Hitting the Faith Puck!

Paul McMullen —  January 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

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Last week, I began this series of blogs concerning the interplay between doubt & faith. Can the two co-exist? Are they antithetical to each other? This week I’ll be introducing a book we’ll use to spur some thoughts on the subject.

Gregory Boyd, in his recent book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, has a lot to say about faith and doubt. In the introduction , Boyd points out that for a lot of Christian people, faith is seen as our level of certainty regarding what we believe. And for many of us, a lot is riding on our level of certainty. God’s response to our prayers, how blessed our life is, and even our very salvation can all be tied to the certainty of what we believe. For example, if we pray for someone to be healed and they aren’t, what does that mean about our faith? Does it mean that we didn’t feel certain enough that God would really answer our prayer? If only we had greater faith (faith = more certainty), then God would have given what we asked for. Right?

Boyd challenges this idea that subjective psychological certainty is equivalent to biblical faith. If feeling certain is equivalent to faith, then doubt is an enemy. But Boyd doesn’t believe this is the best understanding of faith. He believes biblical faith is best understood “covenantally”. That is, faith is not so much a mental state, but a relationship with repercussions for how one lives. However, he won’t get into exactly what that means until the second half of the book. For now, Boyd wants to critique what he calls certainty-seeking faith, and he’ll spend the introduction and first three chapters doing just that. In chapters 1-3 he lays out 9 objections to this perspective on faith. But before we get there, let me share one analogy and one story from Benefit of the Doubt. I’d love to hear your perspective on both.

First, imagine you’re at the fair and you find the “strength-tester” game (pgs. 26-27 in BotD). This is the one where you take a big sledge hammer and the harder you hit the mallet the further up the scale your puck or ball will go. Now imagine that the scale was our certainty about what we believe, and the strength of our hit was the amount of faith/certainty we could muster. In this picture, the man who told Jesus “I do believe, please help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) was basically saying, “Lord, I can only hit the faith puck a little way up the faith pole, but please help me to ring the certainty bell” (pg. 26).

Boyd imagines that if one can hit the faith puck 25% up the faith pole, that might qualify for enough faith to be saved. At 50% up the pole, you’re starting to get somewhat of a blessed life (yes, he gets a little tongue-in-cheek here!). At 75%, you’re really starting to be really blessed and you’ll experience some pretty amazing, Jesus-type miracles. If one were to reach 100% certainty, then you’d qualify for the extreme promises of Jesus, such as, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).

Despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of the analogy, have you felt like faith seemed this way in your life? Have you wondered if things would go much better for you, or that more of your prayers would be answered, if only you had more faith? And by that, did you mean that you felt more certain about how much you believed?

That was the analogy; here’s the story. Boyd once went with a group of believers to pray for someone with cancer. As they prayed he found that he was attempting to convince himself that the person would actually be healed. He knew believers had died of cancer before, and that others had prayed for them. How could he be certain that this group’s prayers would be answered in the affirmative? A picture then popped into his head from The Wizard of Oz. It was the scene when the cowardly lion has his eyes shut and keeps repeating, “I do believe, I do, I do, I do!” This was the moment when Boyd began to doubt the “certainty-seeking” model of faith.

How does that story make you feel? Can you identify? I can. And it makes me feel uncomfortable. When I hear Jesus rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith, what else could he be talking about other than the level of their certainty? What about faith in Hebrews 11:1 – “certain of what we hope for”? This makes me very curious to delve into Boyd’s study on biblical faith later in the book. But I also see his point about the audacity of thinking that God’s response to my faith is based on my subjective psychological status. Why would my ability to convince myself of something move God to respond one way or another? Is that ability (to convince myself) a virtue? If so, why?

[In case you’re wondering, Boyd is not saying that we don’t need faith, or even that faith cannot grow. He’s saying that if faith is how certain I feel at any given moment, that is problematic.]

We’ll explore this further in my third post about Boyd’s 9 objections to certainty-seeking faith. For now, what’s your response to his analogy and story about certainty-seeking faith?

Paul McMullen

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I've worked with new churches and church plants since 2005. I enjoy writing, teaching, and small group conversations.

9 responses to Hitting the Faith Puck!

  1. 

    Let us venture into these deep waters of about the topics of doubt faith with some precautions. As we are thinking, praying, talking, praying and doing related to faith let us take great care to notice the nature of this topic.

