Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty

Greg Boyd is one of my favorite people. He’s a prolific writer and a Christian revolutionary (my kind of peeps).

I mean, any pastor who is brave enough to glowingly endorse Pagan Christianity is not your typical 21st century Christian.

Before I go on, some of you are going to ask me this, so let me hit it head-on at the front.

Greg is controversial in some quarters because he believes in something called “open future.” From what I’ve read about this idea, I’m not convinced of it. (You can see my view of God and time in Jesus: A Theography, Chapter 1.) Nevertheless, Greg and I plan to talk about this concept behind closed doors someday (feel free to pray that one of us leaves the room alive!) ;-)

But the purpose of this blog post is on a different track, so let’s not clutter up the comments section on a discussion of “open future.”

Greg has written a superb book for the times in which we live.

I felt that Benefit of the Doubt is so valuable that I added it to my Best 100 Christian Books Ever Written list.

If you’ve ever struggled with doubt — especially to the point of feeling condemned — this book is a must read. It’s also a must read for Christian college students who feel they must abandon faith in Jesus because of what they are learning about various theories of creation and science.

As Greg points out, it’s a false choice to feel one must abandon faith in Jesus because of questioning certain interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2.

I caught up with Greg to interview him about his new book. The interview is lengthy, so you may want to print it out and read it at your convenience. Or better, just click on the link at the top or bottom and get a copy for yourself.

In Benefit of the Doubt, you talk quite a bit about “certainty-seeking faith.” Can you explain what this is and why you think it’s a problem?

Greg Boyd: “Certain-seeking faith” is what results when people assume that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that this kind of “strong” faith pleases God.   Whereas this model of faith makes a virtue out of feeling certain, the biblical model of faith is about committing to living a certain way, despite the fact that you’re not certain.  And whereas this model of faith makes an enemy of doubt, the biblical model of faith acknowledges that doubt can be a natural, and even advantageous, corollary of faith.

Sadly, most evangelical Christians today are taught to embrace the certainty-seeking model of faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith borders on magic and is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with faith and with most of the negative things non-believers associate with conservative Christianity.

Among other things, when people accept this model of faith, faith gets reduced to a psychological gimmick in which people irrationally try to feel more confident about the rightness of their beliefs beyond what the evidence warrants. Similarly, this model assumes that God leverages people’s eternal welfare on their ability to successfully engage in this irrational, psychological gimmickry.  The irrationality and pettiness of this view of God makes it hard for rational people to believe in, let alone genuinely love, God.

On top of this, because the certainty-seeking model of faith is inherently irrational, this model punishes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts by making them feel guilty for having “weak” faith. Conversely, it rewards people who either lack the ability, concern or the curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  At the same time, people who think it pleases God to feel certain their beliefs are correct will inevitably tend to become narrow-minded, for if people dare to honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view, it might lead them to doubt the correctness of their beliefs, which in this model is a form of sin. This goes a long way toward explaining why conservative Christians have a (largely justified) reputation for being narrow-minded!

For similar reasons, the certainty-seeking model of faith can lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and sincerely learn from people whose point of view differs from your own, you might uncover fact or perspectives that shake your certainty, which, in this model means you’re displeasing God. And, perhaps most importantly, I believe that this model of faith makes an idol out of the feeling of certainty, for people now anchor their sense of well-being and security not in their trust that God’s loving character is revealed in Christ, but in whatever level of certainty they can talk themselves into.

You hold up Job as a model of faith in Benefit of the Doubt. What lessons can we learn from Job about faith?

Greg Boyd: One of the main messages I believe we’re to derive from this incredibly profound book is that God loves honesty above pious sounding language. Toward the end of this book God rebukes Job’s friends for “not speak about me what is right like my servant Job has” (42:7).  What’s interesting is that God had earlier rebuked Job for speaking ignorantly about him  (chs.38-41) and Job had already repented of the ignorant things he said (42:3,6).  The reason is that, in his tormented state, Job had said some insulting things about God. For example, Job accused God of being a ruthless adversary who tortured him for his own amusement (e.g. 16:12-13; 30:20-22).  This forces the question, what was God saying when he commended Job for speaking “what is right”?

