Faith, Doubt and Authenticity

My friend Darren and I were meant to have a “Doubt Night”. But we haven’t had time to do one yet.

In our cell group, we’ve been talking about Timothy Keller’s message The Prodigal God. And the concept of how the younger brother was self-motivated. He is a model of a person who wanted to find meaning through self-discovery. The elder brother was a person who based his life on moral conformity.

But Jesus says that both are lost. In both cases, they were trying to find a way to get the Father’s things. They weren’t interested in the Father Himself.

There is a “third way” – the way of relationship. The third way which Jesus wants us to see is the one where the person of the Father is valued above the Father’s things. This is how gospel-centred Christians should live.

And yet, I have found that often in church settings, we tend to fall into the error of moral conformity. To allow a person to rely solely on a relationship with God makes that person very difficult to control. After all, a relationship is incredibly unpredictable.

This is how unpredictable a relationship is: the longer you are in a relationship with someone, the more predictable they become in terms of expectations, behaviours, stimuli and reactions. But then, when predictability becomes the norm, we say the relationship is in a rut, and we need to introduce new elements of unpredictability to breathe fresh life into the relationship. And so the cycle of unpredictability continues.

The institutional church likes predictability and control. And the only way to do that is through moral conformity.

A culture of moral conformity however only causes us to become performance-orientated Christians. We try hard to perform to the required level, to look like we’ve got it all together, to tick all the moral boxes of the expected “Christian norm”.

By the way, I heard someone once say that “normal” is one of those words that have lost its richness of meaning through common usage. These days, “normal” means “average”. Originally however, the word meant “upright”, “or 90 degrees against a plane” (as measured by a plumb line). In that sense, a “normal” Christian life means one which is infused with the righteousness of Christ – the only righteousness that is perfect and pure and that can restore us to right relationship with God.

So back to my point: a culture of moral conformity means we can seldom express our doubt. Because if we do, we are seen as questioning that which is accepted. At best, we might be seen as exhibiting weakness in our faith.

I actually think it is healthy to express our doubts. Hence, the idea of having a Doubt Night. I was going to trial it with Darren first, but the idea is to have a night when people can just come and express doubt. Others can provide a perspective, or attempt to address the doubt, but we won’t guarantee that there would be any resolution. We will openly discuss hard issues without judgment. It will be a place where we can be transparent and no one will/should think “what’s up with that? That guy must be a messed up Christian”.

In conventional Christian culture, faith is celebrated. Doubt is frowned upon. But in my view, faith cannot exist without doubt. Doubt is in fact the context in (or the process through) which faith emerges.

In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller says:

A faith without doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it…. A person’s faith can collapse overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts – not only their own but their friends’ and neighbours’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to sceptics, including yourself….

I love the authenticity of the man who cried to Jesus in Mark 9 “I do believe, help my unbelief!”. I love that when the resurrected Jesus challenged Thomas to believe, He still responded to Thomas’ request for more evidence. Sometimes, the church is more afraid of doubt than Jesus is.

I think it is high time for our contemporary church culture to entertain doubt again. When we can authentically express our doubt in a safe environment without fear of judgment, we will not only express beliefs because we have inherited them, or because it seems like the right behaviour to display, but we will emerge with stronger grounds for our beliefs. In other words, we will grow a stronger body of authentic, sold-out believers. So bring on Doubt Night.

Communicating and Shaping Culture by Drilling and Detonating

In my last post, one of the observations I made was about the arts communicating and shaping culture.

At its core, the gospel is about transformation. Which is why I believe worship, in all its various musical, visual and artistic expressions will play a critical role in the gospel’s penetrating society and bringing change and ultimately redemption.

I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s Centre Church in which he makes an important point about the need for contextualisation. Imagine, he says, that you need to remove a boulder. The key is to drill a shaft deep into the centre of the boulder, then sink some explosives into the shaft before detonating the explosives. if all you do is drill into the boulder, the boulder will remain. If you just plant explosives outside the boulder, you might shear off some of the surface but the boulder will remain in tact.

