This is the fourth post in a series on faith and doubt.
Doubt comes in several varieties.
- A sound, critical thinker develops the habit of withholding judgment until sufficient evidence can be gathered.
- Those of us who recognize the limits of a finite mind admit that many matters about God invite and even require serious intellectual reflection but will remain mysteries in the end.
- In our relationships, we trust others to do what they’ve promised or to act according to character. There are no guarantees about this, so when we act on this trust we take a risk. At various points we might feel this risk very keenly.
None of these kinds of doubt undermine faith.
We may wrestle with each other over fine points of theology without worrying that one or the other of us is rejecting God.
Admitting that we don’t really understand how God can be one and three at the same time doesn’t mean that we’ve failed a test required for salvation. It just means we can’t understand a mystery exhaustively.
And there is nothing unfaithful about our awareness that trust involves risk. On the contrary, to paraphrase Mr. Beaver from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Jesus never claimed that following him was safe. But he promises that it is good.
There is, however, another form of doubt. This form of doubt is toxic to our relationship with God. In the final analysis, it’s a species of idolatry and serves the corrosive illusion that we can justify our own existence.
Let me explain by recounting a story about the Hebrews in the wilderness.
Following God’s command, Moses sent scouts into Canaan—the Promised Land. Forty days later the scouts returned with good news and bad news. (Numbers 13)
The Good News: Canaan was a land filled with pomegranates and figs. A veritable paradise on earth.
The Bad News: Fierce and powerful people already inhabited Canaan. As one of the scouts put it, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33)
Some of the Hebrews responded to the report by saying, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:4) This may sound like fear, and in part that’s probably true and perfectly understandable.
The Hebrews were a rabble, not an organized military force. They had spent their lives toiling in bondage. Lacking the skills and experience of battle, the prospect of engaging an entrenched, heavily armed foe would have been daunting.
But this all too human fear is not the central issue. It’s something deeper and more insidious. That’s why God responded to them by saying, “No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see [the Promised Land].” (Numbers 14:23b)
Look again at the Hebrews’ response: We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt. Their posture is so common to us that we cannot see the problem at first. They choose a leader. They choose a destination.
Let’s take these one at a time.
They choose a leader for themselves. This seems reasonable to democratically minded Americans. We vote for our political leaders on a regular basis. There’s just one problem. God was their leader.
It is certainly true that we have the power to reject God. But unlike the political vote, our vote of no-confidence in God does not result in unseating God. Instead, we merely substitute for God some thing less than God into the position that only God himself can fill.
And why would we do such a thing? It just seems so…..blockheaded. It’s also depressingly common and probably a daily occurrence in most of our lives.
The key to why we would replace God with something less than God brings us to the second part of the Hebrew’s response to the scouts. They choose a destination.
So, what’s so wrong about that? We admire ambitious people. Driven people get ahead in this world. A quick scan of any bookstore will reveal thousands of titles devoted to setting, pursuing and achieving goals. Even Christians are supposed to be purpose-driven. Right?
Here’s the problem. God himself gave the Hebrews a destination. Selecting any other destination means that they have taken the authority of life’s goal and meaning on to themselves. They will seek to justify their own existence by reaching the goal they have set for themselves.
To get to the goal they have set for themselves, they will pay allegiance to any deity—any leader—who can help them get there.
Some of the Hebrews chose the path of self-justification. They trusted in themselves to choose a leader who could successfully bring them to the destination of their own choosing.
This may not sound like doubt at all. But in fact it is. It is a refusal to put our faith in God for the very meaning of our existence. And it places the burden of justifying our life ultimately on our own shoulders.
In the following post, I’ll turn to brutal consequences of a life dedicated to self-justification and its alternative: justification through Christ.