I recently had a conversation with a friend about doubt – notably his – and it has had me thinking. It was clear that this topic had been broken down into polarized terms in his mind. On the one hand there was faith (good). On the other hand, way at the other end of the spectrum, there was doubt (bad). Hmm… Is that really how it is?
A dictionary definition says:
Faith: Belief; the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another, resting solely and implicitly on his authority and veracity; reliance on testimony.
I don’t know if old man Webster read the Book of Hebrews, but he sure got it right. Faith is the assent, or agreement, of the mind to the truth declared by a trustworthy authority. Hebrews says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). Does this mean absolute certainty absolutely all the time? Probably not. Certainty can be applied to tangible, verifiable facts, but faith relies on our trust in the character of the One who has all the facts in his control. Doubt sometimes nibbles at the edges of faith, because certainty seems so controllable, while trusting another is… well, not controllable.
That said, what is faith’s opposite? Is it doubt? Again, probably not. Truth be told, doubt and faith will co-mingle in us until we see Jesus face to face. How thankful we can be for the father who asked Jesus for the healing of his son, and who uttered the words, I believe. Help me in my unbelief! (Mark 9:24) Given this, doubt can’t possibly be faith’s opposite.
Here’s the true opposite of faith: F E A R
My doubting friend was concerned that he might be slipping off the edge of faith. He wasn’t. He cared enough to wrestle with it, to ask deep questions, to keep talking to God about it.
Doubts will come and go, but the more insidious threat to our faith is fear. The kind of fear I’m addressing isn’t the garden-variety individual fears we might have – shark attacks, earthquakes, snakes, heights, etc. The fear we’re talking about is a prevailing sense that evil is coming and that our response must be to shore up and prepare, prepare, prepare. We’re talking about the mindset that doesn’t, in the face of perceived evil, trust God to be powerful Protector and Provider. It’s a fear that takes ownership over that which we feel we must protect – whether it’s our finances, our reputation, our children, or our church.
Wait a minute.
Isn’t that what responsible people do? They protect, provide, and prepare for possibilities on behalf of the things and people they love, right? Yes, but here’s the thing: Fear (one of our Enemy’s most effective tools) creeps in like a faint shadow, stealthy and sometimes slow, and begins to blur the lines between ownership and stewardship. God calls us to good stewardship and responsibility over the blessings he gives us, but fear begins to grip us when the shadow darkens and we confuse that stewardship with ownership. Dare I say we might be afraid that God might not do the same kind of good job we would do? So we shore up, hedge our bets, and take over his work, sidelining the Lord of the universe – usually giving it the spiritually/socially-appropriate patina of being “responsible.”
Did you know that one of the most frequently occurring commandments in Scripture is, don’t be afraid? The Bible discusses fear, directly and indirectly, more than just about anything in the human condition. Why? Why is this topic of fear so prevalent in Scripture and so important to the heart of God? Perhaps because fear isn’t just faith’s opposite, but often faith’s enemy.
Perhaps our clearest example of how fear transforms good people into godless people is the Pharisees. They started so well. They were good people with good intentions. They were given stewardship of the law and Jewish traditions. So far, so good, right? Then –and isn’t this just like every human everywhere – they took ownership. It became about them and their reputation. So they began drawing boundary lines everywhere, and stacking law upon law. They lost sight of the goal on the horizon because they turned their eyes inward on themselves, protecting what they had built. And fear made them do it.
In his book, Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan says this:
…the root difference between the ethic of Jesus and the ethic of the Pharisees…is that the Pharisees had an ethic of externals of ritual and rigmarole, and Jesus had an ethic of involvement. The Pharisee’s question was not “How can I glorify God?” It was “How can I avoid bringing disgrace to God?” This degenerated into a concern not with God, but with self—with image, reputation, procedure. (emphasis added)
Ah, sit with these two questions quoted here. If we are asking ourselves, How do I glorify God? then we are living lives of surrender and risk. It might get scary! If we have settled for the latter question, How can I avoid bringing disgrace to God?, then we can armchair our way through life, never truly risking, never truly depending, never genuinely encountering our own desperate need for a rescuing Savior. Worse yet, our attention will turn naturally to the externals (usually in other people’s lives), just as it did with the Pharisees. Even worse, when churches do it, the question morphs from, How do I avoid bringing disgrace to God?, to what might be the real question, which is, How do we avoid making our church look bad? Ouch. Externals have a quantifiable comfort in them – everything so measurable and tidy. Nothing like the unsafe, unpredictable, hot mess of sin that roils around inside each of us, and which is the very thing that Jesus implored us to surrender.
The Pharisees chose to receive their benefits from what they built, rather than from the One who built them. They didn’t trust God for the end of the story. And we follow suit all the time. We are afraid of being alone, so we settle for relationships that God didn’t intend for us – afraid to listen to Him, afraid that He might say no. We are afraid for our own financial security, so we never learn the risky leap of generous giving. We are afraid for our children, so we run out ahead and protect them from everything, including the consequences they should receive for their poor choices, or even from the pain in life that might help them seek their Savior. We can even be afraid in our churches. When things go well, we want to protect what God has built. And stewardship can slip imperceptibly to ownership. We can be fear-based parents, pastors, business-people, and friends.
Scripture, however, does command us to fear one thing – and one thing only – and that is God Himself. In fact, we’re told that to fear Him is the beginning of wisdom. To fear God is, in an interesting, oxymoronic way, to trust Him completely. When we don’t do that, the alternative is to abandon stewardship and take controlling ownership over the things that matter most to us. The great and powerful truth here is this: When we don’t appropriately fear God, we will fear LIFE. When our fear of unfavorable outcomes trumps our trust in God’s sovereignty, then we’ve crossed a line, and turned from faith to fear, and it can happen in any area of our lives. Sobering indeed.
Isn’t it such a swaying tightrope we walk on this journey of faith? We will always struggle to balance how we are living in trusting stewardship versus fearful ownership, but any tightrope walker will say that the key to not falling is to keep our eyes ahead to the goal.
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I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. Philippians 3:14 (The Message)