On Faith and Doubt

Thursday evening, Skyler (my wife) went to a healing service–not an Anglican, Book of Common Prayer type of service, but a charismatic, revivalist type of service. I stayed home, tired, still trying to adjust to my new job and not wanting to be around any more people.

The service, apparently, was one of the best she has ever been to–and Skyler has been to a lot of these kinds of events. The speaker told some typical stories about healing but changed the script when it came to the actual healing portion. Instead of calling out certain people to come up and receive prayer from himself, the speaker started bringing up people from the audience to pray for sick people. It was, I think, an important reminder that it is God who heals the sick, not the charismatic leader. Skyler said she saw a small, quiet woman who had never received a “word of knowledge” get a picture of a 50 year old man with a throat problem. The speaker asked if this picture described anyone in the audience, and an older gentleman walked up to the stage, untied the bandana around his neck, and revealed to everyone a tube going into his throat. The speaker then asked the woman to pray for the man, in her own words. The woman gently placed her hand on the man’s forehead, asked that God would heal this man, and immediately, he falls backwards (into the arms of the body catchers required at any charismatic service).
As Skyler was telling me, I started joking that it was an elaborate ruse–you know, where the speaker plants a couple of people in the audience to help make a dramatic presentation. I didn’t actually doubt the prayer service; it just seemed humorous to describe the service as well-scripted hoax. It reminded me of a Flannery O’Connor novel, Wise Blood, which describes the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt of a young man, Hazel Motes, to lose his faith. One of the main characters in the story is a street preacher who pretends to be blind, Asa Hawks, or, more accurately, pretends to have blinded himself, which he had promised to do as an act to “justify” his faith, to demonstrate his devotion. Only, on the night of the event, he preached on the blindness of St. Paul, poured wet lime on his face, but never managed to get it in his eyes. He spent the following years pretending he succeeded, roaming the streets as a blind evangelist.
Saturday, two days after Skyler’s experiences at the healing service, I sat drinking coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years. After doing the normal “what have you been up to, what are you planning to do, and do you still keep up with this person from our shared past,” we started speaking more openly about how we were actually doing. She shared with me that she hasn’t opened her Bible in over a year, that she had been in a really unhealthy relationship, and that for the first time in her life, she finds herself doubting God. I sat across from her, sipping my coffee, praying desperately that God would give me something helpful to say. I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t trite, superficial, or downright insulting. So I just told her that. I told her that I wished I could find a way to bring some healing to those wounds, to lessen her pain, to help her see Jesus in this mess, but there wasn’t time and my words would be insufficient. We talked some more, about doubt, about God, and about our lives. I finally told her I thought she was angry at Jesus and that if there is anyone it is safe to be angry with, it’s Jesus. Jesus has a peculiar ability to enter right into our anger, our despair, our doubt, and our outright disbelief.
When people doubt God and seem to be about to “lose their faith,” we normally panic. We try to diagnose the problem as quick as we can, and then find the solution. It’s urgent–their salvation is at stake. We start quoting them our favorite Christian slogans; perhaps we buy them some books on Christian apologetics, or, we tell them that their doubts are only an intellectual veneer covering a deeper, more personal matter. It’s not that the beliefs are now questionable; they are just angry, or selfish, or scared, or determined to sin and so they shut out God with these intellectual defense mechanisms. To us, the doubter is a problem, to themselves, and to us. We need to fix them, or help them fix themselves–fast.
It’s a humorous response, when it isn’t actually harmful. It’s humorous because we ought to know better. The moment we see doubt, we panic, and lose all of our theological sense. We start acting as if faith were our own intellectual commitment, the product of our will, a result of our ethical behavior. We start acting as if faith wasn’t a gift from God, completely out of hands and beyond our control. We start demanding that the doubter believe even though we know that No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
Ten years after Wise Blood was published, the second edition came out, with no changes except the addition of a single paged preface. She mentions that many interpreters found Hazel Mote’s integrity to lie “in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind [Christ]. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.”
It is his incapacity, his inability to get rid of Christ, that defines Hazel Motes. His faith is not some heroic work but an event that occurs to him, something he endures and even resists, but something he cannot escape.
There is a lot of theological debate regarding whether it is “faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ” that is central to Paul’s theology (in passages like Gal. 2:15-21). I think it might not be as big of an issue as we think. Perhaps our faith is not something we produce, whether on our own or through grace. Perhaps it is closer to something that occurs to us. It is not our act, but a continual disruption of our lives. It is not an ability, but an inability. Even in our doubt, we find the obnoxious, ragged figure of Christ flitting about. Jesus isn’t disturbed or bothered by our doubt, disbelief, or rebellious sin. He has placed himself on that path, becoming sin for us, so that we no longer have anywhere to hide from him. He entered into our damnation–as the Apostle’s Creed says, he descended to hell–so that, even at what would seem to be the place furthest from God, hell, we would still find God. His faithfulness to us produces our faith: he continually shows that we no longer have any place to hide from God. We have no way out, no escape; faith is simply the recognition that even our path away from God is precisely the path on which Christ encounters us. It’s not our triumph, but Christ’s: it is a gift, that is, grace.
And so, to my doubting friend, after some thought, what I would like to say, is simply, that it’s okay. Jesus can handle your doubts. And my prayer is that you would know Jesus is with you in your doubts, and that you are not alone, even there, even in the loneliness, even in the anger, even in the disbelief. I pray that you, and me, would see that our faith is not the outworking of our inner resolve but the result of Christ’s refusal to be without us. Faith is not a boundary marker of who is in and who is out; faith is our recognition that Christ has not left anyone out, including us. As Paul puts it Christ died for all; therefore all died (2 Cor. 5:14). Or, as Desmond Tutu put it, In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Even in your doubt, or, especially in your doubt, you are not outside of or apart from Christ. I pray that Christ would continue to haunt you and me, and that at every wrong turn, we would meet the one who tells us that every path now points us back to him. Even the path of doubt.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)
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6 Responses to On Faith and Doubt

