doubt

In Jude’s epistle, we find a rather simple yet important injunction, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” (v. 22) This would remind us that doubt is an ongoing reality among the people of God, and that the people of God have but one best treatment: mercy.

Mercy is that otherworldly quality of God that moves kindly toward others in any and every form of difficulty without condemnation. It does not come asking for explanations, only an entry point for help—be that encouragement, prayer, mourning, or even one’s quiet presence. Mercy is curious and patient and humble and attentive. A rabbinic tradition names thirteen attributes of God’s mercy; among them are a mercy that averts human distress, and another a mercy for when the distress has already begun.

This is how doubt is handled.

Many are expressing doubt these days, which is not to say that doubt has not been lingering below the surface time out of mind. For some reason more are experiencing the permission to admit this. This could be called honesty.

We have seen it from the one-time prodigy of the Christian purity, courtship, and homeschool movement. And now we have seen it from a contemporary worship acolyte. In the former case, we are hearing a disoriented former evangelical leader voice,

Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.⁣⁣

This only days after announcing a separation from his long-time wife.

In the latter, we hear a man who has penned countless songs of deep spiritual yearning and surrender express his upendedness;

. . . struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality.

These of course are only prominent voices; two men as flotsam in an evangelical tidal-current across the world from one another. This was not the first time I’d heard the term “deconstruction” applied to the Christian faith from a person whose closeness with Jesus I took for granted, nor was it the first person I’d heard falter under the load of heavy questions. Nor are any of these sentiments far from my own sleepless nights and wearied thoughts and emotions.

But how are we doing with these doubting friends of ours? (And how are we doing with our own doubts, secret though they be?)

Voices sprung up, as they are want to do. Too many and varied to begin to answer. And they too spanned the globe. Friends of the “falling away” pastor offered what seemed to me an emotionally uncoordinated “reflection,” containing phrasing like,

Nevertheless, our comment is a word of caution. While some basic ruminations can be justified, we ought to be wary of making sweeping judgments either corporately or personally.

It was the kind of theologically abstract writing whose tenor is that of having a tribe of purists peering warily over the author’s shoulder; causing the purported subject of reflection become mostly a pedagogical placeholder.

Down under, another author noted the failings of this leader’s broader evangelical milieu where churches are. . .

. . . raising kids and teens in an alternate universe, making them fit for that world alone, offering them no preparation for life in the messy, gray, complex world in which they will live as adults.

This is likely true, though even the best of churches and families can never fully fortify their flock against all the assailants of belief.

In the case of the worship leader who is now simply saying that his faith is on “incredibly shaky ground,” one chose to line up his difficulties (posted on Instagram) like tin cans on a firing range. “What Christian world have you been living in?” came the inquisition.

One can hear the very words of Job echoing through time, “Would you reprove these words of mine, when the speech of a despairing man is as the wind?” (6:26)

Yesterday came another salvo by an American Christian musician. In one day this post was shared over 400k times, and many evangelicals cheered its plainstated analysis:

It is time for the church to rediscover the preeminence of the Word. And to value the teaching of the Word. We need to value truth over feeling. Truth over emotion.

I find this truth/feeling binary hard to square; as though emotions are somehow untrue. It is precisely that squiggly line between what we hold objectively true and our faculties for making our way in this world—emotional, intellectual, relational, and the like—that give us so much trouble. That squiggly line is a tightrope of doubt suspended at dizzying existential heights.

This can all start to feel like one big game of Christian Clue: “It was Mr Praise, in the sanctuary, with the emotional music!” We rush to name the culprit, and so often we are pleased to announce the calls are not coming from inside the house. But meanwhile, a the distressed doubters remain deprived of mercy. (Even often a mercy they claim not to want.)

Doubt is scary. It’s scary in others and it is, especially, scary in our selves. Like many scary things, our first instinct can be toward extermination. We experience doubt like an infection; even as something infectious. It is why we created leper colonies.

Father Damien of Molokai was a Belgian priest who, during the late 19th century, ministered to the needs of a leper colony on the island of Molokai, which is now part of the Hawai’ian islands. He was tireless, holistic, and virtually unassisted in his work; many were too afraid of the disease to join him.

