The Shadow of Doubt

Maybe it’s just me, but when someone says, unsolicited “You just need to have a little more faith” – whether intoned as a dashboard plastic Jesus PTL platitude, or as a karmic positive vibes incantation against bad juju . . . I’m never quite sure how to respond to their backhanded observation that I’m somehow faith deficient. I’m always tempted to respond in kind by quipping “. . . and you just need to have a little more practical discernment” – but, no doubt, they are only attempting to demonstrate some measure of thoughtful assistance . . . so instead, I choose to smile, as if in agreement.

Faith by the truckload, is a truckload too much — if errantly placed. Because it isn’t really about turning up the volume on your faith. . . it’s about where your faith is placed. So if your faith is in something or someone, transient and fallible, it doesn’t matter how much faith – it will invariably end in disappointment and despair. But the least amount of faith (Matthew 17:20) placed in our transcendent and unfailing God is capable of displacing mountains – so quantity is clearly not the issue. But here’s the thing – your faith must be placed in the God who actually exists, and not in the one of your own contrivance . . . and in the disparity between these two is usually where doubt sticks its nose under the tent.

Doubt is more often than not, the catalyst for fear, because it calls into question either some part of what you’ve chosen to believe in – or the whole thing entirely . . . which is why fear always thrives most in our most unsettled moments of doubt. But doubt itself, is neither good nor bad – because our faith was never meant to be kept in a vacuum of unquestioned acceptance . . . as if faith were far too fragile for the rigors of real life.

4e427361ae9d68911c07bd7852a9314aDoubt is commonly juxtaposed with faith because it is assumed to be the opposite of faith – but I would contend that doubt is the truest traveling companion of faith . . . because even though doubt may struggle to believe, it still wants to believe. Apathy is actually the opposite faith – because it gave up a longtime ago on believing. But doubt is willing to sojourn the distance between our misconceptions of God and the God who actually exists (the book of Job comes to mind). So here’s the thing – without doubt we would simply continue to place our faith in a God of our own making . . . instead of risking what it takes to discover the one true God. In this regard, doubt is an essential aspect of faith.

It is doubt that prevents us from stowing away our faith in the back of the closet, next to all the other stuff we rarely need to pull out and use. It reminds us that our faith grows stronger, like our muscles, when met with resistance. And most importantly, it begins to shape our confession of faith into a humble longing to really know God – no matter what that entails . . . willing to chase His light into the darkness of our unbelief. Until we freely cry out aloud “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I found this song very evocative of the tension between doubt and faith


Ravens of Elijah

If you’re anything like me, then you’re inclined to believe that life can only make sense if on some scale, on some level, there is some measure of balance and symmetry. That with each wave of life that hits from every direction, eventual our boat rights itself on even keel. I don’t know if this is just a philosophical borrowing from Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, or am I just making up my own version of Dualism, without all of its eastern mystic trappings.

In common parlance this notion is better recognized as our instinct to believe that life should be fair . . . even though we know it isn’t. We seem to want to test at every turn the axiom “no good deed goes unpunished” because we know it to be broken. We want to believe that with whatever hardship we endure in well doing there will be an approximate counter weight of experienced blessing . . . and yet our lives seem to be constantly caught in the tensions found in every asymmetric circumstance that envelops us.

Back when I was a child in Sunday school, there was an image of Elijah being fed by ravens – and I remember being unsettled by the thought. As a child I couldn’t put my finger specifically on what it was that bothered me, but the older I got it became more clear. Here was Elijah willing to live as an outcast for speaking God’s truth, already willing to suffer hardship – and then God miraculously shows up to feed him during his time of need . . . so far, so good.

But of all the possible ways God had available to him as a means of meeting Elijah’s hunger – having birds, not known for their cleanliness, delivering carrion (rancid decaying meat) . . . strikes me as being at the bottom of the list. The tension here is palpable – God is unquestionably blessing Elijah . . . but in a manner that seems tone deaf to the sacrifice Elijah is already making at the time. I mean the Children of Israel in the wilderness ate manna and quail . . . and they complained the whole time! And without complaint, Elijah eats a far less desirable meal. It is this very disproportion that remains a mystery to me.

RavensOften my struggle with doubt isn’t over whether or not I believe God will show up, but rather in what he might choose to do, when he does – I’m desperate for him to bring balance to my life, and more often than not keeping me off balance seems to be his agenda. All I know is that when I begin to ponder what it means to submit myself to the inscrutable purposes of God – I find myself in Gethsemane.

I begin to imagine the long and lonely agonizing night – knowing full well what lies ahead. To have the disciples fallen asleep, unaware of how this night will end . . . and having just a few hours before hand, having washed the feet of Judas who was, even now, returning in betrayal to this garden. It is only then that I am reminded that even Jesus had to contend with the asymmetric vagaries of a fallen world . . . and I begin to confess my hopeless need for his love to carry me beyond the foolishness of my need to understand.

I love how this David Wilcox song exposes how our sense of balance
is nothing more than illusion.

Walking With A Limp

When my wife, of more than 30 years, and I were first married, I labored under the ridiculous misconception that if she would just provide me with a list of things she wanted and didn’t want – I would be happy to oblige . . . and our marriage would be smooth sailing. But that’s not how marriage works — in fact, such a perfunctory reduction misses the point of marriage, altogether. Not only is it completely devoid of intimacy, it smacks of contractual obligation . . . which invariably distills down to the least amount of effort while still maintaining compliance.

We experience relationships far more organically, knowing that they require a far more intuitive subtlety. That human desire doesn’t really function with binary precision, rather it follows a relational curve, where our desire is constantly being shaped by the dynamic of our relationships. This is why a static list, no matter how well conceived, can only at best, offer nothing more than a relational starting point . . . and sadly many relationships never grow beyond this superficial point.

This is the subtext found in the Gospel exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees – the Pharisees were insisting on talking about the list, while Jesus was inviting them to think beyond the list. Ironically, the Pharisees chose to have a relationship with the list itself, rather than pursuing something more – because checking items off a list allowed them to meet the obligations of the relationship while maintaining a life apart from the relationship . . . given such a passive aggressive posturing, is it really any wonder that Jesus referred to them as whited sepulchers (Matthew 23:27)?

wrestling-with-GodAccording to Genesis 32, Jacob becoming Israel is an unusual story about a restless night, where we find Jacob fearing retribution from his twin brother, Esau – so he sends his family away to a safe distance . . . leaving him alone to face his brother. But that night as he slept, a mysterious angel/man appears to wrestle with him all night long — and it is out of this long night’s wrestling a relationship is forged. They wrestle until daybreak, but Jacob is unwilling to let the angel/man go, even though he has been wounded in the process — because he wanted something more from this encounter.

As it turned out his sparring partner was God himself, and because Jacob was willing to stay engaged with God all night long, God renames him Israel (He who struggles with God). The next day he limps out to face Esau (as well as his fear) – but it turns out his brother was so happy to see him, and the joy and generosity in Esau’s expression was like the very face of God to Jacob (Genesis 33:10).

What a wonderfully curious intimacy this story has – Jacob spends the night fighting for his relationship with God . . . and wakes to find out that his brother wants to reconcile their relationship. Are you willing to go into that long night and fight for that relationship . . . even if it means you might walk away with a limp? Or will you maintain a safe distance . . . with a dispassionate list of obligations in your hand? That’s God waiting for you in that ring – so why don’t you climb in and go a few rounds . . . there’s a blessing waiting for you in there.

My brother Garrison has written this beautifully intimate song
about Jacob wrestling with God.