Saturday, February 19, 2011

Not Sure: A Pastor's Doubt

As a pastor, I sometimes struggle with doubt. That's not all bad. Let me explain by way of a story.

A few years ago, while on vacation, I was camped on the top of a hill overlooking Escondido, California. Off to one side I could see Dixon Lake, a reservoir for San Diego. About a thousand feet below and a mile away was the city. The slope was steep. There were no trees to speak of, mostly chamise, scrub oak and black sage.

This picture demands a second look. Take it, and you will see a wren in the underbrush or a red-tail hawk sailing by. Lower down, in Escondido, a single farm holds out against urban sprawl. At night streetlamps, like strings of pearls, snake up hillsides until they're lost in the curve of some canyon.

The second look is usually richer than the first and full of small surprises. Doubt is like that. Doubt has turned me back to scripture with a curiosity for detail I haven't known since studying for seminary exams. Doubt reveals texts I used to skip over because they were difficult or didn't easily fit the picture I expected to see. Does God love His enemies just as Jesus instructs us to love ours? Does God, the cosmic lover, keep no record of wrongs? Why would we lend without expecting to get anything back? Well, says Jesus, because God the Father is "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." How kind? I wonder. Does He forgive them as often and as much as I am asked to forgive others? I'm not sure, but I hope so, even if that isn't exactly what I was taught in seminary.

But in that sense, doubt is not just something that most Christians struggle with. It is something pastors ought to struggle with, too. Uncritical and unexamined assumptions are often in dangerous and subtle alliance with error, prejudice, or worse. If nothing else, doubt constantly forces all of us, pastors and lay people alike, back again and again to our Scriptures in order to weigh assumptions. And that isn't a bad thing, since those assumptions, like the view from the hill in Escondido or the view from any hill in Northumberland County, often deserve a second look.


  1. Hi John,

    Just finished reading your book. By the time I was half-way through yesterday, I wasn't sure if I should finish it; it hit far too close to home. But after finishing it today, I'm glad I did. Lots of food for thought. I wonder out loud what kind of long-term consequences this might have for your career in our CRC churches.

    Henry (My parents were friend with your Grandparents in St. Catharines. We're friends with your uncla and aunt Al and Lynn. Al lent me your book)

  2. Hi,

    I hope to read your book soon as it is a topic that deeply resonates with me as well. I was curious as to what your faith looks like today? I feel that I am in a similar position to yours and I am confused as to how to approach my faith. I no longer believe in biblical innerancy and I wonder how God interacts within the reality of my own life. Everything inside me tells me that there is a God and it only follows that there would be a purpose for his creation, but I struggle with to what extent he is involved with it. I constantly border between Christianity, a semi-personal theism, and deism. I am still a young college student and I desperately want to settle on something so I can get on with my life.



  3. Hyuntae--the best answer I can give is "read the book!" Since publishing the book I've continued to change my mind, more slowly now. I've just settled on moving from an Evangelical denomination to a Liberal denomination, the United Church of Canada. But each person's journey is his or her own. Hang in there with God, and trust that whatever seems ambiguous and unclear to you is not nearly so important as God's grace for you.

    1. John,

      Thanks for the reply. I ordered the book yesterday and am waiting for it to arrive in the mail :D


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  5. So, over the past few weeks, this post has been hit by hundreds of people. I wonder if a class is using it, somewhere. If so, I'd love to know! Drop a line.


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