How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
--Psalm 13:1 NRSV
This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the strange story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Tradition seems to have a problem with the idea that a human being could physically wrestle with the creator of the universe, so the story is often described as Jacob wrestling an angel. Yet, when the match is over, Jacob names the site Peniel “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
It is a vivid image, the idea of a person striving with God. Yet, anyone who has had an honest journey of faith probably will admit to times of struggle, times when God seemed distant or inscrutable. Especially in times of tragedy when we must wrestle with the hardest questions of why God allows pain to come to people who don’t deserve it, most sane people have some questions about whether this whole God-thing is all its cracked up to be.
At different times along my journey, I’ve heard preachers and teachers extol “unshakeable faith” or a type of “certainty” that flies in the face of reason and experience. Whenever I meet someone who doesn’t have any doubts about what they believe, I want to get as far away from them as possible. Religious people without any doubts are dangerous people. For one thing, they lack humility, and for another thing they can justify anything no matter how abhorrent as God’s will. I think a healthy amount of doubt is a good thing for a humble faith.
Frederick Buechner says this about doubt in his book Whistling in the Dark: A Seeker’s ABC:
Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
If we stick with it, I’m convinced our times of wrestling with God—working through our questions and doubts—can lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be connected to God. A healthy kind of doubting paradoxically can lead us to a stronger faith.
I’ve been in Christian settings where doubts about the party line were seen as weakness, if not sin, but I’ve been in other Christian settings where doubt was the only thing valued. The lack of doubt and uncertainty can lead to spiritual abuse, but when doubt becomes cynicism a different kind of abuse can occur, those who hold convictions are belittled and condemned. There’s not much difference between a fervent Christian who uses religion to hurt others, and a more “enlightened” Christian who hurts others without resorting to religious justification. Neither one operates with a healthy mixture of faith and doubt.
Unhealthy doubt doesn’t have to be abusive; it can simply be the type of cynicism that never allows for trust or risk. The cynical kind of doubt can be little more than a defense mechanism to guard against ever investing oneself in relationships, improving the world or trusting God. United Church of Christ minister and author Tony Robinson has this to say about the kind of doubt which is suspect:
This doubt is an unwillingness to make a commitment and to take a risk in faith. It is never really knowing where one stands or taking a stand. It makes faith a kind of on- again/off-again thing. At least sometimes, it is a good thing to doubt our doubts. It is a good thing to take the risk of trusting wholly and of surrendering ourselves without reservation to God’s care.
How do we know the difference between the kind of doubting which is healthy and the kind of doubt which is unhealthy? There is no easy answer. I tend to believe each of us goes too far one way or the other at times on our spiritual journeys. The only thing I know to do is hold on, keep wrestling with God, don’t let go of the struggle. Jacob refused to let go of God in his wrestling match and for his efforts he received a new name and a blessing, even though he also walked with a limp afterward. The struggles of faith may leave us bruised, but the false certainties of unreflective faith and cynicism leave us in much worse condition.
We will talk more about the struggles of faith Sunday morning.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.