Among the concerns I hear frequently from parishioners, readers and other friends is that they doubt their religion.
Around this part of the country, that generally means they doubt Christianity.
Some people tell me of their doubts defiantly. They want to make sure I know they don’t naïvely accept all the drivel they think venal clergy (including me) are hawking.
Other folks tell me sadly. They think there’s something bad wrong with them. Occasionally I run into someone terrified she might end up in hell for her uncertainty.
Well, not to worry. This minister gladly grants doubters a free pass. I’m a doubter myself.
If you question your faith occasionally, or often, that probably means two things: a) you’re thinking about it, and, b) you’re normal.
Before I go on, I usually add this disclaimer on theological pieces such as this one, in case someone’s reading my column for the first time: please understand I don’t speak on such matters for other religions.
I’m a Christian minister, and even though I’ve known, befriended or interviewed Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and the random Zoroastrian, I’m not familiar enough with their tenets to explain them.
And on this particular subject — doubt — I won’t even speak for my fellow Christians. Some will disagree with me.
I’m expressing my own understanding of Christianity, as interpreted through the New Testament.
I believe that no matter how pious you’d aspire to be, doubt is almost unavoidable. It’s probably healthy. But healthy or not, it’s unavoidable.
To understand why this is so, I direct you to the faith’s earliest writings.
St. Paul — the New Testament’s primary architect — describes the Christian good news as “foolishness” in 1 Corinthians 1.
Paul says, in effect, that it doesn’t make sense that God’s instrument for reconciling fallen, broken humans to himself would be the resurrection of a dead, rural, relatively uneducated Jewish carpenter.
How could sinners be made whole and even holy by such an improbable event?
The idea is crazy, Paul says. But it’s supposed to be crazy. God intended it to be crazy.
It’s never going to make sense, because (in our limited reckoning) it really doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical on all fronts.
Paul observes that this Christian gospel infuriates those who want to claim a righteousness built on their personal good works, because true righteousness must be imparted as a gift from Jesus, the perfect one.
But the gospel also invites derision from the worldly wise, those who rely on human philosophy and their self-appointed intelligence as the measures of all things.
God’s always opposed to the proud, Paul explains.
People who think they can earn their way to heaven by good deeds and people who think they’re smarter than God both are pretending to be gods themselves, in that they’re both trying to do what only the Lord possesses the power to do: grant eternal life.
God’s patience with this hubris is pretty short, Paul says.
That’s why God created a strange way of redeeming humans.
He gives us a fantastical fairy tale to believe — a carpenter is executed as a criminal but really is the Son of God, and through his death and resurrection, he transfers his divine righteousness to his followers, without reference to our own works or our intellect.
God bases our relationship with him on whether we believe this tall story.
Wait, it gets nuttier.
Ultimately, Paul implies elsewhere, God knows we can’t believe the story; it’s too crazy.
So, kind father that he is, he also supplies some people, at least, with the faith to believe this unbelievable thing. (That’s from Ephesians 2. Didn’t know you’d get a lengthy Bible lesson? No extra charge.)
And thus, in the end, we can never boast before God about our goodness or our intelligence or even our faith. We can only praise him and love him for his mercy; that’s the proper order of things.
The gospel, then, is a mystery inside a conundrum inside a paradox, wrapped in a wad of egg noodles. You believe it or you don’t, you can or you can’t. But there it is.
Now, back to my original point.
Even if you consider yourself a Christian — let’s say you’re a baptized, professed believer who takes her faith seriously — you’re likely to experience times when you don’t buy a word of it.
Probably the reason you won’t believe it is because it’s unbelievable. You’re human, and doubt is humans’ stock in trade.
Fortunately, the Lord understands this frailty. He knows whether we’re arrogant rebels trying to usurp him, or else just simple pilgrims struggling to have faith.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ half-brother, Jude, urges Christians to “show mercy to those who are doubting.”
Evidently, even in the early church, people wrestled with such matters.
Jude himself, and Jesus’ other siblings, had doubted Christ’s divinity — and Jude grew up in the same house with Jesus.
When I find myself beset with unbelief, I consider it part of the spiritual journey.
I borrow a prayer from yet another biblical character, the man who, faced with his child’s critical illness, cried out to Jesus, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
That’s my cry as well. That’s pretty much all of us.
That’s when we have to keep on plugging, going to church anyway, pondering the Scriptures. We wait until faith returns. Which it will, in its season.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.