About Justin Morgan

Justin lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife, Alicia. They enjoy walking on the beach, frolicking in green meadows, and lounging on Oreo-floats in swimming pools of milk.

Stuff

As I wandered through the large, extravagant rooms and hallways, I found myself surrounded by thousands of relics and jewels glistening through glass displays, and I couldn’t help but think…

this is a lot of stuff.

(Now, before you start thinking this is yet another rant on how materialism-is-bad-and-everything-is-dust-so-we-should-stop-loving-pretty-things, please, keep reading.)

My family and I were touring the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., one of the homes of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the only daughter and heiress of C.W. Post, the founder of the Post Cereal company.

Marjorie was renowned for her fine taste, her love for all things elegant, and her enormous art collection. Paintings, fine china, jewelry, furniture, chalices, and silver-covered icons filled her Virginia home. She had turned her mansion into a museum.

And it was beautiful.

I’ve seen my fair share of museums and art galleries, so I couldn’t wrap my mind around how a single person could collect and own so much art.

But then a semi-morbid thought came to me.

Marjorie Merriweather Post is dead. She doesn’t own any of it.

We’ve all heard those tired sayings about hearses that don’t pull trailers and how “you can’t take it with you when you go,” and that one of the great ironies of life is that we live and work and struggle to accumulate things that we can only own and enjoy for a short period of time.

But perhaps an even greater irony is that we never truly own anything at all. Nothing we “possess” is really ours. Our time. Our toys. Our talents. They all belong, ultimately, to God. He’s just letting us borrow his stuff for a while.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that “everything belongs to God.” The psalmist writes, “The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything in it.” Paul teaches the Romans that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”

This reality hit me even harder when I realized that my soon-to-arrive first-born child (baby Max is due Oct. 2nd!) will not really, ultimately be mine. He, too, belongs to God.

And to say we don’t really own anything doesn’t mean we don’t have to take care of it. It actually means just the opposite. It’s when you’re borrowing someone else’s stuff that you really feel the pressure and duty to keep it safe.

In Genesis, one of God’s first instructions to Adam and Eve was to take care of his creation. They were the gardeners, but the garden was all his.

It’s the same with everything else we “own.” Because God is entrusting me with one of his kids, I have all the more responsibility to love, protect, and take care of him.

And just because everything ultimately belongs to God doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy stuff. It actually means we can enjoy it more. It’s only those who aren’t owned by their things that are free to experience the pleasures they offer.

It’s only the parents who refuse to worship or control or cling to their children that can actually enjoy watching them grow up and mature and come into their own unique personalities.

I think seeing our stuff as God’s stuff helps us hold things a little more loosely, to share them with others, and to eventually experience the great joy of giving God’s stuff away.

So if you ever live in a house full of art, great. I’ll come visit. Just remember you won’t always own it. In fact, you never really will.

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Offended by Jesus

“[Jesus] came to his hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him […] And [Jesus] did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.”Matthew 13:54-58

C.S. Lewis popularized the argument that Jesus of Nazareth was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Though this trilemma has some logical flaws, I think the underlying point holds true: there’s no room for neutrality when it comes to Jesus. One must either passionately believe and follow him as Lord, or reject him completely as a dishonest and delusional madman. One cannot simply view him as a mere Jewish teacher from Galilee.

The question of Jesus’ identity is the question his neighbors faced in Matthew 13. They were skeptical of his claims of deity–his authority to forgive sins, his claims of eternal existence, his relation to God the Father.

And because they knew Jesus was born of a lower-class family from Nazareth (a.k.a. Podunk town), it seemed very unlikely that he was their God.

But they were not just skeptical of Jesus. They were offended by him.

How could such a common man be so wise?

How could a simple carpenter’s son have such miraculous powers?

How could such a lowly man claim to be God?

