Tag Archives: doubt

Power, Faith and Doubting God

Throughout this blog, I have tried to be honest about my struggle with doubt. In fact I have called 2015 the Year of Doubts. During the year I have “doubted” Easter, church music and good works. I have also looked at the stages of doubt and Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who has ever been labeled as “Doubting Thomas.” When I have used the word doubt in these contexts what I have really been trying to do is take an honest and fresh look at some of the aspects of my faith. As I wrote in my opening Year of Doubts post: “I haven’t lost my faith. I’m not leaving Christianity or the Church/ church. I’m not even somehow testing the claims of God, Jesus and the Bible. What I am doing is being open about my doubt- what I don’t know, what I don’t understand, what I cannot explain and what question I have.”

My posts haven’t been about doubting God but rather the ways that we have made God work (or limited God to work) through our religious systems.

That’s until I realized that I am in the midst of doubting God right now.

I’ve been working through a process for a couple of years now of trying to discern if God is calling me in a particular direction. I still don’t know what God might be leading me to do but I know that I didn’t really believe that God could do it. I didn’t believe that God could make the vision work. God could issue the call and give the vision but God couldn’t actually make it work. My thoughts, fears and prayers have been focused on whether or not God has the power to do the things God calls us to do.

I know I’m not the only one who has ever experienced this kind of doubt. God has an inconvenient habit of asking those who believe in him to do the things that seem, at first glance, to be too crazy, too grand or too consequential. Perhaps it is fair to say that when God calls us to a specific task it’s one that seems either too big for us or too small for us. Either way, I think God calls us to tasks for the purpose of seeing if we trust God; to see if we believe God is powerful enough to do the task God has assigned.

It’s God’s power, however, that I have a hard time believing.

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt, 1633

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt, 1633

A couple of days ago, I was reading in Ephesians and I began to see the way I have been doubting God and God’s power. At the end of chapter one, the Apostle Paul prays several things for the Ephesian church and the Ephesian Christians, one of which is that they will know the “surpassing greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe.” Then, in typical Pauline fashion, he elaborates on God’s power so extensively that it appears he has moved on to another topic. However, Paul wants his reader to fully understand what kind of power it is that God has toward the believer. Paul first says that the power at God’s disposal is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, seated Jesus at God’s right hand, gave Jesus all authority and placed everything under Jesus’ rule. That would be enough, but Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues by describing God’s power as the same power that took you and I, people dead in sin, and made us alive (just as Jesus is alive), raised us up and seated us with Jesus where Jesus is seated in the place of supreme rule and authority. Paul also goes through great lengths to show that this power comes completely from God- there’s no power you and I bring to the table.

Paul is clear in his message: God possesses great power. God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead and give him all power and authority and God has to power to take people dead in sin, make them alive and place them where Jesus, himself, sits. If God has the power to do that, then God has to power to make what seems too crazy, too big or too small, not only possible, but a proven certainty.

imagesPaul also says that this is the power that God has “toward” us. It’s the power the pushes us, like wind in the sails of a ship. A ship cannot make wind but if the wind is blowing toward the ship, the ship can use its sails to be pushed by the wind. It is similar with you and I. It wasn’t our power that raised Jesus from the dead and it wasn’t our power that moved us from death into life- it was God’s power. We do not have God’s power stored inside us somewhere, waiting to be released; God alone controls God’s power and we simply want to have our proverbial sails ready if and when God blows that power in our direction.

When you and I doubt God’s power to accomplish the task God has given us, what we are really saying is that God may have the power to raise Christ from the dead and give Christ all power and authority and God may have the power to give us life and seat us with Christ in the place of power and authority but God doesn’t have the power to meet a financial need, to bring the right people to a team, to find the right location, to help us communicate God’s vision, to take a step away from the spotlight, to serve- or whatever our fears and anxieties may be when we think about the task God has before us. To say it another way, we are saying God has the power to save me for eternity but God doesn’t have the power to help me accomplish God’s calling on earth.

