First published 21 May 2010
Times of doubt
A while ago I wrote to encourage those who are worried that they don’t have strong enough faith. I was, to be honest, concerned that my previous reflections may be overly dogmatic, and end up discouraging those who read and say, “I still don’t get it!” I don’t want to give the impression that I have everything sewn up, and that having everything “sewn up” and solidly grounded is part of the character of saving faith. I want my public reflections to be encouraging and not discouraging.
So I pointed out that nothing can be absolutely crystal clear to us in this life, both because of our finiteness and because of our sinful nature. I showed the examples of those we sometime see as the great men of faith in the Bible, who quite often went through times of doubt and fear. I pointed out that salvation comes through believing in Jesus Christ, in having faith, not a certain amount of faith. And I held out the Bible as God’s means to lead us into greater knowledge and certainty about the hope that we have, to enable us to grow in faith.
I hope that was helpful, and pray that these reflections will be an encouragement to grow through studying deeply in the Word of God, relying on the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see ever more clearly the wonder and glory of Jesus Christ.
But it also made me think about some of the times of doubt I’ve had in my own life, and the way that I have been brought back from the brink of unbelief. I admit that when I talk about “the brink of unbelief” that’s a little over-dramatic. By God’s grace, I have never even temporarily given up my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean I have not had times when I have seriously questioned what I believe, and have times when I simply do not know the answers.
Sometimes I have come across difficult passages in the Bible that I can’t make sense out of, and seem inconsistent with other teachings. And I have thought to myself, “What if this isn’t true? What if this undermines everything? What if my faith is misplaced?”
Sometimes I have envied the prosperity and “freedom” of those who do not follow God. Like the psalmist, “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills… always carefree, they increase their wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure.” (Psalm 73:3-13) Freedom to be promiscuous, freedom to get pleasure out of life and get what I want without caring about anyone else – surely that would be easier sometimes. Am I restricting my own progress and enjoyment in life because of something that I simply accept from an old book?
Some unbelieving friends may have told me not to be so hard on myself at those times, though they never got the chance because I have always kept these thoughts to myself. You see, many unbelievers admire faith in other people. They see noble qualities, selflessness, love and giving, grounded in a kind of hope and certainty that they simply don’t have. They wish they could have that, but they accept that they don’t. They would think it a shame for someone to give up such a faith, because they want to believe that it is possible.
I may have mentioned elsewhere how I was intrigued by the film, The Invention of Lying, written by and starring Ricky Gervais. It’s what I would call a double philosophical satire. It mocks Christianity, because it wants to make out that God is just a concept made up by people who really want to believe there is something more than emptiness in life. But it also mocks anti-Christian philosophy, because it wants to point out that faith brings about great things and great feelings. The worst position in the world, it implies, is to know for sure that God is a fantasy and yet have to get by in life.
But I just don’t get that. For me, either life is something or it isn’t. Truth is truth, and I can’t change it. If God exists and Jesus is the Saviour of the world then I have to accept that as true. If it’s not true, then I must live consistently with that alternative. There is no point living my life as if God exists, and that I can have the hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ, if it’s not true. Paul said the same thing too. He said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) There is nothing noble or praiseworthy about faith in something that is not true. Like the dying man in the desert who staggers on towards the mirage on the horizon, we would be pitiable, not pious.
What are the alternatives?
But what has brought me “back from the brink” time and time again is the emptiness of the alternatives. And this was brought home to me again while listening to John Piper preach on John 6:68 (you can find a transcript of the sermon, and the audio and video, at http://tinyurl.com/2vpvhak).
In John 6, Jesus feeds a huge crowd of people with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. He is then tracked down all the way to the other side of the lake, because this miracle has made him so popular. Condensing the story somewhat, Jesus treats this popularity with contempt, seeing that all the crowd wants is a miracle worker to carry on feeding them. He therefore gives them some pretty strong and difficult teaching, not only about the nature of his person, his mission and the ultimate gift he came to give, but also the inability of man to come to him without God’s inner working. “No-one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him,” he concludes in 6:65.
The result, we are told in v66, is that, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
Jesus then turns to the twelve who are left with him, and asks them, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” (v67)
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'” (v68) Who else is there to turn to? Every other alternative is empty. To quote John Piper, “‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’ In that simple question, Peter is saying, We’ve considered it. We’ve allowed ourselves to ponder what it might be like to turn away from you.“
In one Christian Fellowship meeting at work, when I worked in Windsor, instead of sharing testimonies about how the members became Christians, we were asked to share the answer to the question, “Why am I still a Christian?” It was a very valuable session, which I think came from the recognition that sometimes maintaining a life of faith as a Christian is hard. How do we do it? In the face of being told day-in, and day-out, in the media, in comedy sketches, by friends, work colleagues and family members, how stupid we are; how repressed we are; how the world’s problems are all down to people like us (ref Dawkins and Hitchens, etc al); how we are bigoted, prudish, killjoys; why do we persevere in faith? When we find things in the Bible that we don’t understand, when we face hardships that we can’t explain, when we see evil in the world, why do we keep going?
My answer was the same as Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” The alternatives are empty, they do not make sense. I’ve heard what atheist philosophers have to say. I’ve listened to other religions. Faced with the impulse to be rational, I have put a lot of consideration into that question. And no other alternative works. Far from the Christian worldview being a leap of blind, irrational, faith, it is the only rational choice. Of course, that’s just my testimony. It doesn’t prove anything. And it does not mean that I just dismiss the problems that I face – in life and in thinking – or that I have every area of life and existence “sewn up”. I simply see enough to know that God is real, that I deserve His wrath for the ways I dishonour Him, that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead so that I can have that wrath taken away from me, and that through faith in Jesus I can look forward to a wonderful future when God finally brings an end to this present age. I say to Jesus, “‘You have the words of eternal life!’ (John 6:68) I trust you. Every other alternative is either empty and hollow, or dishonouring to God. So I will continue to cling to you by faith, even when my tiny, sin-tainted mind cannot fathom the answers to the questions that arise from life.”
