Monday, May 05, 2008

The Doubter's Prayer

Discipleship Journal ultimately decided to pass on my article about doubt. So I've decided to post it here while I shop it around for a publisher. I hope Matthew, Aaron, anonymous, and the like 2 other people who still visit the Grenz enjoy the read.

The Doubter's Prayer
He was asking for the impossible. For years, a desperate father had sat helplessly and hopelessly by watching his beloved son suffer from debilitating and even life-threatening seizures caused by an evil spirit. The news of a rabbi who was able to cast out demons awakened his hope. When part of the rabbi's upstart band of wonder-workers arrived in his village, he went to them, anticipating that his son might receive some help. But things didn't go as he had imagined.

Rather than a quick and painless treatment for his son, this father was thrust into pandemonium. The miracle men didn't live up to the hype and weren't able to cast out the demon. This caused their antagonists, religious leaders who felt threatened by the popular rabbi, to question them. Tempers began to flare. As the noise and confusion rose, a crowd gathered.

Into this chaotic scene walked Jesus. Ignoring the crowd that was now fawning over him, Jesus asked what all the commotion was about. The father told him that much to his chagrin and the delight of the teachers of the law, Jesus' proteges were unable to help his son. Straightforwardly denouncing the whole generation as "unbelieving," Jesus called for the boy. When the demon in the boy saw Jesus, it sent him into a violent seizure, prompting Jesus to ask how long this had persisted. "From childhood," the father answered, adding, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Somewhat incredulous about the word "if" in the father's request, Jesus made a profound statement of triumphant faith, "Everything is possible for him who believes" (Mark 9:23).

Faith is the means of healing for this boy. His deliverance is dependent upon how much and in whom his father trusts. It is through his faith that he will be able to prevail over the demon that has possessed his son. Faith is the means by which all who follow Jesus are to live their lives. By trusting him, believers can find healing and deliverance in their lives. Prevailing faith makes everything possible. Yet when I read Jesus' statement of triumphant faith, I am left with some haunting questions. What about the times when my faith isn't very triumphant, strong, or consistent? If everything is possible for the believer, is anything possible for someone like me who has a lot of doubt?

If the unnamed father of Mark 9 is any indication, I am not alone in feeling that my faith is somehow incomplete. Upon hearing Jesus' statement of triumphant faith, he prayed a simple prayer. He said to Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). This prayer contains a profound contradiction: a clear and confident confession of prevailing faith coupled with an honest expression of doubt. Exhibiting his infinite compassion, Jesus responded to this vulnerable and authentic revelation of the man's heart by doing the impossible, healing his son.

Doubt Is Not the Opposite of Faith
Many followers of Jesus are scared to admit their doubt as publicly as the father in Mark 9 did. For some, this fear generates from a church culture that has vilified doubt. In many churches, people feel an unspoken expectation to have all the answers and to affirm them without reservation. Others labor under the idea that admitting the unbeliefs they harbor might somehow erode and undermine their faith. Both church leaders who help to shape church culture and individual followers of Jesus would benefit from rethinking the importance of doubt.

It has been observed that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love. In the same way, doubt is not necessarily the opposite of faith. The two are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, occupy the same heart and mind. As they do in the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24, faith and doubt can manifest themselves congruently in the life of a person who is seeking to follow Jesus. Like the boy's father, I am one of those people in whom faith and doubt are connected.

There are times when I am less certain about my faith than a pastor ought to be. There are plenty of specific beliefs that I have my doubts about. The doctrine of the rapture that I learned growing up, for instance, seems downright silly to me. Much to the discomfort of some of my more conservative friends, I am somewhat hopeful that a literal hell does not exist. I am less certain about the rigid creationism of my youth than I was taught to be. And I feel like I am finally taking seriously literary and historical critiques of the Bible. These doubts are of the more intellectual variety that can probably be overcome with further study and reflection.

More significant and troublesome to me are the personal and internal doubts I feel. I frequently doubt the effectiveness of the prayers I pray. I wonder, and not in a worshipful way, how my sin could in reality be forgiven when it so regularly and destructively rears its ugliness in my life. And I almost always have reservations that the system of habits and conventions we call "the Christian life" actually works.

Conversations with friends have revealed to me that I am not alone as a doubting believer. The presence of these doubts does not at all replace my faith. With the father in Mark 9, I can say that I do believe in Jesus. Through faith in his life, death, and resurrection, he grants me the forgiveness and freedom I desperately need. And yet, there remains in me and others like me unbelief that needs to be overcome.

Doubt Can Grow Faith
Doubt can be a dangerous thing, driving a person away from community with God and others. Followers of Jesus have to always be cognizant of its danger. But rather than run from doubt, I am learning to admit my uncertainty, as the father in Mark 9 did, and even welcome it because of the virtues and character it can produce. Just as the revelation of doubting faith brought about something as important as the healing of a young boy, so too, it can bring about important things in my life. In an ironic twist, rather than erode it, doubt can actually help to bolster faith. Frederick Buechner once wrote, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving." When doubt is revealed in authentic and vulnerable ways, it can help faith grow. In my life, doubt has helped to grow my faith in three specific ways.

