Within a shadow of doubt

Tales From the Unending Story

March 23, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 6
Joshua Penfold | Columnist
(Photo by Md Mahdi/Unsplash)

I have so inextricably linked Psalm 22 to the words of Jesus on the cross that I don’t think I have ever really read the Psalm in its own light before.

Yes, Jesus quoted “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1) on the cross, and there are quite incredible messianic parallels throughout the psalm that the gospels draw upon, from pierced hands and feet to villains dividing his clothes and casting lots for them. But what if the shadow of the cross prevents me from seeing and appreciating the psalm in its own light?

This psalm is honest about feelings of doubt, abandonment and suffering, while simultaneously expressing hope, trust and remembering God’s faithfulness. It’s a paradoxical tension of feeling abandoned and swallowed up, while also forcing yourself to continue to trust, because you know you do even though right now you don’t.

This resonates with me. I know the good things God has done and is doing; and I see the goodness of God around me, even while I also, in the same breath, express my doubt and sometimes wonder how I have been hoodwinked into trusting this invisible invention. I feel like the double-minded man the Book of James warns against (James 1:6-8), but I also feel like the man who says, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Our ever-shrinking world can be an overwhelming myriad of ideas and beliefs. Jesus says, “Seek and you shall find.” If you’re looking for evidence to point toward God’s existence, there is plenty there. If you want to find reasons to reject God’s existence, there is plenty there. I suppose there are many reasons to believe or doubt, but I was brought up with a worldview that assumes God exists, and mostly I have found this a very healthy and hopeful place from which to live.

Psalm 22 doesn’t actually question the existence of God; it questions the action or involvement of God. The psalmist doesn’t ask, “Is there a God?” but believes there is and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Whenever I struggle with whether I believe God exists, I’m actually struggling from within a worldview where God does exist. I, like the psalmist, somewhat ironically bring my unbelief to the very God I’m not believing in. I can’t seem to get away from my belief, even in my unbelief, and for that I am thankful.

The church has not always made it easy to keep faith in Jesus. Too often, we have lost our way, done as much harm as good, and many have lost faith in the church and Jesus. I, too, sometimes struggle with the church and all its tragic failings. Yet, like Peter, I say to Jesus when asked if I’m going to also leave like the others, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68).

I don’t keep the faith because of the church, because of my upbringing or because of my education. I keep my faith, even when I doubt and feel like I’ve lost it, because the person of Jesus is so compelling that I can’t turn away. Even though I constantly flounder in following his way, I just can’t bear to turn away.

I guess no matter what I do and how I try to wrestle with scripture, I can’t seem to escape the shadow of the cross, and I’m glad for it.

Joshua Penfold (penfoldjoshua@gmail.com) is wonderfully wowed when wrestling with the written word.

Read more Tales from the Unending Story:
A shielded sleep
When inadequate is enough
Soil lover
Priests of what are not gods
Abandoning the Lord

(Photo by Md Mahdi/Unsplash)

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This article is deeply appreciated. The tension between doubt and faith can feel disconcerting and troublesome, and the church does not always provide a welcoming or safe space for doubt.

My own journey away from pastoral ministry was largely due to a growing dissonance between what I was supposed to believe and what I could with integrity actually embrace at the time. I felt, perhaps mistakenly, that I needed to leave ministry to have the space and time to wrestle through a season of doubt.

Perhaps it would be a much more fruitful journey for everyone if leaders could more openly and honestly model and share the doubting side of the spiritual experience.

By the way, I have personally benefited from books such as Faith After Doubt and Do I Stay Christian?, both written by Brian McLaren.

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