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Faith and Doubt
When it comes to faith, I believe doubt is a necessity. In some instances the use of the word doubt is not entirely, or not even, a pejorative. For instance, “The Weather Bureau has predicted one, but I doubt we’ll get a storm,” is hardly a statement from another person you would disclaim as a character failure or a moral weakness. It merely places more weight on the alternative to a particular assertion.
A contrasting form of doubt, though not an opposite, is the scepticism of a doubter. This type of doubt is considered a negative. To reject a logical proposition such as the Earth is a sphere, man landed on the moon or, to a lesser extent of reasoning, certain scientific theories held to be true by a majority. This sort of doubt often leads to ridicule. The derision can be based on the opposition to, from one extreme, bizarre misconceptions, to what may be coherent logical arguments. It can also, however, be directed against those who buck the ‘accepted scientific theory’ because they challenge the credo of the majority. Often the expression of doubt is an argument between two theories and, in essence, two faiths. Sometimes the faith of the scientific majority is misplaced, sometimes it is not.
In some cases the word ‘doubt’ describes an ‘unbelief’ where an alternative idea or possibility seems plausible, even more likely. Acting against this sort of doubt is not uncommon and is evident when someone takes a course of action despite fears to the contrary. I imagine looking for a lost ring in long grass is like this. The seeker lives in hope. Something precious may be reclaimed. I think Christian faith is most like this. Not the same, of course. There is hope, the belief is coherent, it is possible but also there is an inner affirmation—a Spirit testimony. Yet physical evidence is scarce. It’s more about what makes sense than what we sense. It is a belief where doubt is a necessity.
Why necessary? Surely undoubting faith is the best—is the perfect type of faith all Christians should aspire to? Except…
Except, when you think of faith, if there is no doubt, it morphs from faith to a certainty, to a fact. In truth, few ideas fall into this category. You have mathematical certainties—2+2=4, is true by definition…a square has four right angles by definition, it is not an item of belief—and there are other a-priori statements that are true by definition so we accept the meaning as convention and the opposite only ironically.
All else, the things that fall in the category of belief, faith or trust, rely on experience and evidence and, to some degree, feelings. Some are contentious and highly arguable, some cannot be so because they have a purely personal, experiential basis. For instance, to contend with someone’s private, metacognitive perspective could be a highly dubious activity. How they feel and how they react is, more usually the domain of the individual’s own interpretation. On the other hand, how one ought to act, whether there is objective morality and how we justify social mores is open to everyone. We are all stakeholders in these beliefs.
So, faith, in the gospel, with a sprinkling of doubt is about a belief that is rational and logical, but unprovable this side of eternity. Mentioning proof, of course demands some elaboration and definition. Like faith, proof has different levels. If I said this chair will support me; that is a statement of faith. If I sit on the chair it is an exercise of my faith. If the chair supports me that is faith proven and saying ‘the chair supported me’ is a statement of fact—experiential fact. To say again, this chair will support me’ is another statement of faith. It is more supported by evidence and so, I would argue, it is a stronger faith in the chair. Could the chair still collapse? Yes, of course, but experience is one of the great teachers of trust of people and in events. If a person lets us down often then our faith in them diminishes. Some people are slow learners and have an undying faith in the goodness of humanity—enter Charlie Brown and the constant hope that Lucy won’t pull the football away as he is about to kick—and some are forever sceptical about the motives and actions of every person because, in the vernacular, everyone has an angle. For them there is no altruistic behaviour.
So, the proof lies in the experience. It is not a categorical guarantee for the faith but it has statistical significance. I trust that the train will get me there because it always has. I have faith it will get me there on time because it usually has. I have little faith in the proposition that I will be comfortable because it is often crowded and I usually stand.
There are proofs based on assumptions. Many mathematical proofs are of this genre. One assumes a proposition is true, we insert the statement into an equation and by a variety of methods show that the assumption produces the desired result. There is also the courtroom ‘proof’ where the goal is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Such proof is based on evidence. This evidence includes consistency in the narrative, forensic science and witness testimony. It is not infallible. It is not as reliable as a mathematical proof and yet, often, so much more depends on this sort of proof.