When we look at it in those words, our doubts seem awfully silly. It becomes one of those times where our emotions and fears don’t line up with our knowledge and logic. When this happens, our only response is to rest in faith that God does indeed have the power to accomplish all that God wants to accomplish. And that is true even when God decides to use imperfect human beings like you and like me.

You Don’t Know Who This Is, Do You?

images-3Last week I sent a text message to an old friend. My friend is one of the pastors at a rather large church that has services streaming on their website. After watching one of the worship services of that church, I shot my friend a text complimenting on how good the service was. When I received a quick reply, I began chatting and asking how things were- in the way friends do when catching up. From then on, all I received were generic responses like: “Working hard” and “Doing well.”

I wanted to text back, “You don’t know who this is, do you?”

I have to admit that I regularly feel this same sentiment when it comes to my relationship with God. This is especially true when I pray. I feel like my prayer life consists of reciting the same prayers day after day and I want to ask God, “You don’t know who this is, do you?” That question doesn’t come out a feeling that I’m somebody that God has to pay attention to, as if I’m somebody that is demanding God’s attention. Rather it comes from a feeling of disappointment. It’s similar to the feeling of when you meet someone at a party or a social event only to see them later and, while you remember who they are, they have no idea who you are. There’s a feeling of disappointment that comes because somehow you feel you aren’t worth being remembered.

Lately when I try to interact with God, it feels like I’m texting someone who doesn’t know who I am or I’ve run into someone I met at a party who doesn’t remember talking to me. Intellectually and theologically, I know God knows who I am, I know God knows my situations and I know God is in control and moving me closer to being conformed to the image of Jesus  but practically, honestly, truthfully, I feel disconnected.

I’ve written several times about the journey within a “dark night of the soul” (to quote St. John of the Cross) and how it’s made me doubt some things about God, rethink some things about God and explore some things about God. Every time I’ve worked through that process I have found myself wanting to know God in a fuller way but each time I’ve found that way elusive. It’s like trying to capture evidence of the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot; whatever equipment you use and however enthusiastically you search, the smoking gun that proves their existence always proves to be elusive.

Maybe that analogy is, in fact, part of the problem. I want God to give me the proverbial smoking gun that suddenly takes what’s out of focus and makes it clear. I want God to answer every question, satisfy every concern and give some validation or explanation for the ups and downs of life. I want God to say, “Yes, I know who you are” but maybe God wants to say, “Yes, now you’re who you’re supposed to be.”

Those are two very different replies to the question I’ve been asking. Truthfully, the second reply is much scarier because being is always harder and complicated than doing. Being involves a journey, testing, changing and not knowing exactly where we will end up. Being means that there is no easy answers, even if we desperately want an easy answer.

I’m reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ [so that] I may know Him.” For Paul, none of the accomplishments of his life, all his doing, helped him know Jesus any better. It was only when God took him on a journey of being that he was able to find the God that was elusive before.

I still want God to remember me. I still want God to give some answers, clarity and explanation. But more than that I want God to make me into who I’m supposed to be, so that I, like Paul, can know Him. At the very least, I want to want that.

Doubt of the Month: Easter

Easter has become about this.

Easter has become about this…

It seems like Easter sneaks up on me every year. Maybe it’s because the date of Easter jumps so haphazardly around the calendar like it’s a cricket trapped in a shoebox. Perhaps it sneaks up on me because I’m too busy eating the chocolate eggs that appear in the store on February 15th.

But I think the actual reason Easter sneaks up on me is because I don’t prepare for Easter. Not only that, many of our churches fail to prepare for Easter- at least not like they prepare for Christmas. In my church we start singing Christmas hymns on December 1st. We hang the green. We decorate the sanctuary with ten feet tall (at least) Christmas trees. We have a church-wide Christmas dinner. We give gifts to families. We construct a living nativity scene complete with live sheep, goats and a donkey. We even have a life-size wooden nativity set that sits in a window over the main entrance to the church and which probably cost $25,000- or something equally ridiculous.

What do we do for Easter? Nothing.

We don’t begin singing Easter hymns weeks before Easter. We don’t decorate the church for Easter. We don’t give anything to the community. We definitely don’t have a $25,000 life-sized wooden Easter scene.


It seems like Easter sneaks up on me every year.


