Philip Yancey on Doubt

I really loved so much of this recent reflection on doubt by Philip Yancey.

I really resonated with this part:

The struggle between doubt and faith often leads to spiritual growth. John Drummond points out that Jesus consistently made a distinction between doubt and unbelief. “Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.”

When wallowing in doubt, I face a choice. I can either assume a “victimization” attitude about this messed-up world, blaming God for its defects—or somehow, despite my doubts, actively contribute to the solution.

I have found that nothing quiets doubts so well as an encounter with transformed lives, and the best way to see transformed lives is to get involved with a ministry that serves the truly needy. God set in motion a plan in which we, Jesus’ followers, are invited into a divine partnership to bring peace and comfort and love to a planet full of strife and pain and division. I dare not let doubt paralyze my participation in that plan.

He also mentions the importance of finding what he calls a “Doubt Companions,” a compassionate listener who does not judge but will walk beside you in strength.

Ideally, the church should supply these companions, yet local churches often react to doubters with suspicion and judgment. More commonly, a trusted small group, or even a single friend can provide what we desperately need: someone unthreatened by doubt who rewards rather than punishes honesty, and who can gently bring light into darkness.

Hopefully that is what many people can find here.

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Great read. I too like the idea of companions who are “unthreatened by doubt.” And probably those most unthreatened by doubt are those who themselves have doubted, or at least those who have done it and decided not to make it some dirty little secret.

I liked this part too:

Second, I note the poignant fact that the other disciples, who had already encountered the risen Jesus, included Thomas in their midst. To them, Thomas was a heretic: he defiantly refused to believe in the Resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Even so, they welcomed him to join them behind closed doors. Had they not, Thomas may never have met the resurrected Jesus.

This hearkens back to the whole idea of “belonging before believing,” where the focus is more on relationships and less on making sure every person present subscribes to the exact same checklist of doctrine. That takes courage – trimming the registers is easier. Suppressing doubt feels like the only choice when you know how high the stakes are.

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This quote about Mother Teresa:

Some believers were shocked by her doubts, while others saw them as the “dark night of the soul” common to saints who, like the military’s special forces, take on extreme tasks. I was most struck by the way Mother Teresa conducted her life despite her doubts. She refused to succumb, and in the process became a shining example of faith. As the letters to her confessors make clear, she was sustained by loyal Doubt Companions.

I’ve been working my way through Macdonald’s unspoken sermons, and somewhere in the 1st series, Macdonald speaks of the most valuable (to us) obedience happening when we feel the least confidence or divine presence (none at all even). To obey when you feel good about it is one level of response, but for one in the face of despair, nihilism, and forsakenness to be in the throes of those wretched times and still declare for God; - to do that is to join Jesus as he cries out “My God, My God, why …” and yet still commends his own spirit into the seemingly absent Father’s hands. That obedience can only be forged in a fire of suffering. I would even conclude then, that to never have suffered temptation and doubt would be to never have grown any faith of robust endurance.

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Very good.

Reminds of the story in Mark 9.

23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

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Uplifting. I also liked …

God has no need to “prove himself” by impressing us with supernatural reality. As spirit, perhaps God instead wants us to work on the spiritual disciplines—prayer, silence, contemplation, fasting, study, Sabbath—that connect us to a nonmaterial reality, God’s native environment.

On many atheist sites there is an oft repeated saying from Epicurus that goes

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

But I don’t think this is any paradox at all. Of course what gives rise to God belief is not omnipotent. God is within us and includes us, but we are not all powerful. But neither are we helpless infants. To us much has been given. We did not earn our immense brains or capacity for language and cooperation; and with them we have the capacity to accomplish a great deal. If we don’t do so that is on us. It does no good to wail for a parent to intervene. If God is within and among, then it is up to us.

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I really like Yancey. As a young man reading his books, I felt like I wasn’t alone – which speaks to his point #2.

It seems to me that much of our modern, western problem with faith has been a very thin understanding of the ancient concept, which aligns it closely to belief. I think it is better to see faith more closely aligned to commitment. I’m not so sure I can just choose what I believe, but I can choose what I commit myself to. And it turns out that when I commit to a particular community and way of life, some beliefs come more naturally than others (cf. @Laura’s “belong before believing” note). And commitment is entirely compatible with doubt, while belief sits more uncomfortably with doubt (@ProDeo’s allusion to the Mark 9 story notwithstanding!).

It opens up all sorts of potential for abuse when membership in the Christian “faith” is reduced to “have you been baptized?” or otherwise gone through the proper initiation rites (i.e., have you committed to that community). But there is a different kind of abuse that is possible when membership is reduced to “do you believe the right things?” Our anti-institutional society errs more on the latter, IMHO.

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Thank you for posting. The article and comments here are wonderful.

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I do not see these as logical or accurate. It ignores the basis of freedom to choose. Both by God and, more importantly His subjects. As soon as God imposes Himself He is removing the “God given” freedom we claim of Him. So to try and “judge” or rationalise His activity or not is to misunderstand the concept of freedom.

To call God malevolent for not acting assumes compliance with the actions He is letting happen, rather than acceptance that freedom of choice involves the allowance of both good and bad choices, for what ever reason. Not all evil actions are derived from malevolence, some are just carelessness or ineptitude or even “acts of God” (which are of course just acts of nature).

Richard

Well I reject any force of logic in what I quoted regardless. What I think gives rise to God belief is first of all largely mysterious. All these supposed attributes and their implications are just people spitballing what they can’t know and confusing themselves in the process. Logic can’t bootlace your understanding higher than the premises used, and all of those are hypothetical.

I would paint a slightly different picture where certainty is a measure and belief lies on a spectrum of certainty from guess to knowledge, and the latter is simply that which we live by. Thus I would say that any certainty beyond how we choose to live our life including absolute certainty is nothing but delusion and hot air.

The whole point of faith is choosing in the face of doubt or the lack of absolute proof. Thus faith without doubt or a little skepticism means a refusal to consider any alternative. That is a blind faith that ignores any evidence to the contrary. And I would indeed agree that “willful ignorance” is a better description of this than the word “faith.”

I think this is a false conclusion. Certain faith is just a faith that is proved beyond doubt within the mind of the person. It is not necessarily “blind”. Paul may declare that “faith is what we cannot prove” but that does not mean that there is not any corroboration or indications. My faith in God is certain. I have no doubts in that matter. Although I will accept that as far as I am concerned there is no alternative, why should I even look for one?

Richard

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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