Rules for Wrestling: How to Doubt Like a Believer

There is no doubt in my mind that the phrase “to doubt like a believer” will sound weird – and maybe even impossible – to the minds of many readers. In our modern world, these words have come to have a meaning that warrants this raising of the reader’s skeptical eyebrow upon hearing such a phrase. The current meanings of these words, however, are different than other meanings they have had in the past, and by recovering these meanings, I hope to suggest that doubting like a believer is indeed a possibility. Actually, I mean to suggest more than that. I hope to show that doubting like a believer is a means by which we can recover authentic faith.

(Click here if you’re wondering about the colors.)

But why should we even bother embarking on this proposed etymological expedition? The answer, “to recover authentic faith” has little meaning to reader at this point, and if I were to wait until I’ve explicated what I mean by such a phrase to answer the why-even-bother question, the reader, out of a understandable desire to do something other than read the lengthy and less-than-eloquently-presented ramblings of some random 22-year-old-kid, would likely abandon our expedition prematurely and thereby miss the gold (i.e., authentic faith) in which I am interested in recovering. So, then, I must say something now that will motivate the reader to stick with my ramblings until the end.

Let me say this: I think there is something wrong with the faith that many of us have inherited. This, for some, is not a controversial suggestion. For those who can look around at all of the “dead faiths” that have fallen off our brothers and sisters, faiths that have been shed like the skins of a snake and for those who have experienced those times at which their own faith has felt inadequate or maybe even destructive, it is clear that the faith that we have inherited is sometimes static; it constricts us. We often feel that if we are to continue living and growing, we must be rid of it.

Isn’t this “faith” that we have been given a tragic shadow of what faith is supposed to be? Is not faith supposed to be that which, instead of constricting us, reinvigorates us? Is not faith suppose to be that which, when it is properly had, provides us with the means to affirm ourselves “in spite of” the things that threaten our spirits? If you care to distance yourself from that faith which has become numinously noxious and if you remember what ideal faith is supposed to do for us, then you needn’t know exactly what I mean when I say “authentic faith” to be motivated to continue reading. The prospect of recovering the life of the spirit will, hopefully, be enough to sustain that motivation.

Why We Don’t Wrestle

With the gold “in sight,” so to speak, we are now in a position to say a little more about what seems problematic about our inherited faith. To be sure, there is more than one thing that is problematic about it, but I am here interested in one flaw in particular. I am interested in that flaw which makes it impossible for our faith to survive any doubt.

Consider a seemingly common scenario. A person of “faith” encounters claims (or evidences) that challenge his theistic worldview. There seem to be at least two common responses to this encounter. Either (1) he will be so scared of these claims that he will not lend them any credence at all, even if they deserve to be considered or (2) he will lend those ideas credence and they will ruin his “faith.” Regardless of whether (1) or (2) obtains, one problem seems common to these responses: we forget to bring our concerns to the Divine.

Our forgetfulness is like this: suppose that we knew a man named Tom. Suppose that we had a certain perception of Tom based on our previous experiences of Tom or based on what others had told us about Tom. Suppose further that we encountered claims that contradicted our perceptions of Tom. Finally, suppose that we had a particular attachment to our perception of Tom. We could, when we encountered these claims, respond by refusing to consider those claims that contradict our perception of Tom or we could abandon our conception of Tom entirely, but wouldn’t it make sense (before we “quit Tom,” so to speak) to ask Tom what’s going on with this new information?

How can explain this strange behavior? Why is it that we can’t seem to meet our doubt with prayer?

There’s probably many answers to this question, and (obviously) I’m only able to provide answers that I’ve encountered in my own (limited) experience of precisely this scenario. The problem, I think, lies with our understanding of faith and doubt. Faith and doubt, are not just some abstract concepts that philosophers and theologians pontificate about. They are normative concepts, concepts that guide our very walk with God, and thus, I think our understanding of faith and doubt affect – whether we realize it or not – how we walk with the Divine.

The common understanding of faith, it seems to me, does not make room for doubt. Faith and doubt, on this common understanding, are in fact opposites. Faith good. Doubt bad. With our current understandings, if we find our selves in a place of doubt, we are supposed to feel as though we are missing the mark. The result of this is often that we can’t bring our missing-the-markness to God. We feel, moreover, that we must exit our place of doubt as quickly as possible even if that means dealing with our doubt in a disingenuous manner. This common understanding (and evaluation) of faith and doubt may, for some, be rooted in both a confusing of our understanding of God with the Divine Itself and in the belief that if we question God, God will punch us in the throat.

But what if faith and doubt meant something different? What if it turned out that doubt wasn’t something that God couldn’t handle us bringing to the table? What if it turned out that doubt allows us to “lean not on our own understanding” and instead, trust in The-One-Who-Has-All-Understanding out of a pure love for the Divine? What if, in other words, doubt could lead to faith and faith could lead to doubt? Then could we find room for doubt in faith? Could we then have a faith that could survive doubt, a faith that would provide spiritual fortitude?