It seems like we don’t really care about Easter like we care about Christmas, VBS, Halloween alternative events, Thanksgiving or summer camp.

In light of all this, I’m doubting Easter. I doubt that Easter means anything to the modern Christian church.

instead of about this. "Resurrection of Christ" by Marco Basaiti, 1520

instead of about this. “Resurrection of Christ” by Marco Basaiti, 1520

Obviously, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, although not as much as I would like. Hopefully your church prepares for Easter and thankfully there are churches and denominations that truly prepare for Easter thought the observance of Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.


I doubt that Easter means anything to the modern Christian church.


What does it mean to those inside our churches and outside our churches when we seemingly emphasize every other holiday and every other event over Easter?

Theologically, it shows that we don’t understand God’s plan and our own salvation. God’s plan and our salvation culminate in the Resurrection of Easter morning and nothing else. God’s plan wasn’t only the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. By our attention and money, however, to those inside and outside the church the culmination and of God’s plan for our salvation ranks low on the list of priorities.

Socially, it shows that we are just as consumer driven as the culture around us. We love Christmas because of the gifts. We love Halloween for the candy. We love Thanksgiving for the food. In many ways we are just as consumer driven as the culture around us. Easter isn’t one of the sexy holidays- unless you’re into Peeps and pastel colors and because it’s not one of the sexy holidays it get forgotten.

Evangelistically, it shows that the message of Jesus isn’t important for those around us. If the Resurrection and Easter are the central and culminating work of God for our salvation, what does it show those around us when it barely makes a blip on our radar? It shows that the message of Jesus isn’t very important to us and it isn’t very important for those around us.

Easter shouldn’t sneak up on us and it shouldn’t merely be another day. It should be the highlight of our calendar year and the celebration of our whole lives.

Doubt of the Month: Good Works

Each month during my year of doubt, I will be writing on a specific topic that I’m questioning and thinking about. This month the topic is good works.

I’m Protestant enough to believe that good works don’t play a role in salvation. One way to look at salvation is as God’s grace meeting human faith and good works do not make a person have any more faith or make God have any more grace. And, of course, the Apostle Paul talks about salvation as a work of faith in Ephesians, Colossians and Romans. The most famous of these is Ephesians 2:8-9.

And that leads to the question: If all my bad works don’t make God love me any less and all my good works don’t make God love me any more, why should I do good?

I think most Christians would respond in three ways. First, they would say that we do good works because Jesus did good works and Christians should try to imitate Jesus. True. Jesus fed people that were hungry, he healed people that were sick, he saved people from dangerous situations (when he calmed the sea and saved his disciples and others from drowning, for example) and he interacted with people that were social outcasts. The complication that comes from this response is that we don’t, and in most cases are incapable of, performing the same good works that Jesus did. We aren’t healing people. We aren’t exercising demons. We aren’t calming storms. There is really no comparison between the good works that Jesus did and the good works that you and I are capable of doing. It would be similar to if you or I watch basketball on t.v. and say that we are following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan- the comparison is laughable.


If all my bad works don’t make God love me any less and all my good works don’t make God love me any more, why should I do good?


That brings us to the second response: Christians do good works because it’s the right thing to do within our society; good works are our social obligation as Christians. Just as in the first response, this is partly true but ultimately incomplete. Here the good becomes defined by society and religion is used as a defense of the good that society has defined. This is what happened in the American South during slavery and in Germany during the reign of Hitler’s Nazi regime, just to name two examples, when Christians were able to use Scripture to defend the “good” that the society was perpetuating.

Lastly, the third response is that doing good works makes us feel good. At least that is what we say, what we really mean, however, is that we do good works because we want good things done for us. This is the least spiritual response but probably the one the best reflects our true intentions.  Many, perhaps most, of our good works are done because we feel good after doing them. We want the good feeling and we desire recognition for the good that we did. If you get a little frustrated when you do something nice or good and don’t receive a thank you for it, it is because you didn’t receive the recognition you felt you deserved for the good work you did. It’s very ironic that we often give our money, give our time and give our resources all because we are selfish. This desire to be recognized for our good works does not end with recognition from others people, we desire recognition from God as well. We feel that God owes us something for the good we do; we deserve good circumstances, good finances, good families and deep spiritual experiences. Contrary to our feelings, God does not owe us good in return for our good.

