The organizers of this conference were so gracious that they did not impose a topic, rather respectfully provided me an opportunity to select from a range of themes. As you all know, making choices from choices is a difficult choice, but not this time.
Without doubt, I picked “Walking with Doubt and Conviction.” Choosing doubt without doubt, even if seems an irony, that was the truth. You might be curious and ask, “What made this topic that interesting for me?” Part of the answer is because the topic is so close to my heart, because it depicts my life. In a way, my life exhibited a seemingly contradictory ideals, doubt and conviction.
Please continue to bear patiently with me as I expound my understanding.
Of course, the weight of doubt and conviction is not always similar. At times, I experience both together and at other times, either of the two become stronger than the other: I feel as though I am walking a mountain of strong conviction or finding myself at the depths of the pit of doubt.
I presume that my journey is not uniquely of mine. Many young people share the same struggles in my hometown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the larger world including Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe. I think this is our life. Especially living in such a postmodern age, where everything has the right to be on the table, where everything is correct and everyone is a thorn remover, it is common to find young people in my church, in your church, in her church, in his church, in their church who are living in doubt and conviction. Please bear with me while I’m responding with a first-person metaphor that can be able to represent the young people in our global faith community.
Faith is like walking with doubt and conviction. I deeply cherish the African tradition that we heard. We young people are facing many wild animals and poisonous reptiles called doubt as we walk the journey with God. Indeed, despite our wishes and various clever attempts, it is impossible that as a traveller we succeed to escape thorns.
On the metaphor of walking the thorny journey, I would also add a positive dimension. I would join with Timothy Keller who wrote in his book The Reason for God: “Faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” Doubt is thus; even if we do not actively seek it in our life, it is also a key to deepen our conviction in our walk with God. Such a statement is in no way a denial that doubt could push us to an edge where our conviction would be replaced with unbelief, which is an antithesis to faith.
Of course, the line between unbelief and doubt is not always that clear. In the following section, I will attempt briefly to outline the sources of my doubt.
“What is my source of doubt?” As you all know, there are always significant others in our life. In our spiritual journey, we have forefathers and foremothers. At a given time, faith feels it is not that worthy to be pursued passionately. It is equated with religion. I feel that it is not my choice, rather an unworthy inheritance. The ever-decreasing committed membership in the North and increasing members in the South (who fall short of quality of life in Christ) sow doubt in my heart. Such a doubt is negative, as it drifts me away from conviction rather than sharpening it.
Again, apart from the fact that faith has turned into religion, there are also contextual factors. Quite unfortunately, it seems that no one cares enough both to protect and nurture the faith seed in my heart. My context is also not that gracious to me. Rather, it is quite antagonistic. The season I’m living is different both qualitatively and quantitatively from my fathers and mothers. Our worldview is changing dramatically. Now, we all are becoming or already postmodern. The governing thought of the time intimidates me each day. Preaching the gospel, for example, is increasingly perceived as imposition of my views upon others. The world is increasingly holding religious pluralism, a worldview that teaches that all ways are equally valid despite the fact that at times they have a logical contradictory views. My inner being, thus, is continually bombarded with such voices of doubt.
You might be asking the role of the church in my faith journey. Let me briefly share my story.
I grew up in the church and I am the third generation. What makes my life a bit different from my African brothers is that I had no idea about colonization since we in Ethiopia have never been colonized. While I was in second year in the campus, however, I read a book and got the quote of Jomo Kenyatta regarding prayer and the Bible: “When the whites came, they had the bible and we had our land… But they taught us how to pray by closing our eyes, and when we opened our eyes, they had our land and we had their Bible.” I was completely shocked. No one had inoculated me earlier. I felt doubt as a virus in my cells, progressively eating me up.
This was a point where I started to explore my faith. Most of my friends, who are Orthodox Christians, right away judged me and pointed that my faith is an import and more so a mischievous fabrication of colonizers. I was confused and ran to my mom and started to ask and explore. Even though, the case was not that way in my country, this is one of the doubts that was able to stick in my mind for long.
My identity was not also that clear. There is an imprint of different mission agencies and uncritical contextualization of Christianity that has given me a bizarre kind of identity. At times, I ponder various questions: Am I an Ethiopian Christian? Can I refer myself like that? If that is the case, did I lose many of my tradition which are good? Many more questions haunt me. In my Christian tradition, I can’t express my culture because I’m a Christian, I can’t have fun and hang out with friends, because I’m told that I’m a Christian… Okay, where is life then without my identity? —Oh, church…. Okay, then… I’m anyways at the church…Again, I was raised with religious practices: my baptism, conversion etc. I’m not really sure if all those things make sense.
Regardless of all the issues, however, I’m still in the church with all my doubts. One thing is clear: I don’t want my doubts to drive me crazy and lead me away from my walk with the Lord. It is also equally clear that as a young person, so many things hover my mind. At times, the doubts that I have feel so strong that I feel they are on the verge of taking me down or have succeeded doing so. I feel completely powerless.
In the midst of these all experiences, however, there is a glimpse of hope: the person of Jesus. Jesus Christ who is the starter and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). I want to know him and teach us about jakolkudho—the thorn remover. Thus, I plead the body of Christ to show us his work in your life, so that I could truly emulate and experience it in my life.
Jesus is Emanuel—God with us, walking with us in all the ups and downs. How can I turn these cognitive proposition into life conviction that surpass my doubts? I ask the Lord. He is there to help and share my struggles. As I grow in him, “Lord, help my unbelief” has become my earnest request of my heart more than ever.
Now, I realized that doubt is doubt but its result could be positive or negative. In our context, I mean the young people, it is common to have doubt regarding the content of our belief. As we heard, we need to call upon our jakolkudho. We can get an answer for our doubt or we can learn to live with our doubt in our walk with God. The point is that Christ is beyond our culture, our inherited religion and also our understanding of our faith. Doubt, if properly handled with the help of the community of faith and our allegiance with Christ, helps in seeking understanding and deepening our faith.
Yet, we should discern our destructive doubts, doubts that emanate from our fleshly desire of indulgence of our fallen nature. Sometimes, doubt could be an excuse to disobedience, a means of intentionally rejecting the demands of the Word of God. In such instances, I should wake up. I always check myself that the Word of God remains always a means through which I would sift my doubts, a doubt that sharpens my conviction or a doubt that drags me into unbelief.
Let this week be a time to share our doubts, whether we are from the Global North, where abundance becomes a reason to doubt our faith or from Global South, where lack and instability become a reason for doubt. Let’s share our conviction with each other before the Lord Jesus that can be able to surpass our doubt. As we strengthen our relationship with him with the help of the faith community, doubt will sharpen our convictions.
As a summary: walking in doubt and conviction is like riding a bicycle. One pedal is doubt and the other one is conviction. Without both, the journey of faith can’t be possible.
God bless you and God bless our time.
—Tigist Tesfaye Gelagle serves her church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has served as an MWC intern at Mennonite Central Committee’s New York United Nations Office, and in Ethiopia with Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Compassion International.