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BENEFIT of the DOUBT
BREAKING the IDOL of CERTAINTY
By Gregory A. Boyd
Baker BooksCopyright © 2013 Gregory A. Boyd
All rights reserved.
Embracing the Pain
Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
Be merciful to those who doubt.
In the Pentecostal church I served while in seminary, Sunday night services always included a time for testimonies. No one was more consistent in sharing than an eighty-some-year-old saint I'll refer to as "Brother Jacobson" (everyone was referred to as "brother" and "sister" in this church). The trouble was that Brother Jacobson almost always gave a version of the same testimony. Standing with his Bible raised in his right hand, he'd typically begin by saying something like, "I've walked with my Lord for over eighty years, and I thank God that, by his grace, my faith in God's Word has never for one moment wavered, never!" "Amen!" the church would respond, though I never knew if this meant that their faith also had never wavered, or if it rather meant something like, "Yes, Brother, we've heard that before."
Either way, this church often talked about how strong Brother Jacobson's faith was. Every now and then I'd hear someone encouraging somebody by saying something like, "You need a Jacobson-sized faith!" The assumption of this church—and I've found it's shared by most Christians—is that the more psychologically certain you are, the stronger your faith is. In this conception of faith, therefore, doubt is an enemy.
Despite its popularity, and despite the fact that there are a dozen or so verses that can be marshaled in its support (the most important of which I'll address in chap. 10), this is the conception of faith I will be arguing against in this book. It's not just that I think this model of faith is mistaken. As will become clear over the next two chapters, I believe this model is gravely mistaken inasmuch as it can have negative consequences in the lives of believers and for the kingdom movement as a whole.
How Much Faith Is "Enough"?
Not too long ago a middle-aged lady who looked rather distressed approached me after a church service. She explained to me that, while she sincerely tried to believe in the Bible, she struggled with some of its stories. With a worried tone in her voice, she asked, "Why on earth would God include in his Holy Word a story about a poor young girl getting gang-raped, murdered, and dismembered?" She was referring to a story in Judges 19, and it is indeed a truly horrible account. "It's not exactly the kind of story you'd want to read in children's church, is it?" I replied. "And pastor," she continued,
I have a degree in ancient literature, and if I'm honest with myself, I just can't deny that some Bible stories sound like folklore, not history. Like the one about Lot's wife turning to a pillar of salt, just because she was curious! Would God really do such a thing? Do we have to believe these stories are all literal?
I thought she wanted me to respond, but before I could open my mouth she jumped back in.
And the stories of Samson getting strong when his hair grew long, killing a lion with his bare hands, slaying one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and sending two hundred foxes into some fields with their tails tied together around a torch? Come on! I'm sorry, pastor, but I just can't keep myself from doubting stories like this. If God knows I'm sincerely trying to believe, do you think that is enough for me to still be saved?
My heart went out to this dear woman. I reassured her that God knows her heart and that she needn't worry about her salvation. And as it concerns her questions about various Bible stories, I shared with her some of the things I'll be sharing with you later on in this book (especially chap. 9). My reason for mentioning her now, however, is because she illustrates the conception of faith I'm going to be talking about. Her question was basically about whether she had enough faith to be "saved." For her, this was really a question of whether her level of certainty was adequate to be saved.
As I suspect is true of most pastors, I get questions along these lines quite often.
Do my doubts disqualify me from "salvation"?
If I'm fairly sure that Jesus is the Son of God—but not 100 percent certain—am I still "saved"?
Are my doubts about God's willingness to heal my child the reason she is not healed?
How much faith do I need to get God to change the heart of my husband?
I struggle with the idea that God really cares about my family and me. Do you think this is why I can't find a job?
Questions such as these are predicated on the assumption that one's faith is as strong as it is certain. And they each assume that, whether we're talking about salvation, getting healed, or keeping a job, the more certain we are, the more God will be involved in our lives.
Slamming for the Certainty Bell
If you've ever gone to a carnival or fair, I'm sure you've seen that game where people test their strength by trying to ring a bell at the top of a pole with a metal puck by striking a lever with a mallet as hard as they can. It's sometimes called the "Strength Tester." I believe it provides a fair analogy of what goes on inside people's heads when they assume that their faith is as strong as they are psychologically certain.
Think about it. If the strength of your faith is measured by the intensity of your psychological certainty, then the way to increase your faith is to try to push doubt aside in order to make yourself certain. And in this sense, exercising faith is something like a psychological version of the Strength Tester game. You are, in essence, trying to hit a faith mallet as hard as you can in order to send the faith puck up the faith pole to get as close to the certainty bell as you possibly can.