So even though they had witnessed Jesus’ works and wise teachings, they rejected him.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard also recognized the inherent offense of Christianity: “[H]ere is the possibility of offense […] will you be offended or will you believe. If you will believe, then you push through the possibility of offense and accept Christianity on any terms.”

Living in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Kierkegaard reminded his reason-oriented contemporaries that the Christian is called to believe the unreasonable: that a finite human being, existing in time and space, is simultaneously the infinite God, existing outside of time and space. Thus, Kierkegaard called Jesus of Nazareth the God-man, the ultimate paradox, the absurd.

Like the rationalists of Kierkegaard’s modern world centuries later, the people of Jesus’ hometown couldn’t push through the offense. Jesus was a violation to their reason, a logical impossibility.

Jesus’ reaction to his offended neighbors is surprising: “He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” Notice the cause-and-effect pattern here. Because of their unbelief, Jesus didn’t do many miracles.

You’d think their unbelief would’ve motivated him to perform more miracles, to seize the perfect chance to really prove his identity. You’d expect him to convince the cynic by showing off his powers.

But he didn’t.

He wanted them to believe, first.

Reading Matthew 13, I wonder if Jesus works the same way today. Does he work in our lives so we’ll believe and follow him? So our intellectual expectations are satisfied? To appease our rational impulses? Does he prove his power so that we’ll have more faith?

Or does Jesus work in our lives because we already believe? Because we’ve already passed through the possibility of offense and have come to truly trust that he can and will work in us, through us, for us?

I find myself more like the people of Jesus’ hometown. I’m often offended by him, by what he demands, by his affront to my finite human reason and expectations.

He doesn’t fit in the box I try to put him in.

So I wait for more miracles and signs before I’ll believe him. Before I’ll really trust him with my whole life.

But Jesus wants my belief, first. He wants me to take the intellectual risks and trust that he can work miracles, that he can provide for, heal, and transform me.

Perhaps Jesus doesn’t work miracles because I don’t believe he can.

Is he silent because he’s not speaking? Or because I’m not willing to listen?

Lord, help my unbelief.

“All God’s children have their troubles”: Why “Downton Abbey” Moves My Soul

DowntonAbbeyI don’t usually watch TV shows, but after a friend of mine recommended the Emmy-award winning TV series Downton Abbey, I decided to give it a try.

And I’m hooked.

This British period drama created and written by Julian Fellowes (Academy-award winning writer of Gosford Park) centers on the aristocratic Crawley family and their cadre of servants. The story begins the day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. Upon learning that the male heirs of the estate died on the “unsinkable” ship, the Crawley family must appoint (quite reluctantly) an unknown distant cousin as the new heir of Downton. The show then follows the interrelated lives of the upstairs aristocrats and downstairs servants as they face various conflicts (both profound and petty) amidst the radically changing world of the early twentieth century: World War I, women’s suffrage, Fenianism, and the looming Great Depression.

Sure, the show has its melodramatic moments (some critics go as far as labeling it a “soap opera”), but what makes Downton so appealing to me is its unique blend of romanticism and realism. The idyllic, English countryside and the extravagant décor of the Crawley estate (the Highclere Castle in Hampshire); the fashions and manners of high society; the aesthetically sophisticated musical score; and the poetic quality of the dialogue certainly appeal to my romantic sensibilities. At the same time, the show’s historicity; the grimy conditions of the downstairs world of the workers; the brutalities of war; financial uncertainty; miscarriage; heartbreak; family tragedy; and the cruel disappointments of life provide a healthy dose of reality. Indeed, life at Downton, like real life, is both beautiful and ugly.

