November 23, 2014

iMonk: “I Have My Doubts”

Landscape with Snow, Van Gogh

Landscape with Snow (detail), Van Gogh

From Michael Spencer’s classic post, I Have My Doubts

* * *

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.

Vg landscape snow 2These 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.

Comments

  1. As a longtime doubter who used not to know what to make of myself, I love this post!

  2. I can identify with much of what Spencer says here. I even doubt my own doubts. Most of all I wonder at my own motivations, given how deceptive and self-deceptive I know myself to be. An example of a specific doctrine that I really struggle with is the Virgin Birth. It’s so closely connected with what seems like a New Testament misunderstanding of what an Old Testament text actually says, interpreting the words maiden and virgin interchangeably, which seems unjustified, that I wonder if the whole idea simply wasn’t a fantastical legend that got attached to the New Testament narratives; and then I wonder what other elements in those narratives might also be only legendary, and I feel that gaping chasm of dread that Spencer talks about, and fear I should have just continued my studies in Zen Buddhism or become a liberal Quaker or something without the kind of specificity of belief, and range of choice, that the doctrines of Christianity require. Christianity is a very complex religion doctrinally, and there are so many shades of doctrine among different confessions, many contradicting each other: why should I think that I’ve landed myself in the “right” one of those shades, never mind the “right” color/religion? It seems to require a level of hubris that I don’t possess very often. I have to depend on grace being the essential truth.

    • “I have to depend on grace being the essential truth.”

      That’s a winner, Robert. I will use that in the future.

    • I really understand your use of shdes & colours here Robert….I often (OFTEN) wonder how people are getting so much information from the texts that they can specify the shade they believe in, so clearly.

      So far I get what I would describe as the outline of a paint by numbers picture, without knowing the exact colour for each block. And that bothers me no end…if I have, say, a picture of a cottage surrounded by trees with a river running, then this could equally be a picture on a dark stormy night if painted in greys, & dark browns & greens, the picture is ominous ( I equate heavy duty calvinism with this), or it could be snowing & peacefully white, or it could be spring, & vivid…I can’t get the deciding vote from my readings of scripture yet…& ultimately it all speaks to me as to what ‘shade’ is God’s character? Warm or cold? Dark or light?

      I’m also trying to depend on grace being the heart of the matter, though I’m still not sure.

    • “Grace is the essential truth.” I like that. For whatever it is worth, I have tried to accept that fact that I can’t be intellectually certain (at least not so far as I can discern) as basic to the human condition. I can’t be emotionally certain either (which is to say, psychology is complex and people are self-deceiving.) So truth is important, and doing the best we can to apprehend it is important; but I’m almost certainly wrong on a whole lot, and so there’s no grounds for cockiness. But I take the leap to believe that God is bigger and deeper and more grace-ful than the worst of my errors or the best of my thoughts.

      So I do the best I can and hope, trust, that I’m not going to think-feel-stumble my way outside God’s care.

      That’s a big deal to me, because for the longest time doubt seemed like an Unspeakable Thing, and I interpreted as a kind of flaw or crisis. So I tried to solve it. But being hopelessly analytical and melonchonic, it’s not the sort of thing one flails one’s way out of…that just gets you deeper into the mess, as it were, and more pulled into yourself (which is not helpful). And my biggest religious problem has always been too much fear. So, my one way around getting trapped in the vicious cycle of doubt-fear-downward-spiral is trust-trust-trust…and also leaning on sacraments, etc., not objective personal experience. (Which is kind of another topic, but not entirely…) Not that I am great at trust. But it is the difference between hope and dispair.

      • *despair

        • Danielle,
          The paradoxical knowledge of uncertainty you speak about leads to what sociologist and sometime-theologian Peter Berger calls “epistemological modesty,” and, especially in this day, that kind modesty, along with any other kind, is most certainly a virtue. I think I’m in substantial agreement with everything you say in your comment.
          As Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

      • I foolishly hoped that becoming more sacramental would help to relieve my fears and doubts. In some ways they have but I have no less doubt or fear than I had before. Ironically I’ve become simultaneously more confident and more fearful. It’s like a zero net gain.

