Benefit of the Doubt
Doubts crawl in through small places, like ants arriving inside our pre-World War II house each summer by way of imperceptible gaps around a window or wall. It enters quietly—as conversations cease, when I turn down the perpetual soundtrack to my life. Left with only my inner monologue for company, unease slips in through the cracks.
I rarely puzzle over theodicy—the problem of evil—or perceived contradictions and breaks in spiritual logic. Most of my questions begin and end inside me. I stare out at the world, then interrogate my depth of field. Is the world greater or smaller than I know, and what does its size say about the presence of God?
My own worst skeptic, I struggle to reconcile my certainty and my unknowing. I am wrong about so many little matters—do I trust myself to find the right side of life’s greatest meaning and mystery? Sifting the differences between my conception of God and the image upheld by other Christians, I wonder which of our non-negotiables count.
As hairline fractures run the length of my soul, I breathe Paul’s words back into the atmosphere. Yes, I feel afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Only, all the action verbs belong to me, not some outside antagonist.
When doubts have their say, two conclusions console me and my soul feels like a band that’s out of time for a few bars, but then recovers the groove.
The first conclusion comes when doubt casting aspersions on the only narrow road I choose to travel, and opens up every possible highway, backroad, and city street. I crane my neck and strain my eyes, trying to appreciate where these roads lead, what I might see along the way, how the trip would shape me. Each and every time, I return to the words of Peter in John 6. With every road away from Jesus opening up before him, he speaks from his ever-sharpening senses: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Faced with every choice, only one captivates me and compels me to put feet to floor every morning. No message, no means to an end, no end unto itself, satisfies like the words and way of Jesus.
First I look inside, then I look around—at the company I keep, and the lives I aspire to imitate. I put two and two and two more together until I reach the sum of these existences. Naturally, rightly, I lack Peter’s audacity but lean in the same direction.
My conclusion sounds a little like the same coarse joke I’ve heard and met with raspy laughter throughout my life. I overhear someone remark that, if their friends will wind up in hell and only the pious populate heaven, well, they know where they want to go. I stand on similar logic, just hopefully retaining a little more sense and holiness.
I know who I want to be with. With near-photographic recall, I leaf through the pages in books by Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry. I remember the applause lines in poems by Mary Oliver and Franz Wright. Their words test me, try me, seal something in me. As they echo the scriptures and draw from the wells of the Holy Spirit, I see a way forward, a world to inhabit, a place to wind up.
When the days are short, and I have little time to scour my inner library, I cast a closer gaze. I consider the example of my friends, people like Thom the painter, Rachel the poet, Derek the counselor, and Luke the expert on all things coffee. I turn to the person I always want next to me, my wife, and muse over her steadfastness.
In them, I see the evidence and effects of the slow, beautiful weathering of Jesus’s words of life. I find people who have asked, out loud or to themselves, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” and then kept going down the same road.
These lives broker peace between beauty and truth, between ancient wisdom and present-tense mystery. They tremble in the presence of suffering, yet remain unshakeable in their love and commitment to those who suffer. They fit few survey checkboxes. They abide not by the tenets of a political platform, but get by on the fruit of the spirit.
On a recent episode of the Mockingcast podcast, writer David Zahl discussed the difference between two classes of people. The first expects happiness and abandons the faith at first tragedy. The other traces the path of Jesus—suffering, then glory—and resets their outlook, choosing to know him and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him, as Paul writes in Philippians 3. Those I respect most set up camp in the second territory, hard as that life might be, and their decision squares with my limited understanding of how the world works.
Quiet and modest in every measurable way, these lives ring out like church bells, beckoning me back when doubt threatens to drown the gospel out. To borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christ in the lives of cherished artists and friends often rings louder than the Christ within my own heart. And so if I get it wrong, I want to be wrong with these people.
I understand how this all must sound. It seems to fly in the face of Paul, who concluded that if Jesus never left his grave clothes behind, Christians rank supreme among history’s fools. I don’t dispute that.
But as I see it, no bet is truly safe. If I push all my chips across the table and lose big, let me fail on the side of faith, hope, and love. Let me squander my life believing in a savior who lays himself down as a bridge between God and man. And let me do so in the company of the best people I know.
“If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” the soul singer’s ballad goes. When doubt pierces the quiet and blurs my perspective, I look upon my redeemer and turn up the song.
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