Fellowes’s writing is beautiful, smart, and humorous, and he brilliantly creates both endearing and despicable characters. Beyond its archetypal ingredients (Byronic heroes, scheming shape shifters, underdogs, and damsels in distress) and compelling conflicts (sibling rivalry, teenage rebellion, love triangles, deceit, and betrayal) that make for any great story, Downton beautifully portrays and celebrates Christian virtues, something quite rare for prime time TV. I’m moved and inspired by the kindness of Lord Grantham; the forbearance of Lady Grantham; the wisdom (and wit) of the Dowager Countess; the sincerity of Matthew Crawley; the integrity of Mr. Bates; the loyalty of Anna; the devotion of Mr. Carson; the humility of Mr. Molesley; the selfless sacrifices of Lady Sybil; the generosity of Cousin Isobel; and the astonishing human solidarity between the privileged aristocrats and their lowly servants. These characters certainly have their flaws, but their acts of compassion are truly inspiring.

While the apparent differences between the upstairs and downstairs worlds make for interesting dynamics, what I find more fascinating is their striking similarities. Despite socioeconomic class or status, both the Crawley family and their servants face the same demands and challenges of everyday life, the pressures and anxieties brought by the societal expectations of their time. In other words, they each confront the realities of what we call the “human condition.”

When a kitchen maid unexpectedly finds herself sympathizing with the sorrowful Lady Edith (spoiler alert: Edith’s just been jilted at the altar), another maid reminds her, “All God’s creatures have their troubles.” Regardless of status, wealth, or power, no person is immune to suffering. The comforts and pleasures of the Crawleys’ privileged life at Downton do not protect them from trial or tragedy.

The show’s theme of human solidarity reminds me of an important motif in Ecclesiastes, that whether men are rich or poor, foolish or wise, the “same event happens to all of them.” That death and difficulties are inevitable in this earthly life particularly rings true for Christians as Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly reminded the church of the persecution and hardships it would face. For Christians, suffering is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. We’re not invincible. Life is fragile. And as the honorable and beautifully flawed inhabitants of Downton remind us, regardless of class or creed we’re all in need of grace.

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, filmed, and acted TV series, I highly recommend Downton Abbey.

Here’s a link to a preview.

“Oh, You’re a Philosophy Major? What’re You Going To Do With That?”: Thoughts on Day Jobs and the American Dream

I remember my first-grade teacher asking the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. “A firefighter!” “A nurse!” “A baseball player!” my hopeful classmates shouted. I forget how I responded, but I’m pretty sure it was something no less ambitious than walking on the moon.

But this is how we’re taught to think, right? We are special. We can be anything we want to be. We can change the world. From the time we learn the alphabet, we are trained to envision our successful future selves, and we go through the rest of grade school dreaming of becoming something great, something big, something important.

We grow up dreaming the American dream.

The American dream is an ideal woven deeply into the American subconscious. Our country was born out of the belief that with honesty and hard work, anyone can succeed; and, as our Declaration of Independence affirms, because all men are created equal, all men have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The recent presidential election has brought the American dream to the forefront of conversations in both the media and our everyday lives. The uniqueness and importance of this national ethos took center stage in many speeches and debates during the presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, in a speech at the University of Chicago, Mitt Romney said that the dream is “essential to the genius of America.” Six months before election day, NPR labeled President Obama “a living example of the American dream” as he praised the country for giving “opportunity to everybody,” for that’s “what the American dream was all about.”

An article in OpEdNews claimed that even the president’s re-election speech was “all about the American dream and the American myth.”

No doubt, the race to the White House was driven by a reclamation of an American ideal—an attempt to reawaken our American exceptionalism.

But in a struggling economy with high unemployment rates and a slumping stock market, many young Americans like myself are seriously concerned about our country’s economic future. The jobless ask, “Where’s the opportunity?” Distraught investors and business owners ask, “Where’s the pay off?” Low-income families ask, “Where’s the prosperity?” We’re wondering if the pillars of free market enterprise will crumble in the coming years or if the hard work and innovation that built our great nation will thrive and restore its economic powers. We’re wondering if we still live in a land where a first grader can grow up to become anything he wants to be.

Is the American dream dead?

