Faith and Doubt

You talk openly about your doubts, whereas many Christians tend not to.

 Doubt is something almost every person experiences at some point, yet something that the church does not always handle well.  I’m an advocate of doubt, because that’s why I became a Christian in the first place.  I started doubting some the crazy things my church taught me when I was growing up!  (This was a most unhealthy church, I must say.)

I’m also impressed that the Bible includes so many examples of doubt.  Evidently God has more tolerance of doubt than most churches.  I want to encourage those who doubt, and also encourage the church to be a place that rewards rather than punishes honesty.”

Lots of folks have given faith a try but have become disillusioned or disappointed with God.  What do you say to those folks?

I say, I have just the book for you, one I wrote called Disappointment with God!  Just kidding.  First, I tell them that they’re in good company.  When I speak to college students, I challenge them to find a single argument against God in the older agnostics (Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Lamentations.  I have respect for a God who not only gives us the freedom to reject him, but also includes the arguments we can use in the Bible.  God seems rather doubt-tolerant, actually.

Is there a danger in not facing our doubts?

As a child I attended a church that had little room for inquisitiveness.  If you doubted or questioned, you sinned.  I learned to conform, as you must in a church like that.  Meanwhile those deep doubts, those deep questions, didn’t get answered in a satisfactory way.  The danger of such a church like that—and there are many—is that by saying, “Don’t doubt, just believe,” you don’t really resolve the doubts.  They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.

Inquisitiveness and questioning are inevitable parts of the life of faith.  Where there is certainty there is no room for faith.  I encourage people not to doubt alone, rather to find some people who are safe “doubt companions,” and also to doubt their doubts as much as their faith.  But it doesn’t help simply to deny doubts or to feel guilty about them.  Many people, after all, have been down that path before and have emerged with a strong faith.

You talk about speaking to people in the “borderlands of belief”—who are they?

People who have a strong hunch there is something real about the whole spiritual thing, but who haven’t found that realized in a fruitful way in a church setting. They suspiciously circle the church wondering, “Is there a God? How can I know? What difference does it make in my life?”

And you wrote the book A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith for them?

I meet many church-going Christians who would find it difficult to articulate why they believe as they do. Perhaps they absorbed faith as part of their upbringing, or perhaps they simply find church an uplifting place to visit on weekends. But if asked to explain their faith to a Muslim, or an atheist, they wouldn’t know what to say. As a matter of fact, the thought hit  me personally: “What would I say?” That question prompted the book, which I wrote not so much to convince anyone else as to think out loud in hopes of coming to terms with my own faith. Does religious faith make sense in a world of the Hubble telescope and the Internet? Have we figured out the basics of life or is some important ingredient missing? C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book titled Mere Christianity, and I’ve narrowed that range even further, to Even More Mere Christianity.

The great divide separating belief and unbelief reduces down to one simple question: Is the visible world around us all there is? Those unsure of the answer to that question live in the borderlands. They wonder whether faith in an unseen world is wishful thinking. Does faith delude us into seeing a world that doesn’t exist, or does it reveal the existence of a world we can’t see without it?

How reasonable a position is it, in your opinion, for people to exist in the “borderlands of belief”?

I’m not sure people in the borderlands spend much time thinking through whether or not their position is reasonable.  They live in the borderlands because they sense a spiritual reality yet do not feel comfortable committing to a religious structure.  Sometimes they’ve been wounded by the church—I hear from many such people—and sometimes they find organized worship an alien experience, almost a different subculture.  Frankly, I have a lot of sympathy for these people, because at times I’ve found myself in exactly that situation.  I would add, though, that I encourage people to move out of the borderlands.  True faith cannot be practiced in isolation from others.  We need community and we need tradition, which G. K. Chesterton called “democracy extended through time.”

Given that there are other religions, many claiming divine inspiration, why should anyone take seriously Christianity’s claim that Jesus is THE way to God?

The only way to take such a claim seriously is to examine the one who made it: Jesus.  What kind of person is he?  An egomaniac?  Deluded?  Trustworthy?  Something about Jesus made people leave their jobs and families and follow him around the hills and plains of Palestine.  Something about him attracts the allegiance of one-third of the people on this planet today.  I’ve taken a look at the evidence and concluded that Jesus is who he says he is, the human expression of the invisible God.  I’m mindful of a saying from the Anglican Bishop Michael Ramsey: “In God is no unChristlikeness at all.”  That’s an abstract way of saying, If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  His combination of qualities—fierceness and yet compassion, absolute confidence and yet humility, brilliance and yet simplicity—I find in no other human being.  For me, Jesus is a trustworthy guide.

