“You Can’t Have Faith Without Doubt”–the back-story

“You can’t have faith without doubt.”

That statement ought to get you thinking.  I know it did me.  I first heard it from our senior pastor, when our little church was embarking on an incredibly optimistic faith journey a few years back.  I grew up with the impression that doubt was a bad thing; a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith.  How could I not think that, when the church had branded one of Jesus’s closest companions as “doubting Thomas”–a branding so successful that the term is used in popular culture even by those who probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas was, or what heinous act he committed to be viewed with such disdain.  So, when this wise older scholar made the statement, I had to take some time to consider the thought.

First, Thomas got a bad rap.  If you’re not familiar with it, Thomas’s story is told in John 20:19-29.  Unfortunately for most Christians, we’ve read and heard the story so many times that we don’t really read it anymore, we skim it, and jump straight to the anticipated ending, along with all the afore-learned stereotypes.  In studying up on doubt, I took time to really savor this story, reading it as if for the first time, trying to witness it as if I’d never heard it before.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the political and cultural climate of the story; suffice it to say that a full understanding of the climate makes the story much more powerful.  The over-simplified version is this:  Jesus’s closest followers were gathered together on Sunday evening.  Jesus had been crucified three days earlier.  They were afraid for their lives, and had every reason to be.  There were a few in their group who were claiming that they’d seen Jesus alive earlier that day–but people just don’t come back to life after they die.  But then again, some of this very same group had witnessed Lazarus come back to life (at Jesus’s command, no less!) after he’d been dead for four days.

A worthwhile detour with respect to the character of Thomas:  In the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus declares that he’s going back to Judea to Lazarus’s family.  He’d left Judea earlier to escape the religious leaders who were out to kill him. His disciples (names aren’t given, but the plural is used, so one would assume this was a group consensus) try to dissuade him because people will try to kill him.  When Jesus makes it clear that his purpose is in Judea, Thomas is recorded as saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Essentially, Thomas tells the group that he’s committed enough to Jesus that if Jesus is going to do something that will likely get him killed, so be it, Thomas will be right there with him.  Hardly the words one would expect from the weak-minded stereotypical Thomas many of us were taught.

Back to Easter Sunday–that evening, the disciples were hiding together in a locked room.  These are not courageous men of faith; they’re not expecting a resurrected Jesus (realistically, you only can understand his teachings about his resurrection in the Gospels once you know that he rose from the grave.  The disciples didn’t get it until after it had happened, and only fully comprehended it after years of living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit).  If anything, they’re expecting a knock on the door, or a crash at the door, from the Temple guards or the Roman centurions, taking them all to their own cross.  Suddenly, in their midst (without anyone opening the door), Jesus appears and greets them.

Verse 20 has to be one of the most ignored verses in Scripture.  “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”  I’m reading a little into the text based solely on the sequencing of the phrasing, but I’m guessing that if they were convinced he was the Lord as soon as he appeared, there would have been little need for him to show his scars.  I read this passage to indicate that he showed him his hands and side, then the disciples were overjoyed, because they then saw the Lord.   Even if my interpretation is inaccurate, the wording clearly indicates that Jesus showed his scars.

In verse 24, Thomas shows up (there has been much speculation throughout history has to why Thomas wasn’t there–most of it seems to be influenced by the underserved slam on his character.  Scripture indicates that the disciples came together that evening, meaning they hadn’t been together all day long.  Bottom line is we can’t read what isn’t there, and it’s inaccurate to judge Thomas negatively based on assumptions).  Jesus has departed prior to Thomas’s arrival, and Thomas walks into what must have been an incomprehensible scene:  His closest companions–all of them–are excitedly talking over one another insisting that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, had just been in their midst, very much alive, on Sunday night.  Here’s where Thomas’s story heads downhill in the minds of most:  His response to this excited gaggle’s claim “We have seen the Lord!”:  “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.”