Recently, the power and promise of the dream have been called into question. In just the past six months, critically-acclaimed books like Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream, Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream have reexamined the facticity and future of the idealistic expectations engrained in the American psyche.

A few years ago, in a specifically religious context, megachurch pastor David Platt, in his popular book Radical: Taking Back your Faith from the American Dream, questioned whether or not the pursuit of happiness is compatible with Christianity.

Indeed, the relationship between the American dream and Christian faith is a complicated one. After all, the capitalistic principles of risk and ambition that Platt critiques enabled him to publish and market his book, right? Would he have become such an influential shaper of Christian thought and culture without the very freedoms and opportunities that the American dream provides and promotes?

To be sure, the Western values of equality, opportunity, and freedom are good things, ideals I think anyone of my faith would defend. And I don’t know anyone who believes that working hard to ensure your family’s safety and well-being is amiss. To want comfort and stability is to be human, so we mustn’t think the dream’s offerings of success and security are evil in and of themselves. Indeed, like money, the American dream is amoral. As the apostle Paul rightly teaches, we must distinguish having wealth and worshiping it; money is not evil, but the love of it is. So, when selfish human beings idolize the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself, the dream becomes destructive.

A powerful illustration of this is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that attacks a perversion of the American dream. This perversion idolizes status and material wealth but ultimately results in spiritual poverty. The play’s antihero Willy Loman, an exhausted and disgruntled traveling salesman, equates his identity and self-worth with material success, and thus his version of the dream is devoid of all transcendence. Ultimately, Willy’s obsession with the wrong kind of success destroys his relationships and sense of human dignity.

But does Willy fail or does he fall victim to false promises? The answer to this question, I think, is key to understanding the relationship between our Christian identity and the American dream.

One of Willy’s flaws is his lack of self-awareness. He does not have an accurate perspective of his limitations and talents. Throughout the play we learn that, despite Willy’s claims, he isn’t a good salesman. Instead, he’s better at working outside and building things with his hands. He’d be much more content living a modest life in the country than trying to “keep up with Joneses” in a crowded New York borough. But rather than finding purpose and personal fulfillment in fatherhood and manual labor, Willy seeks approval and success according to societal standards. Thus, at the age of sixty, working on commission and struggling to make ends meet, a delusional Willy kills himself because he’s lost all sense of who he really is.

Though it’s easy for us to criticize Willy for his misguided life goals, he does what most of us do.  Willy’s attempt to define himself by his achievements is similar to how we often find our identity and self-worth in our careers and fancy job titles. So our obsession with the American dream might really be an obsession with the concept of the occupation.

Up until the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation of the late sixteenth century, with the rise of capitalism and individualism, the act of “choosing” an occupation or career path was quite foreign. For centuries, human beings gave little or no thought to what they would be when they “grew up.” Frankly, they didn’t have a choice. The socio-economic structure of Europe and the Middle East was feudalism, a system made up of two classes: the lower class (the peasant farmers and tradesmen) and the upper class (nobility and landowners). Consequently, the son of a blacksmith became a blacksmith. The son of a nobleman became a nobleman.

I think looking at how people in past centuries viewed careers can help us reconsider the value we place on occupational pursuits today. These days, not all sons inherit the family business, so the career options seem endless.  In the first half of our lives we’re pressured into choosing the perfect job (preferably a practical and lucrative one), and the second half we’re pressured into pursuing that job. Between the two halves, our career—“what we do with our lives”—dictates our biggest decisions and plans. Where we live. Where we go to college. When and whom we marry. Next to our name, our occupation defines us.

We even see this modern phenomenon in everyday conversation. “Hello, Jane. Nice to meet you. So what do you do for a living?” “Oh, you’re getting your degree in Philosophy? That’s cool. What’re you going to do with that?” The “what do you do?” question comes up quite early on when meeting new people.  To make strangers more familiar to us, we characterize them first and foremost as the “thing they do”: if you teach, you’re a teacher, if you sell things, you’re a salesman, if you work at a bank, you’re a banker. And thus we unintentionally view a means of making a living as a means of making an identity.

