September 20, 2009
You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. "Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress. Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. — Job 30:21-30
Today’s reading comes from one of the oldest stories in existence. The central character named is named Job. His children are dead. His wealth has been obliterated. His wife walked out on him. He is sick, covered with skin boils and rashes. His friends don’t really know how to console him. He is a good man, a righteous man. He did not do anything to deserve such suffering. There is no reason for it. God doesn’t answer his prayers. He suffers. He complains. Job is consumed by confusion and doubt. Who could blame him?
Here we are centuries upon centuries later and we are still consumed by the same questions. If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why not stop wars and genocides? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does God allow my loved ones to suffer? If God is near, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? In the play J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Job comes to this conclusion: “If god is god, he is not good. If god is good, he is not god.”
We get tired of the pat answers. We learned from childhood that when we do wrong we get punished. Do something good, you’ll get a reward. Disobey, and you get in trouble. Is that what’s happening here? Is God punishing us for our sin? Sometimes, well-meaning people will quote Scripture frequently and loosely to give you an explanation. They tell us: If we obey God, and live moral and wholesome lives, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we suffer, God must want to teach us something. Suffering is the only way God can get our attention. They are full of spiritual diagnosis and prescription. It all sounds so hopeful. But then we begin to wonder, “Why is it that for all their apparent compassion, we feel worse instead of better?
As we get older, we often realize that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. We do the right thing and still get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from behind side and sent spinning. This is the suffering that first bewilders and then outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewilders and outrages Job. Job does everything right, but everything goes so wrong. He rejects the kind of teaching that has God all figured out, the advice that provides glib explanations for every painful condition. Job suffers. Period. And he doubts God.
Is that OK? Is it alright to have doubts? After all, some studies show that rejecting one’s previously held beliefs can lead to shame and guilt. In fact, the Book of Romans in the New Testament unequivocally states that, “... he who doubts is condemned.” Feelings of guilt and shame can erode a person's sense of self-worth, diminished self-esteem is associated, in turn, with greater physical and mental health problems.” As the famous protestant theologian named Karl Barth wrote, “No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.” Thank you Mr. Barth! Now I not only have doubts. I feel guilty and ashamed as well.
Barth and Paul do not get the last word. There are wise people who tell us it’s OK to doubt. Consider an ancient Zen saying: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”
Remember Renee Descartes – the “I think therefore I am” guy? Descartes had another philosophy that doesn’t get repeated as much: dubito ergo sum, “I doubt, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that doubt was essential for learning the truth. More specifically, Descarte believed that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows.
C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian writers and theologians of modern times, believed that doubts were good in our faith development because the make us examine our faith. He wrote, “If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, then we were believing that which was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger . . .” This statement comes from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist. When Lewis gave himself permission to explore of his doubts, that’s he became a believer. After years of searching and struggling, he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity.
In fact, some say that doubt is part of our psychological development. A psychologist named James Fowler has studied faith development in Christians. Fowler’s fourth stage is known as "Individuative-Reflective." OK, let’s drop the fancy psych words and get to the heart of it. When people hit their 30s and 40s, they enter a time of anxiety and struggle as they face difficult questions about who they are and what they believe. Perhaps for the first time, a person takes responsibility for her beliefs and feelings. Where once a person believed what religious authorities told them without any questions, he now re-examines what he’s been told. Nothing feels certain anymore. Disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be in. Most people, after entering this stage, sense that the world is far more complex than they previously thought.
I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was exploding, those are the times I grew the most.
In so many ways doubt is good for us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.
So here is my question: Is it possible that doubt might be one of those unwelcome guests of life that is sometimes, in the right circumstances, good for you? The Church needs to recognize that genuine and authentic faith must be as open to questions as it is receptive of answers. The Church should step aside and let the people of the world raise questions. The Church should be a listening body—sensitive to the deepest concerns of the world's peoples, intently interested in their problems, struggling to provide solutions to their troublesome inquiries, and endeavoring always to serve as their servant. It's all too easy for the people of the Church to say, “We've got the answers,” without having first asked as to what the questions might be.
If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can we go to cry?
If this is not a place where our questions can be asked, where can we go to seek?
If this is not a place where our heart cries can be heard, where shall we go to find comfort? May this church be such a place for all of us—a place where our questions, and even our doubts, are always welcome.
• James Fowler, Faith Development and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia,: Fortress, 1987).
• Neal Krause and Keith M. Wulff. “Religious doubt and health: exploring the potential dark side of religion,” Sociology of Religion (Spring, 2004). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/ mi_m0SOR/ is_1_65/ai_n6141810/? tag=content;col1.
• Rev. David Tinney. “Can we doubt?” www.inglefarmbaptist.com/media/focus/ focus270806.pdf.
• Dr. David T. Howeth, "Upgrading Our Faith by Asking Questions." http://www.schreiberumc.org/sermons/08-12-14.pdf.