2016-06-30
Is it possible for faith and doubt to coexist? One desperate parent in the New Testament would answer that question with a resounding, "Yes!" He's the father of the demon-possessed boy, who in anguish turned to Jesus for help. His had been a long, dark night attempting every imaginable remedy for his son's horrifying and torturous madness. Nothing worked. The scene that Mark's Gospel includes captures, like few others in the Bible, the very real conflict between hope and despair.

They brought the boy to Him.
When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. And He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" And Jesus said to him, "`If You can?' All things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the boy's father cried out and said, "I do believe; help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24-24)
The anguished father watching his son writhe on the ground like a rabid animal strained against the tough stuff of doubt to muster sufficient faith to believe. And he was bold enough to acknowledge it as well as request Jesus' help to overcome it. I'm so glad God decided to include that candid dialogue in Scripture, aren't you?

You may find yourself occupying a place in the ranks of the doubters of this world. If so, this chapter is written especially with you in mind. To exacerbate matters, you may live among people who have never once questioned their faith. Their piety makes you feel isolated, even a little weird ... out of place. Perhaps your doubts have sunk you to the depth of despair. You too have cried, "Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief."

Daniel Taylor, in his book "The Myth of Certainty," doesn't choose to use the term "doubting Christians." He refers to the doubters among us as "reflective Christians." Frankly, that works for me. There's not much dignity in doubt, but there is a touch of dignity in reflection. Taylor offers a variety of questions that represent the common struggles of a reflective Christian. Here's a sampling:

  • Does one minute it seem perfectly natural and unquestionable that God exists and cares for the world, and the next moment uncommonly naive?
  • Have you sometimes felt like walking out of a church service because it seemed contrived and empty?
  • Someone at work says, "Christians check their brains at the door of the church every Sunday, and most of them don't even bother to pick them up on the way out." Do you find yourself objecting or agreeing?
  • How confident are you that you know God's desires regarding the specific political, social, and moral issues which face our society?
  • According to Daniel Taylor, a nonreflective person asks, "What could be worse than unanswered questions?" To him, the reflective person would consider unquestioned answers his or her struggle. A reflective Christian is one who is thinking deeply, questioning often. When we doubt, our minds are at work.

    Taylor goes on to explain,

    There is a long tradition of people of faith who have valued and participated in the life of the mind and who have brought their God-given intelligence and imagination to bear on the society in which they have lived. These believers have been involved thoughtfully in their cultures, sometimes as shapers, sometimes as critics, but always as people who thought the human endeavor worthwhile.

    But there is also a more troublesome aspect to being reflective. Thinking, as many have discovered, can be dangerous. It can get us in trouble-with others, but also with ourselves. And the suspicion lingers in religious circles that it can also, if we are not very careful, get us in trouble with God . When are those times I allow my intellect to challenge my beliefs? When do I question? When do I reflect? And candidly, when do I doubt? Likely, it's at those same crossroads of doubt and faith common to most of us. When we encounter a sudden, unexpected calamity. When we pray for a specific outcome and the exact opposite occurs. When we lose a valued staff member or coworker or when our dearest friend moves away to another state. When we live right and suffer miserably for it. When we take a course at school that makes more sense than what our church believes. Ouch!

    When life takes us through unexpected twists and tragic turns, we're often overwhelmed by the tough stuff of doubt.

    Thankfully the Bible does not leave us awash in our questions. A familiar story in John's Gospel shows us that the answer to much of our doubting is a Person. His name is Jesus and--as He did for one struggling disciple--He helps us in our unbelief ... transforming those lingering questions into more stabilized faith.

    When my father died at the age of eighty-seven, he had lived with us for four years before we found it necessary to admit him to a very fine, clean place where he lived a while longer. He was kept under the watchful care of my sister and me during his final days in the hospital. I grieved silently. Yet when it came to my duties as a pastor of a growing, dynamic church, it was like someone threw a switch and I pressed on in my responsibilities.

    I preached Dad's funeral to a small gathering of family and friends. I spoke somberly and appropriately about the promises of God and the hope we have beyond the grave. I buried my father's frail body with grace and poise, as all good ministers do. I never missed a beat. I've done that duty hundreds of times throughout my many years in the ministry. I could do much of it with my eyes closed ... but always with tenderness and compassion.

    My sister, Luci, and I got back on the plane to return home. During a quiet moment she asked, "Babe, do you believe every single thing you said today?" It made me think...deeply.

