Tom: We walk with God in both doubt and conviction. Both are part of our walk of faith. After all, as Hebrews 11:1 reminds us, “faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, if we see at all, it is “through a mirror into a puzzle.” That is what faith is like: doubt and conviction—both.
Rebecca and I will address this topic out of very different contexts, Rebecca from Kenya and I from Canada. We are learning that this is the best way to deepen our convictions, listening to God’s word with different ears and from different life settings.
Rebecca: In my language, the word for doubt is kiawa. Among the Luo of Kenya kiawa is used in a situation where the process or end result is not certain. In the absence of direct, clear translation, kiawa simply means ‘may be.’ It is not necessarily negative or positive.
Doubt is shaped by context. The phrase, jakol kudho (the thorn remover), has been coined alongside kiawa to affirm the positive as well as iron out the negative aspects of doubt in one’s journey. The term jakol kudho (the thorn remover) literally applies to someone who will remove the thorn that has pierced the traveler’s foot. As a concept the term applies to an aide, enabler or companion.
In my country, walking through forests and thickets is something we still do, particularly in rural settings. This is not a short, simple, luxurious walk but a journey full of uncertainties and dangers. One cannot escape attacks from social misfits and criminals, unfriendly clan/tribesmen, venomous reptiles, wild animals or thorny shrubs. Under such circumstances it would be understood if one would doubt safe arrival at one’s destination.
In this setting, even the less dangerous pricks require some assistance as the thorns usually pierce deep into the traveller’s flesh. The thorn remover walks along and intervenes in the face of danger. He or she is useful in comfortable as well as dangerous circumstances: giving assurance, appreciation and offering direction to the traveller as the situation calls for.
The either/or of kiawa (doubt) is equally depicted in the Luo Bible translation. In Matthew 14:31 for example, Jesus asked Peter why he doubted. Doubt there is not a complement. The literal translation in Luo is “Why did you add doubt to it?” It is a reprimand.
On the other hand, in translating doubt in Acts 12:11 in the story of Peter’s imprisonment, Luo is affirmative: “Now I know that it is true!” instead of “Now I know without a doubt!” The translations in Matthew and Acts correlate with the Luo’s cultural usage of doubt that can be a reprimand or complementary.
Peter was deep asleep though he awaited execution the next day in a heavily guarded prison (Acts 12:6). This is paradoxical. Could it have been an act of faith that Peter calmly awaited to be with Christ, as Paul writes in Philippians 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain”? Peter’s journey of faith on earth was just about to conclude in a horrific way, yet he slept deeply! The depth with which he slept was not reminiscent of someone who doubted his destiny.
Among my tribe (Luo), Peter’s seeming comfort amidst awaiting disaster could be better captured by a phrase, wuoth gi jakok kudho meaning walk or walking with the thorn remover. Peter must have been walking with jakol kudho, his companion and enabler throughout! The thorn remover was by Peter’s side in the person of the servant girl Rhoda (v.13), in the prayer group (v.5 & 12), and in the angel of God (v.7). Various dimensions of jakol kudho are with us today ready to attend to our needs if only we give a hearing ear.
An African writer, Kwame Wiredu correctly notes that African philosophy (thought) is transmitted orally through proverbs and folklore. Likewise in the Gospels we find the idiomatic use of ear and hearing: “he who has ears… hear…”! In Acts 12:7 & 8, jakol kudho appeared to Peter—struck and spoke to him. Peter’s role was to give a hearing ear and obey: “Get up…. Put on your clothes and sandals…” Peter then followed jakol kudho (the angel) toward freedom away from the prison.
Jakol kudho, (the thorn remover) becomes the proverbial phrase through which the either/or in kiawa (doubt) is harmonized. The possibility of doubt in one’s wuoth (walk or journey) is replaced with conviction full of hope.
With jakol kudho, kiawa is used in a sense that connotes strong conviction. Jakol kudho intervenes in difficult situations to allow the sojourner time to articulate issues and respond accordingly, similar to the delay in execution of Peter that gave brethren time to offer passionate prayer. As Peter’s total obedience in every instruction given by the angel (v.7–10) was geared towards his freedom, so is a sojourner indebted to jakol kudho for positive results to be realized. It takes fervent prayer or fellowship of a faith community and obedience of the faithful that reaches out for God’s intervention.
