“God Does Not Depend on You”
Over the course of the five years or so that I have been maintaining this blog, it has been interesting to observe which topics spark conversation and which do not. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that if there is one topic or theme that has tended to generate the most comments and/or traffic over the lifespan of this blog, it would be something related to doubt—whether the role doubt plays (or can play or ought to play) in the life of faith or the role doubt has played in the rejection of faith.
I suspect there are many reasons for why this topic generates interest, not least the simple fact that most of us, if we are honest, experience doubt personally, and that most of us know someone who has walked away from faith as a result of doubts that they could no longer live with or reconcile to their previously held beliefs. Doubt touches all of us, if in different ways, to different degrees, and in response to different pressures at various points in our lives.
This is as true for clergy as it is for anyone else. I was reminded of this when I read an article over at NPR a few days ago—an article which, in turn, reminded me of a post on this blog from a few years back that generated a bit of conversation. It had to do with a study of pastors who had lost their faith yet who continued to hold their positions, continued to preach and teach a view of the world that they had largely left behind.
At the time, I expressed no small amount of irritation at the arrogance and self-righteousness exhibited by those who had “grown out of faith” but were “graciously” allowing their parishioners to blunder along in their pleasant and comforting religious illusions. This still irritates me, truth be told. And I still think those who choose to walk away from faith ought to have the courage to stand behind their newfound convictions rather than hiding behind platitudes about the courage and compassion it takes to soldier on in their role in the church despite the enormous dissonance between what they believe and what they say. I don’t regret what I said about this two years ago, whether in the main post or in the comments. But I could have said more.
Some of the content of that “more” arrived via a chapter from Michael Jinkins’ Letters to New Pastors that I came across this morning. For Jinkins, more important than the issue of how to reconcile our doubts with faith is the question of how we understand the nature of God and his work in the world (and in our faith) in the first place:
It seems to me that pastors lose their faith at the end of a long road that begins by misinterpreting God as our insurance policy against life’s dangers. They then move on either to denying just how dangerous life is in a creation into which God has woven such extraordinary freedom, or to defending a simplistic, one-dimensional understanding of God as though their very lives depended on it. Both routes can lead to loss of faith. The first through the narrow, shuttered lanes of denial, the second along the crowded sidewalks of exhaustion. Both routes appear faithful (sticking up for God through thick and thin!), but both, I think, are grounded in the sin of pride (believing that God depends on us to defend God’s reputation).
God does not depend on you, either to defend God’s reputation or to hold on to your faith. Jesus Christ, as we are told again and again in Ephesians and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, fully represents God, and has faith in God for us. We can rest in this fact, even when we find this fact impossible to believe for ourselves.
The mere fact that God does not depend on us—on the clarity of our cognition, the fervency of our commitment, or the confidence of our articulation—does not magically resolve every issue related to doubt and faith. If only. But at the very least, I think, it can free us—whether we are pastors or not—from the illusion that our faith (or lack thereof) is the primary issue around which everything and everyone else in our orbit stands or falls. Thank God, it is not.