In fact, in 1884, at the age of 44, he contracted leprosy himself. Not wanting to risk infecting others nor suspend his ministry, he continued his work until his death 5 years later.

The sick certainly can infect those who venture into their proximity. But what is the alternative? I suppose we would leave the sick destitute; alone, while we remain in our safety. Can we detect how our impulses for safety counteract our impulses for mercy?

I know my own battles with doubt have invariably resulted from two types of proximity: the one is proximity with those who do not believe as I do. So often these friends’ questions, issues, and difficulties have become my own. If I have offered them a bit of belief, I have received in return not a little sum of skepticism. I’m inclined to keep making that trade. The other doubt-producing proximity has been, for me, with the Scripture itself. If many of its words do not perplex, trouble, confuse, or upset you, then you really aren’t paying close attention. It reflects the mysterious and often elusive character of its author.

The Christian faith is lived on this brink of extending one’s self into the sickness of the world; this is the way of the Savior. This is why he prayed the Father’s care over his people, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” We have the Scripture as an anchor, but let us admit that it can be a troublesome anchor at times. It has a life of its own, giving ground while we drift ever closer into the shoals. All of our efforts to shore up its troublesome spots do damage to its very nature. Doubt is that taut line to our shifty anchor.

Think of the emotional and intellectual vicissitudes of Thomas, whose messianic concepts had been tumbled in those tides of discipleship! And would we fault him for wanting to jab his fingers into all the wounds? Did the Savior? No.

Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.

How uncomfortable might that have been for both? Think of wedging your hand up under someone’s ribs. Do you think Jesus winced when he said that? We do know he winked,

Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

“You needed convincing, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Can you believe people will actually someday believe without any such luxuries?” Belief is a delicate miracle in a world like ours.

How might we label Jesus’ invitation? Maybe mercy? That seems about right. And we know that Thomas wasn’t alone. This is where our lack of biblical psychology undermines us. Luke tells us every disciple needed the selfsame tactile proof and, even then, they “still disbelieved for joy.” What an odd turn of phrase! The joy was clashing with the belief. This is the clashing of doubt; there’s that squiggly line again.

In many ways doubt is the most natural Gospel byproduct; something unthinkably and unexpectedly good come to a world that is unthinkably and unexpectedly bad.

Frederick Buechner encapsulated this so well,

It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good. . .

That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.

So we doubt. All of us. If we are willing to be honest. When we are willing, the public among us do so in public, and the rest of us do so in relative obscurity. But the remedy is the same: mercy.

It is a long and interesting story, this life of faith. Doubt shows us the distance yet to go; often painfully. We want to jam our hands up under every ribcage; and sometimes we get to! Even still, the doubt won’t go totally away. Gladly the belief won’t totally go away either; not when we are handling one another with mercy.

Jude said, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” I know that applies to others, and I think it probably applies to our own selves. Put away the rulers and castor oil, put away the tar and feathers. Put those pointing fingers to better use. Get out the balms, the cold cups of water. Lift a battered fellow-traveler up onto your beast of burden. Maybe let someone dig their fingers into your own rib cage and feel the wounds of your doubt. It might feel weird or painful. It might occasion some tears. Then again it might occasion some laughter.

Jude gives us one more helpful thought in his brief epistle; specifically in the doxology:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

If this miracle of belief feels beyond what we can do, that’s because it probably is. Somehow we all need to be reminded that this sustained tightrope act is being participated in by God, and that if we need his saving once we needed innumerably.

Is our frenzied way of reacting to doubt somehow the product of our own doubts? Do we not believe there is one who will reach into our muds and mires, our winds and waves with powerful mercy? (This is another of the thirteen types, for those of you keeping score.) We doubt that he is able, and so we fret and blame as some form of self assurance. The merciful ones, though saddened, as Jesus was, by the pains our doubts elicit, know God to be full of surprises—merciful surprises. Every one of the Savior’s miracles was such.

And did we notice that he takes great joy in delivering his children safe and sound? He is, after all, the Savior; in the business of saving. We are the doubting masses; let us be in the business of mercy.