We often tell our young people not to take as reality the worlds created by the advertising industry. I spent three years in college learning how to lie through the eye of a camera. At the end of the course I could make a three-day old ham sandwich look like a steaming hog roast. Today, in the era of Photoshop the sky is the limit and the worlds created are even more divorced from reality. Yet we cannot take our own advice when it comes to the reality of faith and doubt.
When we see people who we perceive shining examples of religious faith – the celebrity speakers in our own community, the presenters on ‘Songs of Praise’ or Mother Theresa, we imagine they get up every morning, shake hands with God, have a tete-a-tete over the breakfast bowl and spend the day in quiet contemplation and certainty in the existence and love of God. We could never imagine it could be any other way. Let’s face it, they couldn’t do what they do without a really strong faith. The faith we haven’t got. The faith we struggle with, ask questions about and seek relevance for, as we go about our daily work-a-day lives.
If you are anything like me, an habitual depressive, in really dark moments you don’t really doubt the existence of God but rather that he views you as not quite cutting the mustard. Your function is to provide entertainment to Him and His favoured ones (those who are the shining lights in the community we all aspire to be) as we blunder, bludgeon and fail our way through each trial or opportunity. Our hope is that one day we might slip by unnoticed into a quiet backwater of His Kingdom where we could stay unnoticed until the inevitable discovery of our presence would lead to the booming question “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING HERE?”. We would pack our bags and head for the outer darkness wailing and gnashing our teeth while the favoured ones look on in disgust and amusement.
Of course I don’t actually believe such rubbish. But once upon a time thoughts like this frequently troubled me. I now believe God actually likes me, as well as loves me. I still have moments of doubt in His existence (ie ‘He may not exist but whether He exists or not, He still likes me’ – get your head around that one), but I wonder if you can’t have faith without doubt. Let me explore this one.
In a religious context, when we use the word ‘doubt’, the way we use it can make what we mean slightly fuzzy. For example it could mean:
‘I doubt the existence of God’, but it could also mean
‘I doubt God has any relevance for me’
‘I doubt God loves me’
‘I doubt God cares for humanity any more’
‘I doubt God is alive any more’
or sometimes if we’re really honest
‘I do not wish to believe in God’ (whether He actually exists or not).
I’d like to address the idea of someone who wants to believe in the existence of God, but doubts. Maybe it’s because of a cruel testing time they are experiencing, or horrible circumstances they are living through of because they look around them at the world and ask the question ‘where is God in all this mess?’
Maybe to know true faith you have to know true doubt. If there was certainty in the existence of God and that he was a loving God you wouldn’t need faith. If God appeared in front of us, the need for faith would disappear, and one of the requirements He asks of us in our discipleship would also disappear.
The challenge for all of us ordinary folks (the ones who don’t have breakfast with God) is to know what to do with doubt. Recognising what we actually mean by ‘doubt’ – in my case doubting my own worth, for some, doubting about His very being. Taking this doubt, experiencing it (‘touching the void’ if you like) and using it to provide the impetus to get us to where we really want to be. It’s no good saying ‘I wish I had the faith…’ without actually doing something about it.
OK, you might say ‘did Jesus ever doubt? He was supposed to have experienced humanity to the full’. My view is that He didn’t doubt. Not God. but most likely He doubted himself, his own ability to carry out His mission to us on God’s terms – which let’s face it, would result in a horrific death. That’s what I believe the temptations in the wilderness and that night in the Garden of Gethsemane were all about – ‘Not my will, but Thine’. He had the power to take himself out of these situations, but in order for God’s plan of salvation to work, He couldn’t use that power. Jesus’ doubt would have been in His own ability to resist that temptation.
Coming back to the title ‘Doubt and Serenity’, maybe it ought to have been ‘Serenity in Doubt’ instead. But that would have sounded trite, particularly if you are going through difficult times. My thoughts are with you.
Doubt will always be there, it’s what we do with it that matters.