Oh, “Doubting Thomas.”  Your friends have told you that the impossible has just happened.  Why don’t you believe them at their word?  Why do you insist on seeing the evidence…  that they saw?  Wait… read that again.  Jesus showed up, and displayed his scars, and the disciples recognized him and were overjoyed.  Thomas walks into this scene of overjoyed-ness (I can only imagine the pandemonium).  Could it be that the author of the Gospel left out some of the dialogue between the group’s claim, and Thomas’s response?  Could someone in the group (whom I imagine were all talking at once, sharing their radically excited, overjoyed news with their recently arrived friend) have said, “He showed us his hands and his side!” prior to Thomas’s recorded response?  While that is sheer speculation on my part, the record is very clear:  Thomas simply asked for the same evidence that the clamoring disciples had already seen for themselves.  And for that, we’ve impugned his character forever.

Thomas wasn’t some sort of faithless, spineless loser.  He was bold, and he was honest.  Sure, the witnesses were his friends, but their claim was incomprehensible and unprecedented (there are differences between Jesus’s resurrection and Lazarus’s–namely, Jesus commanded Lazarus’s resurrection–he couldn’t very well command his own, since he was the one that was dead!).  Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough for Thomas to “believe.”  As I discussed in my post “Contemplating Doubt,” the word translated as “believe” has a lot more depth to it than just agreement that a fact is true.  It means committing and acting on the basis of that truth, to the point that if in fact it’s not true, you are going to suffer significant consequences.  We’ve already seen that Thomas isn’t afraid to stake his very life on something that he truly believes.  Here, he just says, in essence, “I’m not convinced enough to be fully committed.”

Folks, that’s not a sin.  That’s wisdom.  A friend recently called it “intellectual integrity.”  That means that Thomas wasn’t putting on some sort of bogus religious mask to hide what he truly thought and felt, trying to appear all “churchy.”  Thomas didn’t say he refused to believe.  He didn’t say he believed the story was not true.  He just said what was truly on his mind–he wasn’t there yet.

We’ve all been in situations of doubt, and will be there again.  Doubt is real, it’s important, and it’s often mishandled by people who mean to help.  Instead of condemning doubt, either in the church, or in society at large, we need to be open about it.  This is contrary to what many of us have experienced in church, and it’s contrary to what is rewarded in our American culture.  But if “you can’t have faith without doubt,” and faith is a good thing, then isn’t doubt a good thing, a necessary thing?

Another perspective on doubt

I’ve got a half-written draft sitting in the ether, as a follow-up on my last article on doubt.  I’ll get to it, hopefully soon.  In the meantime, check this out. 

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

I don’t necessarily ascribe to all of Rachel’s perspective, but if nothing else this article gives great insight into how doubt has been mis-handled, and how we ought to take the time to listen.  I read her precisely because I don’t always agree with her, but because we all need to have fresh perspectives of others.

Contemplating Doubt

Last Sunday I was privileged to get to teach.  I love teaching, and have been given a gift to be able to teach well… or so I’ve been told.  My biggest challenge right now is that I don’t have a regular teaching venue, so when I am given the opportunity to teach, it’s generally one session.  But when I start preparing, I often end up with a 7 part series.  I love to study (stuff I’m interested in) and my brain can find itself off on incredible journeys in the midst of those studies, yielding lots to say about lots of stuff.  There’s probably more than a little wisdom in only giving me limited engagements.  This blog serves as an outlet for some of that pent-up teaching desire.  The good news is that you’re not stuck here, and you won’t be obvious if you get up and leave…  In fact, the stat tracker on this site doesn’t have any way of knowing if you read the whole thing, or if you’ve already surfed back out.  You already count as one of my dozen or so readers!

Last week’s topic was “Doubt.”  I’m not sure how I arrived at this topic; I started thinking about what I was going to teach, and one interesting thought led to another, which led to another, and pretty soon I had taken an interesting journey through many amazing places, winding up on this amazing topic, with no idea how I got there, and not completely sure how I was going to get back.  If you’ve ever been on a snowmachining adventure I’ve led, you can completely understand.

Two things made “doubt” a compelling topic:

1)  I’ve been reading a really interesting book called You Lost Me.  The book recounts results from a landmark study by the Barna Group, which looked at 16-29 year olds (the “Mosaic” generation) through the lens of faith.  Subtitled “Why Young Christians are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith,” the book provides tremendous insight into an intriguing and underappreciated generation.  (As an aside, if anyone is interested in reading it, I bought it through my Kindle app, and I can “loan” it to “anyone I choose” according to the Amazon website–if you’re interested in reading it let me know, and together we can discover how loaning e-books works.)  It turns out doubt hasn’t been handled well in church, and is a major factor in the tremendous decline of Christian faith in Mosaics.

