Sometimes I Truly Question

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog… too long, in fact. But that’s life, at least for me. Other things take priority, or I find other avenues to write and connect with people. But for whatever reason– and I’m sure the Holy Spirit has had something to do with this– I have felt compelled to wrestle with something in the forum of this blog. Of course, that makes the wrestling public and thus open to scrutiny (by all 5 people who might read this!), but that’s okay. If I can’t be publicly honest about where I struggle, then am I being sincere with myself or with God?

Tomorrow, I’m preaching on the reign of Christ. This theme fits within the liturgical calendar on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before Advent begins and a new liturgical year begins. Mind you, I’m not married to the supposed preponderance of the liturgical calendar, but the theme of the reign of Jesus Christ is a good one. So why not share with my congregation the meaning and significance of this crucial theme in our theology?

Then it hit me like a loud thud, and the struggle began in earnest. It was doubt. Do I truly believe in the reign of Christ? Do I believe that at this very moment Christ reigns over all things? That old adage, “God is in control”… Do I honestly believe that, not just as a theological maxim but in my heart of hearts?

To be honest, I’ve been seriously questioning. That’s not to say that I doubt God’s existence or the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that I disbelieve the gracious power of God manifest in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And that’s not to say I disbelieve Christ’s return and hope of a new heavens and earth. Those convictions run deep within my being.

Right now, I’m struggling with how these realities play themselves out in the here and now, not just on a personal level, but on a systemic, macro, global level. Sometimes I even wonder how much of the reign of Christ is active within me, especially when I stand back and notice how out of control and chaotic my life can be. The world and my life seem more like a whirling dervish than an orderly kingdom in which Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, reigns.

At this point I can anticipate two distinctly different responses.

One response, the typical Christian response, will begin to say, “Well, Chris, of course everything seems out of whack. Everything is going to get a whole lot worse before Jesus returns, and then he’ll set it all right again.” In other words, ignore the violence, disease, broken lives, families, communities, schools, and political systems, and the ever-growing economic disparities in the world. Just keep holding out for “the great by and by in the sky.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me– not one bit. For one, I cannot ignore suffering and evil, and I have a hard time believing that God does, either. How can God sit in heaven far away, awaiting the opportune time to jump in? Meanwhile his creation decays and dies. That’s not the God I trust and live for.

The second response, the atheist/agnostic response, will begin to say, “Chris, Chris, Chris… Why do you keep clinging to your god and your religious system of belief when the painfully obvious truth stares at you right in the face: there is no god, or even if there is, it’s not the kind of god you say there is. As for Jesus, hey, he was a great teacher and role model, but this stuff about his death and resurrection has been a Pollyanna-like religious projection at best.”

Really? I’m not going to argue with skeptics here because it’s fruitless. But when I consider the countless number of people who have laid down their lives over their conviction of a crucified and risen Lord who defeated the powers of sin and death, I know there is something going on there worth my shared conviction. When dispirited disciples of Jesus became passionate, energized apostles who preached about a Risen Lord and built the church all around the known world at a whirlwind pace, something other than a delusion had to propel them.

So I find myself somewhere between these two poles of shallow faith propositions and sheer disbelief, somewhere in the shadowy wilderness of doubt. I want to hold onto what I know to be true, but I struggle with that belief, too. I want to believe that Christ does reign and will reign forever, but I’m not sure how to apply that belief in a plausible way, considering the state of the world, the church, and even my own life.

One middle ground approach that has worked for me in the past is the “already but not yet” proposition. This proposition says that the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ is both an “already” but “not yet” reality. In other words, we see evidences and sparks of Christ’s reign and the presence of his kingdom, but so much more is yet to come. This description fits the ambiguities, but how is that anything worth getting excited about? How is that a highly motivational vision for us disciples of Jesus or for anyone else?

“Hey, come join this movement called the kingdom of God! It’s not a whole lot to talk about now, but just you wait…” Hmm… That’s not the tone the first apostles took in their preaching about Jesus Christ.