Doubt and Wrestling

We are now in a position to talk about another way of understanding doubt. Doubt comes from the Latin word “Dubitare.” It literally means “to be in two minds.”¹ Doubt is sometimes considered to be the enemy of belief – and sometimes it is. However, when considering the likelihood that a disparity often arises between our conception of God and the Divine Itself, doubt seems to be virtuous. Since doubting is being in two minds, to doubt our current understanding of God is to always make room for the possibility that the Divine is not what we previously thought. It is to simultaneously be in the mind that “this is my God” and “my God is bigger than this.”

Meister Eckhart, a 13th century mystic, understood this. He expressed the idea this way, “I pray to God to be rid of God.”  Eckhart not only recognized that there’s a difference between his conception of God and the Divine Itself, but recognized the importance of recruiting God to get rid of that false conception. (This perhaps was not the best way to express the idea, for he was condemned as a heretic partially because of this statement.)

This kind of doubt, then, is a virtue. Its not difficult to think that doubt could be virtuous if we consider an example. What if the Pharisees doubted in this way? Wouldn’t they have been far better off? Wouldn’t they would have said to themselves, “Hmm…this Jesus fellow is really clashing with my understanding of who God is, but I will doubt that my understanding is correct. I will recognize that there may be a difference between my understanding of God and the Divine Itself. I will make room for the possibility that Jesus is on to something.”

What does this doubt really look like though? I think there’s a passage in scripture that provides a good picture-answer to this question. Let me say that my relating of this passage to this concept of doubt is not an attempt at exegesis. Rather, it is merely an attempt to use the passage as an illustration of what I’m trying to spit here.

24…And a man wrestled with [Jacob] until the breaking of the day. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[f] for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Wrestling with Yahweh is a great picture for doubt because it takes work to doubt, to always make room for the possibility that the Divine is not what one expected. For many of us, God is our Rock. To question God, is to destroy our stability and our foundation. It is uncomfortable, then, to ask questions about God, but as this passage of scripture reveals, being with God, sometimes means wrestling with God, and that’s far from comfortable. Wrestling is a good picture for doubt for this second reason also: to doubt is precisely to be in a conflicting state of mind, a conflict that is not unlike the conflict of wrestling.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that we should sit around and whine about how we don’t know anything. (“Am I really sitting in this chair? Do chairs even exist?”) I’ve been there and done that, and its not particularly conducive towards…well…anything. Doubt shouldn’t mean that we are paralyzed. It should mean, however, that we are prepared to wrestle. We should be prepared to climb to a place where we can wrestle, and that takes work too. (As ridiculous as it might sound, I actually had to work to convince myself that I’m sitting in this chair.) We cannot stay paralyzed.

(A parenthetical paradox: Is it not strange that following the God who offers “peace that surpasses all understanding” would lead us to this state of wrestling? Perhaps this is a reason to think that everything I’ve said here is incorrect. There is, however, an example of someone who undoubtedly followed God but who also wound up uncomfortable, namely, Christ. Consider his uncomfortable words uttered during his act of ultimate obedience: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”)

So why wrestle then? Why doubt? Why be in an uncomfortable place? Jacob wrestles because he wants to be “blessed.” (I have little idea precisely what this “blessing” refers to in the actual passage, but like I said, these remarks are not exegetical.) We can take “blessing,” for our purposes to mean something like the joy of truly knowing the Divine.

In my life, I’ve, on many occasions, definitely failed to choose to wrestle. What have been the consequences? Its difficult to say with any degree of certainty. I do not think, however, that in those moments when I forgot or choose not to wrestle, I’ve sprouted a devil’s tail and began to murder small puppies or something. But in the past, when I’ve stopped wrestling, I’ve stopped seeking. I’ve stopped looking for the More of God that I am missing, and I’ve closed myself off to being corrected by the grace of God. Once I’ve stopped doubting, once I’ve stopped wrestling, once I’ve stopped looking for the More of God that I am missing, haven’t I stopped being faithful? Answering this question must wait until belief and faith have been explored.

Belief and Faith

“This is all fine and dandy,” the reader might say, “but there is certainly a limit to the questions that we can wrestle with God about.” But is there? I certainly hope not, for the thought of facing questions about the nature of God or the existence of God without God’s help is kind of scary. When we’re talking about God, we are, after all, talking about That-Which-Transcends-Our-Entire-Being. What hope is there of accessing this Transcendent thing without help?

The more logical folk who read this will object. They’ll say something like, “How can we wrestle with that which we doubt exists?” In other words, how can we come to God with our questions about his nature and/or existence when God is the very thing that has become a question? Their objection is (logically) spot on; God’s existence is logically prior to our being able to wrestle with him.