In this certainty-seeking model, when Jesus said, "according to your faith let it be done to you" (Matt. 9:29), he was saying, "the more certain you are that God will do things, the more you'll see God do those things." So too, when the man said to Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief" (Mark 9:24), within this paradigm, the man was asking, "Lord, I can only hit the faith puck a little way up the faith pole, but please help me to ring the certainty bell."
Along the same lines, when Jesus praised the centurion for having "great faith" (Matt. 8:10), the certainty-seeking model would have us understand that Jesus was praising his psychological certainty that Jesus could and would do what he needed him to do. By contrast, when Jesus reprimanded his disciples for having "little faith" (Matt. 14:31), he was, according to this model, expressing his anger that they wavered in their certainty about what he could and would do.
The Level of Required Certainty
With this interpretation of these verses, it's no wonder pastors regularly get the sort of questions I mentioned above. Related to this, it's also no wonder that Christians often instinctively rank things in terms of how much faith they will require. It's like this lady who spoke with me recently about her troubled marriage. In the course of sharing her problems, she mentioned that she was a heavy smoker who wanted to quit. But, she said, "I'm afraid I don't have nearly enough faith for that one yet." Quitting smoking would require a greater act of faith than healing her marriage, she assumed, and this meant she would need a Jacobson-sized faith, which she was convinced she lacked. (Truth be told, once this lady told me about the full extent of her marital problems, it seemed to me her ranking system was upside down—assuming faith worked that way.)
The closer to the certainty bell you send your faith puck, the prevailing assumption goes, the greater the blessing you'll receive from God. I suspect most Christians would agree that you only need a minimally acceptable level of faith to be "saved." We might say that to get "saved," you only need enough psychological certainty to get the faith puck 25 percent of the way up the faith pole. If you're able to muster up more certainty and slam the faith puck (say) 50 percent of the way up the faith pole, then we might say you've entered the "basic blessing" zone. Here God may grant you success in your relationships or finances, and you may experience small supernatural interventions like having a headache or toothache disappear or gaining the strength to quit smoking.
If you are able to push doubts away further, however, thereby mustering up the psychological certainty to get the faith puck (say) three-quarters of the way toward the certainty bell, well, then you've entered what we might call the "super-blessed" zone. God will now answer your prayers in rather spectacular ways, and you just might experience more impressive, Jesus-type miracles. But if anyone is ever able to vanquish all doubt, become completely certain, and thereby actually ring the certainty bell with that faith puck, then they presumably could have "whatever they ask for," which is how people who hold to this certainty-seeking understanding of faith interpret passages such as Matthew 21:22: "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
The fact that we still don't have peace in the Middle East can only mean that either no one has yet rung that bell or, if they have, they were too self-centered to think about this ongoing atrocious conflict and chose instead to acquire a Mercedes for themselves.
In the next chapter I'm going to offer eight arguments as to why I believe certainty-seeking faith is misguided, unhealthy, and dangerous. I will follow this in chapter 3 with a discussion of the ninth, and the most serious, objection to this model, for I'll contend that this conception of faith tends to make an idol out of certainty. And then, throughout the three chapters that comprise part 2 of this work, I'll argue that this psychological conception of faith contrasts with the covenantal concept of faith found in Scripture. In part 3 we'll flesh out some more practical and helpful ways of thinking about and living out our faith.
Before we turn to this, however, I'd like to say something about one of the most common and powerful motivators for this popular conception of faith. It is, in a word, the desire to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance. To get at this, I'd like to share a little bit of the story of how I found, and lost, my faith.
From Blissful Certainty to Excruciating Doubt
A Lost Certainty and Purpose
As I mentioned in the introduction, I came to Christ at the age of seventeen after having spent several years in the "drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll" culture of the early '70s. While I had a lot of fun, I also felt a painful emptiness that intensified over the two years leading up to my conversion. Despite the fact that the Pentecostal church in which I met Christ was legalistic to the extreme and theologically aberrant in a number of ways, my encounter with Jesus was undeniably real and powerfully life changing. Words can't describe how good it felt to have the gnawing ache of emptiness in my soul replaced with a sense of joy and purpose.
For a little more than a year I enjoyed the bliss of feeling absolutely certain my newfound faith was true. I felt like I knew what life was about, was sure about where I was going when I died (or when I was "raptured"), and had a strong sense of mission and purpose to motivate me to live passionately in the meantime.
Then I enrolled in the University of Minnesota.
