Plagued by CertaintyOther — By Joe Carter on March 20, 2008 at 12:07 am
Although I don’t often write confessional posts, there is an issue that has been weighing on my heart. Certain discussions throughout the evangelical wing of the blogosphere have led me to finally speak up about an issue that I’ve tended to keep to myself. The problem concerns my faith: I am plagued by certainty.
It’s no secret that I have a high opinion of my own opinion; a confidence in their correctness that borders on the obnoxious. Like Ivan Turgenev, “I share no man’s opinions; I have my own.” But while I may embrace and defend my opinions with firmness, it is a humble form of certitude in which I have to acknowledge that there is a statistical likelihood — whether trivial or significant — that I could be wrong.
Not so, however, when it comes to matters of faith.
I don’t doubt that God exists or that the Bible is his Word. I don’t doubt that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he died and was buried, or that he rose again after three days in the tomb. I don’t doubt that he died for me, a truly wretched sinner, or that I will spend eternity in His presence. I would find it easier to doubt my own existence than to doubt the Nicene Creed. Maybe I’m delusional (though I doubt that) but I have few doubts about my faith.
My certitude is admittedly personal. I believe I have justification and warrant for my beliefs and that if pressed, I could attempt to provide proof and evidence for these claims. The level of “proof” I could give, though, would not provide the same level of certitude for you that I find sufficient for me. Proof is rather limited in that regard. I couldn’t prove that Joe Carter exists much less prove that he likes the color blue, that he kissed Christie Cozart in the 7th grade, or that he hates referring to himself in the third person.
While I can’t prove those things beyond a shadow of a doubt, I don’t doubt them at all. Similarly, my certainty in my faith isn’t based on what I can prove to other people or even, for that matter, what I can prove to myself.
Perhaps I was born too late, for prior to the 1630’s my view wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. But the Catholic philosopher Rene Descartes changed everything when he set out on his inner quest to find certitude. He realized that the one thing he could be certain about was the fact of his doubting. Doubting is a form of thinking and thinking requires a thinker. The existence of the “I” that was doing the doubting, therefore, could not itself be doubted. Descartes declared Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am–but what he should have said was Dubito ergo sum –I doubt, therefore I am.
However, for many people today doubt not only confirms existence, it confirms humility. To lack doubt is to be pretentious, perhaps even un-Christian. I’ve heard some people claim that doubt is necessary catalyst for faith! In the Gospels, though, the word ‘doubt’ consistently carries a negative connotation since Jesus character and abilities are almost always the object of doubt (see: Matt. 12:38-42, 14:31; Luke 24:38; John 20:27). James even calls the doubting man “double-minded” and compares him to a person who “is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” Yet while Scripture may have a low regard for it, many Christians consider anyone lacking in doubt to be pretentious, arrogant, or dishonest.
Lest you think I’m being facetious, let me assure you that I’m quite serious about the matter. This inability to express doubt has even caused tensions in my marriage. My wife used to suffer debilitating panic attacks brought on by a still, small voice that whispers, “You’re going to die someday.” Although she’s a believer, the thought of dying traumatizes her both physically and emotionally. Seeing her in such a state is heartbreaking.
She would often asks me why I don’t have a fear of dying. I want desperately to empathize and say that I do, but I cannot bring myself to tell that lie. Instead I explain that I believe in eternal life. I tell here that eternal life is not something that begins in the future but something has already begun. My “life”–my entry into eternal life– began the day I surrendered to Christ and will continue, though with some considerable changes, forever.
I might as well be speaking in Swahili, though, for she finds my words incomprehensible. For her this life–the in-the-flesh, day-to-day existence–is certain, while the future glorified existence can be–doubted. The fact that I can’t comprehend such a distinction divides us and prevents us from communicating.
As Jude exhorts, “be merciful to those who doubt” and I truly do try to be compassionate and understanding, recognizing that my sense of certainty is a gift from God. Without it I’d probably allow doubts about my faith to become an excuse for even greater depths of navel-gazing. An extra dose of certitude is probably needed just to bring me up to a level of basic normality.
Yet while I recognize that theological certainty does not make me a special brand of saint, it also doesn’t make me some perverse freak of faith. I shouldn’t feel a need to hang my head in shame because I don’t question the existence of God. I shouldn’t be asked to dismiss the experiences I’ve had with the Lord as if there is a possibility that they are not real. I shouldn’t have to lie and say that “I understand” when people say that are not sure that there is a God or that life continues after death.
I also don’t expect you to be ashamed if you feel differently. I won’t dismiss your questions or your hesitations. I won’t ask you to say you understand my faith if you don’t. I’ll respect your doubts and in return all I ask is that you be merciful to those of us who are certain.