Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 3, 2011

Know Doubt

Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

The gospel narratives provide a more nuanced view on faith and doubt then we often find in contemporary Christianity. The story of the father in Mark 9:24 captures a powerful tension that we often experience in our spiritual journey. The father believes and yet he continues to wrestle with uncertainty. What is powerful about this particular narrative is that Jesus responds positively to the father’s honest confession. Though the father continues to struggle with questions, Jesus accepts his faith and proceeds to bless him and heal his son.

The road of honest searching and seeking after God is challenging but very much necessary if we hope to grow in our faith. Timothy Keller writes, “a faith without some doubts is like a human body without antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why the believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy of the probing questions of a smart skeptic.” Just as the body has antibodies to defend itself against antigens, so a life of honesty helps us defend our beliefs against the hard questions that inevitably come our way.

Oddly enough, I think that addressing our doubts is a profound act of faith. As we step into unknown territory we must trust that God will be able to lead us into truth. We must trust that God is bigger than the questions we have. Conversely, by refusing to examine our questions we may in fact be demonstrating a doubt that God can live up to these questions.

However, not all doubt is good doubt. My title is borrowed from John Ortberg’s book Know Doubt. In one of the chapters, Ortberg explains how doubt can go bad. He talks about three approaches to doubt that do not help our faith. First, he talks about the skeptic. The skeptic is someone who never takes a stand for anything. The skeptic sits on the sidelines and asks questions but never takes the risk of trusting. Next there is describes the cynic. The cynics, according to Ortberg,”are not much looking for answers as they are offering conclusions.” The cynic is simply a ‘wounded idealist’ who sees the world in a negative light. They are not seeking answers they are looking for things to criticize. Lastly, there is the rebel. The rebel does not just ask hypothetical questions or suspect the worse – the rebel is someone who is looking for reasons not to believe. As Ortberg summarizes “skeptics question, cyncics suspect, and rebels defy.”

The father in Mark 9 offers us a model of faith and doubt that is more helpful. He is not a skeptic sitting on the sidelines and asking hypothetical questions. He is willing to step out in faith even though he still has questions. He starts by declaring his belief in Jesus. This is an important biblical model. Jesus tells us to step out in faith even when we don’t have it all figured out. When Jesus asks his disciples to follow him in John 2, the disciples start by asking him all sorts of questions. Jesus responds by saying “come and see.” To know God we cannot just examine him from a neutral place. At some point we need to step out and follow him so that we can discover him relationally. That is why theology is commonly defined as “faith, seeking understanding.” As we step out in faith we place ourselves in a position where we can discover answers to our questions. The father also avoids cynicism. He remains hopeful that Jesus has the ability to heal even though he does not know how it works. Lastly, the father avoids rebellion. He is not looking for reasons not to believe, he wants Jesus to help him in his unbelief.

How might a dose of honesty over the uncertainties you have help you grow in your faith journey? Ortberg concludes by saying, “questions can expand our understanding, uncertainty can lead to trust, and honest faith can produce outrageous hope.”

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