud was right. Do we make it all up to make ourselves feel better?

My daughter just got her driver’s license. I now go to bed, wake up and spend all day worrying that she will die in an accident. (I’m just being blunt here. Sorry if I am shocking you.) I worry about that because I know people–lots of good, Christian people–who have suffered such a loss. Most of them hold on to their faith and make it through–somehow. It’s a miracle to me. I can’t understand it because I suspect such a loss would gut me beyond ever being able to stand up and say I believe in God. My best scenario would be to become like C.S. Lewis, who at one point said his wife’s dying with cancer made him believe God was a vile, cosmic monster who no moral person could trust.

If God won’t answer my constant prayers for my daughter’s safety, why am I praying them? What kind of God asks me to trust him, and then is, in the matter of my daughter’s safety, very untrustworthy? Is it really easier to believe in such a God, or as Anthony Flew says, in no God at all?

One more. When I think of how often God has been real to me; how often I’ve sensed His reality in other people; how often I’ve seen direct and specific answers to prayer; how often I’ve had a no-questions-asked assurance that God is my Father, the Bible is true and Jesus Christ is Lord, I find myself wondering if it’s all true, or am I just pretending, faking and putting on an act? My honest Christian experience is pretty meager, and the experience I have that goes beyond all doubt to the “I just know it’s true” category is even slimmer.

I have my doubts. About it all. God. Jesus. Life after death. Heaven. The Bible. Prayer. Miracles. Morality. Everything.

“But you are a pastor. A Christian leader.” That’s right, and I am an encyclopedia of doubts. Sometimes it scares me to death.

I’m terrified by the possibility that I might have wasted my entire life on the proposition that Christianity was true, when in fact it wasn’t even close. I wonder if I have been mentally honest with myself or with others, or have I compromised my own integrity in order to collect a paycheck and have a roof over my head? Have I acted as if the case for faith was clear when it was a muddled mess in my own mind?

What’s really frightening is that these doubts persist and get stronger the longer I live. They aren’t childish doubts; they are serious, grown-up fears. I don’t have the kind of faith that looks forward to death. The prospect terrifies me, sometimes to the point I am afraid to close my eyes at night. I have more questions about the Bible and Christianity than ever, even as I am more skilled at giving answers to the questions of others. I can proclaim the truth with zeal and fervor, but I can be riddled with doubts at the same time.

When I meet Christians whose Christian experience is apparently so full of divine revelation and miraculous evidence that they are beyond doubts, I am tempted to either resent them or conclude that they are fakes or simpletons. The power of self-delusion in the face of a Godless, meaningless life is undeniable. If there is no God, can I really blame someone for “taking the pill” to remain in his unquestioning certainties?

There is sometimes nothing worse than being able to comprehend both all my doubts and all the accepted, expected answers. It tears at the soul, and declares war on the mind. I feel remarkably alone in my moments of doubt, and wonder, “Do other Christians feel this yawning abyss of doubt, or am I just a bad Christian?”

My doubts are bad enough that I have to make frequent daily reexamination of the very basics of my own faith. These aren’t matters that were resolved in a conversation somewhere back in college and have never visited me again. Oh, no. Almost daily I travel back down some of these well-worn paths. Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt has given me many opportunities to ask myself why I am a Christian, and to appreciate those who chose not to believe.

These doubts have made me respect my honest, unbelieving friends. To many of them, it isn’t so much the content of Christianity that is ridiculous. It’s the idea that Christians are so certain; so doubtless. They find it untenable that anyone could bury their own doubts so deep that you are as certain as Christians appear to be. Our television and radio preachers, our musicians and booksellers, the glowing testimonial at church, the zealous fanatic at the break table at work–they all say that Christians no longer have the doubts and questions of other people. Only certainties. And for many thoughtful unbelievers, that appears to be lying or delusion, and they would prefer to avoid both.

So do I. I profoundly dislike the unspoken requirement among Christians that we either bury all our doubts out in back of the church, or we restrict them to a list of specific religious questions that can be handled in polite conversations dispensing tidy, palatable answers. Mega-doubts. Nightmarish doubts. “I’m wasting my whole life” doubts are signs one may not be a Christian, and you’ve just made it to the prayer list.

Martin Luther was one of the few Christians who honestly experienced and conveyed what it was like to live in honest suspension between one’s worst doubts and fears, and the promises of God in the Gospel. In his book Luther: Man Between God and Death, Harvard professor Richard Marius says of Luther’s theology,

In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, and God does not reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Weak human nature will not let us believe in the promises of God with a confidence that purges from the soul the anguish of fear and unbelief, the Anfechtungen… Therefore, in Luther’s discovery of justification the Christian was liberated from the self-imposed requirement to present a perfect mental attitude to God, to confuse belief with knowledge, faith with the direct intuition of an observed world. Whereas in the earlier Luther the fear of death was the ultimate form of unbelief, the Luther who discovered justification by faith understood that no matter how great our faith, it cannot be strong enough to stave off terror before death.

