Doubting your doubts
|“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” – The Apostle Peter, in Second Peter 1:16 (NIV)
Every thinking person confronts doubts about his or her most cherished beliefs. Whether one is religious or non-religious, believer or unbeliever, Christian or Atheist, every thinking, self-reflective person faces doubts. I think this is important for Christians to understand. I think this is important because I get the sense that many thinking Christians today imagine that they are the only ones who wrestle with doubts about their beliefs, whereas their secular and unbelieving counterparts can come across as so utterly bold and confident in their unbelief. I suspect that one of the reasons why unbelievers are so bold and “in your face” with their confident assertions about the certainty of their unbelieving position (however that unbelieving position may manifest itself) is because unbelief is so popular today. Apostasy from and rejection of conventional “organized religion” (especially if that religion happens to be historic and orthodox forms of Christianity) can win you all kinds of kudos and accolades from the cultural “in crowd”; it may even win you a lucrative book deal if you can tell a good enough “de-conversion” story. There is plenty of consumer demand today for excuses to reject God and ultimate truth (especially the claims of Christ and the truth of His gospel). There is plenty of popular demand for reasons to doubt. Being heterodox and skeptical is such the “in thing” nowadays, even “mainstream” in our culture, whereas biblical faith is increasingly marginalized and feared as a dangerous radicalism. It is the new “F word” (i.e., “Fundamentalism”). But while our unbelieving and atheist neighbors and the secularist cultural elites may project an air of confident certitude about the correctness and superiority of their disbelief, the truth is that behind their bold mask of dogmatic doubt they too experience moments of doubt about their beliefs (or lack thereof!). Even doubters doubt their doubts on occasion. I know this to be the case, not because I can read the unbeliever’s mind, but because God (who can read minds and hearts) tells me so in His Word (see Romans 1:18-20). (Yes, I know this “appeal to authority” would not fly in the worldview of the secularist or the skeptical, but I would just remind the reader that everyone must appeal to some ultimate authority in the process of reasoning about ultimate issues. An appeal to autonomous “reason” or “logic” as the ultimate standard of epistemology is just as much an appeal to a presupposed authority as is an appeal to God and His revelation in Scripture, since one cannot prove the authority of either “reason” or “logic” without using reason or logic as one’s unquestioned, presupposed starting point. Consistent Christians do not reject reason or logic, correctly used, but their ultimate starting point is God and His Word-revelation, for everything else – including reason and logic – depends upon the ultimate reality of God as the necessary precondition of intelligibility.)
This observation that even Bible doubters will at times doubt their own doubts was brought home to me awhile back as I was reading an article by C.S. Lewis entitled “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” (The article may be found in the book Christian Reflections by C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; copyright 1967 The Executors of the Estate of C.S. Lewis; pp. 37-43). There are a number of thought-provoking articles in this book, so I would commend the book to the reader.) Lewis wrote: “Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all.” (p. 41, Christian Reflections) C.S. Lewis ought to have known what he was talking about. After all, he had once embraced atheism before converting, first to general theism, eventually to Christianity. Just as Christians will sometimes experience doubts about their Christianity, so atheists sometimes experience doubts about their atheism (as former atheist C.S. Lewis could attest to).
What can the commited Christian learn from this observation? Well, for one thing I think we need to learn to doubt our own doubts about our faith. We need to remind ourselves that our faith is not in a Deity who is comparable to some mythological “flying spaghetti monster” (as some contemporary promoters of atheism like to assert with an air of ridicule toward those of us who believe in God). Rather, we serve a God who has left His “fingerprints” all over creation; a God who has acted and spoken redemptively within history (in the history of Israel, and ultimately in the Person of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth); a God who has left us with plenty of evidences and good reasons to believe (provided we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear). While our faith is filled with mysteries (for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, etc.), and while there are some profound difficulties and even a few apparent conundrums that attend our orthodox Christian faith (the problem of evil, the relationship of Divine sovereignty and human freedom, alleged difficulties in the Bible, etc.), the truth is that evidences supporting the historic Christian faith and the integrity of Holy Scripture are profound and logically compelling to those who are made willing to consider them with a truly open mind and heart. (One of the strongest “evidences” for the truth of the biblical God and of biblical Christianity is that without the God of the Bible one cannot rationally account for rationality and logic; and hence without presupposing the Triune God of Scripture and the truth of His Word as one’s ultimate starting point, one cannot rationally account for logic and reason, and thus one cannot account for evidence. Whenever atheists and skeptics try to appeal to “fact” and “evidence,” they are using “borrowed capital” from the Christian worldview. A naturalistic atheist worldview cannot rationally account for either the origin or the trustworthiness of non-material universal abstract entities such as reason and logic. But the biblical-Christian worldview can.)
So, what should we believers do when we experience doubts? Certainly do not ignore or suppress them. Be honest with God and with yourself about your doubts. But don’t get stuck there. Confront your doubts head on, with a view to resolving them. How? I would suggest that C.S. Lewis has some good advice on dealing with your doubts: “Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.” (pp. 41-42, ibid.) It is when our doubts are strongest (and hence when we are tempted to abandon or at least to “tone down” our practice of the Faith) that we must practice our Faith all the more vigorously and earnestly. Continue in the devotional practices of prayer and Scripture reading. Cry out to God in prayer to deepen and strengthen your faith by the work of His Spirit. Study the issues about which you have doubts using biblically-based resources (books, teaching CDs, etc.). Continue to attend the public services of the church, sitting under the faithful teaching and preaching of God’s Word, and continuing to receive the Sacrament of the Holy Supper. Remember that God uses these means to strengthen our faith over the long haul. And as you do these things, remember that no matter how you might feel at the moment of doubt, you have good reason to doubt your doubts and to embrace your faith with ever-renewed vigor and confidence. As the Apostle Peter reminds us in the Scripture passage quoted above, our faith is not based upon cleverly invented stories, but upon eyewitness testimony to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Whatever our subjective state of mind may be (even if it be in a state of doubt), the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Word of God are objectively true, however we may “feel” about such spiritual facts at the moment. If, by God’s grace, you persevere through such a “dark night of the soul,” diligently pursuing the God who seems to be elusive and in hiding, one day you may very well find that your faith has been strengthened and refined through your struggles with doubt. Christian reader: Doubt your doubts. Embrace and live out your faith. May your faith come forth as gold from the furnace of doubt.