2)  My wife sent me this well-written editorial shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings:  “Why, God?”  In it, the author reprints a letter written by a Catholic priest in response to the title question.  The priest’s bold, insightful answer:  “I don’t know.”  BRAVO!

Over the years, Christianity has often held up doubt as the opposite of faith.  I can see how this occurred, but it’s not accurate.  In fact, doubt, or the potential for doubt, is a necessary ingredient for faith.  Faith, or pisteuo in Greek, is also often translated in the Bible as “believe,” which is unfortunate, because “believe” doesn’t capture the full meaning of pisteuo.  We use the word “believe” to mean “mental assent”–I agree that something is correct or true–I believe it.  I can even believe someone by giving my mental assent to what they’re saying.  But pisteuo has a much deeper meaning than mere “mental assent.”  For someone to have faith, they must not only give mental assent, but they must act on that belief as if it were true, and must have some element of risk associated with that belief.  I can believe (mental assent) I can fly by flapping my arms, I can even act on it by standing on the ground flapping furiously, but I don’t have faith in that belief until I jump off the roof and try to fly.  Silly analogy, but hopefully it helps clarify the distinction.

Doubt, in the Greek, is apisteuo, or “not-faith”.  This is an inadequate translation though, because it is certainly not the opposite of faith.  I characterize doubt as a condition where the three elements of mental assent, trust, and risk are not fully developed.  For instance, you might doubt the assertion, meaning you are not ready to assent to its veracity.  Or, you might think something is true, but you’re not so confident in your belief that  you’re willing to act on it, or to take a risk based on that belief.  This is doubt.  It’s not wrong, it’s not weak, it’s just not fully bought in. Doubt is a difficulty reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts.

Doubt isn’t a defect.  It’s normal.  In fact, it’s a necessary ingredient.  One of the most profound statements I have heard in years comes from my senior pastor, who said “you can’t have faith without doubt.”  Doubt is not the problem in our world today.  The problem with doubt is we often mishandle it….

The Falseness of Dichotomies

I took a break from this blog for a while.  Seemed like everyone needed a cooling off period after the election.  I had a lot to say, but am trying to practice a very unnatural behavior for me–listening more, and telling less.  So I’ve been working a lot in the past month or so on listening (or more accurately, observing–engaging all of my perceptions to try to better understand).  One of the most significant observations I’ve made involves dichotomies.  I’ve been considering writing about this topic for weeks, but hadn’t fully formed the idea, so I kept observing, with the intent of developing a complete understanding of the idea, and the key learnings from the idea, which I would then inscribe in the electrons so that all could share in this well-packaged lesson.  Unfortunately, the writing style and underlying thought patterns of my 9th grade English teacher (thesis statement, three main points, each with three to four neatly packaged sub-points, all proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thesis is true and fully described) just can’t seem to encapsulate the many branches, inconsistencies, dependencies, and variation of the idea rolling around in my head.  So, I’m giving up on neat packaging, and instead I’m going to embark on a thought-journey.  This will transpire across multiple posts–don’t know how many, how frequently, or, unfortunately the exact course it’s going to take.

Lest you think you’ve stumbled onto the digital footprints of a meandering fool, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or destination, I do have an objective for this journey.  I intend, when I’m done, to be better at  loving mankind (and thereby loving God).  I am going to continue to follow the compass that God gave me when I started this blog–the two quotes at the top of the page:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Before I digress even further off course, let’s get to the topic at hand:  Dichotomy.  Dictionary.com defines the word as:

  1. division into two parts, kinds, etc.; subdivision into halves or pairs, or
  2. division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups: a dichotomy between thought and action.

That same website goes further to cite the entry from Britannica.com (who knew Britannica still existed?):

(from Greek dicha, “apart,” and tomos, “cutting”), a form of logical division consisting of the separation of a class into two subclasses, one of which has and the other has not a certain quality or attribute…. On the principle of contradiction this division is both exhaustive and exclusive; there can be no overlapping, and no members of the original genus or the lower groups are omitted. This method of classification, though formally accurate, has slight value in the exact sciences, partly because at every step one of the two groups is merely negatively characterized and is usually an artificial, motley class.

