Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Benefit of the Doubt

I can remember swinging back and forth on the playground outside our church building as a boy. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. I don't remember any other details of the context, but I can, to this day, remember very clearly pondering a sobering question. As far as I know, it was the first time in my short life that this thought penetrated my mind:

"What if the whole thing is just a story?"

The "whole thing" to which I was referring was the Gospel, the Bible, the story of Jesus, the very fabric of everything I had been taught about the truth up to that point.

"What if there is no god? What if there is no heaven or hell? What if it's all made up?"

I remember thinking those thoughts, and I remember feeling very small and scared.

Since that time nearly 2 decades ago, that question (along with countless others) have reverberated through my mind many times. I have always been fairly curious about life and the world around me. I have always loved encyclopedias, dictionaries, documentaries, and websites like In some cases, my inquisitiveness has not been a positive thing as it has gotten me into trouble. For the most part, however, I think my desire for knowledge has proved beneficial.

In the realm of spiritual truth and my relationship with God, I have gone through stages. Growing up in conservative Christianity, my early years were marked by a simple and genuine acceptance of all that I was taught. (Most of which, by the way, was accurate and Biblical.) During my teen years, I went through a period of several years in which I really struggled with doubt. My doubts related not so much to the validity of Christianity as they did to my own position in Christ. It took me several years to come to a confidence that I am a child of God. In my later teen and early college years, I went through a sort-of "preacher-boy" phase in which I was learning a lot about the Bible and was fairly confident that I had most of life's biggest questions figured out and could share those answers with anyone who would listen. During my Junior year of college, however, things began to change. I can't really point to one cataclysmic event in my life that modified my thinking. I just wonder...and to question. As the years have progressed since my college graduation (both of them), I am finding that the more I know...the less I know. The ebb and flow of life has effectively stripped me of the arrogance of those early college years and replaced it with a sense of uncertainty and a sense of thirst...for answers. Although I still have confidence that I am a child of God, my opinions and convictions about many aspects of life, Christianity, and the Bible are in a period of fluctuation. At times, I even wrestle with that old question,

"What if the whole thing is just a story?"

In recent years, I have discovered (much to my surprise) that many of the Christians around me wrestle with the same questions and doubts that I do. I suppose this shouldn't be to my surprise, but it has been. The speakers, authors and musicians I find myself most drawn to these days are the ones who openly admit that they "don't have all the answers" and even verbalize some of their doubts and fears. For some reason, I find this vulnerability comforting. I find my patience growing rather thin with those who who constantly project an air of confidence and self-assurance. I find this attitude unsettling because I think it is disingenuous. Nobody has it all together all the time.

Now, our tendency might be to view all of this uncertainty as a bad thing. As Christians we tend to view doubt as a sign of weakness. While it is true that doubts and fears can become so monumental in our minds that they paralyze and debilitate us, I have reached the opinion that a healthy dose of doubt can actually be a good thing for a Christian. To borrow wording from the title of a book a friend of mine wrote, living with questions may not be such a bad thing after all.

Here are some reasons why...

1) Doubts and questions cause us to reevaluate our convictions. In preparation for a Sunday School class I am conducting on the Life of Christ, I have given much thought to the Pharisees recently. I am convinced that the root problem that caused these Jews (who were very much sincere in the love for God and their desire to please Him) to miss the very One for whom they were looking and waiting was simply a refusal to consider anything outside of their religious paradigm. In most cases, they refused to even examine their own beliefs and interpretations in order to determine their accuracy. They were a product of their heritage and their education, and they never looked beyond the confines of either one. Doubt that is not blindly extinguished can be beneficial because it can prompt us to be sure that our beliefs and interpretations are true to God's Word and change the ones that are not.

2) Doubts and questions cause us to be more gracious and empathetic to those around us. Those who've "got it all together" often find it difficult to understand how someone else does not. In the same way that a parent might find their child's fear of the dark or the boogieman irrational and foolish, a doubtless Christian can view a fellow believer's questions as petty, simplistic, or even indicative of major spiritual problems. On the other hand, when you have or are wrestling with doubts of your own, you are much more likely to understand the uncertainty for what it really is--the natural product of living as an individual in a vast and complex universe. In the same way, a Christian who understands doubt and lack of conviction will find it much easier to relate to and dialogue with an unbeliever who is working through their questions.

3) Doubts and questions remind us that our Christianity is faith-based. When you get right down to it, the whole thing just might be a story. We as Christians might be wrong. As much as we might want to think that we can prove our faith, we cannot. The reason for this is obvious. Our faith is just's faith. Faith is the conviction about things unseen. God has chosen to reveal Himself, but He has done it in such a way that there is room for uncertainty. I am a Christian because I have chosen to believe the set of propositions about reality and eternity that Christianity provides. My faith is as strong as that on which it rests. (For the record, I feel that it rests on sure footing.) If, however, those propositions are wrong...then I am wrong as well. Those nagging doubts, those unanswered questions, those enigmatic portions of scripture--they all serve as a powerful reminder that those who come to God must do so by faith. Some might see this as a sign of weakness and unreliability. I see it as evidence that our relationship with the Father is not a safe, calculated, and confined ritual, but a grand adventure that scares us, comforts us, and fascinates all at once.

So...if you find yourself staring out at the night sky and asking some of those big questions. If you look in the mirror and your uncertainty is staring starkly back at you. Do yourself a favor. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.