Several years ago I was working at a summer camp in California. During orientation, the camp director talked about how the apostle Paul was a businessman; he worked in the tent-making industry, a very honorable and lucrative occupation in his nomadic culture. Today, we know Paul as the most influential Christian theologian who ever lived; he wrote nearly half of the New Testament. Following the traditional format of first-century letter writing, the camp director explained, Paul begins his letter to the church in Rome with a greeting, a short biographical introduction. Paul states his name, his title (a bond-servant), and his credentials (called by God). Paul mentions nothing about his occupational title—a tent manufacturer. Instead, he spends the remainder of his greeting outlining the good news of Jesus. So, by attaching his name to the message of Jesus, Paul equates his very identity to a proclamation of the Christian gospel.

Paul calls himself a bond-servant of Christ. He belongs to Jesus before anyone or anything else.

The camp director wanted the staff (counselors, lifeguards, custodians, cooks, etc.) to view their jobs the same way. He said to forget about titles. They don’t matter. He explained that regardless of our day jobs that summer, whether we were praying with kids or cleaning their toilets, our real mission was the same because we all belonged to the same employer—Jesus.

The difference between belonging to a profession and belonging to a person is a distinction we don’t often make. But I think that constantly remembering to whom (not to what) we belong can reshape the way we live. Understanding that we ultimately belong to a person and not a profession reminds us that the Christian life is relational. It’s about the people around us and who they are, not “what they do.” Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with associating ourselves with a particular occupation or discipline, but when we view our job title as the essence of who we are, we alienate ourselves not only from other people, but also from Jesus himself.

Like Willy Loman, we seek fulfillment and personal meaning in money and status rather than in being a faithful spouse or parent.

I hope that none of us look back on our lives and find that we’ve been consumed only in becoming that thing, that successful person we dreamed of as first graders. Because honestly, many of us will find that we spent our entire lives failing to become that thing. The dream didn’t come true.

This brings me back to my earlier question: Is the American dream dead?

Honestly, I’m not sure this is the right question to ask. Perhaps the question worth asking is why we’re so inclined to ask new acquaintances, “What do you do for a living?”

Sure, we need jobs to make money, buy food, and survive. But perhaps the real cause for our anxiety during times of unemployment and economic difficulty is not that our financial security is threatened, but that our very identity is. If a career goal or employment status defines us, then our self-worth stands or falls on our success in reaching that goal or status. If our employment doesn’t exist, we don’t exist.

The American dream is not evil. Human beings are.

The American dream has not failed. Human beings have.

We’ve failed to find our identity, purpose, and self-worth in something more than our day jobs. Perhaps a recession is a good thing if it points us to something beyond job security for our source of meaning and fulfillment.

The Return of the Kings: Mumford & Sons’ “Babel”

Mumford & Sons’ highly-anticipated sophomore album, Babel, successfully delivers everything that was great about their Grammy-nominated debut Sigh No More. But to some fans, this may be disappointing news. Many of us were waiting for something fresh or different, perhaps a side of Mumford we didn’t hear in the first album. However, the band offers nothing new musically here, and they do seem to play it a bit safe by sticking to that familiar sound of foot-stomping anthems and heart-wrenching ballads that won our hearts (and ears) in their first album.

In other words, the music is great, it’s just nothing different.

But I’d also say that bands rarely reinvent themselves on a second album, and since the ingredients of Sigh No More launched the English foursome into international success, Mumford has sensibly obeyed Bert Lance’s advice, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still, for any band whose debut unexpectedly (and nearly unilaterally) ignited a folk-music revival by wooing the mainstream masses with a not-so-commercial-friendly genre (Indie Folk), the sophomore album (no matter how good) might be a disappointment in one way or another.

