Monday, 17 August 2009

Doubt is not the enemy

“Everybody thinks they are right; which means that when they die a lot of people are going to find out that they were wrong.” John Ortberg

Perhaps the major reason why we are so intimidated to discuss our doubts with others is the fear that they are true. Of course there’s the stern-faced, judgmentalism that shallow, thinking individuals harbour, but I believe that the greater anxiety emerges from the faulty conviction that verbalising our questions will confirm them as reality.

From one doubter to another, hear this… doubt is not the enemy. Nor is it the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is pride & unbelief.

Can’t see the difference? Well let me try to help. In the Bible, unbelief is a sinful decision to turn away from God and reject Jesus as Lord of our lives. On the other hand, someone who doubts may remain open to God and long to believe wholeheartedly, but for whatever reason finds that hard to do. Check out Psalm 10 & 13 as examples.

Unbelief is a refusal to trust. It is not uncertainty of the intellect, but a settled decision of the will.

Doubt is a good servant, but a poor master. Doubt is not sinful, but it is serious. If it isn’t addressed properly it can lead further down the road to unbelief and away from Christ. So whatever your doubt today, don’t keep it locked up inside to gnaw away at your faith. Talk to God about it – He understands, look at how he treated Thomas. Talk to someone you trust - get help and reassurance. In doing so you’ll find liberation from the burdens of guilt & shame.

And to all who are experiencing a torrid time spiritually. Can I encourage you to think back to times when you were so very certain of God’s presence & love for you? “Never doubt in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.”

(Book recommendation John Ortberg’s “Faith & Doubt”)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

What kind of belief really matters?

“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish in the mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.” Madeleine L’Engle

Here’s an annoying question, which I dare you to take a minute & ponder the answer too: “What do you really believe and what do you only think you’re supposed to believe?”

Ortberg highlights three different kinds of convictions or beliefs to help us understand why two people professing to the same faith can be so very, very different. Here we go…

Public convictions
These are the ideas that I want other people to think I believe, even though I really don’t believe them. Their purpose is to create an impression rather than portray the truth; they are the staple diet of politicians.

Because of my job there are statements that I think I should believe or that I get rewarded for pretending I believe. So I teach that “it is better to give than receive”, but my wallet is not always convinced. I encourage others to “not judge, lest you be judged”, yet my mouth doesn’t always take up this message.

Private convictions
These are convictions that I sincerely think I believe, but they turn out to be fickle. They seem real at the time, but when circumstances shift they are revealed to be hollow.

The night before Jesus was murdered, Peter made a bold statement, “Even if all fall away, I will not… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” I’m sure he believed what he said; but when faced with the reality of suffering the day after, these beliefs turned out to be shallow.

Core convictions
These are what we really do believe & are revealed by our daily actions. For example, I really believe that if I touch a hot oven I will get burned. I really believe that if I exercise I will lose weight. I will really believe that if I sit on this computer chair, it won’t buckle underneath me.

And I guess faith is coming to believe with my whole body what I say I believe in my mind. Actions are the best indicator of my true beliefs; not my mouth. One of the reasons I find Jesus attractive is the consistency between what He said, what He thought & what He did. I want to be like that.

So let’s return to that annoying question that most of you couldn’t be bothered or where too scared to pause and ponder, “What do you really believe and what do you only think you’re supposed to believe?”

(Adapted from John Ortberg’s book “Faith & Doubt”)

Monday, 10 August 2009

What the Bible has to say to doubters?

“Faith is a free surrender & a joyous wager on the unseen, unknown, untested goodness of God.” Martin Luther

The Bible has much to say about faith & doubt; certainly much more than we dare to admit from our pulpits & in our coffee shops.

The short letter by Jude includes a few gems; not least in encouraging us to “be merciful with those who doubt” (v22).

I love the guy in Mark 9, desperate for Jesus to heal His demon-possessed child. This guy’s iffy faith & wavering request has given me words to voice some of my most despairing prayers; “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

I too believe & doubt; hope & fear; pray & waver; ask & worry; so it is reassuring to see Jesus respond with grace & mercy & power in healing the child.