So where am I going with all this?  There is a strong tendency in human thought, particularly Western human thought (as opposed to Eastern thought–a dichotomy in and of itself, pointed out here as an example) to classify and characterize everything in an attempt to better understand it. (If you want to dig deeper, do some research into the closely related concept of binary opposition.  If you want to go really deep, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  If you don’t want to do a lot of research, I’ll summarize (and somewhat overgeneralize) to say that we tend to be very efficient in processing the infinite amount of information we are constantly exposed to.  Our nature is to quickly analyze a thought, event, or person, and quickly classify them into a category, or series of categories.  Generally, these categories are mutually exclusive, which further enables us to place value judgments on the thought, event, or person.  In many situations, this is a useful process–back to the very basic friend/foe survival instincts.

What’s the problem?  While useful at the basic level of information processing, it can become dangerous when it precludes higher levels of thinking.  All of us witnessed examples of this (most likely externally and internally) during the recent US election cycle.  Red/blue, liberal/conservative, right/wrong…  the extreme occurred when red/blue became viewed as black/white; as polar opposites, rather than variations in a spectrum.

To avoid turning this into a political thread, let’s look at another potentially divisive issue in current events.  The news has been filled in recent weeks with brutal, unexplainable death.  Whether it’s the Samantha Koenig abduction/killing here in Alaska, the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and murder in Colorado, the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City, or this week’s brutal killing of innocent children in Connecticut, our universal reaction is to classify the perpetrator as evil, and to look for an easy explanation which will allow us to place the event and the perpetrator in a neat category so we can process the situation and move on.  Guns? Violent video games?  Poor parenting?  See, if we can place the cause in a nice, neat category, we can then either eliminate it, avoid it, or at least judge it.

I’m probably the most judgmental person I know.  I classify people all day long, starting with the commute to work each morning.  When I am not vigilant about my overwhelming tendency to make binary decisions, I can quickly categorize everyone I encounter throughout the day as incompetent, self-serving idiots, who are terrible drivers.  But, when I get to know those people, I find out that they’re not so easily characterized.

I’m going to close today’s post with an example from the headlines.  Jovan Belcher was a football player for my favorite sports team in the entire world, the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of you had never heard of him until two weeks ago, when he made national news by shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his 3 month old daughter, then driving to the Chiefs practice facility, and in front of team leadership, pointing his gun at his own head and taking his life.  Many were quick to categorize Belcher:  murderer.  Evil.  Monster.  Some went so far as to pronounce that his suicide was a good thing.

I didn’t know Jovan, but I knew of him.  He had a great story.  Undrafted, worked his way up to starter.  Set the example on the field and at practice for his dedication and work ethic, his passion.  None of that excuses what he did.  But if you read much more than the headlines following that tragic event two weeks ago, you found that his teammates, many of whom were close not only to Jovan, but also to his girlfriend, were torn.  They couldn’t classify him as an evil monster.  They knew him.  They went so far as to say that they had no indication that he was capable of such brutality.  When it became personal, it wasn’t easy to categorize the man.

I’m going to stop here for today, with a request:  be aware this coming week to the dichotomies you use to make judgments and decisions.  How many of them are legitimate?  How many are oversimplifications?

The Absurdity of the Cross

A few days ago I asked for readers to tell me what’s wrong with Christianity, from a perspective of those who don’t follow Christ.  Based on the absence of any response, I’ve come to the conclusion that either I don’t have any readers who don’t follow Christ, or there’s nothing wrong with Christianity in the eyes of those who choose not to follow him (which leads me to believe that the problem contributing to the decline of the Christian faith in the US might lie, not with the belief system, but rather with those who profess the belief system–but that’s for another day).  Since no one else seems to see anything “wrong” with Christianity, let me point out something absurd about Christianity, in honor of Easter.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:   “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”  1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Webster’s defines “absurdity” as either incongruous or meaningless; both of these definitions hold the idea that the absurd is irrational or does not align with human understanding.