So, why do we do good works? If those three responses are partly true but ultimately incomplete, is there a reason for you and I to continue or start doing good works?

I think there is and I think it does go back to Jesus. Previously I said that we cannot, in most circumstances, replicate the individual works that Jesus did, however, we can imitate the reason behind the individual works that Jesus did. When Jesus did good works, he did them for two reason. First, Jesus did good works to make God known. Jesus didn’t do good works to make himself famous (in many cases he told those he helped not to tell anyone) but to make God known- even if only to the individual he helped. Second, Jesus did good works to show that every person has dignity and value. Most of Jesus’ good works were directed toward the outcasts and toward those who couldn’t give him anything in return- even if they wanted to.


The way I was living everyday life was moralistic therapeutic deism at best and a sad belief in karma at worst.


This topic has been on my mind because I have found that when I do good works I do them out of the three responses that I mentioned earlier. But when I’m really honest I do it mostly from the third reason. When I do what is good, I somehow think that I am racking up points that will compel God to reward me. When rewards don’t come it is because I haven’t racked up enough points or because it is a result of the bad things I have done. In the way I was living everyday life, good works make good things happen and bad works make bad things happen. It was moralistic therapeutic deism at best and a sad belief in karma at worst.

I wonder how many Christian behave in the same way? Notice I didn’t say believe because we all know and can say the right beliefs but we don’t always behave in the way we believe. Do we try to abstain from doing wrong- lie, cheat, steal, curse, speed, gossip, do violence- because we don’t want bad things to happen to us in return? Or because we don’t want to point people away from God or devalue any person? Do we attempt to do good- be moral, be generous, be faithful, be loving, be peaceable- because we want God to notice and reward us for our good deeds? Or because we want to point toward God and give value and dignity to others?

Why do we do good works? I’ve doubted my reason.

Can We Blame Thomas for His Doubt?

Last time I left with a question, what causes doubts to form? When we have know something, believed something or seen something, what causes us to begin doubting those things? I think a biblical story helps point out a few reasons why this happens.

How would you like your name forever associated with doubt? Doubting Ryan. Doubting Bob. Doubting Jill. Doubting Thomas.

For two centuries Thomas, the disciple, has been shackled to doubt. So much so that we almost say “Doubting Thomas” in the same way that we would call anyone by their full name. He has forever been labeled by one period of time in his life. (Let me diverge for just a moment to point out that I hope you know that one period of time shouldn’t define your whole life but we have all seen where that has happened.)

What caused Thomas’ doubt? Did he have a overwhelming lack of faith? Was he an early modernist who needed objective proof?

I think there are three reasons for Thomas’ doubt that dive beneath the superficial answers. Those reason also give insight into the doubts that you and I journey through.

The first thing that caused Thomas’ doubt was that his doubt was based on an event, on an idea that was completely beyond the normal. Remember what was happening. Jesus had been crucified and entombed for three days when the disciples claim that Jesus has appeared to them, not as a ghost or a vision but as a real, living, resurrected person. That reality was completely beyond the thought process of Thomas- and many Jews for that matter. While some Jews did believe in the resurrection of the dead, they believed that it would take place at the end of time and that it would coincide with God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies. To paraphrase NT Wright, for God to raise Jesus from the dead in the middle of time completely threw off their idea of how God would work in the world. It was natural for Thomas to be doubtful.

We experience the same thing. Our reality cannot understand why a child, a parent or a spouse had to die. Our normal does not include tragedy or suffering. The way things are suppose to work doesn’t include the battle or physical or mental disease. These aren’t the ways God is suppose to work in the world. And we, like Thomas, doubt.

The second thing that caused Thomas’ doubt was it came from a missed common experience. When Jesus appeared all the disciples were there- except Thomas (and Judas, but he was dead). The others saw, Thomas didn’t. The others heard, Thomas didn’t. The others believed, Thomas didn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see, hear and believe but he missed the common experience of those who did and it caused him to doubt.