        Kyrie Elesion

  3. There’s nothing wrong with doubts, but its also worth looking at certainties. check out how we got the bible, also look at your doubts from the other side. Robert F, mentioned the virgin birth. looked at logicly there are three options.
    1. Mary had a lover. 2 Joseph was the father, but wasn’t admitting it. 3 she was telling the truth.
    Even people 2000 years ago knewwomen got pregnant by a man, so who was it or was it as she said.
    Remember even atheist have doubts, its just they don’t talk about them in case it encourages christians.

    We are save by faith through grace, not by works of muscle or intellect, so none of us can boast.

    • John,
      You are using information from the text of the New Testament to prove the historicity of the Virgin Birth; I’m saying that because the New Testament definitely mistranslates a word from the Old Testament, there is serious question about whether we can rely on the New Testament text in other places having to do with the birth of Jesus. Perhaps there was little factual historical information about the birth of Jesus available to the early Christian community, and what made it into the New Testament was largely legendary. The point is that such a small error makes room for doubt about larger issues with which the narratives deal, which in turn would effect other important doctrinal questions, all of which inevitably engenders doubt, at least for me if no one else.
      And atheists doubts are not on matters of doctrines having to do with eternal salvation, so they bear less existential weight.

      • I do not want in anyway to put you or anyone down for having doubts. I agree with Michael that I find it unbelievable that someone should not have doubts and wonder if they do not if they are really being honest with themselves. But I would like to offer a couple of things I find helpful on the question of the virgin birth, whether they help you or are just muddying the waters I will let you decide.

        1. I am not at all convinced that what is involved is a mistranslation. There is no fully technical word in Hebrew (the word that is sometimes claimed to be one is clearly used in one place for a married woman). The meaning has to be derived form context. We may be a better judge of the meaning in context than the Septuagint translators, but we may not. They were closer to the time and had no axe to grind.

        2. I am not convinced that the reference is to Isaiah’s son. He was clearly his second son. Could a woman who already had one son still be considered a young woman according to the text. I do not know, but it is enough to give me pause.

        I wish I could give a dogmatic answer to this and the other problems involved but it is difficult to give dogmatic answers on the precise understood meaning of a word used in antiquity. That is why I am reluctant to base my faith or lack of faith on such details.

        • Mike Erich The Mad Theologian,
          Are there no details in your faith or lack thereof? Whatever the core of your faith is, do you never doubt it? Are there no times when you reflect on the absolutely essential heart of your faith and say, “Maybe I, Mike Erich The Mad Theologian, am wrong, and my faith is a shell game”? Is your faith unfalsifiable?

          • As I said I suspect anyone who claims to have no doubts is kidding themselves. Yes, I have struggles and have always had struggles. But I have concluded in the balance that the evidence in favor of Christianity outweighs the evidence against it. I started out as an agnostic and am a Christian by choice. But while there have always been arguments for both sides I believe they need to be put it perspective.

      • I’m saying that because the New Testament definitely mistranslates a word from the Old Testament, there is serious question about whether we can rely on the New Testament text in other places having to do with the birth of Jesus.

        Robert F, let’s leave aside what Isaiah 7:14 says, whether the word means “virgin” in our literal sense or “young woman” in the broader sense. Instead, let’s look at the context in the New Testament, with Mary questioning the angel in Luke 1:34. She herself couldn’t believe it, and said, ““How will this be, since I [do not know a man]?” That’s a literal translation, often mistranslated here too, as “since I am a virgin.”

        Whatever is meant by “virgin” the context is unmistakeable, and shows that Mary herself had the same doubt as you.

        • Ted,
          My doubt is different from Mary’s. I’m not doubting the possibility of miracles, including the Virgin Birth; I’m also not insisting that my doubt about the Virgin Birth is based on a good understanding of the issues of transliteration between Hebrew and Greek, my ill-advised use of the term “definite mistranslation” in an earlier comment notwithstanding: what I’m saying is that I do not possess the scholarly tools to wend my way through the thicket of complexities involved in even this one area of the New Testament narratives that impact on an important doctrinal issue, and even if I did have access to the body of knowledge required to make a responsible assessment, there would be other equally well-informed peers who would disagree with me. As I said earlier, Christianity is a doctrinally complex religion, with many and varied confessions, some of them in serious disagreement about what is necessary for salvation, and small differences of interpretation can impact significant areas of belief; but if I’m not equipped to make even modestly responsible judgements about important texts, how can I possibly be well enough informed to responsibly choose from among the dizzying array of options I have when selecting a confession? This is what leads to my dark nights of doubt. I do my best to embrace the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, which I confess in church every Sunday when we repeat the Apostles and Nicene Creeds in the liturgy; but I’m always aware that I, not being God, may be wrong, and the Creed, along with those who wrote it, may be wrong about this and other things.
          Where does this leave me? I can hope that it leaves me in the same place that the young priest in George Bernanos’ “Diary of a Country Priest” finds himself when, on his deathbed at the conclusion of the book, he says to his friend, “Everything is grace.” I can also hope the same for everyone else.

