Faith, Doubt, & the Choice of Easter

Recently, I read a book I really enjoyed. The Skeptical Believer, by Daniel Taylor, wrestles with faith, doubt, and what it means to live what we believe. It’s not a book for everyone, but if you’re the kind of person who likes questions, you’ll like this book. If you’re a person who simply has questions — whether you like them or not — well, then, you need to read this book.

Taylor doesn’t shy away from reasons skeptics have not to believe. In fact, he includes a chapter where he lists all kinds of reasons folks have to be skeptical, agnostic, or just straight-out atheist. There are intellectual objections (like the supposed inconsistency between faith and science). There are emotional objections (like the presence of pain and the absence of God). Some choose not to believe because of how the Church has acted throughout history (and there are plenty of ugly examples), and some can’t commit to belief when they find doctrines that they consider unpalatable. In total, Taylor lists 40 reasons people give for lack of belief in God, or the Bible, or the story of Easter that is at the center of both.

A part of what makes Taylor’s book unique is his willingness to address these concerns. He doesn’t dismiss them, or treat them casually. Instead, he challenges those who don’t believe to be honest in the search. Questions are ok, he says. But face them; don’t let the fact that you have questions keep you from honestly and fully pursuing truth. Taylor writes: Why would anyone stop looking? Why would you decide at 18 or 28 that there is no God, and not at least stay open to the idea that God might exist? If a person is really open to truth, why not stay open to truth?

In fact, why would anyone stop seeking Truth. Even for someone who doubts whether Truth (capital-T) exists, just the fact that you’re thinking about it means that it’s worth pursuing. By the sheer fact that we are able to ask big questions, why would anyone not?

Even so, when it comes to metaphysical matters, Taylor makes it clear: There is no such thing as certainty. When it comes to the Big Questions of God, purpose, and eternity, there can’t be certainty. That’s why we call it faith. And anyone, no matter what their decision is about the Big Questions, is making a faith decision — whether that faith is rooted ultimately in Science, or a Holy Book, or a life experience, or even just What-I-Feel-Inside-of-Me-Is-True. Ultimately, life is all about faith — in whatever form that takes.

Perhaps because of that, Taylor doesn’t point his reader to 3 convincing ideas that will turn a skeptic into a sure-minded believer. What he does point us to is the Story that is given to us in Scripture. It’s a story of hope, of grace, of meaning and purpose. And while we can argue with those who disagree with us, Taylor suggests a better apologetic, when he writes: “Having a plot for your life is better than having a proof.” For, as elaborates: “One can only answer some important questions, not with an argument, but with a life.”

In the end, I believe that the ultimate plot that tells me who I am is found in the Bible. And I believe that the ultimate guide for what Life is meant to be — and will one day fully be — is found in an itinerant preacher who made such an impact that the religious and political powers conspired to kill him. And they succeeded. For a time. Until Easter Sunday, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, alive.

I believe that’s exactly what happened on that first Easter, though I can’t prove it happened. No one can. But if it’s true, then everything changes, and life — my life, ALL of life — has new meaning, purpose, and direction.

So, this Easter Sunday, where I serve, I’ll be talking about the Choice that Easter lays before every person — the choice that Easter is either an End (death, Jesus defeated), or a Beginning (Jesus alive, Death defeated). You decide which is true, because only one can be true. But know this: either choice is ultimately a decision of faith. And, since it’s Easter, let’s just say: I know which basket I’m putting all my eggs in. How about you?

4 Ways To Think about God

In a thought-provoking article on how to speak to people in today’s culture, Daniel Strange notes that there are 4 ways people respond to God. Randomly pick someone out of a crowd, ask them their view of God, and when you parse out the answer, it will boil down to one of these four approaches:

1. Displacement: Not content with the God who is, many people make another God. They displace the One who sits on the throne, and they put another god of their choosing in that place. And the gods available for choosing are about as numerous as the people choosing them. There’s the obvious ones: Money, Sex, and Power. And there’s the churchy versions of false gods: Legalism, Spiritual Arrogance, Pious Language with a life that doesn’t match it. All of us were made with a thirst for transcendence – with a need for more. And many seek to slake that thirst with any liquid, rather than the One who is Living Water.

2. Distortion: Another way to (mis)understand God is to distort Him. Don’t like that God calls us into a relationship of holy, faithful living? Envision God as a kindly Old Fella who loves us, but doesn’t hold us accountable. Don’t like a God who takes on flesh and is so much a part of us? Picture God as withdrawn, available only when we need Him. Or, maybe you prefer a God who hates the same people you hate? Then you’ll look to a God who plays favorites. Just as we can displace God with many knock-off versions, so we can also distort God to fit our idea of what God should be. But be careful: the God you distort will probably end up looking a lot like you.

3. Denial: This is the version of the un-God that is so popular these days. Denying God is simple, straightforward, and carries with it a sense of chic. Believe in God? Me? Haven’t we moved past our need for a great eye in the sky? Some folks who choose to disbelieve have done their homework: they’ve read the Bible, they’ve attended worship, they’ve wrestled with the issues. But I suspect that such a description fits a minority of atheists. The majority, I would think, disbelieve in God because so many people practice displacement and distortion. In other words, the God many folks choose to reject is the God who is less than the One revealed to us in scripture. As Daniel Strange notes: “These days when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I often say, I bet I don’t believe in that god you don’t believe in either.” Regardless of the reason people decide not to believe in God, those of us who choose the fourth option have a responsibility to make sure they get a chance to see what real love from the real God looks like. Which leads to the fourth way to approach God…

4. Devotion: At its heart, this is a full trust in the God who has made Himself known in Jesus. This is a belief that God has made us, and invites us to be His children. God is a relationship God, which is shown in the fact that God doesn’t simply love, He is love. And God shows this clearly at a time like now, when, at Christmas, we celebrate the unthinkable – that God became one of us.