It is interesting that many skeptics fault Luther for being, well….frankly, nuts. But I believe Luther was courageous enough to see and feel the verities of a universe without God and a universe where sinners were under the judgment of a Holy God. With such options on the table, it is hard to be coolly academic about reality. Only in justification by faith through Christ did Luther find a spirituality that contained room for both his damning doubts and his liberating experience of grace.

Such a spirituality is the only option for an honest Christian. As Luther suggests, there is no escape from human nature, and therefore no escape from the kinds of doubts that can vacate the universe of God’s presence. It is precisely this spirituality that I find in the Bible, and it is a significant discovery.

The early chapters of Genesis make it clear that sin created a profound division between God and human beings. Not just an interruption in communication, but a universe-sized separation.. There is great evidence that this abyss creates a situation where human beings may reasonably, sensibly feel that God is absent, or that there is no God. This is not because of an absence of evidence for God’s existence, or because God has abandoned the world, but because human experience is fundamentally changed and we are blinded to the resident glory of God in the universe and within our lives.

We see this most clearly with Job, whose tragedies bring him into a disparate experience of being certain of God and his justice, and also being overwhelmed with the absence of God. The ringing cry of many Biblical sufferers is “Where is God?” The skeptic says “There is no God.” Israel experiences judgment and announces that “God has forsaken us.” It is not uncommon or strange for doubts to overwhelm faith, or for life to take on the appearance of a universe without God. The Bible attributes this to who we are as fallen persons, and seems to accept it as part of the fabric of Christian spirituality. Even Jesus, in his human nature, knew what it was for pain to bring him to the point of saying, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

Justification does leave us as people who are still fully human, and the more honestly human we are, the more aware of our doubts we may be. The question may become, “Do I banish my doubts, call them the devil and refuse to examine them, or do I accept my doubts as part of the paradox of my human experience, and realize that faith may exist right alongside such feelings and questions, as Mark 9:24 suggests?”

This is my own experience. I cannot remove my doubts, but I cannot erase my faith. At every level, these two experiences exist together, convincing me that I am, indeed and exactly, the kind of contradiction that Luther believed all Christians were at the center: both righteous and sinful simultaneously. (Simul justus et peccator.) While these two experiences are at war over the most basic assumptions of my life, they actually blend together into a single experience that is what one person called “the awesomeness of being human.”

At a fundamental level, I cannot get past the fact that the universe exists, and it is completely unnecessary. That there is something rather than nothing overwhelms my doubts daily. No matter how many times the brevity and meaninglessness of human life plunges me into despair, I look at the world around me, at the Hubble photos, at the beauty of the mountains or of my children, and cannot explain why these things should exist, could exist, or have any possibility of existing if some being did not call all this into existence, and sustain this universe out of pure pleasure. It is not the God of deism or of Islam or Aristotle that explains this. It is the God of Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. For him. There is no other explanation, no matter how contrary it all seems to the life I may experience today.

My doubts exist alongside my appetite for God. I believe no one has put forward a more cogent and persuasive critique of theism than Sigmund Freud. Freud’s contention that human beings create a God in the sky out of their longings for a perfect father and their fear of death has the virtue of common sense and realism. As a Christian, I do not doubt that vast tracts of human religiosity can be explained by Freud’s analysis. Yet, Freud is wrong. The Biblical God is not wishful thinking, but the center of the spiritual “appetite” of human beings. Billions of human beings would prefer no God exist. Billions of human beings would like to make God in the image of Santa or Oprah. Yet, Christianity, Judaism (and even Islam) persistently put forward a God who is terrifying to who we are. A just, holy God of judgment. A God of heaven and hell. Not the God of the wishful thinkers, but the God who is a consuming fire.

And it is this God that we long to know. This God who repulses us and damns us. This God who demands the purity of thought and action. A God who demands that we love Him with all that we are and love our fellow persons as His creations. It is this God that we long to know in intimacy. It is this God we long to be accepted by, to trust and to praise. This God is the source of all the notions of beauty, truth and goodness that we find in this universe. C.S. Lewis said that appetite could not prove the existence of food, but I don’t think that speaks for the experience of the starving person.

I cannot explain my longing to know God. Talking about it is like undressing in front a crowd. I am not embarrassed that I avoid the topic. But I know to what extent it is a part of my deepest identity. As Augustine said, I have no doubt that I was made for God and my heart is restless till I find my rest in Him. I am persuaded that my longing for human happiness is the echo of my creation in the image of God. I believe my doubts are what it means to be told I cannot go back to Eden, but must go forward to the New Jerusalem.