What role, if any, do feelings play in faith?

A huge role.  I see faith not so much as an intellectual assent to a series of concepts, but as a relationship with a living God.  Feelings deeply affect every relationship.  For example, I’ve been married four decades.  Name any feeling, good or bad, and I’ve probably had that feeling toward my wife.  Yet the commitment to marriage binds me to her regardless of the feeling of the moment.  I confess there are also times when I have to “act as if” I love her when the feeling lags.  That’s normal, I believe, in any long-term relationship.

You need only read the Book of Psalms to recognize the same pattern in a relationship with God.  The psalms used to baffle me because they seemed so contradictory; read Psalm 22 (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) back to back.  Now I see that collection of poetry as an accurate expression of the vacillating feelings in a faith relationship.

Why don’t more Christians discuss doubt honestly and openly?

Christians tend to be propagandists.  We want to convince others, put on a good face, inspire.  And we also tend to ignore the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are.  The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners.  Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends.

I deal with issues that people may think about but don’t vocalize.  The church has sometimes chastised people who admit their weakness and failure, and our society has an aversion to suffering.  So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they secretly hurt and doubt.  Perhaps my books provide a relief for them to see someone actually voice those hurts and doubts in print.

The 15 years C. S. Lewis spent as an atheist gave him understanding and compassion for those who find faith difficult.  I didn’t spend 15 years as an atheist, but I did go through my own period of rejection. I do have compassion for those for whom faith doesn’t come easy. I have to take each one of my own beliefs and crack it open and see if I can swallow it. I like to tackle the questions, and writing gives me the opportunity.

How do you feel the Holy Spirit works through you as your write?

The New Testament applies the word “Counselor” to the Holy Spirit in one place and “Comforter” in another.  Those two words give a clue.  A good counselor doesn’t give orders or even direct advice.  Instead, a wise counselor summons up a response in the person being counseled.  They are the ones living the life under scrutiny, after all.

Almost never do I sit at my desk, pray, and have an epiphany on exactly what word or thought to write next.  However, many times I’ll know that next week I have to give a speech or write an article, and in quiet, unobtrusive ways I’ll notice what otherwise might have gone unnoticed, or make an unlikely connection, or see in something I’m reading or watching an insight or detail that may help me.  Perhaps the Spirit is at work there?  By definition, the Spirit works invisibly, and without much notice.  And always the Spirit works in a way appropriate to the individual.  Comforters do that.

How can we really know the will of God? Surely the best we can do is have a stab at what we think is God’s will?

I don’t disagree.  For me, guidance only works in reverse.  Looking back, I can see God’s fingerprint, so to speak, in circumstances that now appear providentially directed: the woman I married, the person I sit next to on an airplane, a decision to move into the inner city and then later into the mountains.  When I made those decisions, though, it felt like a reasonable stab at what I thought was God’s will.  And I’ve not found any airtight principles of guidance that help me discern God’s will in advance.

How can more Christians be encouraged to give intelligent and serious thought to their faith instead of adhering to the oft quoted, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”?

I meet a lot of those “that settles it…” types on the other side of faith, after they’ve ditched it.  Jeremiah uses the image of a bush planted alongside a river.  As long as adequate water flows in the river, the bush blooms.  If the water dries up, the bush dies.  Then he speaks of desert plants that send roots down deep.   We need to develop that deep-rooted faith.  I think of all the seminars people attend in order to improve their careers, or the energy people expend following sports teams or popular music.  My goodness, shouldn’t we devote the same energy to the most important issues of life?  The resources are out there; we simply need the discipline to use them wisely.

Discipline—not a very attractive word.

