Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Little Floaty Things That Say "No"

"Dad, do you ever have little floaty things in your head that say, 'No'?" My daughter, Becca, was in second grade when she asked this question one night as I was putting her to bed. Taken a bit aback, I asked her what she meant. She said, "Well, like when I say to myself there is a God and the floaty things say, 'No, there isn't.' Or I say God loves me and they say, 'No, he doesn't.'"

It dawned on me that the "little floaty things that say No" were my daughter’s second grade way of describing her early experiences with doubt. I assured her that I was also familiar with the little floaty things and had been since I was about her age.*

I suspect that most of us have had some experience with the little floaty things that say No - with doubts. At one time or another, most of us have wondered about the existence of God, or God’s goodness, or God’s love for us personally. And doubt is not limited to the theoretical. On a more practical level, it includes questioning whether the way of life revealed in Jesus Christ is really the way to our fullest life and deepest joy. Is the way of gentleness, love, and forgiveness really the way? Whether they are theoretical or practical, the questions are bound to arise. What do we do with the little floaty things that say “No”? Here are some suggestions:

1. Do not be ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid of your doubts. They come with the territory and actually act as a spur to spiritual growth. Frederick Buechner calls doubts, "The ants in the pants of faith."

2. On the other hand, beware the snare of pride. It is easy to become self-satisfied for being so clever and sophisticated as to see all the difficulties with faith for "thinking" people.

3. Don't be surprised by doubt. It is part of the conversion process. The gospel is, after all, foolishness and a stumbling block. When the values and biases of the gospel conflict with the values and biases into which we have been enculturated, there will be tension. That is true whether the prejudices are intellectual, moral, or theological. That tension leads to doubt. It also leads to a choice. Which biases am I going to live by?

4. Talk to God about your doubts - even if it means starting your prayer with, "I'm not even sure I believe you are there . . ." God is not afraid of your doubts or offended by your questions. After all, Jesus invited Thomas to examine and touch his wounds. He has promised his love to you - no matter what. God would much rather have you spend time with him asking hard questions than have you not spend time with him at all.

5. Continue with the discipline of regular prayer and worship. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). An intimate realization of God's presence and love puts to rest a lot of the questions. Such a realization does not usually happen without some discipline and time on our part. We need to be trained to pay attention spiritually. As with physical discipline, it usually takes time to see the effects of spiritual discipline.

6. Be skeptical of your own skepticism. We live in a skeptical age. It is quite easy to be a complacent skeptic. But, the bases of many doubts are also subject to doubt. In the areas of science and history, for example, many are realizing that the methods used are not as objective or certain as was once claimed. They are themselves based on assumptions that cannot be proven and their results are shaped by the biases of the researcher. And they are unable to answer every question. Nothing that matters can be proven beyond a shadow of doubt. Truth can only be demonstrated by the living of it. This is no more or less the case with the truth of faith.

7. It is helpful to recognize that while faith has its difficulties, so do its opposites, unbelief and apathy. For example, the persistence of evil and suffering has been a perennial problem for those who believe in a loving God who desires our good. The problem is not solved, however, by removing God from the equation. The question is only changed to "If we are no more than the most recent byproduct of a cosmic accident, why do we care so much about the suffering of others?" Or, even more problematic, "Why should we care?" Some people are starving. Others are tortured. If there is no God, and life is accidental anyway, why do I care so much? Why should I?

8. Do not use doubt as an excuse not to follow Christ or respond to the Spirit's call. If I neglect to apply for a job because I doubt I will get it, I surely won't. I can remain unchallenged and comfortable right where I am. Hans Denk, a seventeenth century Anabaptist, asserted this basic axiom of faith: "You cannot truly know Christ without following him in life.” Jesus calls us to follow just as he called the first disciples. We are left to choose whether we will or not. Thomas exemplifies this in chapter eleven of John’s gospel. When Jesus heads back toward Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, the disciples counsel him not to go because those who want to kill him are there. Jesus starts walking toward Jerusalem anyway. Thomas says to the others, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." He had come to believe that following Jesus was the way to his deepest joy and was committed to following him and sharing his fate. The knowing often comes in the following.

