Once, we liked green peppers; now, they taste bitter in our mouths.
Once, we craved only rock-and-roll; now, old-time bluegrass is on our playlist.
We shift ideologically too, in circumstance or time. In response to a question about his politics, the poet Robert Frost once replied: “I never dared be radical when young for fear it might make me conservative when old.”
And now more recently this comment from a retired pastor – a gifted preacher, writer and columnist who has come out with a new book explaining how and why he renounced his faith: “I just simply changed my mind.”
It was more complicated than that, of course. With him, it began as a niggling doubt that arose from reading the Psalms. As he read more of the Bible, he says, the fire gradually went out of him. He retired from his church and only now has declared his atheism. When it came to believing in a God, or even any god, he simply just changed his mind.
His “coming out” was a shock to many. He was – and continues to be – well-respected in the local faith community. He was, and continues to be, a humble man of integrity who insists he served well his church and the God in whom he once held a fervent belief.
Some have dismissed him as never-a-Christian. What can you expect from a liberal preacher in a liberal denomination? some have asked. That may well be an issue for God to answer on that day.
But we would be unwise to dismiss his journey as irrelevant to our own. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all doubted. Have asked the question, what if it’s not real? What if we have been eating sand and calling it steak?
For some, those questions surface during times of deepest pain: a family member grows sick, a marriage dies, a child suffers harm. For others, though, doubts about God slip in through the side door of our egos. We win that job promotion, we buy that new car with money we have earned through our hard work, we admire how much we have achieved all by ourselves.
For many of us, the failing is not that we ask the questions or harbour doubts, but that we so readily dismiss them as flies buzzing about our heads. We rarely take them seriously enough to give them a chance to make a difference. We shrug away our questions, hoping time will erase them from our hearts. We reduce them to insignificance, forgetting that some of the biggest and most uncomfortable truths about God and faith sometimes demand big, unrelenting questions.
Or we take the opposite tack. We read and posit contrary positions as if faith were a courtroom and we are the judge. And by so doing, we work harder to shore up our unbelieving than we have ever laboured to buttress our believing.
As my friend’s doubt increased, he read more works by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. His de-conversion inexorably continued.
I should like for him to have absorbed more C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) and Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ), or U2’s Bono or even some Mitch Albom (“Have a Little Faith”).
In reading the Psalms, this former pastor heard the voice of a bloodthirsty people who called on a created god to justify their warring.
I would like for him to have heard in the Psalms a conversation between poets and the God who created their inmost being and knit them in their mother’s wombs.
The crucible of doubt
I would dearly have wished that the Jesus who hauled doubting Peter up from the waves would also have pulled my friend to himself. They could have strolled through the roiling seas together, and back to solid shores. (I don’t know why that hasn’t happened; God willing, it may yet.) Instead, he let the boat carry him to another place, where God is evident only in the lower-case.
His journey does offer us a challenge, though. To those who hold unwavering, supreme confidence in the Supreme Being, be willing to entertain some questions about why you are so doubt-free. It will give you greater appreciation of your firm foundation. It may help you understand, and even guide, those who feel alone in their uncertainty.
And to those who wrestle with doubt as mightily as Old Testament Jacob wrestled with God, do not give up until you have received the blessing you have demanded. Be diligent in your searching. Know that doubt can be a crucible in which belief is refined.
God is faithful even when we are fickle. His changeless love is big enough and real enough to embrace us even in our uncertainties.
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