The answer becomes clear once we realize that the word “right” in Hebrew (koon) has the connotation of being straight or in alignment with some standard.  What God was commending Job for was not how accurately he spoke, for his words at times bordered on blasphemy.  He was rather commending Job for how honestly – how “straight” — he had spoken. Whereas Job’s friends spoke out of their fear and in self-serving ways, as religious people frequently do, Job spoke straight from his gut! And it was this kind of faith that ultimately vindicated the character of God against Satan, whose challenge in chapter 1 of this book had led to Job’s ordeal in the first place.

What this ought to teach us is that the kind of faith that pleases God is not a doubt-free faith by which someone makes herself feel comfortable in their psychological certainty, but an honest faith that is uncompromisingly real before God, regardless of the doubts they may be struggling with.

In your book you share a rather raw Job-like experience from your own life that taught you the importance of being honest with God. Can you tell our readers a little bit about this and about what it taught you?

Greg Boyd: I became a Christian at the age of 17 in a strict holiness Pentecostal Church. I was able to immediately quit taking drugs and to stop engaging in a host of other sinful behaviors, except for one – a pornography addiction that I’d developed over the four years leading up to my conversion.  Since this church taught that a person lost their salvation with every sin, I found I was getting “saved” and “unsaved” several times a week – if not several times a day! – for the first two years of my Christian walk.

One night I walked out of this holiness church in despair, convinced I was never going to be able to kick my pornography habit.  Believing at this point that I was hopelessly destined to hell, I became “uncorked” in the church parking lot while sharing my despair with a friend.  Like a volcano erupting, and using language that was nothing short of vile, I unleashed a geyser of seething anger and frustration toward God not just over my two years of unsuccessful struggling with porn, but going all the way back to abuse I had suffered for years as a child at the hands of an unloving, psychologically tormented, step-mother. I recount this episode in lurid detail in the book.

After I had spewed out my hot rage, I flopped my Bible on the hood of my friend’s truck and began reading it sarcastically. It “happened” to flop open to Romans 8:1, which says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”  This opened the door for me to begin to realize, for the first time in my life, that God loved me for free, despite my sin. It ultimately resulted in me finding a motivation of love (rather than fear) that I had never known before, and it was this motivation that eventually broke the stronghold of pornography in my life and completely revolutionized my life as a disciple.

This episode taught me that God is not offended by us when we honestly express our anger and frustration, even when it’s done in grotesquely indecorous ways.  To the contrary, he loves it!  Honestly is what God is all about!  Another important lesson I learned on this life-transforming night was that it is only when we are uncompromisingly “real” before God that we can we allow God to be uncompromisingly “real” with us.  When we hide the ugliness of our  truth from God, we inevitably hide the beauty of God’s truth from ourselves. I’m convinced that this is one of the main reasons God places a far greater premium on being honest with him than he does on sounding and looking pious before him.

You distinguish between “faith” and “belief” in Benefit of the Doubt. Can you explain what this distinction amounts to and why you believe it’s so important? 

Greg Boyd: As I define it, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while the biblical concept of “faith” is about a willingness to place your trust in another, and to commit to being trustworthy in relationship to another, on the basis of what you believe about them.  To illustrate, when I married my wonderful wife (Shelley) thirty-four years ago, I had to first believe a number of things about her – e.g. that she was gorgeous, compassionate, faithful, loved God, found my eccentricities to be charming rather than irritating, etc.  But I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to trusting her as my wife and to living the rest of my life as her trustworthy husband.

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising “faith.” And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of “faith” is simply about how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite whatever doubts they may have.  In fact, as long as a person is confident enough about their beliefs about another person to commit to living in a trustworthy way, their level of psychological certainty is completely irrelevant.  Biblical faith is not about trying to be free from doubt, but about a commitment to remain faithful in the midst of doubt.

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they actually live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other “Christian” things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.   It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that matters to God is how faithful his people are living in relationship with him, despite whatever doubts they may have.

Whereas most Christians believe in Jesus because they believe in the Bible, in Benefit of the Doubt you advise people to believe in the Bible because they believe in Jesus. What do you mean by this, and why do you feel it is important?

