Dark Night of the Soul

Last week, actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in his New York city apartment. My favorite film of his is the movie, Doubt. Set in a blue collar Catholic community in Brooklyn, NY in 1964, the film explores various ways in which our lives can be affected by uncertainty. Hoffman plays a progressive Catholic priest who is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a young Black boy. There are a number of factors such as race, national turmoil (assassination of JFK), and doctrinal upheaval (Vatican II) that are interwoven into the plot that cause the cat and mouse game initiated by Meryl Streep (the conservative nun that accuses Hoffman) to become a whirlwind of suspicion and dubiety. It is a must see because of its great acting and great writing, a combination that is unfortunately rare in Hollywood these days.

In the opening scene, Hoffman's character, Father Flynn delivers a sermon of which the topic is doubt. The final line is a quote that has stuck with me since I first saw the film in 2008.

"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."

Not often enough are we honest about our doubts as Christians. In fact, in some circles doubt is seen as a sin. James 1:6-8 states, "But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unsustainable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." James is describing effective prayer in this passage and instructing us not to waver between doubting whether God will hear and answer our prayers and being uncertain in what we want God to provide. The context of scripture is always important. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how doubt can become taboo when it it placed in opposition to faith.

For many of us, to doubt is to lack true faith and to be filled with unbelief. Many of us also believe a true Christian is one that is certain in all of their beliefs. But, how dishonest is that of our true nature? Doubt is simply unavoidable. Faith without acknowledgment of doubt is unhealthy and irrational. To pretend that you are without any doubts is arrogant and vacuous.

It has been my experience and the experience of other Christians that doubt can actually lead to a strengthening of faith whether the issue is seemingly insignificant or foundational to the Christian faith. One way this has been true for me is through the curiosity that doubt produced in my spiritual journey. My doubt forced me to get a faith of my own. It led me out of a blind faith where I lacked understanding. My belief in Christ today is not simply one that was passed on to me, but one that I came to on my own terms. Another way that doubt has strengthened my faith is through me wrestling with it. To have the courage to plunge into the dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross described it, is no small task. I have come out on the other side with a faith that is not susceptible to wavering in the face of opposition or adversity.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith, however. The opposite of faith is unbelief. R.C. Sproul makes a very helpful distinction between doubt and unbelief in his book titled, Doubt and Assurance, where he describes doubt as being open-minded uncertainty and unbelief as being close-minded certainty. Doubt searches for assurance while unbelief seeks to reject.

From an early age we are taught to not question God or our religious tradition while we read from a Bible where most of the key figures question God and their religious tradition. That is problematic especially when Jesus welcomed questions (as long as the intent behind them was honest). He invited those who were uncertain, fearful, and doubtful and did not condemn them. For numerous Christians today, their faith seeks out a feeling of certainty because they believe that there they will also find security. But a faith filled with certainty and that lacks an ounce of doubt serves to elevate the believer to a God-like status.

Theologian, pastor, and author Greg Boyd writes, "The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person's sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God's character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs."

Our response to doubt then becomes the most important factor in determining whether it is good or bad. Doubt can be frightening and can lead to us being isolated in our faith community because of the lack of spiritual honesty. We cannot wallow in our doubt. We run the risk of becoming like a wave at sea tossed by the wind. But if our response is to allow God to guide us through and to seek truth then we can affirm the words of Father Flynn in Doubt. Doubt becomes a powerful bond when the wind tossing the wave is the Holy Spirit and the direction the wave is being tossed in is toward assurance.

"When we are lost, we are not alone."

This sentiment will prove to be true because an honest reflection of our faith will reveal that others are right there with us in our uncertainties. We also know that in that very moment of doubt that Christ is seeking us out like the Good Shepherd always searching and finding his lost sheep. Do not be afraid to question. Do not be afraid to doubt.
Next PostNewer Post Previous PostOlder Post Home


Post a Comment