My doubts about the Bible are profound, but my faith in the Bible is persistent. I know all the apologetic schemes for “proving” the Bible. They persuade me a bit here and there, but they fall far short of answering my worst doubts about whether a God that exists has communicated to me in words that I can understand and depend on. What ultimately persuades me that the Bible is, indeed, such a communication are two things. First, the truthfulness of the Bible in describing who and what I am is convincing. There is the glory of being made in the image of God contrasted with the rebellion and evil of my depravity. The shadow and the light within our souls. The Christian view of humanity is the only one that makes sense of my experience. The longer I live, the more the scriptures describe me accurately. This feeds my faith that scripture is also describing what I cannot see behind me and ahead of me in the journey of life. The Bible is not, as a whole, a book that would be created by persons like me. It is simply too truthful. It is not a fairy tale or a myth. It is autobiography of the most surprising kind.

Ultimately, I am persuaded of the truth of the Bible by its presentation of Jesus. I cannot explain or unpack this reasoning, for it comes down to an encounter with a person. Those who are Christians know well what I mean. You know what it is like to see no evidence of God in the world, in the church or in the mangled mess of your own heart, yet to be drawn powerfully after the Jesus of the scriptures. You know what it is like for Christians to act completely contrary to anything resembling Jesus, and to be sickened by their mistreatment of people in the name of God, yet to know that you cannot abandon Jesus himself as flawed, because you know the resemblance between Jesus and those who claim to follow Him is superficial at best.

The portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels towers above the paltry whinings of modernists, the thrown pebbles of critics and the repeated foibles of a scandalous church. Jesus is not the creation of any person or any tradition. He alone, of all the versions of a human soul, radiates the undoubtable evidence of “God with us” that other spiritual leaders only hint at. Jesus alone defies categorization and trivialization. He towers over history, culture and the human heart. This is no portrait of human longing or an exercise in wishful thinking about what we might become. This Jesus is, as John said, the Word made flesh.

I am persuaded that something happened that Christians call the resurrection, an event so galvanizing and transforming that its aftershocks continue to reverberate across history. Unlike any other person on planet earth, Jesus exerts a continuing and growing influence over individual human lives. The transforming, liberating, revolutionary power of Jesus breaks into the mundane of human history in a way that cannot be compared to Buddha or Mohammed’s insights into reality or inspirational example. Throughout the world, the Spirit of Jesus creates life and hope in a world where philosophy and technology have explained all the questions and made irrelevant all the answers.

There is simply no one like Jesus. And all the lofty things that might be said about him cannot begin to explain why one doubting soul will repeatedly choose to place his life’s hope of meaning in a person that lived two thousand years ago; a person who communicates unconditional love through his brutal death on a cross. Jesus is, ultimately, a mystery. We can point to him, and point to his cross, but each person must walk to that cross alone and choose whether this is a meaningless, pointless execution, or God saving the very world that despises Him.

What I believe Luther recovered was the stunning truth that God saves doubters who believe. Jesus chides Peter for doubting when he sinks on the sea, but the scripture also tells us at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. I have returned to this verse many times and thought about the meaning of its inclusion in the Gospel. Men who had seen miracles. Men who had spent days, even years, with Jesus. Men who had been with the resurrected Christ. Men who had personally experienced the power of God in their own hands and words.

These men doubted, even in the presence of the resurrected Christ; and these men believed and died for their faith, having turned the world upside down. Nothing could banish, once and for all, from their experience the possibility that they were wrong and that it all meant nothing but delusion and deception. For this Jesus did not condemn them, but commissioned them to be His Church, and to preach the announcement of the Kingdom to the world. I doubt if they ever stopped doubting. I also am quite sure they never stopped believing.

On that point, I return to a promise that belief itself, in this barren world of ours, is a miracle of God’s own creation. The seed of faith is planted by the very God that we reject in our disbelief. This is part of His gracious dealings with those He has made for Himself, and is surely among the greatest mysteries. Yet, for those who believe–and still doubt–it contains a hope. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6) If faith is the work of God in the life of those who believe, it exists and triumphs, in spite of the doubts that continue throughout our human journey.

Because of this, we can be honest about our doubts and be grateful and unashamed of our faith. Perhaps among Christians who are unafraid to say that they sometimes tremble in uncertainty, there will grow a more beautiful and authentic faith. Let the wheat and tares grow together, Jesus said, until the day of judgment. So our belief and our worst fears grow together, until the time when God Himself harvests the faith that He has planted.