Doubt keeps me humble. Humility is a requisite of faith. Pride causes me to live a life that is independent of God, but humility drives me toward trusting him. In the fourth chapter of his letter, the apostle James says that believers in Jesus must humble themselves as the path of relationship with God, saying, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (James 4:7-10).

My uncertainty reminds me that I am not the most knowledgeable, most wise being in the universe. (Was that ever really in question?) In its dangerous form, doubt can trick me into believing that I am the independent arbiter of what is true. This leads to a noxious pride in me. But when kept in check, the virtuous side of doubt reminds me that I don't have all the answers, that I can't figure it all out, and that I am ultimately dependent on God to lift me up in innumerable ways.

Doubt keeps me honest. True faith cannot coexist with self-deception. In 1 John 1, the apostle John describes how the forgiveness that faith affords is only possible through honesty, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives" (1 John 1:8-10).

My doubt makes me question everything. I am skeptical of not only God's voice but also the voices in our culture and the ones in my head. The negative side of doubt could lead me to be argumentative, conspiratorial, and ultimately self-deceived. Instead, I want my doubt to keep me constantly pursuing an accurate and honest assessment of my own spiritual condition.

Doubt keeps me hopeful. Faith and hope go hand-in-hand, as the writer of Hebrews points out, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope keeps faith forward-looking, trusting God to keep his promises not just for our lives but also for the world that he has made.

Much of my doubt stems from the fact that the world is not as it should be. I wonder if all we say we believe is true, how can we have made such little progress in the face of poverty, pollution, and pain? The darker impulse of doubt produces a cynicism in me that saps my worldview of beauty and grace. But when it emboldens my faith, doubt makes me long for a better world, which makes me work for a better world, which ultimately makes me look for the return of Jesus who will bring a better world.

The Doubter’s Hero
Sometimes it is easier for Christians to think that the heroes of the faith are the ones who never wavered, never questioned, never doubted. The story of the Bible, however, is replete with doubters: Moses asking questions at the burning bush, Peter sinking in the water, Thomas placing his finger in Jesus’ wounds, an unnamed father asking Jesus to heal his son.

Despite the external pressure or internal fear a follower of Jesus might experience about admitting doubt, it is not heroic to pretend like one's faith is complete and perfect. It’s hypocrisy. Throughout his time on earth, Jesus didn’t respond well to hypocrites. But he did respond with infinite compassion and miraculous power to the unnamed father in Mark 9 who humbly, honestly, and hopefully confessed both his faith and his doubt when he prayed, “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” That is the prayer that I am now praying. My doubts are probably not going away any time soon. But as I keep echoing this prayer, I find myself growing more dependent on Jesus. And that’s what prevailing faith is all about.


Matthew said...

For what it's worth, I still love you Robb, and I'm sure Aaron, Corexian, and the various others still do as well (I don't know about anonymous, since it's hard to say anything for certain with him ).

It's an excellent article--I would say Discipleship Journal was a mite too picky. Their loss.

If it's any consolation, I once had a reviewer tell the editor of a jounal that I had submitted an article based on my Master's thesis to that if they published my article, the jounal's reputation would be forever ruined (I don't know--I thought that was kind of harsh myself, but then people tell me I'm too sensitive).

Anyway, it's not the doubters that I worry about (overmuch), it's the people who are certain in their beliefs with no room for doubt. If there's no room for doubt, there is no room for the correction of errors that can come with doubt.

If there is a Hell, I'm sure it's more filled with people who were certain they were right in their own minds than people who had the occasional misgiving but had not underestimated their own capacity for error.

Anonymous said...

It may come as a rare surprise but I love you to Robb. And Matthew I am certain with my convictions in these areas:

Politics: Social conservative right wing (i.e. Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage)

Theology: Calvinist (i.e. John Piper, John Mcarthur)

Church Affilation: Unknown at this time.

Grandma Julia said...

Very illuminating! I never looked at doubting my faith from that point of view. Now I know, I should. Thank you so much. I am glad I stumbled by your blog.

Justyn said...

Thanks, Robb! I needed this.

I could use a raise, too. Could you work on that one for me? :)

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. I popped this open as I ran across it and is answered a prayer. Thank you Lord for your guidence and thank you Robb for your honesty and forthrightness. I have had so many doubts of late and I was questioning myself whether or not I could doubt AND have faith simultaneously. Especially being a new believer, this was comforting to my fear and has such a ring of truth. I think as I become better aquainted with the Lord's word, these things will answer themselves through His teachings. Thanks again and God bless.