The main alternative, living in Western culture that has lost its Christian foundations and that is increasingly secular and godless, is the prevailing secular atheism and pluralism. This is where most of my unbelieving friends and family come from when they look at my faith with varying degrees of scepticism (this may be the scepticism of pity, which “tolerates” faith only when it does not impinge on their “freedom”; or it may be the scepticism of admiration, which wants the faith without the restrictions on personal autonomy). And so, whether they like it or not, I feel the pressure to conform and live like them.
The apparent attractions are obvious. Conforming is easy. I wouldn’t have to say unpopular things about abortion being the murder of a child; or about homosexual, pre-marital or extra-marital sexual acts being sinful. I wouldn’t have to be seen as repressive and prudish in my complaints about what gets shown on TV and in the media. I wouldn’t have to offend my friends and family with the unstated implication of my faith, which is the implication that they are sinners (along with me) and are facing an eternity in hell. I wouldn’t have to face the laughter of the intelligentsia when I say I believe that the whole universe and the whole spectrum of existence was created by God, let alone that I am one of these terrible fanatics who believes that He did it in six days. Ok, so I would drop out of the support net of the church, which is widely acknowledged as a great force for social good on both a personal and cultural level. But on the other hand I could do my own thing, without worrying whether it’s right or wrong. I could choose to follow my own path to my own happiness. I could follow money, or power, or sexual pleasure, or all three! I could save time and mental energy on prayer and Bible study. I wouldn’t have to worry if the Bible said something I didn’t understand. I could go on with the list of the apparent attractions of secularism.
But having been attracted, and having thought about it, I still call them “apparent” attractions. They are superficial, because when I start to dig deeper and examine the foundations of this secular worldview that appears so attractive, it crumbles. I would have to give up too much in terms of rationality. I would have to live in a world of wishful thinking. Let me give you a brief example.
Atheism, because it denies the existence of God, has to posit an alternative theory for the existence of everything. It normally suggests the theory of evolution. Note that I put it that way. If you look into atheist philosophy it is never put the other way around. So we never hear of people being persuaded there is no God because of evolution being the way everything came into existence. For one thing, evolution is still a theory. It is not a fact, as popular presentations of science would have you believe. People believe evolution because they want to believe something about their origins and the origin of life and existence. If God did not create everything, how did it get here? (There are other basic philosophical questions that we could consider – such as, what is reality or how do we know anything – but I don’t want to go on too long.)
Existence (broader than just simply life) is either meaningful or meaningless. Being meaningful or meaningless are mutually exclusive. The atheistic theory of evolution says that every present form of existence has randomly formed over billions of years by a process of mutation and the survival of certain of those random formations. The implication of that belief is that every form of existence is meaningless. It’s meaningless in the sense that evolution implies no significant difference between forms of existence. E.g. A human is just a different formation of matter to an elephant or a tree. E.g. Life and non-life are just different ways for matter to react within itself. E.g. Love, hate, good and evil are just different reactions within the different formations of matter. But if it’s all randomly formed, then distinctions between formations and reactions are meaningless (by applying the definition – if the distinctions between things don’t ultimately signify anything then they are meaningless).
The thing I find empty about today’s atheism is the shrug that everything may all in fact be meaningless and with no ultimate significance: lymphoma or good health – equally meaningless; love or war – equally meaningless; care for our children or abuse them – equally meaningless; kill people or heal people – equally meaningless!
And yet everybody lives as if existence has meaning, in that everybody gives significance to things, and to things that happen. What I ask is where the significance comes from, and why do we live that way. If you reject God as ultimately being behind everything, then you are left with randomness, which doesn’t give significance to anything. It’s at that point that I believe that the Christian worldview provides consistency (living solidly based on belief), but atheism does not (because atheists say there is no meaning, but act as if there is).
And coming back to the point, therefore, I find that I would have to give up too much if I were to give up the Christian faith. I could go for the ease of conformity with the secularism of the age, and give up my allegedly restrictive faith. But I would have to then accept a view that ultimately says that nothing has any meaning, or everything has no meaning. And yet I would find it impossible, honestly, to live that way. Can I see the love of my wife and children as meaningless? Can I see the terror and awfulness of war and oppression as insignificant? Can I cry real tears? Can I feel real joy? Can I have real fun? Can I experience real love? Can I know real guilt? Can I know real forgiveness? I honestly cannot accept these things are unreal, illusory, meaningless or insignificant. And therefore I cannot accept atheism.
To whom shall we go?
And so I am forced back to God, in Christ, where I find real love, feel real guilt, experience real forgiveness, real sadness and real joy. Because He made the world and made me in His image, and that gives me the capacity to understand these things and really feel them. He gives me a concept of sin, judgment and justice which explains the evil in the world. He gives me hope. I find atheism bankrupt. Atheists have to live in a dream world of wishful thinking. As hard as it is to be a Christian, or to understand some aspects of theology, it is the only worldview that makes sense and fits with reality as we experience it.
So don’t be afraid to consider the alternatives to Christianity. But dig into the roots. You will find that every alternative ultimately crumbles into a heap of inconsistencies and irrationality. And so you always come back to Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3) and say, with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life!”