As the sojourner and jakol kudho embark on their journey, the invocation of the supernatural powers by his or her kin takes place. They never cease to chant words for safe return after which a communal thanksgiving ceremony is conducted. In Acts 12, the fellowship of believers was still writhing from the loss of James; thus they offered continuous and fervent prayer (with compassion) for Peter. Communal or corporate prayer is of paramount importance in our journey of faith.
The church today finds herself between forces that threaten the very existence for which numerical and spiritual growths stem. She is strongly guarded behind economic and sociopolitical systems that perpetuate cultural hegemony at the expense of harmony and tranquility in the global society. We need continuous and intense invocation of Christ Jesus that he may enable and free us through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, the greatest jakol kudho will always intervene, for he is interceding for us before the Father (Hebrews 7:25).
Let us spend the week here in prayer—of thanksgiving and supplications. God, through MWC, has provided a forum for us to fellowship. It is not a time for us to be critical of or distance ourselves from one another.
Paul cautioned in 1 Corinthians 11:18 against divisions in the church especially those geared toward who (which faction or worship pattern) has God’s approval (v. 18). It is a moment for intercessory prayers for fellow Christians who are suffering because of their faith, such as the conscientious objectors; those languishing in prisons of poverty; those threatened by heavy presence of secularism and religious radicalism, etc. It is time our theology should help in shaping the global economy and social well being in our endeavour to establish a global church of “just peace”!
Christ, the greatest jakol kudho is with us even when there seems to be no way. We should not forget that it is darkest just before dawn! With jakol kudho, doubts are but necessary windows of conviction. It is healthy to doubt, but not when it causes divisions among us rather than bring us together to further exploration, reexamination and analysis—in a fellowship mood. Doubt is an element of faith, for by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking, we arrive upon the truth. Jakol kudho will lead us into safety from the guarded prisons (Acts 12:6) to a guided walk (v.11, 12 and 17)!
Tom: Rebecca, my thoughts echo yours. For us in the Global North, doubt is unavoidable, and often a necessary and good thing, as you say. Doubt as alertness to danger, even suspicion of false certainties, is a good thing. When we yearn for simple answers such “good doubt” can keep our faith from becoming “blind” and our convictions from becoming hard and brittle, unable to respond to the complex questions of faith and discipleship. Such doubt is essential to convictions that grow out of faith and not fear.
But there is also doubt that has left a trail of devastation in the churches of the Global North. Let me name a just few of the thorns on our path:
While we suffer much poverty and racism in the Global North, wealth and privilege are among the most dangerous thorns. If poverty and oppression are the prison of many in the Global South, as Rebecca says, too many of us are imprisoned within the fortress of our own wealth, privilege and power. We often think of them as “blessings,” and then, like Israel, make God into a golden calf of prosperity, greed and violence. We should—no, we must—doubt such a god! Is it any wonder that many today turn away in disgust, wanting nothing to do with such a faith.
Knowledge, science, technology—also the so-called “blessings” of our culture—can and do lead us to the illusion that we are the masters of our own fate. Not surprisingly, an unnecessary God makes little sense, leading many to abandon faith entirely.
That is our world. What about the church, what about our faith? There are many more thorns there. For example, we confess the Bible to be the Word of God. But that conviction can be shaken by thinking we have to be experts to make sense of it, or by how difficult it is to agree on what it says, or we’re scandalized by how we see others use it. Just think of our present struggles in the Global North over sexuality. Many of us have stopped reading the Bible altogether. Doubt then easily gives way to indifference, even disdain. So doubt leads to neglect, and neglect to nothing less than corporate loss of memory.
For some, the most damaging source of doubt is, ironically, the church itself. Our long complicity in slavery, colonialism and the genocidal treatment of indigenous peoples haunts us to this day. In the past century alone, millions of Christians have killed millions of Christians. We callously destroy God’s creation along with everyone else. Can this possibly be the body of the Christ whom a loving God sent not to condemn the world but to save it?
