Friday, February 27, 2009

Faith, Doubt and the Ultimate Choice to "Believe it or Not"

The previous post on writer William Lobdell's new book ("Losing My Religion") which chronicles the onset and subsequent total loss of his Christian faith prompted me to reflect again on the struggles that go with believing. Here are a couple things I observe and believe about "belief":

1. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is part of faith.

Great people of faith, including the biblical "father of faith" himself (Abraham), had their doubts. One of the most striking New Testament passages where doubt is mentioned comes from the verses immediately preceding the Great Comission in Matthew 28. In this account, the disciples met with the Risen Jesus at a pre-designated location. As He stood before them: "they worshipped Him -- and some doubted". That's right: they were looking at the Risen Lord and worshipping Him and, while doing so, at least some of them doubted. There's a lesson there for us!

To better understand the place of doubt within the realm of faith would help our churches to be places where we helped each othe squeeze through the narrow passages of doubt that eventually open up into new expanses of faith. Someone has pointed that secular Universities have become places where there is no room for faith while churches (too often) are places where there is no room for doubt.

2. Faith is not a feeling. It is a decision.

Remember the little train in the Four Spiritual Laws tract that represented the links between faith, facts and feelings? The point was that when "feelings" were in the lead of the other two, the prospect of the train breaking down or jumping the tracks was most likely. A simple illustration, yes --but a true one nonetheless. Grace, it seems, gives us the ability to make the raw choice to believe even though our feelings may lag behind. "Lord, I believe (choice), help my (feelings of) unbelief".

3. Denial is also a choice.

I feel bad for people who "lose their faith", but -- at the end of the day -- their choice to do so is based on the same data I use to reinforce my faith. They have the testimony of the Word (especially the Gospels) and the Spirit. So do I. They have the testimony of those who have finished well as people of faith -- often through mind-bending and harrowing circumstances of the Hebrews 11 variety. So do I. They have the negative witness of those who live shamefully and fraudulently while confessing faith. So do I. They have their previous experiences of God in this life to take into account. So do I. They have doubts. So do I. They have disappointments. So do I. They have inspirations. So do I.

In the end, they say they can no longer support a life of faith because of these things. In the end, I say that I can.

This is partially because I believe the verse that tells us: "If we are faithless (doubting), He remains faithful". I may lose my grip on God's hand at times, but He never ceases to hold on to mine. But the verse continues: "If we deny Him, He will deny us". Denial is distinct from temporary faithlessness. To live in denial is to, in effect, murder our faith (not just "lose" it the way we sometimes lose our car keys). Now free of the burden of struggling with faith, the burden of believing, the freshly-minted athiest testifies (as William Lobdell has) of "surprising peace". While I cannot gainsay their experience, I can gainsay the dubious value of that kind of "peace".

Mr. Lobdell is by no means alone. There have always been those who, like him, have become so offended, disappointed, stumbled, disillusioned and upset with their faith commitment that they find relief in shedding it altogether. I do not second-guess the sincerity of such people but I certainly do not consider them victims with no choice but to renounce belief either. Yes, the life of faith is a sometimes daunting and breathtaking struggle. But the life of unbelief is no picnic either. Lobdell has made his choice and I have made mine. May God help us both!

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