Once again, we experience the same thing. There are numerous examples of this. It could be a feeling of missing a blessing that everyone else seemingly has been given. It could be that God is “more real” in the lives of other than in your life. It could be that God moved in your church the week you happened to miss. No matter what it is, it’s hard to believe when it feels like you are left out.

The third thing that caused Thomas’ doubt was that it came from the need for verification. Here we get close to the standard explanation for Thomas’ doubt. It usually goes something like this: Thomas couldn’t believe the testimony of the women who saw the empty tomb, he couldn’t take the word of John and Peter who saw that the tomb was empty, he couldn’t believe the experience of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus and he couldn’t comprehend the story of Jesus appearing to the ten remaking disciples. Thomas needed proof; he didn’t only want to see and hear but he wanted to touch- then he would believe. Jesus did let Thomas touch but we are more blessed because we can believe without physical proof, we have faith.

We would like to think that we are above Thomas’ desire for verification but we aren’t. We desire the same verification, we just search for it in different means. We seek verification in verses of scripture. We seek it in the counsel of others. We seek it in church when the pastor “was speaking just to me.” We seek it in feelings that we then describe as “God told me to…”. We ask God for signs, opportunities, success and, though rarely, restraint.

I find it interesting, though misleading to you and I, that Jesus does offer Thomas verification and it would be an easy thing to make a leap and say that God offers verification in all circumstances but I’m not sure that is true. There isn’t a scriptural verse for every circumstance and asking for a sign doesn’t mean that God sends one. I think the lesson from Thomas’ experience is two fold. One, doubt can form from a number of different places. Two, Jesus didn’t leave Thomas in doubt. In the case of Thomas, Jesus did answer each of his causes of doubt; Jesus showed that he was resurrected, he appeared when Thomas was with the other disciples and he offered to let Thomas touch him. I don’t think God leaves us in our doubts but, like I said earlier, I think it would be a mistake to assume that God will answer each doubt, of every person, in every case.

What about you, have you experienced doubt because of an event or a reality that was or is completely outside the normal? Have you experienced doubt because of a missed common experience or the need for verification? Tell your story in the comment section.

The Stages of Doubt

Paisano2008Pics 092One of the things I realized in writing last week’s post was how similar it was to a post I wrote almost one year ago. The post from a year ago was telling my journey through the anger and bargaining stages of trauma. I wrote how I was mad at the church and how everything was handled (anger) and I admitted that there were things that I didn’t do right and opportunities that I missed (bargaining).

That’s all well and good except that there are two more stages to go- depression and acceptance (I did all my denial within the first few months after the decision was told to me).

My journey of doubt has gone hand in hand with my journey through the stage of depression. That is not to say that everything in my life is horrible and I’m just complaining. There has never been a time when we have gone without, I have  two (soon to be three) healthy, funny and crazy kids, a boss that genuinely cares about my family, and a wife that loves and supports me. This is a journey about where I’ve been, where I am and where I hope to go. It’s an admittance that I’m still in the process of healing and that the healing process takes time and has ups and downs. [I don’t think I’ve reached acceptance yet, mostly because I don’t think (at least I hope) that God isn’t done with me and someone might be willing to give me another chance.]


This is a journey about where I’ve been, where I am and where I hope to go.


Before going any further let me clarify, I am not saying that spiritual doubt or spiritual questions is the the same as depression or that the two necessarily go together in any way. There are people who have spiritual doubts that aren’t in any way depressed and vice versa. I am also not using the word “depression” in its clinical sense (although clinical depression is very real and not talked about enough in our churches). I’m using the term in a colloquial way to describe the feeling of disappointment in the twists and turns of life and a feeling of discontentment in the “new normal.” It’s the feeling that life has taken a wrong turn somewhere and that this isn’t the way the story was suppose to be. I think people who have experienced a loss, trauma or a life set back can relate to that definition.

Just like there are stages of trauma (I’m using the term trauma instead of grief because I think these stages apply not only to those who have experienced a death but any kind of physical or emotional trauma), I think there are stages of doubt. Like I wrote above, the stages of trauma and doubt don’t have to go together but at times they do.