However, Babel does offer what I believe to be the best songs the band’s ever written (“I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” “Lover’s Eyes,” and “Below My Feet” are nothing short of epic). The religious quality of their lyrics is somewhat expected, as many listeners of Sigh No More quickly recognized the spiritual undertones and biblical language of “The Cave,” “Awake My Soul,” the title-track and others. But what most distinguishes Babel from its predecessor is its thematic cohesion; the album’s uniformity resembles that of a concept album unified by its single (and profoundly religious) theme: the deep longing for light and truth in a world of darkness and deceit.

Lyrically, Mumford is in top form here, so I think highlighting the poetic quality of their lyrics is in order. Personal confessions, joyous eulogies, aching laments, and numerous binary-ladened motifs of “dark,” “light,” “blind,” “sight,” “lost,” and “found”  fill the album from beginning to end, underlining the dualistic nature of its theme, truth vs. falsehood.

The first track, “Babel,” opens the album with triumph and power, and its gritty timbre and biblical imagery instantly establish the album’s tone of restlessness and a longing for the transcendent. Alluding to the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, the title-track explores human weakness with the confessional cry,

Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride,
I stretch my arms into the sky,
I cry Babel! Babel! Look at me now,
Then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down…
‘Cause I know my weakness know my voice,
and I’ll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
but I’ll be born without a mask.

The confessional language here is echoed by the humble plea in “Whispers in the Dark”: “Spare my sins for the ark, I was too slow to depart, I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud, I’d set out to serve the Lord.” Indeed, several songs either sing as prayers, both penitent and petitionary, or allude to prayerful bearing. The joyous “I Will Wait” shines as the band’s most melodious song to date, complete with its anthemic refrain near the end that evokes the aching request of a man in need of redemption:

And I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

Raise my hands
Paint my spirit gold
And bow my head
Keep my heart slow

This prayerful tone continues in “Holland Road,” a darker song that begins with the admission, “So I was lost,” but ends with the spirited promise,

And I’ll still believe
Though there’s cracks you’ll see
When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe
And when I’ve hit the ground
Neither lost nor found
If you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe

The haunting yet hope-filled “Ghosts That We Knew” furthers the exploration of the desire to find the truth and light: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light, ‘Cause oh they gave me such a fright, But I will hold as long as you like, Just promise me we’ll be alright.” Similarly, the hymnic “Lover’s Eyes” tells the story of heartache and guilt through the eyes of a wandering soul haunted by lost love:

Love was kind, for a time,
Now just aches and it makes me blind,
This mirror holds my eyes too bright,
I can’t see the others in my life

Were we too young? And heads too strong?
To bear the weight of these lover’s eyes.
‘Cause I feel numb, beneath your tongue,
Neath the curse of these lover’s eyes.

But the lamenting tone of the track ends on a redemptive note with the line, “Lord, forgive all of my sins,” and group harmonies howl a demand to be rescued out of a loveless desert: “And I’ll walk slow, I’ll walk slow, Take my hand, help me on my way.” The gentle chorus of “Reminder,” a quiet 2-minute ballad, captures the album’s theme as Mumford pleas for the “light that might give up the way” to his lover, for “without her [he’s] lost.” The rousing “Hopeless Wanderer” extends this theme further as Mumford echoes the psalmic angst of an aimless man facing the painful truth of his errs:

But hold me fast, hold me fast,
Cos I’m a hopeless wanderer.
I wrestled long with my youth
We tried so hard to live in the truth
But do not tell me all is fine
When I lose my head, I lose my spine

The album reaches its musical and thematic climax with the soaring yet solemn chorus of “Below My Feet,” the most captivating melody of the album.  In an almost a cappella chant, the foursome makes its boldest request, one that can only be made to a higher power: “Keep the earth below my feet, For all my sweat, my blood runs weak, Let me learn from where I have been, Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.”

