CHAPTER 1

 

I BELIEVE IN DOUBT

The simplest things in life are often the most profound. Sometimes I feel on fire with the immensity of this: Each of us is a person—alive, growing, and relating. From the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep, we think, we feel, we choose, we speak, we act, not as isolated individuals but as persons among people.

And underneath everything lie dependency and trust. From a baby with its mother, to friendships of children, to neighbors in community, to agreements among nations, life depends on trust. Counting on people is trust. Enjoying people is trust. Trust is the shared silence, the exchanged look, the expressive touch. Crying for help is trust; shaking hands is trust; a kiss is trust. The highest reaches of love and life depend on trust. Are there any questions more important to each of us than, Whom do I trust? How can I be sure?

We can devise a thousand strategies—such as law—to help us flee from trust. We can summon up scores of reasons—such as suspicion—to protect us from vulnerability to trust. But we have all once known the experience of complete dependence and complete trust—with our mothers at the beginning of life. And we can all know similar dependence and trust at the summit of our lives—in our free acknowledgment of God, when we receive his gift of faith as a trust that arises out of utter dependence on him.

All of which is why when trust goes and doubt comes in such a shadow is cast, such a wound is opened, such a hole is left, such anxiety gnaws.

God is not only a person, he is the supreme person on whom all personhood depends, not to speak of life itself and our entire existence. That is why to know him is to trust him, and to trust him is to begin to know ourselves. That is why our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. It is also why trusting God in the dark is so hard, and doubting God is so devastating. For when trust and dependence turn into doubt, it is as if the sun is eclipsed, the compass needle wavers without a north, and the very earth that was so solid moves as in an earthquake.

I have met some people who are on the road to faith who doubt God because they want to believe but dare not. How would you feel if someone flew more than halfway around the world to say to you, "I am at a loss. Life has no meaning unless God is there. There is hardly anyone left whom I can trust. Will you help me in my search?" I well remember a man on our doorstep in London who had crossed the world for this very reason. It was deeply sobering because I knew that after his previous failures to find answers he had cried out louder and more often, and the scars of the razor blades were still on his wrists to show it. What would you say? How would you help him? How would you introduce him to God who would never let him down, especially since God was less certain to him than human beings who had let him down?

I have met other people who are backing away from faith in God and doubt God because they do not want to believe but still do. I will never forget a woman who sat in our living room when we lived in Switzerland. She argued; she cried; she pounded the floor. Why should she trust God? He was a monster; a hard, unyielding monarch; a Mafia boss whose power was everywhere; a merciless creditor who demanded his pound of flesh. Hadn't she tried to obey? Hadn't she given it everything? But the more she saw God the more she feared, and the more she feared the more she became angry, and the angrier she became the more she hated, and the more she hated the more afraid of God she grew.

She knew she was caught in a vicious trap, sliding down a slippery spiral. She was young; she was loved; she was successful. But none of it made any difference. She could not trust God. She could not trust with real rest and without reservations. And in the bitterness of doubt, her spirit was like darkness at noon.

The doubts of these two people were entirely different, but they were both doubting God for the same reason: They did not know God as he really is. The man, however, knew that he did not know, while the woman thought that she did. Her picture of God (which came from experiences in the past) was so distorted that, without realizing it, she was believing a grotesque caricature of God that, for sanity's sake, she was forced at the same time to doubt.

Fortunately, she is not in that position today. She has come to know God as he is; she is able to trust him, and her whole life reflects the difference. In later chapters we will examine doubts like these in depth to see how they arise and how they can be resolved. They are only two types of doubt among many others, but they introduce us directly to the heart of our problem.

Doubt is not simply intellectual, an abstract philosophical or theological question. Nor is it merely psychological, a state of morbid spiritual or psychological anxiety. Doubt is personal. Doubt is all about people—who they are and what they say. At its most basic, doubt is a matter of truth, trust, and trustworthiness. Can we trust God? Are we sure? How can we be sure? Do we trust him enough to depend on him utterly? Are we trusting him enough to enjoy him? Is the whole of living different for that trust?