So, then, how is this kind of belief possible? I have no idea.

But remember, we’re talking about Things that are above us here. And if we take a look at this passage, we see something that suggests that this kind of (alogical?) belief is indeed possible:

21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out[d] and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

That last sentence, “I believe; help my unbelief!” expresses perfectly the paradoxical nature of this ancient father’s ancient belief, a belief that is lost among our logical contemporaries who think that we must believe in God in order to wrestle with him.² “I believe; help my unbelief.” What a strange kind of belief! What a mysterious statement! And yet, this kind of belief preserves the man’s faith in spite of his doubt. This kind of belief brings restoration and vigor into this man’s life. This is the kind of belief, I think, we often find ourselves looking for.

This is the kind of belief we were meant to have: belief that is rooted not necessarily in proper logical arrangement of ideas or in psychological security regarding the evidences that support our belief, but instead in a pure love for God. Interestingly, this kind of belief is not new. To believe, in its latin and greek roots, means “to give one’s heart to.”³ This love for God is the only way this man’s faith could continue unextinguished by the doubt that racked his mind. I want to be the kind of person who has this faith, and if this kind of belief/faith will have the same effect on everyone else who wrestles as it did on this doubting father, then I pray that everyone may gain it.

Doubting like a Believer

Let us return for a moment to doubt. Does this kind of faith, a faith that is rooted in the love of God and not the desire for epistemic security, require doubt? Does it require wrestling? I don’t think it necessarily does, at least not in the limited sense we’ve been talking about wrestling. We’ve been talking mostly about theological wrestling, wrestling about what we think we know about God, and I’m not entirely convinced that this is absolutely necessary for everyone. (Even though it has been necessary for me.) Regardless, I think enough has been said for us to see that doubt and faith are not really opposites. Rather, depending on the circumstances, faith as a love for the More will lead to a doubt about our current understanding of God and doubt about our current understanding will lead us to love the More.

Even if wrestling-doubt is not necessary for faith, I do think that the can make it clear to us that we are actually acting on genuine faith. While we have both our love for God and some sort of security regarding the rightness of our belief that God is X, Y, and Z, it is not entirely clear that our love for God could exist without that security, which means (I think) that our love for God is actually shared with our love of security. If we take away that security and our faith remains, we know that our love of God is pure, unmixed and unshared.

One more thing can be said about doubt-wrestling and its relation to this kind of belief-faith: a genuine love for God, I think, requires that we approach the Divine with our authentic selves. It does not help our love of God, therefore, to put those doubts out of our mind and to pretend that they are not a part of us. We must instead, I think, bring those doubts to God and wrestle with the Divine out of a pure desire to know the Truth, the True One.

It is quite possible that our love of God might not be strong enough to sustain this sort of doubt-wrestle-belief-faith dynamic, and if this is the case, perhaps we must start cultivating that love towards God. How can we love that which we doubt? If this question is meant as a logical one, then we are back at that question we posed above, but my answer is the same: I don’t know. If this question, however, is a psychological one, i.e., if it is a question about what can motivate us to take steps towards that-which-we-doubt, then I think I have an answer: we need a vision of the supreme Goodness of our relationship with the Divine becoming restored. That vision, I think, can sustain us despite our doubts.

Why think that such visions are that powerful? Because visions of the Potential Good often motivate us to step towards that which is doubtful. 50% of marriages end in divorce. Of the 50% of marriages that are not broken up, how many do you think are happy ones? If you hang around the same married couples I do, the number is not impressive. And yet, many of us want to get married. Why? Because the vision of having that beautiful relationship in which “the two are made one” is so powerful that it motivates us to take a step towards that-which-is-doubtful, a wonderfully happy union.

If I’m right about all of this (which is unlikely), then then the rules for wrestling are quite simple: 1) If we need to, we should wrestle. We shouldn’t be afraid to bring our doubts to the Divine. And 2) If we are going to wrestle, we should wrestle in a way that is rooted in a love for God, a love that is sustained by a vision of the Goodness of coming to know the Good One better, a love that says, “I will not let go until you, [Yahweh], bless me first.” This, I think, is just the same as saying, “wrestle in faith, doubt like a believer.”

…Or maybe this is all nonsense.

(Introspective connections: I can see this same sort of faith dynamic working out in Inception as I noted here. Also, this method of dealing with doubt is something that I just explicitly canvassed here.)

Notes:

1. I am aware that James seems to categorically warn against doubt. I think, however, that the doubt to which he is referring is different from the doubt that I am looking at here.

2. Actually, its not fair to associate this view with only logical contemporaries. The writer of Hebrews also seems to think (in this passsage) that believing that God exists is logically (and ethically?) necessary for the pleasing of God.

3. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 137.

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