Perhaps it was because I felt I had a duty to save people, or maybe it was to impress my atheistic father, whom I'd been debating since my conversion (he couldn't believe his own son had become one of those "born-again nitwits"), but for whatever reason, I decided to jump-start my university career by taking a summer school course titled Introduction to Evolutionary Biology. I didn't tell any of my Christian friends about my decision because I knew they'd try to talk me out of it. (They'd already tried to talk me out of going to a secular university in the first place.)
As you probably could guess, the Pentecostal church I was saved in believed in "young-earth creationism," which means they interpreted Genesis 1 literally and held that the earth was less than ten thousand years old. In fact, I recall our pastor teaching that, if Genesis 1 wasn't literally true, then "the whole Bible is a book of lies!" So, as far as I was concerned, my entire faith was leveraged on my ability to survive this class with my faith in young-earth creationism intact. To prepare myself, and with rather megalomaniacal dreams of converting the entire class, I read three whole books (yes, three!) defending creationism and refuting evolution. I'd never before read so much on a single subject. I felt like a bona fide expert.
Things didn't go quite as I had planned. From the start I took every opportunity to interrupt the lecture, raise objections, and offer counterinterpretations. The professor, who was always very gracious and seemed to welcome my enthusiastic pushbacks, would gently proceed to show how my objections and counterinterpretations were misinformed and/or wildly implausible. This clearly was not his first run-in with a young-earth creationist. When the class would chuckle after I'd been once again silenced, the professor would quickly come to my defense and praise my willingness to question things. It almost bothered me that this pagan opponent of Christ (so I viewed him) was so nice to me, even as he diced me up!
I'd come home discouraged after each class and would spend the remainder of the day poring over the notes I'd taken from my three books, trying to find better lines of attack. After this arsenal was depleted, I went to several libraries and Christian bookstores to find better material, once even gaining some hope from a book I found (called Fish to Gish, by Duane Gish) that anticipated one of the professor's counterpoints. But without fail, the patient professor managed to gently expose the weakness of my objections.
By the time we had reached the midterm, I had begun to doubt my one-year-old faith.
The pain of the cognitive dissonance this doubt created in me was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I wanted so desperately to believe my experience with Christ wasn't an illusion and my sense of purpose a false dream. I desperately wanted to reexperience that delightful feeling of certainty I'd enjoyed throughout the previous year.
I eventually shared my pain with some of my Pentecostal friends who, after chastising me for "playing the devil's poker" by taking this class, would tell me that my doubt was from Satan and that I needed to let it go and "just believe." I so badly wanted to return to the joy of feeling certain that I actually tried this several times, but it frankly felt artificial. For a while I even tried to rationalize suppressing doubt by appealing to (and, I now see, grossly misapplying) an idea I'd gotten from Søren Kierkegaard, whom I'd been reading and whom I'd come to deeply respect. In several books he talks about faith as a "leap" that involves passionately grabbing hold of something that is absurd to our reason—namely, the incarnation and crucifixion. I recall thinking to myself that, if taking an absurd leap of faith was good enough for a guy as smart as Kierkegaard, it should be good enough for me.
It didn't work. My brain would not let me forget the troubling questions evolution posed.
By the end of the summer school course on evolution, I was a tormented young man who was being slowly ripped in two, with my longing for faith and the evidence for evolution pulling me in opposite directions. Within another half semester—one that included a course that examined the Bible from a historical-critical perspective—I concluded my fight was hopeless. The obstacles to my faith were too formidable, and I could not, for the life of me, find an intelligent and informed Christian to help me work through them. I finally concluded that evolution was true and that the Bible was no different from other ancient works. As real as my experience with Christ had seemed, I concluded that it must have been some sort of strange psychological phenomenon I didn't yet understand. And this, in turn, meant that the joyful sense of purpose I had experienced for a year was nothing more than an illusory oasis in the desert of a meaningless world.
I returned to the atheism I'd embraced in the four years leading up to my conversion. My father was overjoyed. But I had just entered what proved to be the most depressing year of my life.
Excerpted from BENEFIT of the DOUBT by Gregory A. Boyd. Copyright © 2013 Gregory A. Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Baker Books.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 False Faith
1 Embracing the Pain 23
2 Hooked on a Feeling 33
3 The Idol of Certainty 54
Part 2 True Faith
4 Wrestling with God 75
5 Screaming at the Sky 91
6 From Legal Deals to Binding Love 112
7 Embodied Faith 128
Part 3 Exercising Faith
8 A Solid Center 155
9 The Center of Scripture 174
10 Substantial Hope 194
11 Stumbling on the Promises of God 218
12 The Promise of the Cross 231
Concluding Word: How I Live by Faith 253