Nor is it the tone of someone like Mary in her stunningly beauitful Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary says all this after she knows she bears the Messiah and when her cousin Elizabeth acknowledges it, too. Notice the verb tense Mary uses. It’s the past perfect tense. She’s talking about a reality that has already happened, the effects of which are still reverberating in the present. I interpret this to mean that God has already made due on all his covenantal promises to Israel, and by extension to the rest of world, within this embryonic Messiah in her womb. Nothing seems to have changed. (In fact, our world hasn’t seemed to improve at all over Mary’s ancient world.) Yet Mary has the audacity to speak as if all the wonderful things Messiah will accomplish have already happened.

I just wish I had the faith or the wisdom to be able to see and believe the way Mary did. She was no fool. She was not deluded. I hardly take her for having a shallow, “God said it– I believe it– That settles it” kind of faith. After all, she struggled before and after this moment in her life. Mary sees and knows something absolutely powerful that celebrates the reign of her unborn child. I pray I can see what she witnessed.

In the mean time, I’m taking the sage advice someone once gave John Wesley when he struggled with his own faith: “Preach faith ’til you have it.” That does not mean talking oneself into submission to a belief. But I do believe it means that in sharing the faith, it just might help me to see and understand a truth I can’t currently see. If I can get there, it will be better than shallow, propositional faith or disbelief.

It will be faith that has been tested and tried and seasoned into something worth staking my life upon.


Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

24 Responses to Sometimes I Truly Question

  1. Willidine Mellas

    Well Chris I have always tried to give my two cents worth on your blogs and just so happens I don’t have a answer for you. Yet I have a point of view from my own way of thinking I suppose. As you well know I have struggled in my faith and belief over the years as well. I can not understand why a loving God whom is my protector as well as the rest of the worlds could set back and watch innocent people children and adults a like suffer through cancer and many other dieseses and other hurts in the world. Yet we are told its not him, its the devil its the this and that. I find myself thinking that is a lot of huey. None the less I wake up in the morning and thank God for blessing me with another day and I thank him all day long for all he’s given to me and he is the one I turn to in my darkest hours. He is the one I set at this very desk crying my eyes out and looking at the ceiling screaming at in anger when I simply can not take any more and ask him WHY WHY WHY!!! And in the end I tell him you created me you know me better then I know myself you know I can not take anymore I love you and its your hands I leave this all in. Funny thing is weather its in my head or not within a day or so it always seems to get better. Go figure it takes a woman to yell I laugh and think to myself. But I guess my point is Chris we all question, and we all struggle in some way. It is ok that you feel like you do. To me that shows that you are in fact human, if you did not feel that way I would not trust in your preachings as much as I do. God bless you for sharing this with us. I pray that what ever answer you seek will come. And you know if it doesn’t then welcome to my world and everyone elses we never grew out of the WHY stage either.

    • Willie, thank you for your honesty and openness in what you shared here. That is something I have always appreciated about you. You’re not fake– what you see is what you get. And I think you captured so well the tension we believers live in: a life and world that seem out of control on the one hand and a Lord who reigns over it all on the other. In the end, we choose to walk into the assurance that Jesus is Lord and that things inevitably do get better.

  2. Willidine Mellas

    Thank you, that means a lot.