9. Remember that you are part of a community of faith. You are not the first person to ask questions about the faith. It is helpful to find out, through reading or conversation, how others have answered or learned to live with particular questions.

10. Recognize that there is mystery at the heart of it all. As Christians, we believe that God has spoken and acted definitively through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But God has not seen fit to provide answers to our every question. And even the answers we've been given contain mystery. At some point, we can only rest with humility in the presence of the Mystery at the heart of it all.

Following these suggestions will not silence all the little floaty things once and for all. They are natural companions of faith. But, they can take away some of the power of the floaty things. And even when our questions are unanswered, the struggle with them leads us deeper into the mystery of God where the little floaty things that say, “No” are countered by God's resounding "Yes!"

* This story is shared with Becca's permission.


Ed Poncin said...


A thoughtful posting. A few years back, I
heard a preacher encourage people to attend
services and to continue to pray. "After all",
he said, "doubt is NOT the same as outright

Joe Rawls said...

A very insightful post. #6 was particularly on-target. When I read people like Dawkins and Hitchens it reinforces my feeling that atheism is just another faith-based belief system.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Ed. Yes, that doubt is not the same as disbelief is an important distinction.

Thanks, Joe. #6 (along with #3 & #7) is the often unspoken "man behind the curtain" of unbelief. Dawkins and Hitchens are prime examples. But, one finds it in the pop atheism of the average village atheist as well. Elaborating on that might be worthy of another post.

Loukas said...

I liked the way you deal with the question of doubts and I agree with the things you propose, they are practical, clearly based on experience. Thats really valuable.
It is important to realise that there is no system, no set of convictions derived purely from objective evidence that can be spoken of as "unquestionable" and as such opposing faith with its irrational assumptions people make either of stupidity, laziness or naivety. Everything in this world is build upon a set of assumptions and science is no different with its various epistemological claims, which so many people don't even realise they use and thus their certainty. I suppose the key difference between science/rationalism/scientific atheism and faith lays not in the opposition of assumption and evidence, but somewhere else: faith, as well as "true" atheism is not based on assumptions at all. There is a kind of faith based either upon a "Pascal's bet" or reasoning when one accepts something, some dogmatic claims in form of a church doctrine, for example. Yet this, of course, is not the faith, the believing we - nomen omen - believe in as Christians. Faith shouldn't be based on acceptation, acknowledgment, but what its etymology tells us: trust and (in the English case) love. So faith is not so much about assumptions we make, as if we were deciding between the Christian doctrine and the materialistic epistemology examining theirs coherence and logic, as about what we experience. This, however, opens another question: if there is a "faith" based on assumptions and there is faith based on experience (of trust and love), is there a similar distinction in atheism's case? Well, there seems to be: there is the "assuming" atheism of Dawkins, for example, and there is the "true" atheism of experience - experience of God's absence. It can be as vivid, as "palpable" as the one of God's presence and care. It's what the mystics called "a dark night of faith". So yes, atheism is exactly the same as faith and belongs to the same categories. Another thing is, what this "true" atheism means and whether it couldn't be treated as complementary to faith in the negative understanding of God. Anyways, it is certainly a profound and meaningful experience that can't be overcome by forcing oneself to accept some "truths".
And something more about doubts: each day I receive an email with the "Losungen", i.e. two passages from Scripture and a prayer annual chosen randomly by the Moravian Brethren in Herrnhut, and yesterdays prayer was:
"Even though we continue to live according to our will,
rescue us and save us from ourselves."
which reminded me of Mark 9:24: "Lord, I believe: help my unbelief". I simply adore to come back to this verse since it puts so simply the complex and perplexing struggle going on in ourselves (or I should speak just in my own name here: myself), fight between the different levels of consciousness and mind that leaves one sometimes totally confused as to what is it that he genuinely believes in and thinks. And hence the cry: save us from ourselves!, help my unbelief!. Fortunately, God can judge it better than we.
And just a word of advertisement in the end ;): I'd like to invite you to visit my (on a fiend of mine's) blog - http://dstp.cba.pl/?cat=56 .