 

THE VALUE OF UNDERSTANDING DOUBT

Part of the glory of the Christian faith is that at its heart is a God who is a person. "He who is," the father of Jesus Christ and our father, is infinite, but he is also personal. The Christian faith therefore places a premium on the absolute truthfulness and trustworthiness of God, so understanding doubt is extremely important to a Christian. Of course, faith is much more than the absence of doubt, but to understand doubt is to have a key to a quiet heart and a quiet mind. Anyone who believes anything will automatically know something about doubt. But those who know why they believe are also in a position to discover why they doubt. The follower of Christ should be such a person. Not only do Christians believe, they are those who "think in believing and believe in thinking," as Augustine expressed it. The world of Christian faith is not a fairy-tale, make-believe world, question-free and problem-proof, but a world where doubt is never far from faith's shoulder.

Consequently, a healthy understanding of doubt should go hand in hand with a healthy understanding of faith. We ourselves are called in question if we have no answer to doubt. If we constantly doubt what we believe and always believe-yet-doubt, we will be in danger of undermining our personal integrity, if not our stability. But if ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith grows stronger still. It knows God more certainly, and it can enjoy God more deeply. Faith is not doubt-free, but there is a genuine assurance of faith that is truly beyond a shadow of doubt.

Obviously then, each one of us should understand doubt for God's sake and for ours. God is to be trusted, yet we human beings are prone to doubting: That is justification enough for trying to understand doubt. But an understanding of doubt will also bring two particular benefits to followers of Christ today.

First, a healthy understanding of doubt will act as a safeguard against today's widespread and unnecessary breakdown of faith. Christians are confronted by a situation that militates openly against assured faith. In most modern countries, public life has grown more secular and private life more pluralistic. In the Western part of the modern world, the Christian foundations of Western culture have been torn up and discarded. Our Christian past is in disrepute, and the very basis for any faith, Christian or otherwise, is held to be discredited in thinking circles. At the same time the vacuum created by collapsing Christendom has been filled by a bewildering variety of alternative faiths, facing us with a jostling and anxiety-creating pluralism. Many of us are also smarting emotionally under the sting of reactions to our faith and are keenly aware of the intellectual deficiency in our response.

In such a situation, it is hardly surprising if at times we falter as believers in a disbelieving age. This state of affairs has aggravated the already serious problem of doubt among Christians. Some, in response, have abandoned the faith altogether; many more have kept the faith but abandoned all pretense of any intellectual component. The loss of faith has not been stanched, and this has suggested that the Christian faith is a fragile, vulnerable belief with little intellectual integrity. This suggestion, in its turn, lends support to the common rejection of the Christian faith among thinking people. What is most damaging is not that Christians doubt but that there seems to be so little honesty about doubt and so little understanding of how to resolve it. This must be changed.

Second, a healthy understanding of doubt helps us to prepare for the years of testing that, I believe, are to come. Faith at its truest is radical reliance on God. It is a conviction born of understanding, grounded solidly in the truth of who God is and what he has said and done. But what our faith "should be" may be far removed from what our faith "is." In practice, many of us have become Christians and are continuing to believe for less than the best reasons and clearest motives. This will have serious consequences in the critical years ahead when the civilizational conflicts deepen and the battle between God and the gods grows more intense.

For example, one person's faith may be a genuine trust in God but also a trust in certain Christian friends, while another person has truly committed to God and also to the care of a strong local church or Christian community. Or again, others may honestly put themselves under the Lordship of Christ, yet at the same time adhere passionately to some aspect of the Christian way of life that by temperament or nationality they would be likely to espouse anyway.

In each specific case it is impossible to determine the exact line of distinction between faith and faith plus, between our faith in God and our faith in other people and things. Where faith is not as strong or as pure as it should be, it is not illegitimate. If our motives had to be spring-water pure, which of us would pass the test? But impure faith that is weak or wrongly based is always vulnerable in a crisis. To the degree that other motives are also at work, faith is not radical reliance on God alone. Seen in this light, every test that shows us what we are really relying on can be constructive. If testing shows that our attachment to Christian friends or to a particular lifestyle or culture is stronger than our attachment to God himself, we must ask whether these supports for faith are in danger of becoming substitutes. What we need, then, is to be stopped short before the process of substitution is complete and faith becomes altogether empty.

 

     Add to Shopping Cart

Back to Product Detail Page