We Christians often condemn ourselves because our own virtues don't match those of some ideal "Christian" we've constructed in our heads with the help of well-meaning but misguided ministers, prayer-group members or Sunday school teachers.
And for nearly all Christians, one of the cardinal virtues is faith.
(I'm referring to Christians because I'm a Christian; I don't know how Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Wiccans might view this subject. You who belong to another group might face the same problem, or this whole column might be irrelevant to you. If it's the latter, I apologize.)
Somebody recently e-mailed me the following quote by Anne Lamott, a terrific writer who writes often about matters of the spirit:
"I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."
I haven't read Lamott's works extensively, but I've agreed with everything of hers I have read. The only problem I have with her is that she's more eloquent than I am. I particularly like the passage above, from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.
Anyway, a lot of us fret that we don't have enough faith. Christians are all about having faith. Keeping the faith. Increasing our faith.
We're so obsessed with faith that we lose sight of what faith really is. Sometimes we think we're sinning if we also experience doubts, much less admit those doubts to others.
I say embrace doubts. Broadcast them. Quit pretending you know all the answers all the time.
As Lamott points out, doubt doesn't indicate an absence of faith. To the contrary, the real opposite of faith is certainty. You don't need faith to believe in something you're certain about.
I don't need faith, for example, to believe in the law of gravity. I can see gravity at work with my own very human eyes. I can hold my grandson's wiffle ball above my head, drop the ball, then watch it hit the floor. I can do that 100 times or 1,000 times and the ball will hit the floor every blessed time.
Instead, I need faith to continue centering my life on a God I'm not always sure of.
I never see God. I never audibly hear him.
Sometimes I pray to him that a sick friend will get well, but instead the friend dies. Sometimes I pray for a sick friend to get well and he does, but even then I have no way of proving whether he was healed by divine intervention, by chemotherapy or by luck.
I can't help wondering.
How can you live in this pain-wracked world for more than three weeks without wondering whether it's run by an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God? You've never doubted? Are you kidding me?
Frankly, I don't much trust Christians who tell me they never doubt.
To me, they're probably either fanatics, they're lying or else they're not paying attention. I mean, there are about a bazillion reasons to not believe in God.
I do have days of great confidence in God. I have quite a few of those days. But I have other days, too.
I look at faith differently, I guess. To me faith is, as the writer of Hebrews says, "the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
It's not saying, in effect, "I see God! I know he exists!"
Or at least it's not just saying that.
Instead, sometimes it's saying, "I thought I saw God yesterday. Today I don't see. In fact, today the whole idea of God and heaven seems profoundly goofy. But I hope he's real. I choose to persevere until 'some light returns.'"
It's saying, "I'll keep on acting as a man who believes would act. I'll keep praying. I'll keep going to church. I'll keep working with the poor."
If we do that, sooner or later our confidence in God usually reappears.
I think our relationship with God is, in that way, similar to a marriage. I swore to love, honor, cherish and be faithful to my wife. Some days I'm so enchanted with her I can't imagine being with anyone else.
Other days, well, I'm not quite as enchanted. (She has those days, too.)
My feelings are fickle. They're up, they're down.
But on the good days and the bad, I keep doing what an honorable, faithful husband does, because that's what I swore I'd do and who I hope I am.
For me, the benefits of a dedicated, monogamous, long-term marriage outweigh the benefits of selfishness, infidelity or a Reno divorce.
Similarly, for me, the benefits of a relationship with God—peace of mind, a sense of larger purpose, life after death—outweigh the benefits of apostasy.
So I continue trying to live the life faith requires, despite my doubts. Belief and doubts alike come and go.
To me, faith often means I trust in God just enough to act like a man who trusts in God until, with his help, I do trust in him again.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.