Descartes, in his Meditations I, wrote that doubt has three stages. First is sensory illusion. Our senses can deceive us and when we discover that we have been deceived we begin to doubt the other things we “know” from our different senses.  Second is The Dream Argument. Descartes argues that dreams can appear very real and the world, either the outside world or the inner person, that we “know” could be a fabrication of our own minds. Third is The Deceiving God Argument. This argument says that if God is good and knows all and yet there are times when I am deceived but that doesn’t change God’s goodness or omnipotence, so could God be deceiving me all the time.


Why doesn’t God make it easy to understand him?


We have all had times when our senses have deceived us but that probably hasn’t caused us to doubt our core values or beliefs. We have all had extremely vivid and realistic dreams, however, those probably haven’t made us doubt the realities of our world. But what about Descartes “deceiving God?” Does God deceive us and drive us to doubt? Perhaps a better question is, why doesn’t God make it easy to understand him?

If God is loving, why is it so hard to believe in God’s love? If God is good, why is it hard to trust in God’s goodness? If God has a plan for my life and a plan for your life, why is it so hard to see that plan? Why do prayers go unanswered? Why do we suddenly doubt things we have believed?

What causes doubt to form? That will be the discussion next time.

* Notes on Descartes’ stages of doubt courtesy of the the University of Kentucky, found here.

2015: The Year of Doubts

I think every person who has ever believed in something has had times of doubt. Every person has asked, “Is that really true?” or “How can I know for sure?” Every person who has ever loved someone has doubted that their love will be returned. Every person who has backed a cause has wondered if they are really going to make a difference. Every person who has flown in an airplane has thought, “I’m really not sure how this thing actually flies.”


Every person who believes in God has questioned whether that God is really there.


The Christian culture has responded to this doubt by heralding a seemingly oil and water mixture of faith in a God that cannot be seen and certainty in one’s personal salvation experience. Doubt then becomes either a failure of faith or a failure of certainty. It’s a somewhat paradoxical dilemma that in the end doesn’t fix what doubt remains. The truth is, wherever there is faith, doubt is close by and wherever there is certainly, doubt is always around the corner.

If you are a person of faith, as I am or at least try to be, what are we suppose to do with our doubts? Doubt is common to everyone (some of the greatest saints of Christianity experienced doubt) and yet there is no greater time of loneliness than in a time of doubt.

As I have reflected over the last few years in my life, I would have to call this stage in my journey a doubt journey. Many of the things I thought I knew about myself and what I felt I was supposed to be doing we’re taken away and the waters of doubt flooded in to replace them. My profession, my sense of calling, my sense of worth, my sense of status, my friendships,my intellectual pursuits, my creative outlet, my free time, my future goals, my status quo- gone. And in their place doubt grew. For me, all those things (profession, calling, worth, ect.) were tied up in the God that I was supposed to have faith and certainty in and if they were gone, was God gone too?


We need to be free and honest enough to tell our journeys of doubt just like we tell our journeys of faith.


The last six months of 2012 and the first half of 2013 were a blur of depression, never ending job applications, disappointment, stress and emotional and spiritual numbness. Not just for me but for my family as well. The result of all that led to some dark and destructive behavior as some vain attempt to have an illusion of control in time of great uncertainty.

I don’t say all of that because I’m the only person who has ever gone through tough times or as some kind of excuse but because doubt, just like faith, doesn’t occur in a vacuum, there is a journey of doubt. We need to be free and honest enough to tell our journeys of doubt just like we tell our journeys of faith.

2015 will be my year of doubts. I haven’t lost my faith. I’m not leaving Christianity or the Church/ church. I’m not even somehow testing the claims of God, Jesus and the Bible. What I am doing is being open about my doubt-what I don’t know, what I don’t understand, what I cannot explain and what questions I have.

My hope is that as I address the doubt that washed away aspects of my faith, then that faith will have a place to return. I hope and pray that you would join me in this journey of doubt. Experiencing doubt is lonely but as we’ve said, everyone experiences it. Let’s take the journey together and pray we’ll find a greater faith on the other side.