While the Mumford & Sons of Babel sound just like, well, the Mumford & Sons of Sigh No More, the new album is conceptually cohesive and musically compelling. The album is great because the songs are great, and though the band’s sound is familiar—acoustic-driven folk-rock accompanied by gritty vocals, raw harmonies, bright horns, and a banjo pickin’ to the pulse of a kick-drum—the album is refreshingly poetic, passionate, and powerful, a rarity in today’s musical landscape.

The Benefit of the Doubt

I am by nature a skeptic. I question. I doubt. And I have the constant urge to dismiss simple answers to complex questions.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those nihilistic, solipsistic, or Cartesian doubters who needs cold, hard evidence before he believes he exists. Slap me in the face and I’m a believer. But I’d like to think that I have a healthy sense of skepticism. I question traditions that seem superfluous, I critique arguments that appear extreme or too exclusive, and I doubt presumptions that seem, well, too presumptuous.

Most of us would agree that skepticism is somewhat necessary for human survival. A healthy dose of doubt is a form of good judgment or circumspection. As the familiar proverb says, “Doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.” If I trusted everything, then my wife and I would have eaten those curious-looking mushrooms growing in our basement apartment.

But my moments of doubt often exist somewhere between commonsense skepticism and atheistic denial.  They exist somewhere in the murky middle.

When most Christians doubt God, they don’t doubt his existence. They doubt his nature. They question his decisions, his purposes, and his actions (or lack thereof). Why is God allowing this to happen? Why isn’t God intervening? Why is God silent?  We seriously doubt God’s motives and his ways of dealing with human beings.

Many Christians view this kind of doubt as a vice, a weakness, perhaps even a sin. They claim that doubt leads to indecision or that skepticism is a sign of snobbish intellectualism. Some might even argue that doubt is the antithesis of faith, and thus a direct threat to what the Christian is called to—belief. Basically, those who view doubt as negative often claim that it hinders one from action, commitment, truth, and ultimately, God.

To some extent, I’d say that this understanding of doubt is correct. Jesus certainly treated doubt as something contrary to faith. In Matthew 14, while he pulls a sinking Peter out of the water he says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Also, the apostle James teaches that a person who doubts is double-minded and groundless, a wave tossed by the wind.

But is doubt always a vice? A weakness? A sin? Does doubt always lead to indecision? Is skepticism just a mask for snobbish intellectualism? If not, how do we answer those who claim that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that it is a direct threat to belief—the very thing Jesus himself calls us to?

While numerous scriptures clearly command us to trust God, and while I certainly believe that agnosticism—the kind that denies that real knowledge of God is possible—is dangerous, I would also argue that doubt and skepticism can propel us into action, can strengthen a desire for commitment, can lead us into a better understanding of truth—and, most importantly, can draw us closer to Jesus. And I think the Bible teaches this “positive” side of doubt, too.

These thoughts on the nature of doubt arose this summer while my wife and I were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each week we would read a chapter and discuss what encouraged us, convicted us, and confused us. Most theologians consider the letter to the Romans to be Paul’s masterpiece, a theological magnum opus that presents an in-depth description of the salvation process. Here Paul explains condemnation, justification, sanctification, glorification, selection, and transformation. In other words, Romans pretty much covers it all. Because I knew Romans included some very complex theological material, I wasn’t too surprised when I found some of the passages in chapter nine about God’s sovereignty quite difficult to swallow. I’d read these verses before, but this time they seemed to be more in conflict with some of my own ideas about God.

Here is one of the more “troubling” passages in that chapter:

“Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not!  For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.’ So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.’  So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.” (NLT)

As I read these verses, I thought to myself, “Really, Paul? Is this really how God works?” I questioned the text. I was skeptical toward this description of God and his dealings with man.

Now, I don’t claim to fully understand the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and my purpose here is not to provide an in-depth exegesis of these verses. Instead, I want us to see how these difficult passages can remind us of what may seem to be a completely unrelated point: our doubts about God and the mysteries of how he works can be liberating.