          • Once in the military we had an extraordinary chaplain and priest, and we were having a pre-Christmas look at the infancy narratives. Clearly, they are a bit muddled, since early Christians weren’t focused on the birth but the death of Jesus……and this was all oral tradition at first, since they mostly seemed to think Jesus was coming back in their OWN human lifespan.

            Then, he said something that has stuck with my husband and I since (this was about 30 years ago). This wise leader told us, and I am of course paraphrasing,

            “The only part of our faith that is totally essential is the fact that Christ was the Son of the
            Living God, who died and rose again, and is with us still. Every other bit of our Catholic
            Faith is a detail”.

            I would add that this applies to all Christians. If the Divinity, Life, Death, and Resurection of Jesus Christ are true, the center of our faith, the very essence and core, hold. The rest of the faith is important in how we live out our faith and respond to Jesus, but it is secondary to this core.

          • Robert F,

            It looks like you’ve struggled with this pretty thoroughly, far more than most people have. I think your honest approach is a good place to be. Take a break from the problem of virgin birth for a while. It’s not the primary purpose of the gospel, just a vehicle toward it.

  4. I appreciate and sympathize with this post. Many are the times I look up at the stars, and think, “Is it really possible that the One who made all those actually came into creation for the likes of me?”

    Probably the two things that keep me going in times of doubt are, first, the lack of good alternative worldviews. That is, every religion or worldview I have studied has its own intellectual problems (including, and especially, atheism). Second, I have never been able to look at the words of Jesus and conclude they came from a group of first century peasants conducting a great hoax. His words have a power, beauty, and spiritual wisdom I have never seen anywhere else (and I have read most of the classics). I don’t understand all he says (and sometimes, to be frank, I don’t really like it), but to me they are the very words of life.

    • I can appreciate this perspective. I actually noticed that many agnostics and atheists are living in denial. Its almost similar to how many evangelicals live in denial. It takes a lot of faith to be a skeptic…when this slowly began to dawn on me it was crushing. Another thing I also learned is that fundamentalism knows no limits. Having once drank from the well of John Piper I walked away wanting to escape fundamentalism. Then when I attended the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. last year after hearing speaker after speaker rail against Christians and faith, I realized I had traded one fundamentalism for another. Personally it was crushing….

  5. Ron Ursery says:

    Without doubt there can be no faith!

  6. Randy Thompson says:

    Doubt is scary.

    Doubt is an opportunity to think.

    Thinking is scary.

    Thinking grows faith.

    Growth is scary.

    Growth is good.

    What’s good is, sometimes, scary.

    This scariness is what makes faith in Christ exhilarating, if not always comfortable or easy.

    I’m OK with scary.

  7. Had Michael been reading from Mother Theresa?

    And as a reminder, Michael used to say that Mark 9:24 contains one of the best prayers in the bible: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

  8. Doubt is frightening. It is crushing, and it is terrifying. I appreciate Michael Spencer’s post so much….this is one of my favorite. It takes a lot of faith to be atheist or skeptic. I learned this…no my struggle is somewhere in between. I look at the majesty of creation and think something must have made this. And it points to faith in God. And then I look at all the issues that come with faith. All the dishonesty, all the cheating, lying, etc… People who process deep faith who behind the scenes are molesting children. I read something that really spooked me a couple of weeks ago. Recently there was a police officer killed in the Milwaukee suburbs she was killed by her husband. What shook me up is to realize that her husband was a born again Christian whose testimony as a Marine was used at the Men’s Conference at the church I used to attend. I wondered how does someone go from being an example of faith in community to becoming a col blooded murderer.

