Why you can't trust God

January 20th, 2015

We live in a generation of doubt. On its own, this is neither good nor bad.

It just is.

I’ve written before on the fact that Christians ought to embrace those who doubt instead of shame them. Doubt is an important part of faith.

But we primarily talk about doubt as if it is an intellectual problem. And in many cases, it is.

But doubt’s power goes beyond merely intellectual for a lot of people. There is something related to the human will involved in doubt. We may very well be convinced, for example, that there is a God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, second person of the Trinity, incarnate and resurrected from the dead. But being intellectually convinced of this is not the same thing as lacking doubt. Because while we may be cognitively convinced of truthful propositions or doctrines, we may not very well be living lives that trust Christ to care for us, especially as we attempt to live the radical lives he’s called Christians to live.

This kind of doubt can be just as unsettling as the intellectual kind, often because it masks itself so well. Having primarily thought of doubt as intellectual, we excuse our lack of trust and blind ourselves to it. But it must be dealt with with the same ferocity as intellectual doubt. And with the same patience.

I’m currently working my way through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” where he repeats his axiom, “Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.” In other words, the issue of doubt circles back and forth fluidly between matters of intellectual conviction and the will/actions of the Christian. We cannot obey Christ until we intellectually believe and trust in him. But we cannot truly intellectually believe and trust him until we have given ourselves in obedience to him.

Doubt and faith both have cognitive and practical sides. One without the other is impossible, to Bonhoeffer.

I saw this most clearly in the life of Abraham as I taught through Genesis last year. Abraham is called out of Ur as an answer to the expanse of human evil (Genesis 3-11). He is the new humanity, immediately obedient to God’s call. He gives up everything he has and follows God to a land God hasn’t even shown him yet. Immediately, it seems like Abraham is both intellectually and practically convinced. Immediately, it seems like this is a man without doubt.

But you don’t get that impression for long. His first move is going down into Egypt where, while he may be intellectually convinced about Yahweh and Yahweh’s promises, he’s not practically convinced, and he puts those promises in jeopardy by nearly giving away his wife, Sarah to Pharaoh. This is only a handful of verses removed from even the original call and giving of the promises.

Abraham’s entire life will be a fluctuation of faith. He is constantly having to learn to trust God, to see that God is not like the pagan gods whose untrustworthy, unstable characters lead them to hurt human beings whenever humanity is merely annoying.

In contrast to this, Abraham will have to learn through barrenness and landlessness that the God who called him is faithful. And Abraham’s lack of trust — his doubt — will lead him down endless detours, all of which tell us more about the mercy and patience of God than anything else about Abraham.

In short, by the time we get to the end of Abraham’s life, past the barrenness in particular, and past the mistaken assumption that Ishmael was the child of promise (Genesis 17), we see in Genesis 22 a disturbing story about radical obedience.

I’ll not explore the practical or emotive disturbances of the classic Near-Sacrifice-of-Isaac Story. But within the structure of Genesis, the passage is designed to show that Abraham trusted in dramatic form the God who originally called him and made promises to him. The Book of Hebrews later tacks on that he trusted, indeed, that God would raise Isaac from the dead.

His whole journey was a journey in learning to trust. And as his story is a pre-telling of Israel’s story, the whole story of Israel is a story of learning to trust. And that is the church’s story, as well.

Within the church, there are people of all stripes of doubt. We often speak as if intellectual doubt is the primary doubt. But it’s time we expanded that definition to include people like me, who have no problem with a Virgin Birth or a Resurrection, but day-to-day we struggle with trusting God as we try to live the radical lives to which we’re called.

You can’t trust God until you’ve obeyed him. And you can’t obey him until you’ve trusted him. It’s a paradox filled with the patience of God. But maybe, if you’re struggling with doubt of either the cognitive or practical kind, maybe the first step is simply to obey what you know God has said. Jump in the cycle and see where the adventure leads.

Tom Fuerst blogs at Tom1st.com. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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