I think it is healthy to wonder about the claims of faith—to consider the “What if it’s true?” juxtaposed up against the “What if it’s not?” Thinking people should not be ashamed of the fact they are drawn like magnets to the uncertainties and questions inherent in faith. Faith, after all, is not supposed to come naturally. Faith is, as someone has said, a venture of human consideration and divine illumination. Only in a world where faith is difficult can faith exist.
I believe God wants people of faith to question, to wonder, to get disturbed, to seek for tenable answers. Faith is not the result of quelling all sense of doubt, but the result of a choice after one has honestly and earnestly sought to understand. If this is a true description of faith, then faith is more like an intense mud-wrestling contest than anything else. It’s hard, sometimes painful, often disorienting, and always messy—certainly not a cheery, no-conflict, refreshingly bubbly, perpetual happy place.
Living by faith reminds me of an old Bible story about a guy named Jacob, who was a key figure in Israel’s ancient history. The Bible records that Jacob had an encounter with God where he wrestled with him all night (pretty wild story). But what’s cool about it is a) God stayed in the match without completely destroying Jacob (I used to wrestle with my kids when they were little, and I let them think they were winning—great fun—maybe God was doing something like that here), and b) in the morning Jacob ends up being changed by the event: he gets a new name (a new identity) and walks away with a permanent limp (he lives differently).
Faith mirrors this—it’s a God, mud-wrestling match. Our role is to stay in the ring even though we don’t see him all that clearly and it would be easier to quit than to stay in the fray. It’s when we hang in there wrestling through uncertainty and doubt that the struggle ends in a changed identity along with some permanent adjustments in the way we walk. The Bible calls it transformation.
People who say they never wrestle with their faith are either being too lazy, lying, smoking some kind of Christian ganja, or have never really thought through the implications of their faith. One of the most accurate criticisms from those who are anti-faith has to do with how religious thought breeds intellectual indolence in some believers—people get lazy and stop asking critical questions. Historically, many have allowed faith to blunt their keen edge of curiosity. I think that is both unnecessary and sad.
Never use faith to justify being lazy intellectually. God gave us brains, presumably so we would use them. Using our brains means we must learn to embrace critical thinking and examination—in other words, we must face our world with honest doubt—with an investigative mind. We are not to accept everything at face value. Nor are we to avoid trying to understand the how’s and why’s behind what is taking place in the world because we believe God is the Creator of the world. People of faith are often too quick to abandon reason and critical thinking in the name of faith, and as a result we tend to be amateurs at critical thinking processes—often we are illogical, fuzzy thinkers, and intellectual dilettantes.
I’m not suggesting everyone who believes has to become an intellectual elitist—Jesus praised God over the fact that faith always demands a childlike approach rather than an intellectual one. However, nor do I believe faith is supposed to boil down life’s questions with prescriptive simplicity—where we supply oversimplified answers about everything (along with chapter and verse). This means we cannot avoid lingering, unanswered questions because they are way too difficult or untidy. Yet, crying, “Jesus is the answer!” is the touted, cure-all credo for many. But what if Jesus isn’t the answer? What if he is the question? What if we are not supposed to have all the answers?
Could it be that in the discomfort of unanswered questions we are forced to face our own pride and have to admit we only “know in part”? Is it possible that questions are what cause us to face the choice to believe or not to believe? Maybe mud-wrestling with hard questions is central to faith. When I look at the Bible and Christian faith I’m left with some formidable, disturbing questions. Though I hate that, it is what it is.
I read a quote from Dallas Willard, notable scholar and author that captures the why behind my decision to be a believer: “It’s the person who wants to know God that God reveals himself to. And if a person doesn’t want to know God—well, God has created the world and the human mind in such a way that he doesn’t have to.”