  3. Mike Chaney

    I wish I had an easy answer for you, but you don’t ask those easy questions. If I had an easy answer for you, it would mean there was an answer for me as well (and for everyone else). I think what we can do is compare where we are and how we perceive God’s kingdom (and Christ’s reign). Perhaps in comparing our views, we can come close to the reality.
    I look at Mary’s words in the context of “God has done good things and HAS laid low the evil and exalted the good, but it doesn’t mean he has done, or will do, it for ALL the good and evil people.
    We know from the Bible the many things God has done in the past and the miracles that Jesus performed. I know we all have examples of people who have been healed of “incurable” cancer or survived accidents that supposedly couldn’t be survived. To me, those are the examples where God is showing that His reign, through Jesus, is here, but the details are beyond our understanding.
    If we had understanding, maybe we could know why incidents like my brother, cousin, and two friends being killed by a drunk driver three months ago happened, or why a truly wonderful man of about my age is dying of cancer in Hospice at this moment, or while so many people whose only function seems to be to waste oxygen are still walking around causing grief for others.
    I’m still struggling mightily with the question of “If God is in charge, WHY………. (insert your own questions here). I have to look to what happens after the fact of tragedies to keep me sane. I see the people rallying together to help the survivors of tragedies like the deaths of the four bikers or providing comfort to those affected by the impending death of a truly decent man. Perhaps, those bad times ARE caused by Satan, but God then chooses to use them to help us grow and come closer to Him. Why can’t he just prevent them in the first place and find some other way to get us closer?? I wish I had the answer to that, but I’m having to rely on faith that someday I will know the answer.
    Thanks again for a thought-provoking blog. I hope someone can come up with something that will point you in the right direction (or that something you put down will help us). We all have to work together.
    God Bless you and keep you.

    • Mike, I had no idea you had no idea you have been going through so much personal loss. I’m so sorry to hear that, brother, and I feel so badly for you! In light of that, I’m personally really encouraged by your faith and for taking the time to respond to me here. Thank you for that.
      Personally, I’m fine living with the ambiguities around the “why?” questions. I think that most of the attempts to answer the “why?” questions come up shallow with the fruit of being grossly unhelpful and even hurtful. (I could strangle anyone who says to a parent who has lost a child, “I guess God needed another angel and she’s in a much better place with him now.” Talk about a well-intentioned belly wound inflicted by comments like that!)
      I guess where I’m struggling are with the “how?” and “what?” questions. I don’t have to know why all this evil and brokenness happens. But how is the reign of Christ still in effect now, and what exactly is Christ’s reign in the seeming chaos and injustice of our world? That’s where I’m wrestling with doubt right about now.
      This morning in my sermon, I admitted by doubt around these questions, and I think for most people, it was a relief to hear their pastor expressing his own doubts, even as he’s struggling to believe. I had one of those on-the-spot Holy Spirit moments and shared that perhaps the answer lies somewhere within Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. The kingdom and reign of God is like that mustard seed– small but powerfully explosive and eventually overtaking all the other plants in the garden. I think my answer can be found somewhere in there, but I’m not quite ready to end the wrestling match just yet.

  4. Willidine Mellas

    Mike, what a great way of looking at things. Never muched concidered it that way, that the devil created the distruction and God rally’s us together to get through it. That actually makes since to me. But I also agree WHY… not prevent it to begin with. But in a sence it may be the only way God can make us get a reality check. If nothing bad ever happened to make us concider how fortunate we are then we would forget how blessed we are to have the things we have and how fast they can be taken away. Again a reality check. Chris I have to tell you this blog has had me thinking all day. I really like this one. Probably because I can totally relate to it. But it also has made me take a look at myself and think more about how truly blessed I am. I may not be rich in money but I am the rishest woman in love, family and friends. Thanks so much for helping inrich my life.

  5. Edmund Metheny

    “Chris, Chris, Chris… Why do you keep clinging to your god and your religious system of belief when the painfully obvious truth stares at you right in the face: there is no god, or even if there is, it’s not the kind of god you say there is. As for Jesus, hey, he was a great teacher and role model, but this stuff about his death and resurrection has been a Pollyanna-like religious projection at best.”
    (I’m contractually obligated to say that, you know.)
    That said, let’s talk doubt.
    Doubt has a bad reputation, but if you think about it being able to doubt is a very handy ability to have. If we were unable to doubt, it would be very hard to get along in life – once a decision was made there would be no way to error check it. And people do make mistakes. We are imperfect creatures.
    When dealing with a concept as big as GOD there must be doubt – otherwise there can be no increase in understanding. Believers must constantly undertake to reassess their beliefs about what God wants for them, what God requires of them, and what their purpose is within that great plan which they believe that only God grasps completely.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Edmund. (And I’d love who’s getting the kickback from your contract obligations!)
      I have no problem with doubt. I liken it to the discomfort of sore muscles after starting a new workout regimen. It’s painful and undesirable but shows evidence of stretching and growing. The only remedy is to work through the pain in order to get stronger, but not too hard or quickly, otherwise I could injure myself (slip into skepticism and disbelief).
      I’ve been here before, and like Jacob at the Jabok I keep wrestling until the blessing comes. Of course, that means I might walk away with a limp, but I’ll gladly live with that for the possibility of being blessed with a deeper intimacy with God.
      Edmund, knowing where you’re coming from, I deeply respect and admire your thoughtfulness and help here. Thank you!

