At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Doubt vs. Unbelief

It's been quite an un-spring break. Snow flurries today in our St. Louis suburb with temperatures that barely get out of freezing. My wife worked herself to the bone on cleaning the basement (which I willfully confess I should've been more proactive about keeping clean, as she told me). I graded a number of Ethics projects today and was able to finalize some third quarter grades, as well. I snapped at my home security company over the phone for a charge that I should not have received. And those delightful taxes, drowning in the federal 1040 form, Schedule A, and Missouri's tax papers. Thank heaven we should see an okay refund.

It was in the midst of all these details that one item on my to-do list came screaming out of the darkness: I have to prepare my teaching lesson for Sunday!

I have been team-teaching an adult education class at our church, under the topic of "under the radar sins", and so far we've been making our way through impatience, ungodliness, worry, and so on. Basically, while there are many front-page items that Christians tend to condemn (rather ungraciously in some quarters), these small-ticket matters still need to be rooted out and dealt with in order for your spiritual life to grow.

So for the final week of our teaching series, I've decided to facilitate a discussion on "Christian unbelief".

I don't mean where someone is a follower of Jesus and then definitively and callously move away from Him. I define Christian unbelief as "living and acting as if God isn't there."

Which is a huge problem for a lot of us, but that's a subject for another time.

When some people here me talk about Christian unbelief, they say, "You mean doubt, don't you?"

Uh, no. Doubt is good; unbelief is bad.

One of the best delineations of the two comes from a thinker named Alister McGrath, who says, "Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty. Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God...But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not and need not be a problem."

Simply put, doubt is to be occasionally expected. Any sort of spiritual faith--mine being Christianity--resides within our human experience. And because it is our faith, we should expect it to bear the burden of our weighted circumstances, daunting events, and abject confusion. No wonder your faith--if you call yourself a believer--has its ups and downs. And it's really easy to doubt in the valleys.

But that's different from unbelief. Which is why I cringe when I hear people say, "Why isn't your faith strong enough? Why do you have doubts?" Once when we lived in Florida, I addressed all the students in the high school where I served as a chaplain. Our family had gone through a nasty stretch. Jordan had a tough birth and first few months of life. Joshua was struggling in his recovery from spinal surgery. I was at the end of my rope and I said so. But I didn't want my students thinking that justified turning my back on God. I said something to the effect that doubting your faith is not the same as doubting God. Figuring how the pieces fit the puzzle can be taxing. But I think God is pleased when we refuse to walk away from the table and at least sit with Him to figure out the puzzle. Walking away is unbelief. Even if we sit at the table of faith in our doubts, the point is this: We are at least there.

Just my two cents, for what it's worth.

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