Our own congregations can shake our convictions, either because they are too closed and fearful or too open and reckless. Even closer, you may have been terribly harmed by someone in the church you have looked up to as role model and teacher. Injury and betrayal have too often led to conviction-shattering, faith-destroying doubt.
It is tempting at such times to point the finger at others. But if I am honest, I myself find it so hard to believe, to love, to forgive, to share the gospel, to share my possessions, to empathize with those who suffer, to make peace, to work for justice. Where is the transforming power of the Spirit in my life? Is my own faith an illusion? I myself become the source of my doubt.
Dangers such as these make our walk of faith as much a struggle for survival as any thorn or wild animal.
How then do we walk with not only doubt, but also with strong and firm conviction?
The words we read at the beginning from Hebrews 11 are realistic about faith: faith is the assurance of things we cannot see (v.1). “We walk by faith, not by sight,” Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:7.
But Hebrews also insists that there is someone with us on the walk of faith—Jesus. “We do see Jesus!” (Hebrews 2:9), the “pioneer of our faith,” as Hebrews 12 puts it (v. 2)—our jakol kudho, in Rebecca’s words, tested in every way as we are (Hebrews 2:14–18).
Yes, some days we all head in the same direction, singing the same songs, as here at this assembly. God be praised! At other times, we stumble about, hanging on to each other for support or just as likely arguing about which way to go. With Thomas, that famous doubter, we ask: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Do you remember how Jesus answers? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (v.6). He is our pioneer. He is God walking with us in doubt and conviction. That is surely the most fundamental conviction we need: not walking with God so much as God walking with us!
God also walks with us in the very same Bible that often gives us trouble. That is where our hopes and convictions are anchored. It is in the long story the Bible tells of Israel and of the early followers of Jesus that we learn of a God who walks with us, of God’s son who teaches us how to walk, about a Spirit who enlivens and empowers us, of convictions about our identity, our calling, our mission. We dare not neglect so great a gift.
But the Bible is God walking with us in another way too. With often brutal honesty, it gives voice to our own struggle with doubt. The story of Job has given comfort to countless persons struggling with faith in the face of incomprehensible suffering. Israel’s hymnbook of psalms contains cries of rage, resentment, lament, and bewilderment. “My God, why have you abandoned me!”—words from Psalm 22 Jesus himself uttered on the cross. How often have I made my own desperate prayer the response of the father who pleads for Jesus to heal his son. When Jesus asks him, “Do you believe?” he answers “Yes, Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Sometimes our faith is little more than doubt expressed honestly to God. But faith it is—faith as rock-bottom trust uttered in the darkest of nights!
The Bible may not always be a clear map or brilliant light, but it is always a truthful witness to a God who walks in solidarity with us even when we see nothing, reminding us that we are not the first for whom faith is a struggle.
And the church? Of course the church will test our faith. After all, you and I are in it! But as much as the church often puts our faith to the test, it is God’s creation—God’s work of art in the making, a people learning to walk together. We share convictions, and we share doubt. When Paul tells the Galatians that they are to carry each other’s burdens, that surely includes carrying each other’s fragile faith. We mourn with each other when doubts overwhelm and faith grows dim. We rejoice when faith grows strong. We thank God for those with strong faith and conviction. We need them on the path of faith.
Just think of the sisters and brothers long passed and those with you on the walk. Many are here, beside you, from all parts of the globe! They are models of courageous and joyful witness, patient love, breathtaking forgiveness, passion for justice and peace. They carry you when you are weak; they take your hand when you can’t see the way. They are the body of the thorn remover. No, you are the body of Christ, you, we all together are God walking alongside us in faith, doubt, and conviction. Thanks be to God!
Rebecca: So we close as we began, with words from Hebrews, this time from chapter 12:
“Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” (Hebrews 12:12–15)
—Rebecca Osiro is a pastor in the Kenya Mennonite Church, EFC Congregation, Nairobi, Kenya. She was elected vice president of MWC at the 2015 General Council meetings. Tom Yoder Neufeld is a retired Mennonite Bible professor from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.