Greg Boyd: The number one reason why young people today are abandoning the Christian faith and why other people can’t take the Christian faith seriously has to do with problems they have with the Bible. For example, as most freshmen who take a course in “The Bible as Literature” at a secular University learn, the historical accuracy of some biblical stories is questioned by many scholars, and its hard to deny that the Bible contains some apparent contradictions as well as some material that seems to fly in the face of modern science. In Benefit of the Doubt, I share my own experience of losing faith as a freshman at a University for these reasons.

I now see that this mass exodus from the Christian faith is as tragic as it is unnecessary, for I maintain that if we structured our faith the way the earliest Christians did, the many problems people have with the Bible would pose no threat to our confidence in Jesus being Lord and even to our confidence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.  The reason these problems destroy the faith of so many today is because evangelicals today don’t structure their faith the way they earliest Christians did.

Here’s what I mean. The earliest disciples didn’t believe in Jesus because their Scripture (the OT) proved to them that he was the Son of God.  They were rather convinced by Jesus’ claims, his unique life of love, his distinctive authority, his unprecedented miracles, his self-sacrificial death, and especially his resurrection.  Once they believed in Jesus, they then looked for him and found him in their scripture. But they never would have been convinced that Jesus was Lord had they started with scripture alone.

Unfortunately, most evangelicals today are taught to do the exact opposite.  They base their faith in Jesus’ Lordship (as well as everything else) on their belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. This is unfortunate because this way of structuring our faith leverages everything on the supposed perfection of this book (hence all the clamoring over “the inerrancy” of the Bible),  forcing the Bible to carry more weight than it was ever meant to carry.  In this way of structuring faith, every single problem someone finds in scripture threatens to undermine their faith – and there are, quite honestly, a multitude of these potential threats.

As I flesh out in Benefit of the Doubt, I eventually came to the conclusion that the things about Jesus that convinced the earliest disciples that he was Lord continue to be compelling enough to convince open-minded people today that Jesus is Lord, and they do not presuppose the view that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.  Once I was persuaded on the basis of historical, philosophical and personal arguments that Jesus was Lord, I was motivated to also embrace the Bible as God’s Word, for (among other things) this was clearly Jesus’ own view and it’s very hard to confess Jesus to be one’s Lord while correcting his theology, especially on such a fundamental matter. But notice, my reasons for believing in Scripture are now based entirely on my faith in Jesus, which is why my faith need not any longer be threatened by any historical inaccuracies or contradictions or scientific inaccuracies I may find in it.

Can we be certain Jesus is Lord and that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Of course not. Like the old proverb teaches, outside of death and taxes, there is no certainty.  But I have far more grounds for basing my life on Christ than any other competing claim, and so I’m confident enough to leverage everything on this and thus commit to living as a trustworthy disciple. And I’m convinced that if young people today would structure their faith this way, we’d see far fewer loosing their faith in secular Universities or anywhere else.  It’s entirely appropriate for Christians to base all our doctrines entirely on Scripture, but I think it ‘s very dangerous in our world today to make Scripture the basis for why we are Christians in the first place.

You write, “The assumption that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative inclines people to read it along the lines of a cookbook…The truth, however, is that the Bible is not at all like a cookbook. It’s a story, along the lines of a novel” (Benefit of the Doubt, page 176). Can you explain this statement and what it means for how we read the Bible?

Greg Boyd: When you read a cookbook, it doesn’t matter where you find the recipe you’re looking for. The location of the recipe is irrelevant to its meaning.  Things are very different when you read a detective novel, for example. In a detective novel, things that mean nothing early on may take on great significance by what transpires later on, and things that seemed very important early on can later turn out to be inconsequential.  In other words, the story gets reframed as riddles get solved and further clues are unveiled as the story unfolds.

It’s important for us to realize that the Bible is an unfolding story, and not entirely unlike a detective novel.  As the story of God’s interactions with his people unfolds, we learn more and more about what kind of God we’re dealing with and what his plans are for humanity.  And like a good detective story, the biblical story culminates with a truly “surprise” ending in the person of Jesus Christ.

Think about it. On the one hand, Jesus fulfills all the promises made in the Old Testament, which is why Paul says that all God’s promises are “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:19-20). Yet, he fulfills these promises in a way that hardly anyone saw coming. For example, no one expected the Messiah to come as a humble servant, to inaugurate a kingdom that transcended all national boundaries, to command people to love their enemies rather than to conquer them, to allow himself to get crucified at the hands of his enemies, and to then rise again on the third day!  In fact, the shocking way the biblical story culminates is a lot like the movie “The Sixth Sense” or “The Book of Eli,” in which the last minute of the movie reframes the entire movie.  When Jesus shows up, everything that preceded him gets reframed and must be re-read in light of what he reveals about God and God’s expectations of his people.

