When Hypocrisy Feeds Doubt

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]

 

A Patron Saint for Doubters

Note to the reader: As a pastor, I often talk with people who harbor serious doubts and questions about the Christian faith. Some are unbelievers; others are Christians. This and the next three postings express how I respond.

Bible text: Matthew 11:2-6

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Image
A 12th century icon of the deësis from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

The deësis was a popular medieval devotional image. It shows the risen Jesus as lord of the cosmos sitting on a jeweled throne. His left hand holds a gospel book. His right rises in blessing.

At his side stand the two highest saints in the Christian hierarchy. On the right, the Virgin Mary; on the left, John the Baptist. They pray for sinners. They model sanctity for the rest of us. John, in fact, personifies professing faith by acknowledging Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Yet John also personifies the shadow side of believing: the troubling persistence of doubt in the life of faith.

A fiery preacher of repentance, John angers King Herod Antipas, who silences John by imprisoning him. (Herod will also ultimately behead him.) While in prison, John hears reports about the ministry of Jesus. They are not what he expects to hear. Jesus is not acting like the Messiah that John and other Jews are expecting.

John begins to entertain doubts about Jesus. So he sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now here’s an interesting saint. Christian tradition recognizes John as one of its greatest. Yet he is a saint assaulted by doubt. How can that be? We do not expect a saint to be troubled by doubt.

In the version of Christianity that I grew up in, it was a given that if one had doubts about Christianity, then that was a clear sign that either one had not been truly born again or that one had backslidden into sin. Spiritual Christians do not doubt.

Or do they?

If you look at both the Bible and the lives of exceptional Christians through the ages, the answer is yes. Yes, believers do doubt. John the Baptist is one example. Another comes at the very end of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew concludes his gospel (Chapter 28) with that mountaintop scene where Jesus hands the eleven disciples their mission after his ascension. They are to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing and teaching. Christians have called this the Great Commission. It has fired Christian evangelism.

It’s a solemn scene, so solemn that Matthew says the disciples worshipped Jesus. But then he adds, strangely, “Some doubted.” I’ve always found that peculiar. Here the disciples are in the presence of the risen Jesus. How could any experience be more spiritual? Yet, Matthew says, some doubted. He does not say why. We can only guess.

Doubt also plays an important role in the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden story. God has commanded the primeval couple not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die.

They obey until the serpent plants doubt into Eve’s mind. If you eat of the tree, the serpent suggests, “you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [Genesis 3:4-5] This casts doubt on the goodness of God’s motives.

Doubt stalks the life of faith constantly. I don’t think its presence in our minds and emotions says much definitively about the status of our spiritual life. For it is a pervasive experience in most Christians’ lives, even in the lives of people we consider great saints.

If I were to ask a person on the street to name a great saint of the 20th century, I would not be surprised if many would name Mother Teresa. She was an amazing woman of great piety and Christian service, as she worked among some of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. She modeled Jesus in that service.

In 2007, after her death, a book of her letters [Mother Teresa: Come, Be My Light] was published. What startled the world was how they revealed that Mother Teresa had experienced decades of spiritual depression, loneliness, and doubt.

In September 1946, she had heard a voice—a voice she believed the voice of Jesus—calling her to serve the poor. She obeyed. But her obedience did not lead her into a life of spiritual serenity.

Quite the opposite. Instead she experienced a strong sense of abandonment. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote, “—and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great nothing touches my soul.”

This is not what we expect to hear from such a great servant of Jesus. But it is a truthful experience for many saints as much as it is for us who claim no great sanctity. We even hear it on the lips of Jesus. On the cross he cries out before he dies, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Experiences of doubt are a common part of the Christian religious experience. And we should not be alarmed when they occur to us as they did to John the Baptist. He knows the force of doubt, and surely he must now be able to feel compassion for those who are also assaulted. For this very reason, I would like to propose that John the Baptist be regarded as the patron saint of doubters.