Face it, it’s absurd to believe that

  • God took the form of man,
  •  walked the earth (that he created),
  • allowed the mankind (that he created) to arrest him, try him, impose the death penalty on him,
  • and then, through a total violation of all human experience, the God-Man rose from the dead,

But in that absurdity the objective mind can find the very reason for the absurdity–by definition absurdity means it doesn’t make sense to the human mind.  Many throughout history have made the mistake of assuming that something incongruous or nonsensical to the human mind is therefore not possible.  To one of Copernicus’ contemporaries, the idea of a rocket was nonsensical, let alone a man walking on the moon.  However, that absurdity did not mean it was impossible, just that it was beyond man’s comprehension.

The historical evidence for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is strong; in fact, denial of the evidence in the face of that evidence is absurd–it defies human reason; unless that denial starts with a presupposed notion that because an event or concept does not align with the individual’s understanding it is therefore impossible.  This rationalistic approach is the basis for most attempts to explain away the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection–“to believe that the Messiah (God’s appointed savior who was to restore the world to the way He intended) was crucified, then raised from the dead defies logic, reason, and all the knowledge and experience of mankind!”  Apply that same logic to claim that the entire Apollo program was a hoax, and most everyone will agree  you’re a kook.

Is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus absurd?  Absolutely!  It flies in the face of all human reason, precisely because it’s not of human reason!

  • God created man, and out of love gave man the freedom to choose to love God, which by definition means he also gave man the freedom to choose not to love God.  What rational man would do that???
  • Man chose to love himself (ok, that certainly fits within our understanding)–he didn’t want to love God, he wanted to be God
  • God loved anyway, and chose to restore man’s ability to exist in relationship with Him
  • God didn’t force us to accept his Son and the restoration that He provided.  He gives us the choice again.

YHWH, I honor you and surrender my life to you.  No god created from human reasoning would subject himself to the humiliation of being made human; of suffering and resisting temptation, of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his creation (corrupted).  No king, let alone a mythological ruler, would look at humanity in all its selfish debasement, not in wrath, but in sacrificial love.  No ruler would weep in anguish in the garden, knowing that those appointed to minister to him were coming instead to take him captive to impose the death penalty on him, in the most heinous form the corrupt mind of man could devise.

Yet you did.  And even after you proved yourself to be God, raising Jesus to life on the third day, you did not destroy us nor imprison us.  These would be the actions of a victorious king who had defeated his captors.  Instead, you not only provided a means to set us free from the bondage of selfishness that we freely submitted to, you have given us a purpose and an authority in your Kingdom, once we step into the freedom you offer. 

Continue to be merciful to me Lord, for the selfishness of my human nature is powerful, alluring, and in its familiarity, it’s even comforting, despite it’s toxicity.  Only through the power of your Spirit could Jesus withstand the temptation, and only through that same Spirit that you freely give can I withstand. 

I’m thankful, particularly today, that you are not limited by the bounds of human reasoning.  Thank you for the absurdity of the Cross.

What’s wrong with Christianity? No, this is not a Rhetorical Question!

I’ve got lots of friends on Facebook (ok, 108 seems like a lot to me), who hold many different spiritual perspectives, so I’m asking the question:  What is wrong with Christianity?  And yes, I really, truly am looking for responses!

What do I mean?  I’ve just spent the past 90 minutes reading several different Christian leadership blogs that posit different perspectives on why people are rejecting Christianity in our nation.  This is a real phenomenon, and Christian leaders are concerned about it, but can’t agree on why people are rejecting it.  The arguments span the entire spectrum, and I’m at a loss for legitimate answers (I’m sure the problem is complex enough that there’s more than one reason).  While our culture is more spiritual than it has been in generations, fewer and fewer people in the US are Christian, or claim to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Here’s my very sincere request:  In the spirit of the quote at the top of this page, I really want to understand.  I’m not asking to start a debate, or to try to start a dialog so I can proselytize.  No tricks, no traps, honest.  I really want to know:  What is it about Christianity that turns you away (assuming you’re not actively following Christ)?  I sincerely ask, because I desperately want to understand, and I just don’t get it.  I’m admittedly late to the party (as a follower of Christ), but I’ve studied Christianity, and it makes sense to me.  I don’t understand why it doesn’t to others.  And I’d really appreciate it if you’d help me understand.  So please, take a minute or two to comment.  You can either reply to the blog (anonymously if you’d like), or as a comment on the Facebook thread, or even in a PM to me on Facebook.  But I’d really appreciate some feedback.

Thanks!