I once wrote a column, on my 25th wedding anniversary in fact,  comparing mountain climbing to marriage.  I live in Colorado, and recently completed a goal of climbing all 54 mountains higher than 14,000 feet (4300 meters).  Mountain climbing sounds dramatic and exciting, and indeed it is—about 5 or 10 percent of the time.  The drama occurs when you’re walking along a ledge with exposure on either side, or pulling yourself up to the summit, or dashing down a boulder field to avoid a lightning storm.  By far most of the activity, though, involves putting one foot in front of another, again and again, over and over.  When I reach about 13,000 feet of altitude the oxygen deficiency kicks in.  I force myself to take 100 steps before a rest, then 50 steps, then 25 steps.  And if I keep at it, plodding along, I’ll make it to the top.  Virtually every human specialty is like that: think of the preparation Olympic athletes go through, and other sports figures, or great musicians.  Sure, they have the excitement and the spotlight, but that represents a small percentage of their lives.  Why should we expect anything different in the spiritual life?  Much of it involves being faithful, developing disciplines, preparing for the few moments of true testing and usefulness.

Why do you think so many Christians avoid a serious inquiry into their faith, preferring instead to simply accept the church’s teachings without question?

Laziness may play a factor.  Fear does too.  Many Christians are afraid to look too closely at their faith.   Like Peter, they’re afraid to step out of the boat.  And some churches encourage that kind of “I’ll do your thinking for you” as a form of control.  That’s always dangerous.  I read the other day that 153 times someone came up to Jesus with a question, and 147 of those times he responded with another question.  A good model, wouldn’t you say?

What made you persevere with the Christian faith against an unhealthy religious background?

A good question.  What makes any of us persevere?  We sense a hunger for meaning, a dawning realization that life must have some ultimate purpose and that if God exists the natural response is to connect with that God.  In my case, as a journalist, I found my way back toward faith because the people who most impressed me were not the “stars” we so often feature in newspapers and magazines, but rather “servants” who worked out of the limelight, giving themselves sacrificially to help meet the needs of others.  As I got to know some of these people, in nearly every case Christian faith lay at the heart of their motivation.

A survey in the U. K. showed that four out of five people say that the church puts more people off Christianity than attracts them.  Does this surprise you?

I’ve seen those survey results, which duplicate the pattern I see in the letters I get from the U. K.  For so many people the church proves to be a block in our path to knowing God, a filter that misrepresents or distorts God.  I note, for example, that in the Gospels the moral, upright citizens of the day felt threatened by Jesus whereas the moral outcasts and social rejects were attracted to him.  The church has exactly reversed that pattern.  Why?  And what can we do about it?  I’m an advocate of the church, not an enemy, but I do try to treat with honesty the obvious fact that we in the church are not communicating well the love, forgiveness, and grace that lie at the core of Jesus’ message.

Looking back, do you think a “bad” introduction to Christianity was better than no introduction at all?

I don’t know how to answer that.  I’ve spent my life scrubbing off words that were stained.  I had a lot to overcome.  On the other hand, I did have a good grounding in the Bible, and met Christians who were admirable in many ways.  I remember reading an essay by C. S. Lewis in which he described the differences involved in courting a virgin compared to a divorcee.  The divorcee has heard all the lines before, and has built-in resistance and perhaps cynicism.  In relation to Christianity, Western Europe resembles a divorcee far more than a virgin.  As I think about it, for many people the disadvantages do probably outweigh the advantages.  Travelling to developing countries now, I find that people there hear the Christian faith without the same biases and resistance.  To them, it truly does sound like good news.

I liken the church around the world to the stages of a marriage.  Some churches still show signs of the “honeymoon” stage.  Other churches—the U.S. included—are more like an older married couple.  We’ve seen it all, heard it all, but still love though without the passion.  Other places, such as Western Europe, have divorced from the faith.

The single question about faith that has given you sleepless nights is, “Why doesn’t faith work?”

By that I mean, why doesn’t the church look more like Jesus?  Why are so many people content to live just like everyone else except that on Sunday they put on uncomfortable clothes and sit in an uncomfortable seat for an hour?  Surely this isn’t what Jesus came to earth to found!

So what is the answer!?

I don’t really have an answer.  All I can do is examine my own life.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the church disappoints—the apostle Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation certainly don’t give a whitewashed picture of the church.  At the same time, we dare not stop pointing to the ideal and asking why we don’t measure up.

Is a lack of focus on social justice issues one reason why the gospel doesn’t work as it should?

