The Trout of Doubt

Okay, so this isn't a trout. You try taking a photo of a trout.
Okay, so this isn’t a trout. You try taking a photo of a trout.

There are certain core skills that you need in life in order to be a respectable human being.

I have very few of these.

I can’t cook anything much more complicated than toast (at school, I made a sponge cake which, I’m not kidding, tasted of fish. It was a miracle of culinary physics. And cupcakes that bounced). I was not very successful with woodwork, either. I once made a bird-table that more closely resembled some kind of fiendish, spikey wooden venus flytrap (which birds, sensibly, avoided). Trying to add a new circuit board to a computer resulted in an actual fire.

One thing I did try to master was fly-fishing. My father is very skilled at it. He used to make his own flies too, which in angling circles is the equivalent of being an intergalactic space ninja. But fishing expeditions with me were very different, being mainly afternoons spent untangling the line from trees, fences and people. The only time I ever actually caught something was when I managed to land a sick fish in my net, which is the pretty unsporting equivalent of going big game hunting at the zoo. In a tank.

But I did learn something interesting about trout. And this is that trout lurk. They hover in the river, gobbling up anything that comes near them. Sometimes you can see them, and sometimes you can’t. But they’re there – lurking.

Something else that lurks, beneath the waters of the church, is a relatively forbidden subject – uncertainty about whether God is really there or not.

The Trout of Doubt

You rarely hear sermons about the Trout. Sermons about the existence of God tend to be evangelistic talks. Which is great, but by front-loading the church machine like this we hoover up new believers but don’t necessarily retro-fit anything at the other end of the pipeline for when they start to wonder.

Our language about this issue is also weird. We seem to imply that all Christians are in a permanent state of rock-solid belief (or at least, they should be). We talk about ‘being saved’, or ‘conversion’, as if once someone has said the magic words ‘I accept you into my life, Jesus,’ then that’s it. Instant. No more internal process, one more Christian, on to the next soul. We’ve even given uncertainty a label, ‘doubt’ which is a term that’s not just loaded, it’s practically bursting. The wheels underneath it are buckling.

As soon as we use the word ‘doubt’, it’s like we’re diagnosing a spiritual disease. A sort of Christian mental illness. This is unhelpful in two ways – firstly, it marks it out as a condition with a start and a finish. As if it comes on suddenly, like flu or food poisoning, and hopefully another Christian will find a cure for you by saying the right thing ‘for you’, and you’ll stop doubting and return to your healthy religious state. And secondly, it stigmatises it. It’s undesirable. It’s not in the Happy Box with words like ‘worship’ and ‘joyful’, it’s not something that a Christian wants to admit to other Christians.

The effect is heightened for leaders, missionaries and long-term Christians. They often worry that if they express any hint of doubt, then the carpet will be pulled out from underneath them (revealing, presumably, a flume-tube going all the way to Hell with a demon attendant offering complimentary towels at the other end). Or perhaps that they will infect others with doubt, as if it’s the Ebola virus and unless they quarrantine their thoughts they will become Patient Zero in an outbreak that will bring down all of Christendom.

The spectrum of doubt

Let’s blow the lid on this, and suggest a startling idea – all Christians are sitting somewhere on a spectrum of doubt at any one time. At one end is the conviction that God does not exist and it’s all a load of nonsense, and at the other is a wild-eyed, near-psychotic conviction that God is more real that Burger King.

And nobody is ever at either extreme. Even self-described atheists have a part of them that thinks “but what if…?” (and they wouldn’t be very good scientists if they didn’t). Instead, in response to the factors acting on us at any one time, we slide along this spectrum throughout our lives. We might move in either direction, by an inch or a mile, over several years or in the space of a day. In essence, all Christians are in a greater or lesser state of worry that they might be wrong, the whole time. All people are, whether they’re religious or not.

Living life on the spectrum

In 2005, a behavioural economist called Dan Ariely carried out an amazing psychological experiment. He asked some students to predict what their opinions would be about several subjects if they were placed into a strong emotional state. He then placed them in such a state, and asked them again. He found massive differences between what the students thought their opinions were going to be, and what their opinions actually turned out to be.