In a world that displaces, distorts, or denies God, what people need most is to see those devoted to God live that out – every day, in every way. So, of these four ways to respond to God, which one describes you?

A riddle (of sorts)

It’s something so simple a three-year-old child can do it. It’s something so daunting that someone who has done it her whole life feels like a three-year-old at it.

It’s as simple as opening your mouth. It’s as difficult as closing it.

You can do it with one word. Or a endless stream of words. Or even none.

It’s something you do when you’re happy. It’s something you do when you’re sad. And when you’re perplexed. Or angry. Or frustrated. Or just clueless.

It’s something many non-believers admit to doing. It’s something believers recognize they do far too little of.

It’s as basic as breathing, as essential as water, as necessary as having a good cry or scream, and it can be as refreshing as cool rainstorm on a muggy summer evening.

Have you figured out yet what I’m talking about? It’s prayer.

It’s something a child instinctively knows to do, but something so challenging that those who have been praying for decades still have days where praying something – anything – is a struggle.

Prayer involves opening your mouth and speaking your needs, your beliefs, even your un-beliefs, to God. But prayer also happens when we shut up long enough to hear God – through Scripture, or a friend, or the beauty of a foggy, spider-webbed morning.

Prayer is so central to life, that more than 1 in 3 “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) admit to praying at least monthly. There’s something innate in us that cries out in prayer. When someone we love is seriously ill, there’s something inside of us that wants to cry out in anguish to Someone. When that someone recovers, there’s something inside of us that wants to thank Someone. And if that person we we love doesn’t recover, there’s something inside us that wants to hurl our anger at Someone.

There’s a word for all of those reactions, for all of those voiced feelings and needs. It’s prayer.

Prayer isn’t just something we need to do; it’s something we must do. We were made to cry out at injustice. We were created to cry out in praise at the sight of beauty. We were made to cry out for help in our frailty. We were designed to cry out in gratitude for gifts of grace undeserved.

So, whether you are confident in your faith, confident in your “un-faith,” or somewhere in between – you were made to pray. And it really does start right where you are. With what you are feeling, questioning, experiencing – right where you are.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, or flowery, or even full of faith. It simply has to be honest, and real, and from the heart. With a hope, a trust, a longing for all of that to be heard by someone – by Someone, who hears our deepest cries, and sees our deepest needs.

So, what are you waiting for? Pray. Pray now.

Be Careful What You Read

Scholars during the Middle Ages suggested that there were two “dangerous books” in the Old Testament — books that, if not handled carefully and faithfully, could do more damage than good.

The first was Song of Solomon. No surprise there, as it never mentions that name of God — but sure mentions love. A lot. Let’s just say that it’s probably not a book you’d want to study with middle schoolers.

But the other “dangerous book” was Ecclesiastes. And no wonder. It uses the word “meaningless” over 30 times — five of those times in just the first sentence of the book.

Dangerous? Well, sure, if these words from Ecclesiastes are any indication:

  • “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other.” (3.19)
  • “Better than both (the dead and the living) is the one who has never been born.” (4.3)
  • “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless (there’s that word again) days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (6.12)

And then there’s the book’s conclusion. It’s a poetic, if painful, description of the end of life. And then the main part of Ecclesiastes ends in 12.8 with a repeat of 1.2: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!

Depressed yet? Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and probably shouldn’t be read in winter (oops; too late now). It really is tough reading, and, like Song of Solomon, reminds us that scripture isn’t the kind of book you just pick up and read like the newspaper. It’s helpful to know what you are reading, and what it’s purpose is.

And for Ecclesiastes, we are reading something that is simply not like anything else in the Bible. It is clearly written from the “other-side-of-the-coin” perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in God, but wonders what the point is. Yes, there’s a God, but life is still messed up — and what difference does this all make?

And, in a way, he’s right. Life is a mess, and sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. And no matter how hard you work, or how honest you are, or how faithful you try to be — you still die in the end.

So Ecclesiastes agonizes over the struggle. And by its inclusion in the Bible, we are faced with a stark and brisk reminder that life isn’t always peach tea and puppies and peppermints. Ecclesiastes is a theological slap in the face — and a reminder that without hope beyond this life, we are no different than the animals.

You see, the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see into the future. He couldn’t see the day when God’s plan would fully be revealed; when death would be defeated; when Jesus would take on this life’s meaningless, and overcome it. In other words, without hope beyond this life, we ultimately lose hope in this life. Without a purpose beyond our 70 or 80 years, then the best we can do is enjoy the moment.

But there is more. And it’s not a “more” that is pie-in-the-sky heaven someday. Instead, the hope we have through Jesus is the kind that transforms not only our future, but our present. Because we have hope, we can live life to the fullest, right now — filled with joy (not just happiness), peace (not uncertainty), goodness (not simply a good life), love (with abandon), and meaning (not meaninglessness).

That’s where Ecclesiastes points us. It doesn’t get there itself, but it knows there must be a way there. And there is. His name is Jesus.