What this means for us is that, to understand the Bible correctly, we must read it like the story book that it is, and we must read all of it in light of its surprise ending.  This is why Jesus taught that all Scripture points to him, and especially to his suffering on the cross (Lk 24:25-3, 44-46Jn. 5:39-45).  It’s also why the author of Hebrews was so emphatic on announcing the superiority of the revelation that comes through God’s Son in contrast to all that came before him (Heb. 1:1-3). And it’s why Jesus himself felt free to replace certain teachings of the OT with his own (Mt 5:38-45).

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, acquiring this perspective on the Bible allows us to  begin to make sense of some of the more offense parts of the OT, such as the portrait of God commanding genocide (Duet. 7:1-2) as well as some of its barbaric laws, like the command to cut off the hand of a woman for accidentally touching a man’s genitalia while trying to protect her husband (Deut.25:11-2). Moreover, this perspective allow us to not be trouble by many of the things in Scripture that people today sometimes stumble over, such as the discrepancies or historical inaccuracies that some conclude are in Scripture.

What do you think are the most important things to remember when dealing with doubt?

Greg Boyd: The thing that makes doubt excruciating for so many people is that their core sense of “life”(viz. feeling of worth, security, lovability) is wrapped up in their level of certainty about a multitude of different beliefs. This is why I argue that certainty-seeking faith is idolatrous, for an idol is anything other than God that we try to derive “life” from. With so much hanging in the balance, people who embrace certainty-seeking faith have trouble embracing ambiguity, or calmly and rationally exploring their doubts as they allow their minds to follow wherever the evidence leads. Instead, they try to suppress doubts and raise their level of certainty, regardless of whether the evidence is for or against any particular belief they may hold. This then leads to many of the problems associated with certainty-seeking faith discussed earlier.

In contrast to this, I encourage people to put “all their eggs” in the basket of Jesus Christ.  As I demonstrate in Benefit of the Doubt, we have historical, philosophical and personal grounds for becoming confident enough to base our life on the NT’s claim that he is the definitive revelation of God’s character, will and love for us.  This alone should be the source of our innermost longing for “life.”  So long as we remain confident enough to live in a committed, life-giving relationship with Christ, we are free to calmly and rationally explore all other doubts we may have about matters of faith, whether they concern the nature of Scripture, the faith of the Church, or any other issue, and to calmly and rationally follow where ever the evidence leads.

And even if, at the end of the day, we are not able to resolve our doubts about this or that particular belief, we can remain confident that we are going to be okay. The God revealed in Jesus Christ does not condemn us doubting Thomas for being unable to feel certain about our beliefs! In fact, when our sense of “life” is anchored in our trust in God’s character as revealed in Christ, embracing doubt and ambiguity turns out to not only be not-so-bad; we will sometimes find that it is actually beneficial.  Among other things, it helps us discover when we’re mistaken and to correct our beliefs. It empowers us to dig deeper and discover new truths.  It helps us remain humble and open minded in relation to those who disagree with us. It protects us from the idolatry of thinking we have a corner on truth. And it serves as an all-important reminder that are all finite, fallen humans who are at our best when we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, each other and with God as we simply commit to being his faithful covenant partner, despite our lack of certainty.

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Comments

  1. Peter says

    I find too many similarities between this book and those two others, both by Peter Rollins (look the titles!!):
    - Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine.
    - The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction.

    :s

  2. Ross says

    I have experienced this very thing; where a doctrine or believe I thought was so certain I find was wrong or not so certain, and I’d get so discouraged. My confidence was clearly in the certainty of my beliefs (knowledge) instead of God (life). Tree of Knowledge vs. Tree of Life trap, ever since the garden.

  3. Jim Rogers says

    Most excellent. He articulates in helpful detail, what I have seen for many years but was not able to put into words. His perspective can and will generate a deeper, more genuine and sincere form of “faith” “Thou desirest truth in the inner man” said David in Ps. 51.
    Thank you Frank.

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