Note: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey. It has been my topic of discussion in my last three postings. You may want to read them first for context.
Bible text: Mark 9:23-24
Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
I was once making a pastoral call on a woman who had been active in our church, but was now homebound after a serious injury. She loved her church. Her husband, on the other hand, disdained anything dealing with church.
As she and I chatted, her husband walked in. We had never met. After introductions, he began his rant against churches. The heart of his beef? The hypocrisy of Christians. They preached one thing, he said, but did not live it out in their behavior. Somewhere in his younger days he had been exposed to a huge dose of toxic religion.
I think the shortfall between what the churches preach and how ordinary Christians live creates the most disbelief. Behind many of the most sophisticated intellectual attacks on Christianity often lies a bad experience with Christians. Or historical memories of the evil Christians have done in the name of Christ, evils like anti-Semitism, inquisitions, witch trials, etc.
The emotional damage goes even deeper if the bad experience was with clergy. Sexual abuse by clergy has gotten the most news coverage in recent years. But let us never forget the damage that clergy have done by small things such as an insensitive remark to the parents when a child dies or a lie told to a parishioner.
I must confess that I find this problem of the discrepancy between talk and walk one of the hardest things that I must deal with as a minister, whether I am talking with unbelievers or troubled churchgoers. It is where I, too, prove most vulnerable to the assaults of doubt.
A Promise of Transformation?
Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian contemplative, has written, “Among the worldwide religions, Christianity is surely one of those most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cowley Publications, 2004, page 9).
I think Bourgeault captures a central theme of the message preached by both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Paul expresses it in a nutshell. “…if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This is stirring language. But if you look at the lives of most Christians, does it ring true? Do they live lives transformed in attitudes and behavior?
Certainly some do. There is no more spectacular example that Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he lived as a playboy in his adolescence. When he encountered the call of Jesus, however, all that changed. He began to live simply, austerely, and with gentle compassion, not only for other human beings but also for all living creatures. In a real way, he experienced the power of the gospel to transform.
Another spectacular example is Bill Wilson (Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. With his life shattered by alcoholism, he entered a hospital. There in the depths of deep depression, he cried out “If there be a God, let him show himself!” There in that same hospital room, he had a life-changing religious experience. It brought him the assurance he was free from his addiction.
Bill W. took his experience and with it expressed the fundamental principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. One fundamental principle of sobriety is the reliance upon a “higher power.” (For the story of Bill W., and other stories of transformed people, I recommend John M. Mulder’s book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.)
But what about the rest of us who show no such dramatic transformation? We come across as half-breeds. We experience some of the new, but also a good portion of the old. When we fall short, those who expect us to live exemplary lives use our shortcomings to question the power and truth of what we preach. Doubt has a fertile growing field.
Of course what many despisers of the gospel don’t appreciate is that the power of the Christian gospel to transform seldom works instantaneously. The gospel works like leaven for most people on the Christian spiritual journey. The values of the gospel must penetrate deeply into the heart and mind of the believer. That takes time. It did even for Francis and Bill W.
That’s why humility is one of the greatest Christian virtues. All of us fall short of the values we espouse, and we bring great discredit to God’s name when we fail to acknowledge that every day. A fundamental rhythm of the Christian life is our asking for forgiveness and our conferring it on others.
In the liturgy of the Presbyterian church that I serve, worship begins with a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. Some have told me that they consider this a negative way to begin worship. I disagree. It is beginning worship with an acknowledgement of reality. We Christians always fall short of the high standards we espouse.
Still, those who are hostile to the Christian faith can use the hypocrisy of Christians to pointedly argue that Christianity is a delusion, if not a menace to humanity. How can we respond to that charge without denying the reality of our serious failures?
Some Help from C. S. Lewis
I have found something that C.S. Lewis wrote for children helpful in this way. The fourth volume of his Narnia Chronicles is titled The Silver Chair. It tells the story of a prince of Narnia, heir to the throne, who is abducted by a wicked witch and imprisoned in an underground chamber.
Aslan the lion (the Christ figure of the fairy tales) commissions two human children to find and free this missing prince. Their guide is Puddleglum, a marshwiggle, a swamp creature who is a blend of a human being and a frog.
The children and Puddleglum do find the prince. They help him break free of the witch’s spell. They are about to leave the enchanted chamber when the witch walks in. She immediately begins her strategy to reactivate the spell on the prince and to extend it to the two other children and the marshwiggle.
Her strategy is to breed doubt in their minds. As they describe the glories of the Overworld (Narnia), the witch implies that these are only projections of their own minds. They talk of the sun. She says they only dream of it. The reality is that their sun is simply an ordinary lamp.
When they talk of Aslan, she says they are confused in their minds. He is nothing more than a house cat.
Her spell almost works until Puddleglum stomps on her magic incense with his webfoot and smothers it. He then says to the witch:
…I won’t deny any of what you said…Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. [The Silver Chair, Chapter Twelve]
The despisers of Christianity like to throw the failures of Christians in our faces. And the failures are real. But in the end it is not the failures of Christians that inspire us to believe. It is the beauty of the way of life that Jesus and the gospels set before us. To paraphrase Puddleglum, the vision of living that Jesus presents before us licks the alternate visions that the world sets up for our emulation.
Jesus’ original twelve disciples were not a perfect lot. In fact, one denied him; another betrayed him into his death. But Jesus says to them, “Come, follow me.” And so we continue to do, honoring the vision as best we can with the Holy Spirit’s help.
Let me close this series with the words of the distraught father, who begs Jesus to heal his tormented son. “I believe; help my unbelief.”[Mark 9:24]