Historically, that has certainly been true.  For centuries the church was intertwined with the state in a system that perpetrated injustice.  Those scars are very difficult to overcome.  Think of the violent revolutions in France and later in Russia, and the hatred of the church fomented by those revolutions.  Or think of China, invaded by “Christian” England to force it to open its doors to opium.  It’s quite difficult to rebuild trust once the church has taken the side of the oppressors.

At the same time, I’d have to say one of the true miracles of grace in all history has been the acceptance of Christianity by Africans and African-Americans.  Somehow, the Spirit finds a way to overcome the worst bumblings of the church.

What do you feel is the main role of suffering in the world?

C. S. Lewis referred to the “megaphone of pain.”  By its nature, physical pain interrupts our daily routine and forces us to pay attention to an urgent demand of the body.  If I have something in my eye, I simply must take care of it.  Perhaps suffering does the same thing in a broader context.  Take the September 11 tragedy in the United States.  That event had profound effects in our nation.  People flocked to church because they needed comfort, and answers.  We gained a new kind of hero: fire fighters and policemen who gave their lives on behalf of others.  We became aware of our interdependency on the rest of the world, and were ministered to by the leaders of so many countries who offered support.  That same pattern can happen in families, in groups, in churches, when suffering strikes.  Like a megaphone, suffering interrupts life and turns our attention to ultimate things.  Some people ignore the megaphone, and some pay attention.

If you could shout one thing from the rooftops to Christians in America, what would it be?

I think back to a quote from the early church theologian named Irenaeus.  “The glory of God is a person fully alive,” he said.  A lot of people think of Christians as living some kind of half-life or two-thirds life.  I’m fully convinced that Jesus came to show us how to life a full life.  I can’t imagine anyone following Jesus around, then sadly shaking their head and saying, “My, think of all he missed out on.”  Those who truly followed Jesus realized all they were missing out on.

Who is Jesus—for people living in today? And for you?

Quite simply, Jesus is the bridge between God and human beings.  He came to show us what God is like, and at the same time to show us what we could be like, as God’s children.  He came to proclaim the radical message that God doesn’t just love good people—every religion claims that—but also sinners.  The story of the Bible, in a nutshell, is God welcoming home his family, with arms outstretched like the prodigal’s father.

I hear from many suffering people who ask me how God must feel about what they are enduring.  I point them to Jesus.  We know exactly how God feels because God gave us a face, and we can see Jesus comforting a widow who lost her only son, healing even the servant of a Roman occupying soldier, restoring health to the blind, the crippled, those with leprosy.  At the same time, we get a graphic image—like an ideograph—of what kind of life we should live, a life like Jesus.’

Most stunning of all, Christians believe that Jesus is still alive, the Spirit of God who accepts us with all our secrets and gradually transforms us into someone more like him.  The historians, of course, emphasize Jesus’ effect on history, and even the agnostics must admit that no person ever had a greater impact.  As a journalist, I see more the personal effect of prisoners and drug addicts transformed, of wealthy people humbled to care for the forsaken, of doctors who forgo comfort to serve the needy.  Jesus is God’s promise that no matter what we do, we can be forgiven and no matter who we are, we can be transformed.

After spending time “warily circling around faith,” what made you eventually believe?

I admit that I’m at times a reluctant Christian, plagued by doubts and still recoveing from bad church encounters. I’m fully aware of all the reasons not to believe. So then, why do I believe? In my own days of skepticism, I wanted a dramatic interruption from above. I wanted proof of an unseen reality, one that could somehow be verified. However in my days of faith, such supernatural irruptions seem far less important, because I find the materialistic  explanations of life inadequate to explain reality. I’ve learned to attend to fainter contacts between the seen and unseen worlds. I sense in romantic love something insufficiently explained by mere biochemical attraction. I sense in beauty and in nature marks of a genius creator for which the natural response is worship. I sense in desire, including sexual desire, marks of a holy yearning for connection. I sense in pain and suffering a terrible disruption that omnipotent love surely cannot abide forever. I sense in compassion, generosity, justice, and forgiveness a quality of grace that speaks to me of another world, especially when I visit places, like Russia, marred by their absence. I sense in Jesus a person who lived those qualities so consistently that the world couldn’t tolerate him and had to silence and dispose of him. I could go on and on. In short, I believe not so much because the invisible world impinges on this one but because the visible world hints, in the ways that move me most, at a lack of completion.

 Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey