The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Postmodern Era

The following is the text of public lecture I gave at Asuza Pacific University on the evening November 16, 2010. The text (about 5000 words) is more or less as I delivered it, so you will note the oral cadence. I had a great time on campus that day, visiting with faculty, and talking in more depth on this issue over a faculty lunch. I would like to thank Dr. Leslie Wickman, Director of the Center of Research in Science, for being such a great host.

The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Postmodern Era

I want to talk to you tonight about doubt, and a very serious kind: when you doubt your faith in God. That is a very tough place to be, because faith in God is what keeps it all together when you are facing tough things—whatever it is: big and tragic or more private and emotional.

But whatever it is, faith in God is what gets us through. When God is real in your life, it makes sense of it all, it gives purpose to our whole lives no matter what is going on. Faith in God gives us stability and coherence. The world around us may be crumbling, but God, as the psalmist says, is a sure foundation, the rock of our salvation. Whatever happens around me, I know that at least God can be counted on. He is faithful.

But sometimes things happen in our lives—a big thing, a lot of little thing—and you start having a lot of doubts.  And—my experience—it’s usually the little things piling up over the years are the hardest—those disruptive thoughts you keep burying and hoping they’ll just go away. They don’t. And you feel your faith in God slipping away—and it is scary to watch it happen. You doubt that he cares, that he is listening; you doubt that he is even aware of who you are—that he even exists.

That kind of doubt is the enemy of faith, right? We all know that doubt and faith rule each other out? It is one or the other. To have faith means you don’t doubt. And if you are in a state of doubt about God, you feel like there is clearly something very wrong with you. You are moving away from God’s grace and his love. You can’t hold on, you’re weak in your faith. “Maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe I’m a faker. Maybe I haven’t memorized enough Bible verses. Maybe I need to go to church more.” Whatever it is, you’re doing something wrong. It’s all your fault.

And this is what we have been taught to do: our only job is to get out of that state of doubt as quickly as we can. Faith in God gives life meaning, a sense of purpose in this universe. Doubt takes all that away. And if you stay in doubt long enough, your eternal state is in jeopardy.

I have known many people in my life who have been faced with these kinds of deep spiritual doubts, and given up on faith altogether. They tried to hang on, with everything they have, but nothing works. So they walk away. Others keep it in and just hide. I’ll bet you all know people like that, too: classmate, roommate, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, someone you used to go to church with. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe your teacher is one of them.

Doubt is a spiritually destructive force. It tears you away from God. Surely, God does not want us to doubt. Right? I don’t think so.

There is a benefit of doubt. Let me put that more strongly: there are things doubt can do spiritually that nothing else can do. Doubt is not the enemy, but a gift of God to move us from trusting ourselves to trusting him. Doubt feels like God is far away or absent, but it is actually a time of “disguised closeness” to God that moves us to spiritual maturity. Doubt is not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth.

Sometimes we think of our faith as a castle. It’s comfortable and above all safe. But what if God doesn’t want us to be comfortable and safe? What if comfortable and safe keep us from pursuing God? Sooner or later God—because he is good—tears your castle down, and he pushes you out, and puts you on a spiritual journey—which always involves some deep struggle.

Doubt forces us to look at who we think God is. It makes us face whether we really trust HIM, or whether we trust what we have made God to be. Doubting God is painful and frightening because we think we are leaving God behind. But doubt—real hard deep unnerving uncomfortable scary doubt—helps us to see that, maybe we have made God into our own image. We come to discover, slowly but surely, that the “faith” we are losing is not faith in God. It is actually in the idea of God that we surround ourselves with.

Let me explain that a bit more. If we’re honest, we all think we’ve got God figured out pretty well. (I’m a biblical scholar and that is a constant danger.) We read the Bible and maybe memorize some of it. We go to church a lot. Maybe even lead Bible studies or something. We’re doing great.

It is very, very, very easy to slip into this idea that we have arrived—that we really think we’ve got all the answers and that we almost possess God. We know what church he goes to, what Bible translation he reads, we know how he votes, we know what movies he watches and books he reads. We know the kinds of people he approves of. Funny thing: God happens to like all the things we like. We feel like we can speak for God very easily.

All Christians who take their faith seriously sooner or later get caught up in that problem. We begin to think that God really is what we happen to think he is. There is little more worth learning learn about the creator of the cosmos. No need. There is no real mystery. After all, God has become a reflection of ourselves.

The good news is that God doesn’t leave us there. God doesn’t just want us to “get saved.” He wants us to know him and enjoy him—here and now. Here is the paradox: doubt is God’s way of helping that happen. Doubt is God’s way of tearing down our idols. An idol is a false representation of God, something that gets in the way of the real thing—and that includes the idols we have in our minds and hearts.

You see, doubt doesn’t mean that God is dying for us. Doubt signals that we are beginning to die to ourselves and our ideas about God. Jesus talks about that: taking up your cross daily, losing your life so you can find it (Matt 10:38-39); Paul talks about being crucified with Christ—I no longer live, Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20); or you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).

I wish I knew what all that meant, but I don’t. I’m learning. But I do know that this is about a lot more than “getting saved.” God wants us to know him, but that means a death has to occur. All that talk of dying and being crucified and hidden is not getting saved language, and now you’re done with all of that. It is “being an every-day Christian” language, the path of the Christina life, dying daily.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German Lutheran theologian, executed for a failed plot to kill Hitler), in his book, The Cost of Discipleship has an often quoted line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dying is a way of talking about conversion as well as a daily process of Christian living.

Christians never stop dying.

That process can be very painful and frightening—dying usually is. Why would we ever think it is easy and nice? At times in our lives doubting gets the dying process moving. And when you are in that process, God feels far away—but that is when he may be closer to you than he ever was.

This is a one of the points I want to make tonight: Don’t try to run away from doubt. Don’t try to fix it. Try not to think of it as the enemy. Pass through it—patiently… and honestly… and courageously…. When you are in doubt, you are in a period of transformation. Welcome it as a gift—which is hard to do to if your entire universe is falling down around you. God is teaching you to trust him, not yourself. He means to have all of you, not just the surface, going to church and daily devotions part. Not just the part people see, but the part no one sees—not even you.

Now, let’s bring the Bible into this. If you know your Bible, at this point you might be saying, “Well, the Bible doesn’t talk like that.” For example, John 20:31: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John seems to be saying that if you know your Bible more, you won’t doubt but believe. So Christian, if you doubt, you just don’t know your Bible well enough. Your faith is weak. Maybe go to one more Bible study that week.

But think of this from another angle. Jesus himself had his moments where he doubted God and God was very distant from him—God abandoned him—and he knew his Bible very well. In the garden and on the cross, Jesus said what psalm after psalm says: God where are you? I don’t see you anywhere. Are you even there? I am giving up all hope.

I get John’s point, but when he says “these things are written so you may believe,” it doesn’t cover everything. It just means that John wrote his Gospel so people could see how great Jesus was and put their trust in him. It does not imply “henceforth thou shalt be a perfect faith machine and never doubt.”

Also, I don’t expect the New Testament to say “doubt is God’s way of making you grow.” The New Testament doesn’t answer every question we might have for all time. It describes the early mission of the church. It’s like a missionary or evangelist today: they go out and proclaim the good news. They don’t say “sooner or later you may wind up doubting everything you’ve ever believed.” Doubt is something that comes in during a more settled time, after you’ve been at it for a while. It’s like when someone converts to Christianity: things are great for a while and then it gets complicated.

That is what you do find in the Old Testament—doubt, God feels absent from your life—especially the Psalms. The Psalms present us not with a “missionary moment” in the life of Israel, but a time when Israel was settled in the land and the day-to-day work of living in God’s presence was the issue. So, you have 150 psalms, and in about half of them something has gone wrong—some barrier has arisen between Israel and faith in God. The psalmist feels abandoned by God and he is holding on by a thread.

One example is Psalm 88. In summary, here is what the psalm says: God, I have been on my knees to you night after night. I am so troubled, and in so much agony, I might as well be dead. I am absolutely without hope…and you don’t care. All night and all day I call to you—I’m on my knees—but nothing. I am in absolute pain and the only friend I have is darkness.

Sounds to me like this guy has a problem. You might call it a faith crisis. Maybe he doesn’t know his Bible well enough. Maybe he needs to go to another Bible study so he can learn you shouldn’t feel this way, let alone talk this way. I mean, what’s wrong with him and his weak faith?

Don’t let the obvious pass you by: this sort of thing is in the Bible. Why? Because this “abandoned by God” business is part of normal Christian experience. John Calvin said that the Psalms are a “mirror of the soul.” Sometimes the soul looks like this. Does your soul ever look like this? If so—yes, it is painful and difficult—but you are good company.

Another example is Psalm 73. Basically this is what the psalm is about: “Yeah I know God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. I know how it’s supposed to work. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve been to Hebrew school. I get it. My problem is not that I have forgotten what the Bible says. My problem is that what the Bible says doesn’t work.”

And so this writer goes on and on about how the Bible says that God is supposed to bless the faithful and punish those who are not. But he looks around him and sees the exact opposite. The wicked and arrogant, they are healthy, strong, they prosper. But he’s doing his best, and—nothing. I am wasting my time. Why bother? The world makes sense without you. Hey God, if you were there Donald Trump wouldn’t own half of new York City and homeless shelters wouldn’t be struggling for every dollar.

I love that the Bible is so—not shallow. It really connects with even the dark places of our souls. And I know a lot of people raised in the church who are like the writer of Psalm 73—but they are afraid to talk about it. They have heard sermons and Bible studies their whole lives where they were taught to think of the world in a certain “Christian” way, and then maybe in high school, maybe in college, they begin to see that it’s more complicated. Then there is a major disconnect between what they had been taught and what they see. Faith is no longer a convincing way of explaining the world, and so they leave it.

Doubt is usually cumulative; it creeps in. God, the Bible, your faith, stop making sense, and so you toss it all away. But here is the point. You say that God and all that Jesus stuff just don’t work in the world you live in. But maybe the God and Jesus that aren’t working aren’t the real thing. What if what isn’t working isn’t God at all, but our version. Maybe doubts are the first step to stripping off the old getting at the real thing.

When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put is so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.

I know what I am saying is counter-intuitive—it might even sound a bit bizarre and even dumb. Deep doubt about God is about the worst feeling a Christian can have. It is dark, unsettling, frightening. And I am saying not only “it’s OK, it’s normal.” I am also saying, “Welcome it as a gift of God. Don’t run from it.” Because once doubt occurs, it won’t just go away—you can try to bury it all you want to. Embrace the doubt. Call it your friend. God is leading you on a journey.

I’m not just winging it here. Spiritual masters of the Christian church caught on to this long ago. It is not a part of the contemporary Protestant scene as much, which is a shame. We tend to intellectualize the faith—we live in our heads. Our faith tends to rest in what we know, what we can articulate, what we can defend, how we think—our intellects. We tend to place “thinking” over “being” rather than the other way around.

That is why doubt for people like us is the great enemy. We spend a lot of effort in removing doubt. Our world is flooded with books and apologetics organizations whose job it is to give the answers quickly and easily—no struggle, no doubt—all this Jesus stuff, piece of cake. That attitude robs us of a spiritual experience that you can’t avoid anyway and that wiser Christians, since almost the beginning of Christianity, have told us is vital for the Christian life.

This experience of deep doubt is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” That expression has come to us through the writings of two sixteenth century Spanish Catholic mystics: John of the Cross and his mentor Teresa of Avila. Many, many people have spent their lives thinking about what these and other mystics wrote concerning their experiences of God. I am not one of them, but I am learning. Let me boil down what they are saying.

The “dark night” is a sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes distress, anxiety, discouragement, despair, and depression. All Christians experience this sooner or later—some more than others, some for longer times than others. Everyone feels this way, though different intensities and for different lengths of time. But the feeling is the same: they lose their sense of closeness to God and conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.

This is the dark night of the soul. Not too pretty. St. John’s great insight is that this dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty before God—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on.

When the dark night comes upon us, we are asked simply to surrender to God and trust him anyway. The reason St. John calls this a dark night is very important: it is because you have no control over what is happening. That is a very important piece in all of this, because people want to control. Imagine, like the Chilean miners, being all alone in a deep dark cave, miles down, with absolutely not a single ray of light—utterly pitch black. You have no idea where you are or how to get out. All you know is that you are helpless. You try to find your way, you grope, but nothing. You start walking slowly at first, and then you realize that wherever you are, it is big, dark, flat, and you can’t do anything about it. So you sit down in this quiet, out-of-your control totally dark nothingness. You are totally OUT OF CONTROL. You can’t do anything about it. The point of the dark night is to take away your sense of having control.

There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

The point of the dark helpless place is to strip us of absolutely everything so that only surrender and trust remain. That is the daily and severe Christian calling

She spoke from true experience. By the way—are you one of those people who wonders why you can’t just be a happy Christian like your roommate or that lady in church? Listen to Mother Teresa. Apparently, she was in her dark night from 1948 until near the time of her death in 1997, with perhaps some interludes in-between. You know all that great things she did? Don’t think her dark night wasn’t somehow connected to how she spent her life. You might even say that “spiritual greatness” and the dark night go hand in hand—you must pass through the one to get to the other. She learned trust—not certainty—trust in God. And all of that poured out to the people around her.

I love that story. It summarizes really well what I am trying to say here. We’ve heard this many times: “Let go and let God.” It’s true—but “letting go” might be more than we bargained for. We must be taught, for we will not willingly go there ourselves. When we are not letting go, when we try to stay in control of something, cling to something as Mother Teresa says, that’s when God turns off the light and makes it dark—not because he is against us, but because he is for us.

Being out of control is another way of saying “dying to yourself.” When we are out of control, that is when God can speak to us—without all of the layers of stuff we have piled up inside of us. God puts us out of our control so that we can learn to trust—like Mother Teresa said—not “believe” or “have faith” but something deeper and harder: trust.

You can only trust when you have let go completely, when you don’t try to control. When we learn to trust God out of our emptiness, when God is out of our control—when God…becomes God more deeply in us—when we surrender and trust…well… we become liberated from our attachments, from our fears, and we learn to live with freedom and joy. That is the Christian journey.

We see this even in our relationships with each other. You cannot have a truly growing, intimate relationship with another if one person is trying to control the other. That destroys true intimacy. Now, if we are trying to control God, what do you think he is going to do? Rather than leave the relationship entirely he may initiate a period of separation, a period of absence, a period of darkness—so that we can learn that in this relationship we have to surrender, we have to let go of control.

You can’t have the joy and peace of the Christian life without the darkness coming first. Jesus himself is our model for this. He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, but dying and rising isn’t just something Jesus did. Our conversion is also described as dying and rising from the dead (Romans 6). But death and resurrection is also a pattern for the whole Christian life. (Those passages we looked at earlier.) We don’t experience resurrection (the joy) in our lives without first suffering and dying to ourselves. Dying is the only path to resurrection, and that is the only way of knowing God.

This is why TV preachers drive me crazy. They say God wants you to avoid the pain—the suffering, the dying. He wants you to be happy, rich, successful, whatever. No. God wants you to be joyful—but dying is part of that. There is no shortcut. I think that is the heart of Paul’s mysterious words in Phil 3:10. Knowing Christ means both the power of his resurrection in our lives and participating in his sufferings, being made like him in his death. Death and life. Both are part of the Gospel life.

This past summer, Rachel Held Evans published her memoir Evolving in Monkey Town. Rachel grew up in Dayton TN, the setting of the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s. She grew up in a strongly fundamentalist home, where she was taught all the firm and final answers to life’s most difficult and complex questions. Early on she was quite the zealous know-it-all apologist As she got into high school and later, she began to realize that not only were her answers inadequate, but she may not even be asking the right questions.

A couple of things pushed her out of her comfort zone, out of her control, into her dark night. One was traveling and seeing other parts of the world and seeing intense poverty and suffering. Rachel began to question some beliefs about God that she had never questioned before. She could not imagine a just and loving God sending to hell a young woman, who spent her days roaming the streets trying to feed her starving baby.

