Yesterday I argued that doubt is necessary but unbelief is dangerous. As odd as its sounds, doubt is never a hazard to vibrant Christian faith. Rather, some sincere doubt is necessary to sustain the vitality of the Christian walk.
How I explained it is this: "Doubt is the act of questioning, the expression of uncertainty, the dissatisfaction with incomplete knowledge. Doubt is the humility of a mind or heart asking real questions and seeking truthful solutions. Surely, one can believe and question at the same time." It is in this passionate questioning that Jesus will truly answer you, as a real person, as the supernatural Most High that He is, and in this relationship, and this relationship only, you will find supernatural peace and strength.
It is very different from unbelief. Here are the last two forms of dangerous unbelief to watch out for and the hope that can be found in choosing honest doubt instead.
3. Dashed Hope
A third kind of unbelief, Dashed Hope, is the flip-side of the Intellectual Disdain unbelief we explored yesterday. Paradoxically, while the unbelief in miracles may be rather strong, of roughly equal strength is the common human hunger for miracles. Some of my earliest memories concern earnest prayer that God would magically undo the effects of some misdeed of mine – or at least that God would cause all those affected to forget the guilty party: "God, please make Daddy forget who broke the window" or "Dear Father, please make the tomato plants that I pulled up grow back. I was just trying to help Mommy weed the garden."
Of course, many of our prayers for miracles are not nearly so trivial. As a teenager, I prayed earnestly for the healing of a dear cousin – and I believed that God could heal her. Her death left me angry, frustrated, and spiritually crushed. Ever since then, I continue to be angry at God repeatedly. There are so many "good" things He does not do. Even worse, there is so much wrong, unfair, and evil in our world that He seems to endorse by virtue of His letting them happen.
Of course, I realize that this anger expresses my doubts that God is running the world the best that He can. However, as the "All-knowing One," God knows my doubts anyway. Am I not better off expressing them honestly, openly, to Him? After all, the Lord indubitably is big enough to take my complaints. Moreover, if our friendship is not strong enough for me to express my doubts and concerns honestly, that friendship is surely on shaky ground.
Perhaps this is why the Holy Scriptures include many Psalms of anger, encouraging us to sing out our doubts and disappointments. The Scriptural expressions of anguished doubt encourage my faith, for they teach me that God is there, and that He cares to listen.
By contrast, in a state of unbelief our anger would be completely pointless and absurd. Poor unbelievers have no one to whom to bring their ultimate complaints and doubts! But if we do not sincerely express our doubts and complaints to God in the frequent pains and disappointments of our lives, how could we say that we believe he is truly all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful?
Pain and disappointment often lead me to a sense of utter loneliness, abandonment, a kind of existential alienation. As a result, one of my favorite Psalms of anger is Psalm 22. In the loneliness of suffering I sometimes feel like crying out and repeating the first line of that Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?" "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?"
It is helpful to express those words openly as a reminder that even in that lonely experience God participates and personally identifies with us! Sometimes I even turn to look for Jesus and let him remind me: "I am with you in your loneliness, because I have drunk deeply of the same anguished doubt." This reminder does not take the pain away. It does, nevertheless, give my pain significance and provides me with an unexplainable peace. Honest doubt benefits. Unbelief would leave me lost.
Formaldehyde Faith, Intellectual Disdain, Dashed Hope – three kinds of unbelief. Now let me talk about one more: Comfortable Numbness.
4. COMFORTABLE NUMBNESS
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of unbelief hit me when I was in my second year of college. I was involved in a large evangelical church, so involved, in fact, that I became the Chairman of the Outreach Committee for a church of over 2,000 brothers and sisters when I was 19 years old. I was a certified believer of Biblical faith, and I sought to live by its moral and spiritual standards.
Nevertheless, something began to bug me. It struck me that we could continue to do our church work, preach, try to obey the Scriptures, and even "win people to Christ," whether or not Christ was in our enterprise at all. The only saving factor would be if we were, on a personal dimension, aware of the presence of the living Christ. However, my problem was that I did not experience the living Christ as fully and frequently as I desired.
In evangelistic work, I professed that I did have this personal awareness of his presence, but I lied. It wasn't there. Perhaps he was there in my work, but I did not know him as personally as I professed. I did not even know what to look for in order to recognize him, to hear him, to obey him. So I began watching others. And I also began to doubt seriously whether anyone I knew had the vibrant personal relationship to Christ that we often profess.