    I don’t know….

    So that leaves me stuck. To reject agnosticism, but being unable to embrace Christianity. Where does one turn?

    I wish I knew….

    • Eagle, the way you formed this particular post sounds like you don’t have issues with believing in God or Jesus, but you have SERIOUS concerns about those who call themselves Christians!!!

      I know this comes from being badly hurt and hoodwinked……but don’t blame Christ for the behavior of those who CLAIM to know and follow Him. I know it is a corny old saying, but going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going into a garage makes you a car.

  9. Eagle,
    Maybe you could begin a slow, methodical reconstruction of faith involving the things that you find central to your life, things you care about and orientate your life towards. Look to what you can honestly accept and see if there is enough there to make some central affirmation of faith, always praying that you will be led to the truth and be able to accept it, as best you are able to.
    God bless.

    • Clay Crouch says:

      That is perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard given to someone who is struggling with the deepest doubts of faith. A wonderful antidote to that deadly poison of “all or nothing”.

  10. We are not saved by what Jesus taught, and we are certainly not saved by what we understand Jesus to have taught. We are saved by Jesus himself, dead and risen. “Follow me? he says. It is the only word that finally matters.

    Robert Capon, end of chapt. 6, The Parables of Grace

    • (Damn, what is it today with me and my blockquotes?? Once more into the fray…)

      I’ve found Capon very helpful in my universe of doubt. He doesn’t try to nullify doubt, but he has helped me to not take my doubts as seriously.

      “Everything that is not of faith is sin,” says Paul in Rom. 14:23. In the last analysis, what the New Testament sets up as the opposite of sin is not virtue; it is faith. And how lucky that is for us. Precisely because virtue is not an option for the likes of us—precisely because we can no more organize our lives on good principles than we can on bad ones, and even more precisely because all the really great acts of human wickedness (poneria) have always been done in the name of virtue—we are not to trust either in virtue or in our efforts to achieve it. All of that is just our life (psyche), and for us as for the Fool, life is not something we can guarantee.

      But death we can; and if we will trust him to work through it in the mystery of his death, we will find that, like the ravens and the lilies and the Queen of Sheba and the men of Nineveh, we have always been home free by the power of his resurrection. It is not a matter of our knowing it or feeling it—or of our working up plaus­ible, right-handed devices for laying hold of it. “No man,” Luther said, “can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.” Therefore it is by faith alone that we can lay hold of our true life out of death— faith in him who is the resurrection and the life. All we have to do is trust Jesus and die. Everything else has already been done. The ravens and the lilies bear mute testimony to that trust; our joy waits until we give voice to what they already express.

      Our death, therefore, is the one “purse that will never wear out,” the true “treasure in heaven that will never decrease.” We are rich only in our mortality; everything else may safely be sold (Luke 12:33). For our death is the only thing the world cannot take away from us. The goods on which our heart now reposes can be removed from us, or we from them, in a night: the thief, the moth, and the changes and chances of this mortal life are always and everywhere one giant step ahead of us. But if we repose our hearts upon the faith that he works in our death, we cannot lose. The astonishing graciousness of grace is that it takes the one thing you and I will never lack—the one thing, furthermore, that no one will ever want to beg, borrow, or steal from us—and makes it the only thing any of us will ever need. It was, I think, precisely because the martyrs bore witness to this saving supremacy of death that they were the first saints commemorated by the church. Indeed, the days of their deaths were commonly referred to as their natales, their birthdays. It was one of the church’s happier insights. For as in our first birth into this world we did nothing and triumphed gloriously, so in the second birth of our death we need do even less to triumph more. By Jesus’ death in ours, and by our death in his, we have laughingly, uproariously, outrageously beaten the system. It is a piece of wildly Good News: what a shame we don’t let the world of losers hear it more often.

  11. I love this post.

  12. Thank you for this post–great!!

  13. For first-timers here, it’s worth following the link, as this is just an excerpt from the original post.

    Though the link doesn’t actually work, currently: Here it is, corrected: http://www.internetmonk.com/articles/D/doubts.html.

    This is my all-time favourite iMonk post, I’ve sent it to lots of friends, (though some have told me it was heretical).