What this suggests is that our world-view is heavily altered by the emotions we’re experiencing at the time.

So if your view on the existence of God is based on cold logic (like a theological cyborg), that might not satisfy you when you’re in an intense emotional place (such as a bereavement). But similarly, an answer which might be of some comfort when you feel emotional may not satisfy you when you return to your day-to-day neutral state. We go through different emotional states throughout our lives, such as the religious devotion we feel when worshipping in church, the neutral day-to-day state when we’re just going about, doing our thing, and then finally the emotionally-heavy one when we’re faced with something frightening, threatening or worrying.

What Dan’s research might imply is that the assurance of God’s existence we might have in any one of those states may not automatically carry through to the others.

Faith is like a womble

So part of living life on the spectrum is recognising that faith is a flexible and dynamic creature that has to adapt to the habitat in which it finds itself. Like a womble.

I don't know what they're doing either.
I don’t know what they’re doing either.

The fact that you doubt is healthy. Really healthy. It means you’re not crazy. It means you don’t fall for just anything. And so that makes the faith you do have more valuable.

And by the same token, the fact that you recognise a need to consider what might exist beyond our physical senses is equally healthy, especially given that modern studies show that we have too much confidence in our perception of them (some, for example, show that we only actually notice 0.045% of what our senses pick up – remember the gorilla Youtube video?).

If you find yourself moving along the spectrum, embrace it. To quote Isaiah 43:19 shamelessly out of context:

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

Your faith is finding itself having to adapt to a new habitat, a new time of life.  It’s normal. Don’t be frightened, don’t worry, and certainly don’t give up.

Relax. This is part of the journey.

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God and the dishwasher

After years of miserably washing the dishes by hand like seventeenth century peasants, we’re now fortunate enough to have a dishwasher.

This chamber of magic water has significantly curtailed our kitchen arguments, or at least it did – until, unexpectedly, it went on strike and would only make edgy whirring noises.

Household Appliances in modern kitchen
You can tell it’s a stock photo because it’s so clean. No real kitchen is ever this clean. If you find yourself in a kitchen this clean, it’s probably an alien spaceship made to look like a kitchen in order to lure you in. You should probably leave.

‘It’s probably the filter, it needs unblocking,’ said Wifey, reclining on her chaise-longue while being fed grapes and fanned with palm leaves.

I rolled up my sleeves and went fishing around in the murky water like Crocodile Dundee. Alas, despite disassembling anything that seemed to come off (which was quite a lot, actually – including a number of things that initially didn’t want to come off and probably shouldn’t have), I could do nothing to encourage the water to leave.

So, we called up the lettings agency and, promptly, an engineer arrived six weeks later and unblocked the filter.

“Aw, look,” he said with the ubiquitous Australian verbal shrug. “You’ve gotta rinse the plates before putting them in, right?”

This was unhelpful for several reasons. Not least that it justified Wifey’s ongoing view that plates should be rinsed before they go in the dishwasher, but worse, that it justifies her father’s fixation with the same. This bothers me. If you have to wash the plate before it goes in the dishwasher, then what on earth is the point of the dishwasher? It’s like getting an Uber and the driver suggesting that he sits on your lap while you work the pedals.

Not that I am in the habit of comparing kitchen appliances to the Bible, but something else that seems to work just fine most of the time is Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [NRSV]

It’s a beautiful verse, filled with optimism and gushing with peace and security. Until, of course, the chaotic events of a cold world batter the sense that God has a plan out of us. Then it stops working.

Christians (especially evangelicals) are forever banging on about God’s plan. It’s the stock response to pretty much anything that happens; the place we go for hope, comfort, or (worse) to give others hope and comfort. There are few things less comforting than, in the midst of sorrow or grief, being told that it’s all ‘part of God’s plan’.

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Plans are a very human thing. How should we think about God’s?

Don’t worry – I’m not going to delve into exegesis or start talking about what this verse means in its original context. Nor am I going to embark on a miserable philosophical discussion about predestination that makes you wish I was still writing about dishwashers. What is important though is to think about what we mean by the phrase ‘God’s plan’. A plan is a very human thing. It is a schedule of activity designed to make something happen within the constraints of time, resources and creativity.

