How to doubt your way to faith

April 10, 2016 Howard Kenyon No comments exist

Someone recently asked me how, in the realm of faith, you can tell the genuine from the fake. How do you avoid gullibility on one side and cynicism on the other?
It’s a tricky business, faith. Actually I’ve never met anyone, least of all the most ardent atheist, who lacked faith. But my purpose at this moment is less to bash some unbeliever over the head with my brand of faith than it is to help us see the value of doubt in moving toward faith.
My great uncle Gerritt was on his deathbed and, led by my mother, my siblings and I went to sing Christmas carols to him. With my uncle’s frail condition, it was more Silent Night than Joy to the World, but the memory of that moment lingers sweetly decades on.
My mother asked Uncle Gerritt if he had a favorite carol he’d like us to sing. He was never a church going man as long as I knew him. He’d grown up in a devout family, but the vestiges of that upbringing were buried too deep for me to see – at least until that Christmastime.
“I know whom I have believed,” he answered softly. My mother immediately recognized the hymn. We all did as she led us in singing the chorus:
               I know Whom I have believed,
               And am persuaded that He is able
               To keep that which I’ve committed
               Unto Him against that day.
My first thought was that this hymn taken from I Timothy 1:12 was no Christmas carol. My second thought was that this was Uncle Gerritt’s declaration of faith.
Outside of that moment, I know little of my uncle’s faith – or doubts. But I do sense that, within that song, whatever doubts he had had led him to faith.
Last Sunday I preached on the famous Doubting Thomas story from the gospels. Old Saint Thomas gets a bad rap.
Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared first to some of his female followers. Only later did he appear to the twelve men known as his Disciples. Actually there were only ten present – Judas was already dead and Thomas was missing in action. It would be another full week when, in the company of the other ten, Jesus would reveal himself to Thomas, who said he would have to have proof to believe the story that Jesus had risen from the dead.
It is a bad rap, because none of the other ten believed the report of the women and only accepted the resurrection story after they too had seen Jesus with their own eyes. The only difference between Thomas and his friends is that Thomas was a week late. For that he gets two thousand years of grief. In any case, Thomas helps us see the value of doubt.
1. Not doubting is not necessarily the same as not believing. To put it another way, doubt and unbelief are different things.
I’ve met many people in my life – devout followers of faith – who stop asking questions about their faith. “God said it, I believe it and that settles it for me.” It’s a nice saying and I get the point– that I don’t need any further proof of God than that He has said He IS. But what happens for many people who say they believe is that they stop asking questions, stop exploring. In essence, such an unexamined faith can be a sign of unbelief.
If God is only as big as my understanding then I serve a very small God indeed. Faith is a mixture of truth and mystery. Though these realities don’t necessarily contradict, they do point to a greater truth – that the God I serve is vastly bigger than all the finite human minds in the world combined. Moreover He is bigger than all the universes that might exist.
Faith, by its definition, goes beyond what I can sense in the scientific realm. But even faith – in human hands – has its limits. And therein is where doubt comes into play. Doubt raises the hard questions. Why does God let the innocent suffer? How can a loving God allow evil to exist? What about those who die without hearing? And on and on.
Learned people have come up with sage answers to these and other questions. Though I applaud them for their efforts, I also realize that these answers don’t begin to solve the riddles. They only approximate answers.
More importantly, they don’t end the questions. Nor should they. For when we stop asking questions, we stop exploring, we stop growing. Ironically, questions lead us to greater understanding whereas stopping the questions leads us to unbelief.
I love a mysterious God. Even more, I love a God who invites me to explore those mysteries with Him. Who welcomes my questions, my doubts, my fears, and helps me learn to live with the reality that, at least in this life, I will never have all my questions answered. In other words, a God who teaches me to live with ambiguity. For that is the essence of faith: to hold to that which cannot be sensed in both the literal and the figurative meanings of that word.
In other settings, I have shared my journey from faith to doubt to a deeper faith to more doubt to an even deeper faith. And so that journey continues. The longer I live, the more I realize I don’t have all the answers, the more I want to keep growing.
A true faith is an examined faith, or better yet, an examining faith, that is never satisfied to understand God only as much as one does already. Unbelief says, Enough already! Faith says, Bring it on!
2. The road to faith begins with what we have in hand. Start with what you can manage.
In my book, Night Shift: Crossing the Cultural Line for the Kingdom, I share the story of a friend in China who step-by-step went from understanding nothing about religion, let alone faith, to becoming a vibrant believer in Jesus. For his privacy, I disguised the details, but the essentials are still there. As he began to read the Bible, he started bumping into things that raised a lot of troubling questions, such as the creation of the world.
Now I could have spent weeks, months, years wrestling with the scientific and theological implications of Genesis’ opening chapters. Instead, I pointed him to the gospels. “Start here, my friend.” In the book of Luke. Get a handle on Jesus and then let that awareness help you navigate the tougher passages.
Faith is not to be swallowed whole, but in child-sized spoonfuls. You start with what you can handle, keeping in mind that even “manageable” bites will overwhelm at first. In teaching children, whether it is about God, the universe or sex, we start with development-appropriate concepts. And, as Jesus pointed out, we are to come to God as children do.
One of the most annoying phases of a young child’s development is the “Why?” phase. When every question is “why” and every answer leads to another “why”. Woe be to the child – or adult – who is discouraged from asking any more whys! For therein do we learn, grow, and believe.
3. The proof of faith is in the response. An examined faith is more than a declaration, it is a way of life.
Last week, the Lexionary reading (fancy term for Scripture readings) included a passage from the book of Acts as well as the story of Thomas in John 20:19-31. After Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ, we hear nothing more about Thomas, except as one of the Twelve.
In graduate school, I roomed with a student from India who had grown up in a church reportedly founded by Saint Thomas some two thousand years ago. This disciple who asked too many questions became a missionary and a martyr for the gospel. And so he is among those apostles mentioned in these verses in Acts 5:27-32 who had been imprisoned for their faith and who in response declared that they “must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Faith is no evidenced by lack of questions or even lack of doubt. It is demonstrated in how we respond to the reality of that faith. If we really believe in the Risen Christ, that belief will consume us.
So, my friend, don’t be ashamed of what little faith you think you have. Act on the measure of faith you are given. And please keep asking questions – as long as you live.

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