Is it faithless to doubt? (part 3)

With the exception of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ inner circle of disciples all followed him, trusted him, believed in him, and were willing to die for him. That’s probably more than we can say for most believers most days.

But that’s not to say they understood everything he said. Sometimes, his words were too lofty for them. Other times, he said things to which they closed their minds and ears — things like, “When we get to Jerusalem, I’m going to be arrested and killed.”

Remember the story of Peter (Mark 8:27-33)? In one bright and shining moment, he could openly declare Jesus to be the Messiah. But in the very next moment, he could take Jesus aside to scold him for daring to suggest that the Messiah — the Messiah! — would be rejected and killed. That impetuous act earned Peter a scolding of his own, for putting his own human ideas above the plans of God.

But none of this should make us forget Peter’s devotion to his Master, nor the devotion of Thomas and the other disciples. Jesus the Good Shepherd knew his sheep, the ones who would respond to his voice even if they sometimes strayed or acted cluelessly. And he was loving and patient with them, even when he needed to chide them for their lack of faith.

In the previous post, I suggested that the disciples believed in Jesus even when what they believed about Jesus needed repair or revision. That distinction, in turn, suggests that there’s more than one way to understand the nature of doubt.

On the one hand, there is the kind of doubt that results in the faithful truly seeking to deepen their trust or understanding. Mark tells of a father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus, seemingly as a last resort. “If you can do anything, help us!” he pleaded. “If…?” Jesus responded, questioning the man’s lack of faith. The desperate father’s answer is instructive: “I have faith; help my lack of faith!” (Mark 9:24, CEB). The father came humbly as a seeker, reaching out to Jesus: Please, help me!  And in compassion, Jesus did just that.

There is also the kind of doubt, however, that proceeds from spiritual arrogance, from the need to demonstrate our power and be the masters of our own lives. It’s one thing to say, “I’m having trouble believing X because there are some things about it that don’t make sense to me.” But it’s another to defiantly fold our arms and demand proof, in a way that refuses to believe until our (impossible) demands are met.

(Here, I should reiterate what I said in an earlier post. It might seem, at first, that this demand for proof is exactly what Thomas did when he refused to believe his friends. But in context, I don’t think his behavior was a mark of the kind of arrogance described above — and it’s the arrogance that matters. His “I won’t believe!” stems from a prior relationship of belief and trust. All he wanted was the chance to see his beloved Jesus again, as the others had.)

Let me say in passing that, in itself, atheism is no more defensible an intellectual position than theism. Any claim that it is must assume a standard of proof that needs defending in turn. In other words, to claim victory because there is no unassailable “scientific” proof of God’s existence merely begs the question: why should we assume that the existence of God is something that could be “proven” in that way? (Not to mention the possible naiveté about what science can or cannot “prove” in the first place.) Ask a skeptic, “What would it actually take to prove to you that God exists?” If they don’t have an honest answer, it’s not an honest objection.

Much more could be said, of course, but that’s not my concern here. Some Christians struggle very little with doubt. But for others, doubt is a constant companion, undermining their confidence and trust. What to do?

I’ll make a few suggestions in the fourth and final post in this series.