Monday, September 23, 2013

Prayer and Doubt (PrayerLife)

Thomas touches Jesus' side

I think that "doubt" is more like an emotion than it is like a choice. Emotions are not chosen. Emotions are feelings, and feelings cannot be chosen. Anger, for example, is the emotion we feel when one of our expectations has not been met. The unmet expectation gives rise to our emotion of anger. I think doubt is like this; viz., an emotion.

Descartes, in his Meditations, famously provides us with his method of "systematic doubt." Cartesian doubt is methodical doubt; "doubt" as a method. Descartes chose to doubt everything he could, even those things he felt most certain of. He writes: "how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body." If he did, people would consider him insane. Descartes did not really doubt that he had hands and a body. But simply claimed such things could be doubted. And if they could be doubted then we do not have, regarding them, absolute certainty. This is intellectual, philosophical "doubt." It is "logical doubt." Could I doubt that I am now sitting in this chair, using my hands to type out these words on my laptop? Is it at all possible that I am not doing these things which seem so certain to me? Yes, it is possible that I am not doing these things, with these hands. But one can engage in Cartesian, intellectual doubt while having no existential doubt at all.

Existential doubt is not chosen. It comes on a person like a mood. Like an emotion. Because it is not chosen we are not morally responsible for it.

This is important to understand. Recently someone talked with me about guilt they were feeling because they doubted something in relationship to God. This happened while they were praying. "Is God angry with me because I doubted?" they asked. My immediate answer was: "Not at all." You didn't choose to doubt. Something happened to you, and it provoked the emotion of doubt in you."

God knows about your doubt, and he can handle it. A reading of the Psalms would show a number of instances where the psalmist openly shares a doubt with God. For example, there is doubt fueling the series of questions at the beginning of Ps. 13 - 1 How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?

We see the same in Psalm 22 - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? Here is doubt that God is near, or that God even cares. These feelings are real, and many have experienced them. They are not the result of a moral choice for which one is half responsible.

In John 20 the disciples say to Thomas, "We have seen the Lord!" Thomas's response is, "I doubt it." He says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, when Jesus comes to him, he lets Thomas touch and feel his side and gain the empirical proof Thomas needed. Jesus did not freak out because Thomas doubted.

God doesn't enter a panic room when you or I doubt. I think "doubt" is part of our human condition. The more one cares and knows about a certain subject, the more susceptible they are to doubts. For example, I don't find myself doubting if the Dallas Cowboys will win their next game because I'm not a Cowboys fan and know nothing about them. But I do have doubts about some of my favorite sports teams because I have care for them and some knowledge about them. Care and knowledge always give rise to doubt.

Doubt is universal and finds a home in every worldview. Every person has a worldview. Every person who understands their own worldview and is passionate about it will, at times, have doubts about it. Questions arise, not matter what the worldview. In this sense doubt is normal and part of our human condition.

There are groups where one is not allowed to doubt. These include cults. And certain families. I have seen Christian parents scold their child for doubting something about God, even God's existence. This will only serve to drive a child away from God.

One must discern which doubts to entertain and which to not sweat over. Some doubts are reasonable, many others are not. But intitially they come as emotions, even if provoked by intellectual things (which sometimes happens). So it is that Jesus-followers can have and will have doubts. "Doubt" does not mean "unbelief." In doubt there can be a sense of wonder. The emotion of doubt can empower study and creativity.

As you engage with God in prayer you may - you likely will - experience the emotion of doubt. God is not angry with you about this. Like Thomas, it might even turn into an occasion to touch his side.