But here’s the point: God operates under none of those constraints.

So how useful is the phrase ‘God’s plan’?

That concept might actually be quite limiting; another example of our tendency to put our unimaginably vast and powerful God in a box.

A better idea might be to reflect on what these verses tell us about God – no matter what happens around us.

For example, some of the things they might tell us are that we can trust Him, that there is good reason to hope, that even though we don’t understand everything – He loves us, is with us, and our story does have a happy ending.

After all, who are we really being invited to trust – God, or a ‘plan’?

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Siri thinks he’s clever.

There are two great, opposed forces in the world. The first is my phone’s predictive text, which is like having a three year old second-guessing every word you speak and unilaterally changing the ones it doesn’t like to things that don’t make sense. The other is Google’s ‘don’t you mean…?’ function, the most passive-aggressive spellcheck of all time. Like an electronic Yin and Yang, one attempts to scramble all my communications while the other attempts to unravel them. Never mind Neo taking three movies to defeat the Matrix, all he needed to do was plug these two into each other and the Matrix would have blown itself up.

Followers of this blog will be familiar with my long-running  bafflement with modern technology. Last year, we acquired a coffee machine and, having successfully used it without setting fire to anything or losing a hand, this gave me unmerited confidence to get one of those Bose wi-fi stereo thingies for Christmas. We have friends who have them, you see, and make it all seem so effortless. You know the sort  – nice people, trendy people, who aren’t still using the same trousers they bought in 2006, know what the stuff  in the window of the enchanted forest that is Currys does, and probably don’t get into arguments with each other about whether the tea towel can also be used to wipe the floor (it can’t, apparently).

‘Effortless’ was not my experience. Trying to get the infernal thing and my phone to connect with each other was like trying to facilitate a 19th-century aristocratic arranged marriage. The moment you think you’ve got one participant into setup mode and ready to go, you find the other has got cold feet and is trying to hook up with the toaster or something.

technology-computer-chips-gigabyte
Literally no idea what any of this is. If you told me this was an aerial photo of a city in southern Russia I’d believe you.

Wifey – she of the uni-purpose tea towels – is at one with the pixies that live inside these devices. She had the Bose and phone thing figured from the start, and her gentle whisper in either’s ear was all that was needed to send them off on their musical honeymoon (for me, though, my iPhone might as well be a slice of magic cut from the rump of a goblin, for all I understand what goes on inside it). Wifey will really come into her own after the robot uprising, when she can intercede on our behalf.

Fortunately, not everybody is as technologically illiterate as me, but almost nobody reading this will have sufficient knowledge to actually build an iPhone or understand how it makes the funny videos of cats happen. And this is fine. We don’t need to understand how it all works in order to get into arguments with strangers or watch videos of people falling over. So, here’s my question – if we are comfortable with using technology without fully understanding how it works, why is it that we don’t do the same with God?

We left the UK for sunnier climes this year, so while back in Winterfell we had a great church, we’re looking for one here. We visited one this week, and the preacher was talking about the book of Romans, which prompted me to have a proper look at it. I was interested to find this:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

Romans 9:19-20 (NIV)

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Watching it back, it’s somehow not as funny as you remember, right?

This book is written by Paul, who’s a reliable guy. He had met people who were friends with Jesus, and his writing is the earliest Christian material we have after the events of Jesus’ life. In time terms, the distance between the events before and after Jesus’ death, and the earliest written work of Paul, is about the same as the time between now and when series 5 of Friends came out (you know, the one where Monica and Chandler are trying to keep their relationship a secret, and all that irritating Ross and Emily stuff happened). Romans is his enormous essay explaining why Jesus died, what it means, how it fits into history and what we need to do about it. There are a lot of answers.

But even here, Paul recognises that there are going to be ‘but why?’ questions. Why did Jesus need to die? Why couldn’t God have created a world where it wasn’t necessary? Why, why, why?