  1. Tim, I bumped into your blog via our mutual friend Tim… it was great to read this today! Your words resonated in me today, and I think a lot about the picture of faith we get from people like Job for whom faith and despair do not seem to be mutually exclusive, or like Sarah who is listed in Hebrews 11 as having had faith that evidently did not exclude doubt. Anyway, thought I'd let you know you have another reader, and that this post was a good one.

  2. Tim Otto says:

    Tim,Thanks for this empathetic post. A good friend of my is struggling a lot with faith, and I continue to have the occasional doubt attack myself (it seems to happen particularly during bad Christian worship choruses). I get a feeling of nausea, find myself wanting to bolt, and thinking "I don't believe it! Not a word of it!" But anyway, I want to believe the beauty of your post, but find myself doubting 😉 because it sounds so universalist. As my friend Jack used to say, "I'm not a universalist but I hope I'm wrong." Thoughts along those lines?Tim

  3. Em,Thanks for the encouragement!Tim,I wrote out a longer, now deleted response which basically said that I think the Orthodox might have a better picture when they think of hell not as the absence of Christ's presence but the experience of Christ's glory as torment instead of bliss. In the terms of this post: whether some will experience being haunted as Christ as eternal torment is a possibility only God can decide (and, as Barth reminds us in his doctrine of election–the God who decides, who elects, is Jesus Christ). My hope is that we can maybe take our doubt less seriously and in doing so, perhaps take Jesus more seriously.

  4. Tim–I was thinking more about this post, and realized that what I am aiming to do is to take our faith out of our hands, and remind us that it is gift and hence beyond our control. I think we sometimes find ourselves doubting because we forget how much we depend on Christ's grace (his commitment to be with us) and start to think that our faith is something that rests on us (on our experience, knowledge, ethics, prayer, communal life, etc). We assume we got ourselves into this mess and therefore it's up to us if and when we'll leave. I want to avoid a commitment to universalism (I hope for it but will not declare it to be the case) precisely because universalism can just be another way to regain control: I know what will be the case, and therefore I can assume control over my life. On the contrary, I must PRAY that Christ will continue to haunt me, and I express confidence that every path leads to Christ not because of the intrinsic value of those paths but because I have FAITH that Christ can reach even us sinners. From this perspective, it would be fair to say that no path leads to Christ (if there is a meeting, it isn't one we can prepare for). However, in the context of the post, I'm emphasizing Christ's commitment to us as a way to reframe our experience of doubt (and so, for present purposes, I'm comfortable with the "hints" of universalism–after all, St. Paul is as well!).

  5. Tim Otto says:

    Tim,I think your comment that universalism can be another attempt at controling God is a good caution. I also find this general line of thinking helpful in reconciling what I think of as Scipture's clear teaching on election, and my inability to stomach much of the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition (at least at its most extreme) teaches that God neatly separates humanity into the blessed and the damned and then encourages the hearer that he or she bears the signs of the elect. I have difficulty reconciling this vision with a God who is all love, a God who is all good. It also seems to me to miss out on the fundamental purpose of election which is to bless (Gen 12:1ff). It seems to me that your writing taps into this type of economy. God is completely sovereign, and has created a world in which we find ourselves blessed.As a side note, I'm a little puzzled as to why you so easily dismiss the "faith in Christ" vs. the "faithfulness of Christ" debate. It seems to me that "faith in Christ" invites all kinds of self-reliance whereas the "faithfulness of Christ" helpfully points us toward God doing it all.

  6. Tim,As always, great thoughts. Karl Barth's reworking of the doctrine of election is extraordinary, and extraordinarily helpful, for it reminds us that the God who elects is the God who also elects to be rejected, Jesus Christ. You are exactly right on how the doctrine of election, as it is sometimes presented, leads to this concern over whether one bears the marks and thus positions us as the judge instead of accepting that only Christ is the judge ("I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me" 1 Cor. 4:3-4). It's exactly this point that I was aiming at with our faith/doubt: to examine the legitimacy or the strength of my faith is to assume that my faith is in my own hands, under my judgement, and at my disposal.Regarding "faith in" or "faithfulness of": I was being a bit dismissive of the debate because I think Paul is comfortably ambiguous, meaning, if we think "faithfulness of Christ" is something quite distinct from our "faith in Christ" we aren't catching what Paul says about faith: our faith depends on Christ's faithfulness, continually. But you are right in that it can be a helpful corrective; and it is, I think, sometimes what Paul wants to stress, and so I don't want to be overly dismissive. Thanks.

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