April 18, 2014

iMonk: And Some Doubted

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Salviati

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (detail), Salviati

From a classic Michael Spencer post, March 2007

The Bible can be amazing.

We can say all the theologically correct things you can think of, but when the Bible surprises you, when it reaches across the centuries and touches you with a sentence or a phrase, there’s something very special that convinces you on a deeply human level that God speaks through this book because he knows you and your innermost struggles. Not just as it paints the portraits of Jesus or gives us the words of God, but when it speaks to my human experience so precisely you feel that God is speaking to you and you alone. God is saying “I know how it is. Don’t be ashamed. It will be OK.”

You see, doubt is a constant in my life. I’m not put together like a theological block of concrete. If you need a speaker to talk about his absolute and increasing certainties, I’m not your guy. If you need someone to give testimony to how all his doubts have vanished, knock on another door.

No, I wonder if God exists. I sometimes see the universe as an empty place. Oh, I frequently see it filled with the glory of God and singing his majesty with all its created energy. I’m often filled with the assurance of faith. But not all the time. Sometimes tragedy, emotion, age, disappointment, depression, dark moods….they visit me and I doubt. I wonder and question. This is my human experience. God gives me faith. My humanness still gives me doubt.

On her blog sidebar, Amy Welborn has this quote: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” That’s my experience. I know a lot of feelings, but by the grace of God- and by that grace only- faith wins out. On some days, just barely.

This disqualifies me from ministry according to some in the blogosphere. In the theological weight rooms of the internet, it’s how much you can lift that makes you worth having as a minister of Jesus Christ. Being lifted, every moment, and some moments completely, is a story that gets little respect in some corners.

My experience with God’s people, however, is quite different. Whenever I share my doubts and fears, as well as my faith journey and experience, tears come to a lot of eyes. People wait to talk to me. They say “Thank you.” They recognize something they always thought you couldn’t admit without condemnation.

What does this have to do with the Bible, and those moments of personal encounter?

Sometime in the early 90′s, post seminary and post an awful lot of ministry, Bible teaching and reading, I was studying the Great Commission when a phrase came flying off the page at me.

“….but some doubted.”

***silence***

That phrase exploded like a bomb in the midst of my pretense and phoniness in ministry. It was such a window into the reality of my life that I never tire of pointing it out to anyone who struggles. What a gift! “…but some doubted.”

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, SalviatiIf I need to locate this for you, it’s the mountaintop experience that closes Matthew’s gospel, which he likely borrowed from Mark’s lost ending. It’s the disciples, now witnesses of the resurrection. It’s the doubting Thomas’s. The disciples Jesus loved. The Peters, Jameses and Andrews. It’s the guys who John said saw the grave clothes lying there, who ate with the resurrected Jesus, inspected his wounds, heard his teaching, sat on the seashore and enjoyed fish and bread for breakfast.

There on the mountaintop, their theology included….”I’m just not sure….I’m don’t know…..It can’t be….but it is…..how? What? Oh Lord. I believe. Help my unbelief.” Amazing.

If you didn’t recognize that last line, it’s from an encounter in Mark 9 where a man who believes admits he also doesn’t believe. In a Gospel where fear and faith are constantly laid out for Christians to see, it’s frequently the case that believers don’t believe perfectly, or well, or with absolute certainty. It seems that Paul, who had been given kinds of certainty none of us can even comprehend, could still write that …“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”Certainty of an absolute sort awaited him and all of us, in the future.

The entire New Testament rings with the tension between doubt and belief. The church addressed in Hebrews stands in danger of shrinking back. The Johannine communities are tempted to reject the wonder of the incarnation. The persecuted Christians addressed in Mark’s Gospel stood between existential fear and risk-taking, suffering faith.

I don’t know of any creed that says I must confess certainty. They call on me to confess “I believe…” That’s really profound, and incredibly helpful. It’s torture to tear up the fragile assurance of weak believers or to reject the sola fide of those who are trusting a God who is less than an overwhelming certainty some of the time. Simple, childlike faith is a beautiful treasure, to be encouraged, built up and nurtured. But that won’t happen if we don’t accept “…but some doubted,” and still do. And always will.

Comments

  1. Matt Purdum says:

    As finite creatures we are simply incapable of absolute certainty. Tim Keller is great on this. You can’t “prove” anything, that the world didn’t just pop into existence 5 minutes ago, or that we aren’t “brains in a vat” like the Matrix. That’s we we call Christianity “faith.” But no one else can prove anything either. Some have faith in science, others in nothingness. While Michael and I navigate our way through doubt, our atheist friends need to understand that their “certainty” about science is philosophically bogus, that “science” is just another myth or story people have written. But these right-wing Christians with their absolute certainty come off as very angry and not entirely bright — in today’s world, everyone instinctively understands that you can’t “prove” anything. That’s why slam-dunk legal convictions (OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony) seldom happen any more.