Paul’s answer contains a wisdom that we’re not good at grasping these days. There are limitations to our knowledge and intellect. God, by definition, sees more and understands more than us. It’s odd to imagine that, in order to believe in Him, we must understand His entire plan – and bizarre to imagine that we could. This is often mistaken for a matter of faith, but it isn’t, it’s trust. Faith is deciding to believe that Jesus is the answer for your life. Trust is believing that Jesus knows all the other answers.

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Eventually, when he’s asked ‘why’ enough times, the answers will exceed his understanding. But does he need them, to trust and accept?

The thing is, if we get too hung up on philosophical questions, we miss what’s on offer in Christianity. Romans sets out an amazing vision, one that was astounding back then but, with our modern over-familiarity, has jaded a little. Do yourself a favour and look into it. It doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It’s more amazing than that. In a world full of hate and anger and injustice, Jesus offers a most astonishing, almost-too-good-to-be-true hope for the future.

My faith is based not on philosophy, but on the experience of God in my life. (As it happens, I find the historical evidence for the events of the Gospels quite compelling, but nobody’s ever been argued into believing in God and neither have I.) I find the story of my life easier to understand with God as the main character.

I recognise the limitations of my human understanding – but I understand enough to believe, and to live. That, and being able to work my iPhone, is good enough for me.

Bible Stories If They Happened Now: David And Goliath

david and goliath

Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war. The Israelites pitched camp  and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.

A giant named Goliath came out of the Philistine camp and mocked unto the Israelites. On hearing the Philistine’s words, King Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

But David sayeth, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

This was reported unto King Saul, who sendeth for David. David sayeth unto him: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

“I am delighted by your enthusiasm,” sayeth Saul. “Our graduate internship scheme starts next summer, so you still have plenty of time to put in for it.”

“Next summer? But Goliath threatens us now, oh King!” replieth David.

“Be that as it may, you cannot participate, as our insurance doesn’t cover you. You’re not actually in the army, you see. And we would need to carry out a Risk Assessment. Have you brought in a resume?”

“I have been a shepherd,” sayeth David. “I have fought bears and wild lions. I will slay Goliath just as I did them.”

“That does sound impressive,” admitteth Saul. “But those examples don’t quite hit the competencies we’re looking for. The role of Israelite soldier requires problem-solving and communication skills. Perhaps thou hast organised a event whilst at college? Or was there a project that you found particularly demanding? These may be more helpful examples.”

“College? Projects? Oh King, we will be over-run!”

“Thou art David, yes?”

“Yes, oh King.”

“David. Incline thine ear. I’m trying to run a very complex operation here. I’ve got to think about the impact on the community of appointing you on the spot, haven’t I? It’s hardly fair to all the other possible giant-slayers if I just give you the role, is it?”

Other giant-slayers? Where? I hardly had to weave my way through a crowd of applicants!”

“I put the advert on Facebook. And a lot of people ‘liked’ it.”

And David was greatly disappointed. But, undeterred, he returned home and began building work experience and was ultimately overjoyed to enter a fruitful career in retail management.

God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’. This he did when a long time later he spoke through David…”Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Hebrews 4:7

“Hi, you’re through to God. Please leave a message.”

The Iphone's 'SIRI' voice-activated personal assistant software gets quite testy if you ask it about God.
The Iphone’s ‘SIRI’ voice-activated personal assistant software gets quite testy if you ask it about God.

Jesus Teaches on Prayer

“So I say to you,” said Jesus. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

There was a pause.

“Lord,” said Matthew.

“Yes, Matthew?” said Jesus.

“Is there a Technical Support prayer that I can pray?”

“A… what?”

“I am having some connectivity issues,” went on Matthew. “I can send my prayers, that’s fine – the sending is fine. But I don’t seem to be receiving any signal. I just get silence.”

“Let me deal with this, Master,” smiled Peter, placing his hand on Jesus’ arm. “Matthew, have you correctly begun your prayer?”

“I – I suppose so…”

“You must clearly begin the prayer by addressing God the Father, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. If you don’t state this then the prayer can get lost in the… the… air.”