  6. Edmund Metheny

    doubt is one of the things that atheists and theists share, as much as people like Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson may try to convince the world otherwise.

    • Edmund, I never would have thought of an atheist as a doubter. I just presumed that the conviction that there is no deity was a steadfast conclusion, not up for debate or consideration. Also, atheism seems to be a rationalist perspective, created by well-crafted arguments. So naturally, I assumed that an atheist would be found well insulated behind a heavily-fortified fortress of argument, free from doubt or intellectual tension regarding the non-existence of deity.
      So, I’m just curious… What are the things an atheist doubts?

      • Edmund Metheny

        The same things that theists doubt, in their own way – “is my view correct?” Like any reasonable beings, we need to be able to assess new information as it comes in. We need to be able to hold up to the light the things we believe to be correct and reexamine them from time to time.
        I sometimes doubt the validity of atheism. And even within atheism there are numerous different types of atheism that I need to examine and choose between. Over time I have changed my views on my atheism and how it allows me to relate to others who have different views. At one point I was a far more militant atheist than I am now, but I eventually came to first doubt, and then reject militant atheism in favor of a form that was more accepting of other beliefs than mine.

      • Edmund Metheny

        One thing I think that atheists typically lack that Christians, at least, tend to go way overboard on, is guilt over feeling doubt or struggling for understanding. Doubt is frequently going to be an unpleasant process, but it seems to me that there is something within the community of believers that pressures the faithful not to talk about doubt or struggle – as if it was something to be ashamed of. I sometimes get the impression that doubt and struggle is seen as weakness by many Christians, not as what it is – strength and flexibility, necessary for increased understanding.

        • Edmund, I think your comment has stumbled upon one of the occupational hazards of life in community, specifically, the conformity tendency. Community is held together by a common identity, purpose, values, and beliefs. And no one wants to rock the boat by introducing a doubt that might jeopardize the cohesiveness of the community.
          A humorous example might be people within a Unitarian Universalist community doubting if everything is so open and ambiguous all the time. They toy with the “doubtful” notion that there might be a great deal of black and white objectivity and certainty. That might cause some consternation among the ranks of the local UU church! 🙂

  7. I am atheist. There are no gods to be concerned about, nor to fret over. The world, and all of its chaos and suffering appears to be exactly what one would expect if there was no supreme loving father, or god-being at the helm. It just doesn’t.
    If humans are the most intelligent animals on this planet, then we are also saddled with the apparent ability to believe in whatever suits us, evidence or not. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not, but I can certainly say that religion and gods have not provided satisfying answers for me. Not ever.
    No matter what one believes, the world, and the universe rolls on, and on, and on…seemingly unmoved by our tiny-ness, and our insignificance. Tectonic plates move, and many humans and animals are wiped out by the earthquake or tsunami that follows. Diseases and viruses are unconcerned about our faith, nor our love for Jesus. They just keep taking out gods children.
    Suffering is permanent. Gods are fleeting. We can adjust our beliefs as we learn about our world through known measures, or we can sit back and dogmatically hold to beliefs that offer little difference to anything despite our certainties of the god we believe in.
    And yet, I remain hopeful, wishful at times, and faithful that humans can overcome many of the hardships, and the suffering that springs from the natural world that has no concern over us, as we are but one of millions of species to inhabit this planet. The fact that we are aware of our existence, and that we can search for knowledge and meaning has no bearing on any of it, except our own minds.
    Here we are, trapped on this planet, wondering where we came from, or if anyone knows we are here. And this affliction is cured for many by the invention of God.
    Today, while waiting for my wife to join us after a stroll through Costco, my young son and I were having fun trying to guess what movie a certain phrase represents. We were unaware that someone was watching us, because when my wife arrived, as we were leaving, a woman came up and said that she was so happy to see how well we were getting along with each other as a father and son. I thanked her and thought to myself, what was she expecting us to act like? We have everything we need…
    There’s probably no God, so stop worrying, and live your life!

