May 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Faith and Doubt

Claude Monet (The Reader), Pierre-Auguste Renoir

''Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!''

These words were spoken more than two millenia ago by a father to Jesus. Here is an exerpt from the full story found in Mark 9:14-27.
''[Father:] But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.''
Jesus said to him, ''If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes''
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ''Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!'' 
This father who lived in a different time, in a different culture and in a different place spoke words that illustrate a struggle 21st-century people experience. At times, part of me believes, and part of me doubts.

There is an interesting tension between faith and doubt.

The French philosopher René Descartes has been remembered for his Method of Doubt, among other things. Descartes highlighted the importance of questioning every thing and every belief. He is also known for saying ''Doubt is the origin of wisdom.''

Doubt is defined as ''uncertainty of belief or opinion that often interferes with decision-making, [...] a lack of confidence, an inclination not to believe or accept'' (Merriam-Webster).

Faith, however, is ''complete trust and confidence in someone or something, strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof'' (Oxford).

In Hebrews, Paul writes: ''faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.''

Questioning and examining what we believe is definitely healthy. Beliefs, like houses, are strong and reliable when they have a firm foundation.

Doubt makes us examine why we believe certain things, and makes us inquire for evidence to support their truth, or show they are erroneous.

Some discredit the element of faith in Christianity on the basis that it seems irrational to firmly believe something that can't be proved.

But we ''have faith'' in people and things that ''can't absolutely be proven'' all the time. We trust that our friends will not betray us, we have faith in the positive influence of literacy in developing countries, and we believe that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

The purpose of doubt is to question and inquire in order to eventually reach certitude. Sometimes, however, doubt is used as a weapon for one to discredit any opinion, while not having any opinion to defend oneself. In such a case, doubt becomes a comfortable place.

Questioning everything (without really searching for an answer) can become comfortable because one never has to take a stand, and never has to defend any idea.

I find Soren Kierkegaard's thoughts on faith and doubt very interesting.
He wrote;''it is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.''

In my experience, this statement is very accurate!
Sincere belief yields to action. If I truly believe it is unfair that some people live in poverty, then I will do something about it.

So back to faith and doubt. Faith is a central element when it comes to believing in God, Jesus and the Bible.
There are things we can understand, and things we cannot understand. But it seems to me that it was meant to be that way. There is something beautiful about believing without seeing completely.  It requires trust and effort!

C.S. Lewis said, ''faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.''

So faith is not about being completely irrational, as some would say. Lewis points out that there is an element of rationality in faith--it's not all about foolish and empty beliefs.
 If I have read about God's goodness in the Scriptures and have experienced it, faith means that I trust him and still believe he is good even though I am feeling unhappy one day.

I would say that faith is not always the easy way. As I wrote earlier, it requires trust and effort, but it is also rewarded.

To conclude, here's one of the key Bible passages about faith and doubt. It takes place after Jesus died, and has to do with the news of his resurrection:

 ''Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” 
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  John 20:24-29

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