What particularly grates me is the claim by many that such and such proves God is true or real. How much faith is required if God is proven to be true? Even by the courtroom definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt—and one Christians would ascribe to—would suggest that everyone’s doubts in God are unreasonable. Perhaps… I would suggest, rather, that God desires faith despite the doubts—‘be not faithless but believing’, “without faith it is impossible to please God…” After all, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…” If it’s proven, it’s not a hope but a fact; if it’s not seen the only thing that would assure us is our trust. Certainly we could argue that we see the effects of the creative, redemptive, invisible God but the argument falls to linking the effects with the unseen. Christians make the connection by faith. Sometimes it’s a reasoned logical faith and sometimes it is an emotive, intuitive faith which has a dimension that is more spiritual than logical or physical. It makes little difference what sort of faith because the chair will still support…the train will still get you there; and it is all because the one in whom the faith is placed is the crucial factor—and I wrote ‘crucial’ deliberately.
I think we can be convinced by the weight of evidence and logical reasoning but it requires the right mindset. Those who seek will find. I like the way Paul says, “…but we look at the things which are not seen. …” We can’t prove God as a fact. We can accept by faith that he is a fact or we can reject him. But it doesn’t alter the fact of God.
Of course, there is the paradox that faith needs doubt but doubt is the enemy of faith. How so?
Insomuch as faith allows Christians to live in the steps of the church’s founder then that faith is effective despite the doubts…“Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”. When the doubt affects the Christian walk, the level of obedience, even the joy that is directly attributed to knowing Jesus then that doubt is debilitating, it is harmful and should be countered. That is the doubt that affects action. It is the doubt that Jesus rebuked. To Peter he said, “You of little faith,” and he said, “Why did you doubt?” To the disciples in the upper room upon seeing Jesus he said, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” To Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Such doubt inhibits our prayers—“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”-James 1:6. Jesus attributed mighty acts to the prayer of faith “…if you have faith and do not doubt”. Of course this text is not really about casting mountains into the sea. There is not much call for that. It is, in my opinion, about knowing the will of God. I say this because, in context, the verse is followed by the religious leaders asking by what authority Jesus performed his miracles. His question on John’s authority stymied them then he spoke of the two sons, one big with words the other effective with actions and the next parable of the tenants was all about being obedient to the master. How do I know my faith is real? By proving it with my actions.
This is the place of proof in the Christian life. Not a proof where one can emphatically convince another that God is true but a personal proof where God convinces the individual about his presence. Romans 12 describes it. By being a living sacrifice, being available for the Spirit’s use, having a servant heart… “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”(NKJV)
So…Have faith. Commit your doubts to God Mk9:24 “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And be aware that there are some that have greater doubts than yourself. Jd 1:22 “Be merciful to those who doubt.” I’d be surprised if, at least to some extent, that’s not everyone. Doubts are there but are constantly stunted by what God does when we’re obedient to him, when we trust him.
Further, the proposition that faith needs doubts in the sense that doubt is part of the definition of faith is like the notion that bravery needs fear as part of its definition. If there is no doubt, faith is not required. If there is no fear, bravery is not required. Actions that are fearless are reckless or audacious but they are not brave.
Metaphorically speaking, you are a boat. Doubt holes your boat. And faith is the patch that covers the doubt. Sufficient faith keeps you afloat. If your faith is insufficient, it doesn’t cover the hole and the boat sinks. If you have no doubts, no holes, you don’t need the patching of faith.
What do we say? If we have doubts and if our faith is insufficient our boat sinks. In a similar way Peter sank when his faith was insufficient. Was that ultimate failure? Was Peter rejected because of his faithlessness? No. The hand of Jesus drew him up. Compassion, mercy and restoration is the way he was treated and is the way we are treated.
In truth, the trial of our faith is precious. We learn from our failures. Forgiveness is always at hand. The certainty of sitting on a sturdy chair is a picture of the faith we should have in our Lord. We should rest our whole weight on him. And every time we trust him it should add to the knowledge of God’s faithfulness. Our doubts should diminish. What fickle creatures we are that this is not always the case.
And one last but pivotal thought. If we think that somehow this faith is due to us, that faith is due to our efforts, then I think we are mistaken. Rather, faith is from God. The shield of Faith is God’s armour. As we surrender to His will life becomes more of him and less of us; we rely more, we trust more and faith grows because it is reinforced by experiencing God at work.