    "No," I said, almost sighing under my breath. "There are things that the jury's still out on in my mind."

    "That's not what I'm asking," she said back to me gently. "I know you believe a lot of it. I just want to know if you fully believe every single thing. 'Cause if you do, we're very different."

    I said, "No. There are things that I really have a hard time believing and understanding. I just can't fit everything together in my mind and in my heart." She paused, then lovingly put her hand on my arm and with tears in her eyes answered, "That's good, Babe. And that's okay." Perhaps softened by her tender expression of love and honesty, I looked at the clouds outside the window as tears began to flow for my dad and for our losing him.

    I fear that too many believers think they have captured the message of Christianity and placed it in a box marked on top, "Don't ask. Don't tell." On the side it reads, "Off limits for doubts and questions."

    Does someone in the family need to give you permission to weep when you lose a loved one? I mean, really grieve? Do you feel the freedom to admit, "I just don't know for sure?" Is there a place for you because you're still thinking and still questioning? Bottom line: Is it okay to doubt? It's okay! In fact, it is necessary! You must or you won't grow. You'll wind up learning someone else's answers, and in many cases they will be inadequate for your questions...if you're honest enough to ask them.

    I find airtight conclusions mainly in people who have not hurt much. They're usually people who have become tightly wired, rigid, and isolated from the real world. They're closed ... unwilling to be vulnerable. Suddenly, a divorce comes. Or someone dies in a tragic set of circumstances, or loses his job. Reality hits and a storm blows in and threatens their once tranquil existence. The emotional explosion results in more questions than answers. They discover things they didn't really know. They are in the vortex of dilemmas they cannot solve. At that point simplistic solutions are replaced with realistic reflections ... and the deep things of God begin to emerge, eclipsing shallow answers.

    Throughout any life that is lived realistically and reflectively, we come to impossible places where we feel we cannot cope. They may not seem like it, but those are the healthiest places in life, but they are also the hardest. When the bottom drops out, when the pain seems unbearable, when some unbelievable event occurs, doubts arrive unannounced. Don't deny them; acknowledge them. Those times of doubting become schoolrooms of learning. As we work our way through them, a new kind of faith is forged. It will come slowly, and that's healthy. It's being shaped on the anvil of God's mysterious plan, some, of which you will not be able to explain. And that's okay.

    Now the real question is how. How do we grow this new kind of faith in the tough stuff of doubt?

    First, by risking and failing, not always playing it safe. You can't afford to live a life of fear. You must not always play life safe. Winning over doubts means beginning to live by faith and not by sight. Walking this new journey has its risks. You cannot see around every bend or anticipate every danger. You will sometimes fail, but that isn't fatal! That's how we grow, by trusting God through the risks we take and the failures we endure. Step out. Refuse to play it safe.

    Second, we keep growing by releasing and losing things valuable, not finding security in the temporal. At the heart of this technique is the principle of holding all things loosely. Cynthia and I know a couple who have to be as close to the ideal set of parents as we've ever met. Every Christmas we get a lovely card from them. For years they were to us the picture-perfect family. Yet one day they found themselves in an inescapable abyss. Their precious daughter was admitted to a psychiatric facility after attempting suicide over an eating disorder. Our dear friends hit absolute bottom. They weren't grinning and quoting verses. They didn't run around smiling at life, quoting tired clichés, like, "In spite of this, God is great, God is good." No, they nearly drowned in their doubts. They wept bitter tears. They questioned everything they ever believed.

    Are they still qualified as people of faith though they wavered in the dark? Absolutely. By God's grace, in time, they released those doubts, having faced them honestly, and they refused to seek security in the temporal. Today, looking back, they're convinced those lonely days proved to be some of the best days of their lives. Their walk with the Lord is far more mature than before.

    Third, we continue to grow by questioning and probing the uncertain, not mindlessly embracing the orthodox. Read that once again, aloud. We don't just blindly swallow someone else's answers. We keep our minds and our hearts engaged in the pursuit of God's truth. By searching the Scriptures. By seeking God's wisdom and understanding. That's what I mean by questioning and probing.

    Fourth, we grow by admitting--and struggling--with our humanity, not denying our limitations and hiding our fears. And I can assure you that this author for God understands when you find yourself cornered by doubt. I've been there more times than you'd ever believe. You are definitely not alone.