By Sterling Ellsworth. Sterling is an alumni of Oklahoma State University and he still maintains connections with leaders at the Wesley Foundation when he comes back to the states. Sterling lives with his wife in France where he is studying Geography and Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Perpignan; they hope to serve in missions in West Africa when he finishes school.
“How often does Love have to tell us, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ -Pope Francis
“God responds to our weakness by his patience, and this is the reason for our confidence, our hope.” – Romano Guardini
There is a wonderful phrase in French: se remettre en question. Every time I try to use this expression in English I am faced with several imperfect choices. The dictionary says: “calling into question”; “re-assessment”; or even, “soul-searching.” “To cast doubt on” comes close if you could imagine yourself saying, “I cast doubt on myself” in a slightly positive sense. Here’s my loose translation: se remettre en question means going back to the point before your certainties were set in stone.
Now, this questioning ourselves makes us think of the word “doubt.” While is true that doubt is not always rewarded in the Scriptures (Oh, you of little faith?) doubt can also be the first step on an incredible journey, following one of God’s marvelous, unexpected surprises. Let’s consider a few examples:
Zechariah and Mary
As an angel of the Lord appears to Zachariah, he is immediately “startled and gripped with fear”. The angel instantly comforts him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.” Later on, Zechariah asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
After the angel speaks to Mary, she asks, “How will this be since I am a virgin?”
Encounters with The Risen Lord
Thomas does not believe it when the other apostles tell him, “We have seen the Lord” (though Jesus warned them time and again). However, with the help of Jesus’ patience, Thomas passes from stubborn unbelief to positive doubt… What if he really is the risen Jesus? When he acknowledges his own poverty, his little faith, he discovers trust! He passes from unbelief to belief, proclaiming “My Lord and my God!”
The women who go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body also encounter something entirely unexpected, “something that upsets their hearts and their plans, something that will upset their whole life.” When the stone is removed from the tomb, they don’t find Jesus’ body. Indeed, this event “leaves them perplexed and hesitant, full of questions”: “What happened? What is the meaning of all this?” And then two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening appear and say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Who can blame them for their doubt? The earthly certainty is that you don’t open a tomb expecting to find a living person!
Reflecting on this passage, Pope Francis says,
“Doesn’t the same thing happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness God brings us, the newness God asks of us. Often we would prefer to hold on to our own security. We are afraid of God’s surprises! But He always surprises us! The Lord is like that. Let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives!”
In the beginning, Jonah is an example of someone who is not willing to doubt. I appreciate Pope Francis’ account of the story of Jonah:
“Jonah is a devout man, with a tranquil and ordered life, which causes him to have a clear-cut way of seeing things and to judge everything and everyone accordingly. He has it all figured out: this is the truth! He is rigid! So, when the Lord calls him and tells him to go and preach to Nineveh, the great pagan city, Jonah doesn’t like it. ‘Go there? But I have the whole truth here!’ Nineveh is outside his comfort zone; it is on the outskirts of his world. So he escapes.”
As you see in these stories, when we hold on to all-to-earthly certainties, God often bursts onto the scene and breaks up our world of carefully constructed strongholds with marvelous surprises. Furthermore, God accompanies us in our uncertainty. How many times does he tell us “Do not be afraid!”
We do not have to be “little gods”, who know everything in advance, who have everything under control, have a plan for everything and never waiver. As Pope Francis says, “He is always bigger than our little way of seeing things!” It’s okay to change our opinions when confronted with new information from God. It’s okay to be weak; it’s okay to go slowly. God welcomes us, meets us and understands us. Simplicity and humility, not knowing everything!
That being said, reflection is important. Let us think, let us ask ourselves questions, and let us listen to others’ answers, not only our own. Let us be willing to accept complexity, and to not have answers to each and every question. When we decide things with doubt and reflection as our base, we decide them thoughtfully, knowing that we might be wrong and that we might have to rectify certain things.
Why this paradigm? Because as God does with us, so we also should do with those who do not yet have ‘the gift of faith.’ We “need to show understanding and sympathy, and remain close to those who suffer. We need to be people who offer solace, hope, and encouragement to keep on walking on the path of the Lord of life.”
When we listen to others opinions, we call into question even our own prejudices. We consider the fact that we might have prejudices. It’s much easier to adopt extreme positions because they don’t require any form of argumentation, dialogue, or doubt. But these positions often hurt real people. The question today is, “How do we learn how to doubt in a world in which those who show absolute certainty are the ones who triumph?” What would the world look like if we had the same patience and understanding with others that God has with us?
Of course, it is useful to distinguish different kinds of doubt: Perhaps when we encounter God, we begin to move from negative self-preoccupied doubts What if I’m wrong? What if it doesn’t work? What if he/she is not the one for me? to more constructive, less self-centered doubts What if Jesus really is the Son of God? What if he means what he says? What if I did turn the other cheek? What if I really did love others as myself? What if the meek really will inherit the earth?
And where do these doubts lead? To belief! To faith, which emerges “following an encounter with the living God” who loves us, “who lifts us up and leads us on”. Let us thank God for his mercy and his patience, the fact that he never abandons us, even when we doubt. Indeed, he is “patient with us because he loves us, and those who love are able to understand, to hope, and to inspire confidence”.
And what do we do with this newfound confidence, which is the result of our doubting and God’s patience? We leave our worries behind and go out and share the delight of meeting Jesus Christ with others! Indeed, when one receives the gift of faith “he or she then gives that gift in turn to others.” Furthermore, we do not have to be afraid “ to go even to the furthest edges of human existence because the Lord walks with us and, indeed, before us.”
But even once we receive this gift of faith, perhaps being open to a little “remise en question” is still healthy:
“Faith is not intransigent but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, because believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing the truth, it is the truth that embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.”
So what is the remise en question that I’m advocating here? “It is like a dialogue between our weakness and the patience of God; it is a dialogue that, if we have it, will grant us hope.” Doubt is the first weak, little baby step, but perhaps, in this day and age, we need to go back to square one; go back to the point before all our certainties were set in stone and let ourselves be looked upon by the Lord. Let us let his fire warm our heart! Let us accept the gift of faith and be illuminated by it! For to be faithful, to be creative, we need to be able to change. We need to be able to pass from darkness to light. If we are rigid, we will dry up and whither… Let us be open to God’s surprises! Let us thank God for the poor, the foreigner, and those on the outskirts, from whom we have so much to learn. Let us thank God that “the strength of the Church doesn’t depend on its members and their capabilities, because they are both weak and inadequate.” That being the case, let us fling open the doors of the Church and face the challenges of the world! It doesn’t matter if we sometimes fail, stumble or doubt along the way. And finally, as we go out, let us abide in Jesus and not lose trust in the patience and mercy of God. He is with us, he is before us and he waits for us.