And so Keller says this:

To successfully reach people in a culture, we must both enter sympathetically and respectfully (similar to drilling) and then confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth (similar to blasting)

In the context of worship then, I believe our expression must be culturally cutting edge and undeniably attractive. We can’t continue doing things the way we’ve always done them, hoping that the truth in our message will somehow detonate the prevailing culture. Churches like to take the moral high ground, standing on truth alone and at all costs, even at the risk of alienating itself from culture and inevitably the very people it seeks to reach.

Instead my challenge to the church is to, through its music and artistic expressions, sympathetically and respectfully enter culture, to understand, embrace, welcome and even attract before it seeks to confront. Culturally informed, contextualised and, at the same time, penetrating worship may well be that key.

More Definitions of Worship

Today at Arrows College, we delved deeper into the theology of worship and creativity.  I was really inspired by the first session in which we surveyed worship through the Old Testament. Because of time constraints, we couldn’t look into individual passages in much detail, but I was thinking it’d be a great idea when I get some time to properly survey the Bible from Genesis to Revelation through the lens of worship. That will be a fairly big project to undertake in the future!

Anyway, in this post, I want to consider in more detail what “worship” means.

So far, we’ve had the following definitions.

Harold Best:

Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God.

Timothy Keller:

Worship is ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages the whole being.

Here are some more definitions:

Evelyn Underhill:

Worship is the total adoring response of man to the one Eternal God, self-revealed in time.

Archbishop William Temple:

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.  It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of His will to His purpose—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.

Warren Wiersbe:

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will and body—to what God is and says and does.  This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will.  Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.

Judson Cornwall:

Worship is an attitude of heart, a reaching towards God, a pouring out of our total self in thanksgiving, praise, adoration and love to the God who created us and to whom we owe everything we have and are. Worship is the interaction of man’s spirit with God in a loving response

David Peterson:

Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.

Louie Giglio

Worship is our response, both personal and corporate, to God for who He is, and what He has done; expressed in and by the things we say and the way we live.

Having looked at all those definitions, it will be clear to you that it’s pretty difficult to comprehensively nail down the concept of worship.

During our worship survey, our group was asked to look at Micah 6:6-8 and answer the questions: (1) What worship is; and (2) What worship is not.  Lisa, Nicky, Serene, Hilary and I came up with some profound thoughts which I will try to synergise below. So these thoughts are not mine. Rather they are the combined work of a bunch of inquisitive thinkers.  Here’s the passage:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

First, what worship is not.  Worship is not about offering of things or possessions. It’s not about systems and formulae and rituals. Nor is it about quantity, quality or even extravagance. The prophet asks: what can I offer? Rams? Oil? My firstborn? I think we all agree that our firstborn is one of the most precious things we can offer. It not only signifies our affection, but also our help, support and our legacy. Notice that the offer of the firstborn is for “my transgression”. When it is “me-centred”, it cannot be worship.  So you can give your most precious thing, and it will still not be worship. Worship is not about our trying to buy God’s favour.

The key is your attitude.

The prophet poses the question: “What does the Lord require?” This points to obedience to God’s requirements. Worship is therefore essentially a lifestyle of obedience which manifests in outward actions: “to do”, “to love” and “to walk”. And it is not only about our being in proper relationship with God, it is also about our right relationship with the people around us.

It is only in that context then that offerings, lavishness and extravagance, when done towards God, have their proper place, be it the widow’s mite, Mary’s alabaster box or Abraham’s placing of Isaac on the altar.

And I think it’s apt that it’s never about our firstborn, but God’s firstborn. Jesus is the inspiration and progenitor of our worship. We love, because He first loved us. When we were unable and unawakened to worship and in a state of sin, Christ died for us. So, shall we offer our firstborn? No – the suggestion is that because God has offered His firstborn, He has now paved the way for us to worship! Hallelujah!