    Faith is not something physical that can be contacted by our 5 senses. Unlike a dentist, jeweler and watchmaker we can never expect to craft faith into a functioning thing. Faith is more like the invisible air we breathe. There is nitrogen and oxygen present but they are not evident to the naked eye.

    Let us bring into this conversation that often neglected term, mystery. There are popular novels and movies that revolve around mysteries. But somehow mystery has been not welcomed in the thinking and talking of Christians during our technical age. However of those who wrote classic Christian books that have survived for centuries did not shy away from using mystery in the proper context when it came commenting on faith and especially prayer.

    Let us be clearly aware that we are attempting the impossible in making an effort to put mere thoughts and words to contain spiritual matters. There is an inclination to seek certainty as you noted. I know that certainly has its place. I like to do lots of research and store each bit of data in a suitable place on a list, mind map or document. But as I read the Bible, God will never allow any person to put Him in a box no matter how large, fancy or religious.

    This is not to say that we need to just ignore such matters as doubt and faith. We are not served by avoiding challenging questions. But I suggest that our inputs need to come from the humble examination of scripture as well as close observations of ourselves as well as others. Lots of anecdotal evidence is not as concrete as using a measuring cup in the kitchen or a calculator to add numbers.

    This topic has struck a chord with me and I have more comments that I will add soon.

  2. 

    I also find this definition of faith problematic, and I look forward to what Boyd and you have to say about what faith actually is. I think I might read the book too. I have always felt like I hit low on the “faith-tester” game, always questioning, never certain. As we read through Mark as a church one theme keeps jumping out at me: ‘your faith has healed you’ or something like it. That has always really bothered me because what can we of little faith do? Tell ourselves over and over to believe like the lion in the Wizard of Oz or just resign ourselves to never being healed.

    • 

      Yes, I’ve noticed that in Mark as well, Megan. And it’s such a prominent theme. Jesus is clearly expecting faith and considering it a necessary element of the Kingdom showing up in people’s lives. I mean, Mark 6:5 is almost astonishing (where Jesus “can’t” do miracles because people don’t believe!), given what Jesus is able to do elsewhere. So if there is a way to understand faith that’s different than a level of certainty, I’m very interested. What does it mean for Jesus to admonish his followers to have faith if it doesn’t mean that they need to “get over” their doubt and find a way to think they believe? (I’m trying to describe the psychology of becoming more certain.) It’s not as simple as “just believe”. We are suspending doubt. But that doesn’t remove doubt, it just pushes it to the side to pursue what we’re wanting to believe. At which point it becomes a choice. And I’m wondering if this is closer to the mark. Is faith more about choosing our allegiances (relational, mental, emotional, spiritual) in the face of doubt?

  3. 

    The primary problem I have with faith as the measure of salvation/success is that it is not entirely (or even much) under your control. Of course you can pray for faith, but if success in prayer is based on faith this is circular. This strikes me as unfair. Of course why should we expexpect fairness from the creator of this world. But, fairness in something temporal is much different than fairness that determines your eternal state.

  4. 

    No deep/insightful/philosophical comments from me yet – just expressing that I’m glad we’re diving into this topic, and I very much look forward to the future posts!

  5. 

    Doubts are normal. Doubts come and go. They might rise and fall like the tides. The doubts might be tied to rational thoughts, fears, previous hurts, religious traditions and more.

    I am reminded of my college days when I attended the campus ministries many times. I was a seeking agnostic. I got into some lively conversations. Yet what turned the corner for me was when I went to church service with my girlfriend. The takeaway from the sermon was to doubt your doubts. I was convicted that I had been holding tightly to my doubts. I had been trusting them. I felt they were my truth. Then when I let go of my doubts that was pivotal. I began to allow there to be the space in my soul that God just might exist. After that I had a series of mystical encounters that I could only explain by something supernatural. I started to loosely hold the possibility that there just might be a God. But first I needed to do what the preacher said and doubt my doubts.

    • 

      Good comments, John. I think Boyd would agree with you and the preacher. We may hold tightly to doubts because of fear or pride or pain or some other reason that has nothing to do with the beliefs at hand. It takes humility to wrestle with what we believe or what we are uncertain of. I think it also takes courage, because our “holding tightly” probably has to do with protecting ourselves, so we are letting down our guard in order to wrestle with belief.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith: Part 1 « In the Storyline - February 3, 2017

    […] week, I introduced Gregory Boyd’s recent book Benefit of the Doubt in a post called Hitting the Faith Puck. This week I’ll continue interacting with Boyd as he presents his case against certainty-seeking […]

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