    • Robert F says:

      Slam dunk legal convictions don’t happen in celebrated cases because the people involved can afford the best legal defense money can buy. A lot of slam dunking convictions happen among poorer people who can’t afford great defense attorneys, or teams of attorneys, or have to rely on a public defender who may not have graduated at the top of their class or may not be very committed or may have more limited resources to defend their client.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Also, Public Defenders are paid by the case and if they always enter a guilty plea, they can collect their fee and go on to the next case without the messy delay of going to trial. Less work, more income.

    • Robert F says:

      And Matt, are you absolutely certain that we’re simply not capable of absolute certainty? And are you certain that no one else can prove anything either?

      • Matt Purdum says:

        With all due charity, Robert, cleverness is not the equivalent of rigorous epistemology. I do appreciate your thoughtful comment below. And my understanding is that juries seldom to try most cases, so we can only study juries based on the actual cases they hear and verdicts they render.

        • Robert F says:

          The applicable category involved is logic, not epistemology. Every denial of the ability to make objective assertions contains at least one objective assertion, so is logically self-defeating. On the basis of just such an observation, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga and some of his colleagues in the academy revived philosophical metaphysics a couple of decades ago against the claim of logical positivism that theological assertions were meaningless because they referred to non-verifiable experiences and objects that could not be correlated with language through empirical observation and experience. By making such universal assertions of non-existence of said experiences and objects, logical positivism was itself making an assertion involving exactly the kind of knowledge it claimed was impossible, which would be a metaphysical claim. I’m afraid you were making the same kind of claims in your initial statement above.
          Concerning your observation about the rarity of jury cases, I would have to defer to someone with more knowledge in the subject.

  2. Robert F says:

    I, too, have deep doubts on a regular basis. There are certain things I have a reasonable certitude about: I’m reasonably certain that I exist, that the world around me exists, and that the fact that there is something rather than nothing to experience, and that I experience that something, points to a bottomless mystery that transcends life and death. That bottomless mystery is God. What I doubt, given my knowledge of myself and my imperfection and mixed motives and what we Christians call sinfulness, is whether or not I can trust this God, and the world he made, to have my best interests at heart. And that is a terrifying doubt. I cling to Jesus Christ as best I can, knowing that is not enough, and that in order for me, and those I love, to be okay, safe, bound for felicity, he must cling to me, and us. And that scares me, too, because I’m just not certain he will.

  3. Christiane says:

    ““Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith”
    (Paul Tillich )

    Doubt is not the same as outright denial.
    It has been said that ‘doubt is a question that does not yet have an answer’.
    We are assured that all who seek and all who knock will have the door opened to them . . .
    after all, we know that Our Creator has planted within each of us a desire to understand so much more than we have the capacity to grasp on this planet.
    The danger comes if we are prideful and closed to His Presence and instead become filled with a certainty that poses as faith, but has no love or hope in it;
    then the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in our hearts and point us home to Our Lord.

    We recall that Christ showed infinite patience and kindness to St. Thomas as a way to show people how to help those with doubts . . . we need to remember how Our Lord was with St. Thomas.
    And if the dark night comes for us, or if suffering comes and brings with it doubt as sometimes happens;
    then we can remember it is said, this:

    ” Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”
    (J. Claude)

  4. that is a great post!!

  5. Michael was, and continues to be, a minister of Christ to me and many others.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    And those Christians with Absolute Certainty are often so Smug about it. They KNOW (and have NEVER doubted) that THEY are SAVED. And will always be telling the rest of us how we may not REALLY be Saved because of our Doubt. (“Since I AcceptedJesusChristAsMyPersonalLORDandSavior I have NEVER doubted! Not even once!”) And always diagnosing Our Secret Sin (“How’s your walk with the LOORD today?”) that keeps us from their Absolute Certainty Faith Faith Faith.

    • Christiane says:

      I think a real gift of faith allows for honest questions, and fosters a sense of wonder and awe.
      I think part of being a human person made in the image of God is that we are hard-wired to ask the eternal questions, even if we are unable to find all the answers.
      No one has all the answers. But still, we seek them because we have within us the need to know.

  7. Rick Ro. says:

    God is still using Michael Spencer as a blessing to His people, and for His glory. Praise the Lord!