“Yes, yes I’m doing that.”

“Okay, then have you given the right information? You must begin with Adoration, then follow with Confession, then give Thanks and finally ask for what you want – Supplication. ACTS. If you haven’t entered your details correctly then this can lead to unnecessary delays in prayer-answering.”

“Yes I’ve done all that too – the right order and everything.”

“Hmm,” said Peter. “Tricky one this, what language are you using?”

“Aramaic,” said Matthew.

Peter nodded, deep in thought. “Yes, Aramaic is supported, so it can’t be that – tell you what, maybe there’s a user-error. Are you waiting for the buffering to finish? It can take a while for the answer to download. You have to be really, really quiet and not let yourself think about anything else.”

“Yes, yes I’m doing that! I’m waiting ages!”

“Well,” said Peter, unravelling a scroll and casting his eyes up and down it. “Well that completes the diagnostic schedule – I’m not sure what’s wrong with this one.”

“Have you tried turning yourself off and on again?” Asked John.

“DON’T do that,” said Jesus.

The adolescence of a believer

I never trust anybody who says they enjoyed their teenage years. For me, being a teenager represented a decade of pitched conflict against an army of cleverly-organised guerilla skin pimples, punctuated by brief moments of rejection by girls. Being a teenager meant trying to survive in a nuanced but brutal school hierachy which would make even the most complex Mafia family feel like an article in Hello! magazine.

There were moments, however, of impressive ingenuity – my friends and I could never pass as 18, so we had to rely on the largest of our group to buy the beer and cigarettes for us on a Friday night. Years later, he would casually admit he had been overcharging us the whole time and had happily bought a bookcase-worth of albums from the profits.

I think he’s a lawyer now.

One of the things I found most confusing was the sudden ramp-up in personal responsibility that you go through when you hit adolescence. You’re forced to start thinking and developing for yourself, rather than relying on the constant support of parents or teachers. It ramped-up again at college, where you had to get a job (outrageous) or there’d be no beer for you. I got a job in telesales, signing people with credit cards up for a new credit card (“You seem to be in debt, would you like some more?”).

This was hard because until this point, relationships felt transactional to us. We needed something, and if we asked nicely by adding ‘please’, we might get it. My godson (who is three), for example, has been known to ask “Mummy, can I go to Narnia… Pleeeeez?” and “Mummy, I want ice-cream for breakfast… Pleeeeez!”

But when we hit adolescence, the parent-child relationship increases the tempo of the child’s development. The transaction ceases to be tangible things like pocket money (‘allowances’ to our American friends), lifts in the car and ironed shirts, and instead we receive  independence and growth as people.

And God’s really clear in the Bible about who He expects us to be. Although we are to be dependent on Him, He doesn’t intend for us to be like babies clambering for their next feed. We are to develop into Christians who can stand on their own two feet and take what’s thrown at them in life. We’re to think, and make decisions, in line with what He’s given us in the Bible. Sometimes this can be extremely tough. It means making decisions and coping with things even if we feel like we’re on our own, because God doesn’t seem to be communicating with us.

The quote from Jesus at the start of this article (which comes from Luke 11 and Matthew 7) does not imply that prayer will involve immediate answers or that we will receive exactly what we think we need, or ask for. It’s not a magic ordering service. It promises instead that God will provide for our needs, which He knows better than us. And sometimes it’s just that which we need to cling to as we are compelled to act in spite of radio silence.

So, let’s be careful about running too many diagnostic tests to work out why God isn’t speaking, like he’s a malfunctioning printer or a 1991 Ford Orion. I’m not convinced that God is a blackmailer or a petulant child, who refuses to speak to us because we haven’t (or have) done a certain thing. Instead, let’s think more broadly – and more like grown-ups. Let’s ensure we’re making time to ‘listen’ – that is, we know what to look out for and we’re looking for it, that we’re flexible in what we consider to be ‘answers’ to prayers, or try to find out if an answer might already exist in the Bible first. If nothing’s coming, let’s trust Him that we’re to operate on radio silence for a bit, and do it.

Let’s be better – and less pimply – spiritual adolescents.