    • Hi Jetson-
      Thank you for taking the time to read my stuff and for your thoughtful reply. I have enough friends who are either atheists or agnostics that I’ve learned to welcome their interaction with me, instead of just rebuffing them! (Of course, I came to learn, much to my shame, that religious peoples’ arrogance towards the thinking of others is one of the many things that turns people off from faith. How many people I must have driven away from being too arrogantly closed-minded to their views…)
      You said something here which I agree with. You say that human beings are saddled with the ability to believe whatever we want to believe. In other words, to believe or not to believe is a choice. I agree with that completely.
      In fact, in all the time I’ve spent dwelling in the spiritual lives of all kinds of people, I’ve found that the deepest convictions we have about faith (or the lack thereof) are emotional, not rational. The emotion fuels the choice, and then we buttress the choice with our rational arguments. All that to say that you and I made a choice, fueled by an emotional experience, to believe or not believe. And we could spend from now until eternity in dueling arguments but get nowhere unless something other than a cognitive change happens.
      Having said all that, I have to respectfully decline your advice, however graciously it was offered to me. Just as you find it much easier to fathom a world without “convoluted” arguments about God, I can’t imagine how much more convoluted our world would be without God. A world created by God and filled with God’s presence and power as just as apparent to me as the absence of the same is for you.
      As I’ve stated before to some others, there is a difference between doubt and disbelief. Doubt is a healthy thing for anyone. Doubt evidences the presence of growth and struggle. The times in the past I have been through doubt (and I’ve doubted just about every major tenant of my faith, even the existence of God), I came out of that season even stronger and more humble. I’m confident for the same now. None of this struggle equates or necessarily leads to disbelief, which is the singular denial of a faith proposition.
      Again, Jetson, thank you for your thoughtfulness and contribution, and I sure hope we can continue the conversation, if you’re at all interested.

      • Indeed Chris, I am certainly well versed in the arguments and debates about religions and their gods! And I would not engage in that type of conversation without agreement from both sides on such a path.
        I have even been called out by atheists for what they believed was a positive assertion on my behalf, that all gods are imaginary! That was a tough conversation, but I learned a lot from it. I had to concede that it was only my opinion, because I certainly would not be able to prove the negative.
        I do agree that doubt is healthy, along with skepticism. If we are naturally skeptical, then we are forced to consider the information being provided to us, in order to come to a conclusion. Each of us does this almost without awareness, in daily decisions, and in less frequent, but more important things in our lives.
        Some would say that God is THE MOST IMPORTANT decision a human can possibly make, and who am I to argue when the stakes are eternally positive or negative! It is for this very reason that I am a strong atheist. If it really is that important, then I want to know everything I can possibly know about God, and every claim and story that so many simply take for granted (sitting in Church every Sunday does not make one more informed, nor more spiritual.) I am a mere mortal, with the same brainpower and ability as every other human being, no matter their faith. I simply cannot accept that every single god ever created through time is imaginary, while the God of Abraham is the real thing – the evidence just does not exist for me.
        And honestly, if God is indeed real, then we are fooling no one at all by pretending to believe. I refuse to “just believe”, while others make claims of connections, and conversations, answered prayers, healing, etc. I will not pretend that I have this connection. If it ever happens, I will sit up and take notice, but until then I remain a happy, loving father and husband. I work hard every day, helping others in two different fields of teaching. I donate to charities, I volunteer, and I remain hopeful that humans will find a way to discover our similarities, and throw away our differences forever. Including religions!

