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

I cannot say I agree with Yancy quite so easily.

For part of my adult life I was an atheist. Then I began to wonder about some of the claims I heard from others about a supernatural reality, and I tried to weigh the worth of such claims. I came to the conclusion that there was an 85% chance that there was a God; but I couldn’t get much beyond that. I did really want to know; I remember sort of throwing a fit one time, demanding that if there was a God, that he show me. That didn’t happen, at least not for a while. But then, when I was 49 years old, things happened in my life that pointed to the reality of God. Others might call these events just coincidences, but they occurred in my life, so I knew exactly what happened and how they were related. And the number of them, and the timing of them was enormous, one after another. I had no choice but to believe that a spiritual being of great power and intelligence was acting in my life; it was actually scary. So I am certain that God exists; and I am convinced that the Bible tells me about that God. I also trust that what the Bible tells me is the truth and that sometimes, even the presence of ‘and’ and ‘but’ in its text carry truth significance. I do not however, concern myself with how many times the cock crowed or when, or if there were two blind men at the gate or only one, for example. I accept the accounts of events in the Bible to be written by and for humans as well as God, not computers.

I consider being certain of God’s existence to be very important. One should not believe this because one’s parents did, or because it makes things easier if one believes. I don’t think people ever really believe something because they want to; we believe because we have to, because we have seen convincing evidence. There is actually evidence of God’s and Jesus’ reality in the New Testament if you trust what people write. If the books of the New Testament were written last year about events that happened, say a few years or even decades before the writing, I think most people would believe what the writers say. Since they were written thousands of years ago, people tend not to believe them. We have a secret prejudice against people who lived so long ago; they must have been very naïve and not understood what they saw happening.

But if you really want to be certain of God’s reality, ask God to show it to you; then be open minded enough to accept what you see. At the right time, God will give you the evidence you need, that is, if he wants you to believe. (I cannot pledge God’s behavior; God is in charge, not me.)

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need faith. We do. Paul spoke of walking by faith and later being able to walk by sight, preferring the latter. God usually does not tell us what is going to happen from moment to moment, and sometimes God does things we think God should absolutely not do. Paul was certain of the reality of God and of Jesus giving him strength, yet he was beaten to within an inch of his life many times. We don’t often get to know the reasons. It’s like walking down the stairs with a large package in our hands so we can’t see our feet. That’s walking by faith, and it’s dangerous. So in that way we do need both faith and certainty – certainty of God’s reality and goodness (we get this from the Bible), and faith that we will respond with grace to life’s many surprises both pleasant and rending.

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Boy I sure do know plenty of de facto, reluctant atheists who would appreciate you breaking down how you arrived at that figure. Most of the online atheists I meet like facts and figures and might well be content with 85%.

I would describe myself more as having become an atheist somewhat wistfully. But I was never truly a Christian as in being harnessed to the Bible. After my family stopped going to church before I started school my imagination was left to fill in the details of how life, afterlife, God and Jesus all went together. It was childish at best but I was still reluctant to put it away when it seemed clear that this was like Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy except that the adults never winked to let you know for sure.

But I did get a sense of being connected to something more even if it was only something from my own imagination, and I still have that except that it is now largely formless. More like something I think of as arising in the depths of what we are so hardly anything of much use in a fox hole or when your loved one gets cancer. But even if not omni-anything, just the feeling of relationship to something wiser is still valuable and helps I think to understand something about what we are.

If you don’t mind my asking, coming from a position of non belief how did you ever come to believe that the Bible was special in the way no other book ever was or will be? That is something I’ll never understand, except when it is simply something you grow up in which shapes the way you see the world and your place in it. Did you have a more solid anchoring in Christian belief and the bible before you became an atheist? That would make more sense to me than someone who didn’t grow up “in the book” convincing themselves that it really was uniquely important once grown.

The 85% wasn’t calculated; it was just a way of approximating how much evidence I thought I had found on each side of the argument.

I was brought up in a “Christian” home, so that I had at one time imagined God and Jesus and felt love for both of them. But I had felt love for the Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger as well. Having that background must have influenced me. But I turned out to be a lover of logic and of ideas, and the things I was taught about religion in childhood just didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

My reliance on the Bible as the best way of knowing God came second. After I became convinced that God was real, I got the notion that I should talk about this with a man I knew at work, whom I had heard was involved in some way with Bible translation. I was impressed by his intelligence and his knowledge of ancient Greek. I didn’t want to talk with him, however, because it was a pretty weird subject in my view, and I didn’t know him that well.

I was tired of having the feeling I should talk to him, so I decided to do it and get it over with. I decided to do it a particular week, but put it off every day. On Friday I was in the Xerox room with him, but still said nothing. Then it occurred to me that some being in the spiritual world might want me to talk to him. So I said to anyone who might be listening in the spiritual realm that if they wanted me to talk to him, they should bring him back to the Xerox room and I would go in there too, although I wouldn’t promise to say anything. Within ten minutes this man came back down the hall and, instead of going into the Xerox room, came into my room; and I didn’t have to say anything to him; he spoke to me! I knew I had better make arrangements to talk with him, so I did. I made a lot of mistakes in my work that afternoon! When I started talking with him, I realized he was “one of those crazy born-agains” and I wanted to run. But I overcame my first reaction and we talked. He advised me to read the book of John, which I did. As I read it, it seemed to be written in vivid color. Soon I had read all the gospels. They were different, as different books will be, but they were all describing the same man.

My experience reading the gospels, then Paul’s letters, and the fact that ‘this spiritual being’ had lead me to talk with someone who was able to read the New Testament in Greek, were big indicators that the Bible was what God wanted me to learn from.

Since then I have not found much that I have difficulty with in the Bible, but I do not interpret it according to fundamentalist guidelines. I have learned a bit of Greek myself and have translated and given a lot of thought to certain passages. I am convinced that cultural attitudes both throughout the history of Christianity and now have caused people to misinterpret much of what is in the text.

That is why I so like BioLogos – it may help Christians to look more carefully at what they are reading, to be more logical, and open up the riches that are in this neglected and misunderstood book.

Hope that makes things a little clearer. Thanks for your interest.

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Thanks for the detailed reply. Nice to get the background and context. I can’t really say I can relate to it but seeing the world through other people’s eyes is part of what I like about reading literature. So thanks for your story. If you ever have questions for me, you’re entitled.

One could argue this is reasonable, given in the ‘next’ life, ie the renewed heavens and earth following resurrection & final judgement, sin and evil will not exist, and redeemed humans will presumably not have the capacity to sin. So I suppose the question could be - why didnt God do that in the first place, instead of allowing all of the often seemingly meaningless suffering?

We all have doubts now, but I wonder if the first disciples did, given they witnessed the resurrected Jesus? The impression I get from the NT is that they didnt, hence the complete 180 degree turn from fearful to fearless. They knew what God, in Jesus, had done, literally seeing it with their own eyes.

That question is on my list as well.

Because it is not freedom. We need to be free to die or suffer as well as free to live. Once you remove sin then there is no true freedom. It would be the same as living in a cage. A large and relatively comfortable cage, but a cage nevertheless. No danger, no adrenaline: boredom.

This life maybe #**#!! but at least it is real life, not some puppet, or restricted existence.

Richard

I get that, but from a Christian pov, the redeemed creation will NOT involve suffering or death, and will be the exact opposite of living in a cage. I find it an odd comment that removal of sin=removal of freedom.

“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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