Monday, November 29, 2010

The Benefit of Doubt

I have posted a number of times here on the role of doubt in relation to faith. I have come to understand doubt as an important element of faith.

Last week I ran across an essay by Pete Enns entitled: The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Post-Modern Era. It is actually a message that he gave at Asuza Pacific University on November 16th. It is longish (5000 words), so I have posted only the first 800 words. Let me know your thoughts.

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.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

3 comments:

  1. "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...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."


    More people need to hear this kind of message. I like the way Enns sets up the false dichotomy (which is so prevalent) between doubt and faith, then deconstructs it in a freeing, gracious way.

    The great gift for those who have walked through the valley of the shadow of doubt is the realization that even there, God is with us. We can't know that until we have the courage to walk there with our eyes open, not denying the truth of that place but recognizing it and learning from it.

    Thanks, John. Good words...

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  2. "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." Great observation!

    If I ever write a book, it will be on this subject. In my own life, I view my doubt as sacred. It actually helps my faith. It took me a few years to get there, but it's where I am now.

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  3. I believe you show your faith in God through doubt. We are never going to be good enough so when we have doubts about how we show are faith in a certain situation or area of our lives we are actually growing in that area because it bothers us to not be closer to God.
    It is when I don't have doubts about the way I am living my life that I become worried that I am becoming complacent in my faith.

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