I decided to go right to the top. I made an appointment with our senior pastor and explained my problem. However, before he had a chance to give me any comforting or cajoling commentary, I needed to know whether he had what I lacked. I looked him in the eye and asked him if he had the personal experience of Christ that he preached….
He swallowed hard and quietly admitted "No." He was in the same condition I was in! I went to another pastor whom I greatly respected and had the same results. Could it be that we ourselves were so involved in our own lukewarm activities and religious professions that we did not hear our own Savior gently knocking on the outside of our Laodicean church doors? Does the Lord Jesus still desire personal fellowship with us?
What gave me hope in that situation was doubt. I doubted that this formal profession of faith was all God had for me, for us. And what gave me doubt was hope. I doubted that my knowledge was the extent of Christian faith, because I sincerely hoped that there was more. Still believing the Bible, I asked questions. I knocked, hoping the doors would open; I sought, hoping that I would find. Strangely, I would not have asked, knocked, or even sought, if I had not doubted.
In this pilgrimage with the Lord, I am finding and receiving, and divine doors are opening. I have more fully discovered that the Lord Jesus does still desire personal fellowship with us. Throughout my rough-and-tumble pilgrimage of the last several years, I have rediscovered ways of being open to the presence of Christ – especially through the practiced disciplines of meditation, service, listening prayer, and in-depth Bible study. Such spiritual discipline has helped me to see Christ for the same reason that a person needs scientific training to make scientific observations. All mature perceptual experiences require training of some kind any way. It even took extended training for us as children to begin to recognize the basic colors and the letters of the alphabet. Certainly, effectual Christian discipleship should focus on deeply enhancing our perception of his vibrant Presence – and equipping the vivid service that then impregnates all we do.
Now let me say this bluntly: The comfort with which my former pastor and, I think, many other Christian people publicly profess what they do not have and promote what they do not know is an insidious and deceitful form of unbelief. It is deadly, but also amazingly attractive. You see, as long as we claim to have the truth and live by right general standards, our lives can be comfortably consistent and coherent –and all perfectly within our own control. We can mistakenly then avoid the sufferings of Christ as well as the daily surprises of his Spirit's instruction. We can also miss the incomparable power of his Presence and the authentic light of his Truth. For too many of us, the lyrics of the acid-rock band Pink Floyd hold true:
The child is grown,
The dream is gone,
And I have become
Comfortable Numbness is an insidious form of Christian unbelief. The walls of theological security with which we seek to insulate ourselves from doubt can become the very fortress of private unbelief that makes us comfortably numb to the living Christ – who is still calling us. Biblical faith requires us to doubt the completeness of our best religious understandings long enough to still eagerly await the frequent Easter morning surprises from the One who has called himself the "I Will Be What I Will Be."
In conclusion, let me remind you of three things, all already taught in the ending of the Apostle Paul's "Hymn of Love:"
First, "we see through a glass dimly." We can see – we can, to an extent, even see Christ himself. But what we see is always clouded by our finitude and our fallibility, our stupidity and our sin. Consequently, we must doubt. "We see through a glass dimly," but we have no excuse for failing to strain to see what we can through the glass. We must doubt in order to seek. We must seek in order that we can find. We must believe there is more in order that we can know more. Unbelief has no place.
Second, whatever we know in this life we "know only in part." Humility of mind, a kind of doubt, must characterize our most enthusiastic professions of faith. The power of God's Word does not depend on our personal assertion. Let us act and speak both in the vibrant humility of self and in the valiant authority of God's Presence. Unbelief has no place.
Third, we must become so honestly enticed by our doubts that we are increasingly hungry for the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but Him. We will earnestly and expectantly hope, pray and watch for the future time when "we shall see face to face," and we "will know completely, just as God completely knows" us now. This enduring, honest doubt – this divinely tantalizing Truth-hunger – entirely excludes unbelief.
Dear loving Father,
Please forgive us for sinful unbelief,
Especially for Formaldehyde Faith, Intellectual Disdain, Dashed Hope, and
Comfortable Numbness – often disguised as faith.
Please give us the wisdom to doubt most effectually,
Along with a huge, honest hunger for Truth, wherever he leads,
And the enduring faith, hope, love and personal discipline to continue
to discover and to rediscover, with joy.
In the powerful Name of our living Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.