        • Jetson, much of what you say here are the same critiques I have of “organized religion”, at least the form which we’ve inherited. And there are two criticisms that you offer here that are particularly striking to me:
          1) that “religion” leaves little room for thoroughgoing intellectual exploration and discussion, that we must simply put the thinking aside and live on the blind faith spoon-fed to us by a preacher. I think we’ve done a great disservice to the church and to brilliantly-minded intellectuals, many of whom have gone on to be agnostics or atheists, but snuffing out tough questions and thinking. Personally, I won’t lead a congregation that insists on being a nod-the-head “yes” club. I want people to think, question, and yes, doubt from time to time. That’s how we grow, and ultimately the faith of Jesus Christ does indeed stand up to the toughest scrutinies. What gets knocked down every time, however, are the shallow religious propositions upon which many a church are built.
          2) that Christians (or those from the Abrahamic faith, as you identify) must discount the beliefs of others. Now, I don’t subscribe to the universalist “all paths lead to the same ends” school of thought. But I do believe there are striking similarities between many of the world faiths, and substantial differences, too. The similarities tell me, however, that the same God is trying to get our collective and individual attention. I do also believe that Jesus Christ is the salvation for the world, but that’s a very inclusive, not exclusive claim. If we take our original Abrahamic call seriously, the call given to Abraham in Genesis 12, then we’ll be about the business of blessing and giving away to others the gift of a life with the Lord God of Israel made known in Jesus Christ. That’s a very different attitude than behaving like the Borg from Star Trek, which has been the mindset of Christendom since Constantine. Thank God (quite literally) that this form of Christianity is crumbling apart, much to the chagrin of many religious people and authorities, I might add!

      • I have been told in the past not to lump all Christians into a specific description, or identification. I try not to do that, as I must agree that most Christians that I know personally are fantastic friends, family, and neighbors. They don’t wear it on their sleeve, and they either judge in complete silence, or they simply don’t find it important enough to be concerned about every “lost soul”.
        I think there is room for critical thinking within Christianity, and I believe there are plenty of people who simply don’t take it so seriously as to lose themselves within a dogma, as opposed to simply being human, and believing because they are not satisfied with “not knowing.” I am satisfied with not knowing things. It feels good to say “I don’t know” when asked what happens when we die. And it is a very honest answer! However, we do know exactly what happens to our physical bodies, as well as to the brain activity and electrical pulses we have while alive, now don’t we?
        You do make a great point (#2) when you say that not all Christians discount other beliefs! I have to say that in my experience, a Christian has more problems accepting atheism than Islam! That is a surprise to me, but I’ve grown used to it. It tells me that some god belief is better than none – even though the result MUST be identical, eternal fire!

        • Jetson, you’ve been told well. It seems as if most atheists argue against fundamentalism. That leaves the rest of us saying, “Hey, that’s not me, and by the way, I’ve share many of your criticisms, too, but I’m still a believer.” I’m no liberal, either. I am an Evangelical (from the classic sense of that word), but there a growing number of Evangelicals who are neither fundamentalists or stridently conservative on the hot-button issues.
          As for motives explaining why I share my faith and engage with folks “on the outside”, I do it to try as best as I can to live and represent an authentic image of who Jesus is with the hopes that they will want this Jesus for themselves and share what I share. I’ve had many people decline, either politely or rudely, and in response, I just keep on being who I am, trusting who they are to God.
          I hear Christians going after lost people and conversions much like bragging how many scalps they have under their belt. For me, it’s not a numbers game, and conversion is a very tricky, organic process that, if we’re honest, lasts a lifetime. Heck, in every church I’ve served, there have been longtime church members who I’m sure have never converted! But then again, there are parts of myself that need conversion, too.

    • Edmund Metheny

      Jetson –
      Have you read “The Little Atheist Book of Spirituality” by Andre Compte-Sponville?

  8. Mary Kay

    Hi Chris,
    These are tough questions to wrestle with — as I have wrestled with them, I have found “God, Christ, Church” by Marjorie Suhocki to be helpful.
    Grace, Peace, Mary Kay

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