This woman couldn’t help where she was born, what she was surrounded by her whole life. She couldn’t help she was born in Dayton TN so she could have all the right answers about how these types of heathen women are going to hell. This kind of experience can really make you question how you were raised to think of God; it is a very common wake up call. And if you were taught that there is no other way to think about God, these kinds of experiences can generate a faith crisis very quickly.

The other issue was very different, a modern one and a common one, and it is reflected in the title of the book. She felt she could no longer dismiss the evidence for evolution—even though she spent her entire life in the epicenter of anti-evolutionism. This meant for her she had to rethink a lot of how she read the Bible.

Her understanding of God and of the Bible were being cleared away. She became unglued. She went through a period of darkness, a period of doubt. She had been taught that what her church and parents said about God was what God was really like. That was handed to her, never to be questioned. That’s how you remain sure and fixed. If you doubt any of this you are doubting God, and when you doubt God you are taking the first step to eternal separation from God. Doubt—even questioning—destroys faith.

But Rachel eventually learned a different lesson, although it took time. She says, “In the end, it was doubt that saved my faith.” She learned that the questioning is part of the journey. She learned that letting go of the need to have all the answers right away—living in the questions—was spiritually healthy. She could not and did not have to provide all the answers to the mystery of life on this planet. She learned that God was not at her beck and call. In fact, God doesn’t promise to give us the right answers to all of our questions when we ask them. He promises to grow us, to move us out of our carefully protected comfort zones to a true intimacy with him. The Christian life is a journey to be taken, not a fortress to be defended.

Since postmodernism is in the title of the lecture, I suppose I should say something about that and tie it in with what I am saying here. I am not interested in defending or attacking postmodernism. Partly because I don’t fully understand what it means or what people mean when they use the term. I will say, though, that a postmodern mindset is less interested in final answers to ultimate questions and more comfortable with framing questions, celebrating differences, etc. Truth is not absolute, but local.

Postmodernism is not a reaction to religious authority as much as it is a reaction to modernity (hence, post-modern). And in some respects, I think the postmodern critique has been necessary and effective, and many people write about this. Modernism has been guilty of some arrogance—often seen in the scientific or scholarly world, where there can be a tone of having “figured it all out.” New Testament scholar N.T. Wright refers to modernism as a “rival eschatology,” meaning a sense that “we have arrived at the destiny of humanity.” That eschatology rivals the Christian claim that Christ is actually the summation of the human drama.

Modernism has been in the business of saying that reason, science, etc., tell you what the world is really like; all of that medieval superstitious nonsense is passé. In other words modernism is skeptical of anything else and probably needs to be knocked down a few pegs.

It has been said that postmodernism is simply modernism taken to the next step: it’s being skeptical about modernist skepticism. So, modernism celebrates the triumph of western rationalist positivistic Enlightenment ways of knowing, and postmodernism says that there are different ways of knowing that aren’t western but just as legitimate.

Here is the point. Some careful thinkers have said—and I agree—that the war between Christianity and postmodernism is so intense because Christianity in our culture is comfortable in the modern paradigm. Fundamentalism is modernist Christianity. A cocky Christianity that has all the answers, can casually sweep away pressing problems in the world with a wave of the doctrinal hand isn’t “pure” Christianity but a modernist version of it. And so people like Rachel Evans come along and say “live in the questions and go on the journey.” That is criticized as being “postmodern” because, as we all know, Christianity doesn’t live in questions, it gives answers.

Of course, this is a huge issue and more complicated than I have laid out here. But I would rather take my cue from the Psalms, New Testament, St. John of the Cross, and what I see as common Christian experience. Doubt, struggle, suffering, are part of faith, not impediments.

Faith and doubt are inseparable. There is a long history, and common experience, that back that up. When your faith has no room for the dark night of the soul, then you are just left with—religion, something that takes its place in your life among other things—like a job and a hobby, something soft and comfortable.

Doubt is God’s way of helping you not go there. But it is a tough road. I mentioned the Narnia stories earlier. As for a lot of people, they capture for me a lot of what faith is about. Let me end with that well known and often quoted line from Mr. Beaver when Edmund asks whether Aslan was safe. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Doubt shows us that God is unsafe—and that he is good.