In the verses following the above passage, Paul writes:

Well then, you might say, ‘Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?’ No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?”

Notice that Paul doesn’t respond to the rebuttal. He doesn’t explain why God works the way he does. Instead, Paul does something more interesting. He keeps God’s nature mysterious. He doesn’t resolve the tensions between the existence of free human agents and a sovereign God. He basically says, “God is above you, beyond you, and your finite human mind cannot understand him, so don’t argue with him.”

The thing that struck me the most as I read these verses was that I wasn’t frustrated that Paul didn’t satisfy my doubts. It didn’t bother me that I still had questions. Instead, I felt strangely content in my continuing uncertainty. I felt liberated. In that moment, my doubt led me to humility. I had been put in my rightful, submissive place. We see this in scripture—how skepticism can lead to a moment of surrender.

One of the most familiar stories about doubt is the story of “doubting Thomas.” Thomas refused to believe the news of Jesus’ resurrection. He required experiential evidence—to see Jesus—before he would believe. Interestingly, Thomas’ doubt led him to an intimate interaction with Jesus, one that radically changed Thomas’ life forever. Placing his own hands in Jesus’ wounds, Thomas passed through a moment of doubt to be propelled into a higher state of submissive faith. He literally touched the truth. He went on to become one of the most passionate missionaries of the Gospel. Various apocryphal records indicate that Thomas was possibly the only apostle who spread the Gospel outside the Roman Empire, becoming the first missionary to India.

But there is another moment of doubt before Thomas’. The other apostles considered the news of the empty tomb as “idle tales” and they “did not believe.” Words were not enough for them. They had to see the truth in order to believe it. But doubt proved to be a motivator, a triggering device. In his moment of unbelief, the skeptical Peter runs to where Jesus was buried in order to discover nothing but linen cloths and a rolled away stone. Peter’s doubt drove him to the empty tomb. His skepticism moved him to search out the truth.

Just as Peter and Thomas’ doubt stirred them into action and a deeper faith, I think that our moments of unbelief, skepticism, or just plain uncertainty can lead us into a closer interaction with Jesus and a better understanding of God. God can use our doubts and uncertainties to do two things. First, to distinguish himself from us; to separate finite man from his infinite maker. Secondly, and simultaneously, to draw us to himself. His mysteriousness moves us to seek him. His “hiddenness” may create doubts in us, but it also creates a sense of fear and awe.

In these moments, doubt is both ironic and paradoxical. Ironically, we skeptics are often the hungriest for truth, and yet our own doubts hold us back from ingesting it. But paradoxically, skepticism keeps us from belief while also leading us to it.

My skeptical attitude toward God’s sovereignty led me to a place of surrender and a deeper belief in and appreciation for God’s mysteriousness. A burden was lifted. I had to let go of that relentless desire to know fully the mysteries of God’s nature. I faced the reality that God is not entirely unknowable, but that he is beyond me, higher than me, and radically different from me.

And I also began to wonder whether God really is offended by our skepticism. I’m convinced that God invites our questioning—just as Jesus invited Thomas to touch his hands and feet—because he of all beings knows he’s beyond our complete comprehension. He also knows that honest skepticism grounded in submissive faith, rather than rebellion or pride, ultimately leads to a deeper knowledge of who he really is.

And though God is beyond our complete comprehension, he’s not completely beyond our reach. Before Jesus pulled a sinking Peter out of the water, Peter was the only disciple walking on the water—the fact that he was there in the first place was the result of his willingness to test, risk, and question what he saw. The others accepted, and stayed in the boat, but Peter tested, and though he sank (as we all do on our journeys of skepticism and doubt), he was the only one who got to walk on the water with Jesus.

I’m convinced that Jesus invites us, too, to take risks, to ask questions, and to not suppress our honest skepticism. It just might be our very doubts that get us out of the boat to walk on water.