And whilst I like to fantasize that having a powerful mystical encounter with God would settle all of my doubts once & for all, I know from personal experience & Biblical example that this simply is untrue. Take the Israelites for example… 10 plagues, delivery from the Egyptians, safe passage through the Red Sea, an enormous pillar of cloud/fire in front of your eyes day in & day out, food falling from the sky every single day… and still a refusal to trust in God’s provision & protection.

And let’s not forget my personal favourite - sceptical Thomas who refuses to believe his friends’ testimony to the risen Jesus; believing that they were either lying or bonkers… “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I WILL NOT BELIEVE IT.” (John 20:25).

Scepticism can keep us from blessing & trapped in two minds, but it is not the most destructive form of doubt. Thomas really did want to know the truth which put him a cut above the close-minded cynic or the rebel who refuses to believe no matter what evidence is presented.

As a natural sceptic, I delight in Jesus’ patience with Thomas, but if we want the deepest blessings that Christ has to offer listen to his concluding remarks in that incident… “So you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” (John 20:29)

Friday, 7 August 2009

Faith & Doubt

“Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” Nicholas Wolterstorff

Let’s blow a commonly held myth out of the water.

I used to believe that you fell into one of two camps: you either doubted or had faith that there was a supreme, eternal being called God. I couldn’t comprehend how faith could exist in the presence of doubt. Surely the two were opposites. This is of course ok, until you try to live & think out your beliefs in the real world.

As Ortberg states, “many believers tend to think doubters are given over to meaninglessness, moral confusion and despair. Whilst many doubters assume believers are non-thinking, dogmatic, judgmental moralisers. But the reality is, we all have believing & doubting inside us. For we all have the same contradictory information to work with.”

Faith & doubt.

Religious people are often unwilling to sit quietly & wrestle with doubt. This is when bad things happen. Glib responses are given, bad answers are offered & enormous pain is added when ordinary people are convinced that God has not delivered because their faith was not strong enough.

Yet we must doubt. Because we want truth; we must sometimes doubt. We don’t want to be just one of those suckers who falls for every carnival sideshow delusion that comes along.

Faith & doubt.

When my first son Jacob was born this year I found myself staring at him in amazement. I was simply incapable of believing that he was an accident; just a ball of cells resulting from an evolutionary fluke. I can’t hold him without being grateful to Someone greater than I.

And whilst the birth of every infant whispers of a loving God, I am only too aware that the death of every newborn calls His existence into question.

Faith & doubt.

Still not convinced? Take 5mins & read through Psalm 22 & 23; both attributed to David. The often quoted Psalm 23 is confident of God’s promise, protection & peace; whilst the preceding Psalm 22 contrasts glaringly & opens with the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Faith & doubt.

But in addition to believing & doubting there is choosing; I must decide which road to follow. I must place my bet somewhere.

The term “leap of faith” is overused & greatly misunderstood. It does not mean choosing to believe an impossible thing for no good reason; it is not an embrace of fantasy in which we ignore all evidence. The leap means to make a total commitment to an action in the midst of uncertainty (similar to marriage or having a child); where one must commit in spite of doubts & fears.

Faith, doubt & choice. My choice. Your choice.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Chronic Doubter

I wrestle with doubts.

I spend most of my days studying and thinking and reading and teaching about God. And I have doubts.

Most people who have a faith that is more than an inch deep struggle with some form of doubt; although for some reason we like to keep them locked behind smiles & a smattering of those confident, positive verses found in Scripture.
I guess you wrestle with doubts too. Here are some that I have struggled with this year:
  • Does God really exist?
  • If so, why is He so silent to my most desperate prayers?
  • I know the theory behind His love for me, but do I really believe it deep down?
  • Is He really using me in ministry or am I just kidding myself?

And so for a chronic doubter, I’ve been liberated through reading some of the thoughts of John Ortberg on this subject. His latest book, “Faith & Doubt” is a must for all of us who long to live with certainty in the midst of unanswerable & often painful questions.

I’m going to integrate some of his ideas into my mental framework over the next week. Please join me on the journey & add your own thoughts.

“Doubt can motivate us to study & learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience & compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.” John Ortberg