My sons and I have recently started reading The Pilgrim’s Progress for our evening story time. If you haven’t checked out this classic work by John Bunyan, I would highly recommend you do so. Aside from it never going out of print in the past 350 years and being translated into some 200 languages, it’s an amazing meditation on the Christian life with all its ups and, perhaps most importantly, its downs.
It’s this last bit that will trouble the most people today.
One of the very first things our hero encounters is the Slough of Despond, a swampy morass which threatens to turn back “Christian” from his journey. Along the way, he encounters other obstacles – times of hardship, times of confusion, times of doubt. We today don’t share such stories, preferring far more to have undiluted progress in our own pilgrimages.
We tend see any struggle as something to be avoided at all costs, whether those costs be personal, doctrinal, or moral. No compromise is too great to avoid pain in this life, nor can any doubt be permitted to dwell in our minds for long. While it may be shocking to us, for most believers outside the capricious comforts of the contemporary West, suffering and uncertainty are part and parcel of life in this time after Eden and before the New Jerusalem.
This is a lesson long observed in the songs and poems of the Christian faithful down through ages. It is the echo of the biblical stories in Job and Ecclesiastes and the prophets of Israel and Judah. It is the repeated refrain of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it is precisely this helpful reminder found in the book by my friend, Travis Scott.
Travis and I were at seminary at the same time, long before it became humorous to intentionally confuse him with the singer of the same name. While it must have been a decade or more since I’ve laid eyes on him, I can see in his recent words much of what I so appreciated in his character so many years ago. He has what you might call a cynical optimism about life. There is an almost hard-edged acceptance for life’s imperfections that yet somehow does not devolve into apathy.
In the past few years, as his beard has grown to rival that of Gandalf the Grey, this principled pessimism has matured as life has dealt out its expected/unexpected ups and downs. Just has having a child changes the Bible’s emphasis on the Fatherhood of God from black and white into full color, so too, the undulations of his own life have allowed Travis to peer into the story of Habakkuk with new eyes and then to share with us what he has learned.
You can see in his book that his faith has deepened through his interaction with doubts, not by ignoring them. Pointing to a time when his wife struggled in her faith, Travis says:
I’d like to tell you I figured it out and eventually discovered the best things to say to help her. I didn’t. Her true Comforter helped her in ways I couldn’t. Over time he spoke peace to her heart and gave her a renewed confidence in the Gospel and what it meant for her identity as a daughter of God. I didn’t fix Brooke’s doubts, but God used her doubts to fix something in me. (xviii)
Travis repeatedly reminds us that times of doubt are never mutually exclusive to the faithful Christian life, that platitudes given to others or ourselves are often of very little use, that the God of the Bible does not always dance to our tunes. This is not a failing of our faith but its manifestation. Just as courage cannot exist in the absence of fear, so too, faith is only realized when we don’t have all the answers.
This work is no academic theological commentary. You won’t find here any factoids you can’t find in a more formal treatise. That being said, I’d be willing to bet that after reading this short book, there are many who will seek out the Minor Prophets far sooner than they would if they had only read a technical treatment.
It’s more a meditation on what God’s word says to us, even when it seems He is silent. What Travis does here is to remind his readers why God included books like Habakkuk in the Bible in the first place. Christianity offers us “honest answers to honest questions,” but the reality of these answers hinges on the fact that we will indeed have questions.
As he puts it:
If we read through Scripture, we find the puzzling fact that doubts and questions about God and his ways are quite prevalent. In that sense, the entire book of Habakkuk could be described as one man’s wrestling with God and boldly stating his questions and doubts. Habakkuk and other biblical authors show us an important truth: Sometimes the strongest faith is the one most honest about its doubts. (xix)
This whole book of Scripture is about the question of faith, and this verse show us that the opposite of faith is not doubt. As we have seen, Habakkuk teaches us that doubt can be an expression of faith. This is possible because the essence of faith is trust, and its because Habakkuk trust God that he goes to him with his doubts and his complaints. (69)
When faced with very real crises related to the problem of evil, too often we turn to simple syllogisms rather than the more uncomfortable truth that we will never receive all answers we wish. When we hurt, we’re not always relieved. When we doubt, we’re not always answered. When we walk in the darkness, we cannot always see the light at the end of the path.
Despite our polite denials, it doesn’t take long in this life to find ourselves in such places. The prophet Habakkuk was there, too, long before us. His struggle, however, does not lead us away from God but back to Him.
Denying neither the goodness nor the power of God, Habakkuk forces us to acknowledge the tension in a Christianity that proclaims the truth but does not always explain what we’d like to know. Facts and figures about God are true and, quietly literally, of infinite value, but simply rattling off a catechism answer will often do little good to a hurting heart.
We in our day don’t want to hear about these shadowy times. Oh, we’ll talk about them, but only insofar as we can complain about their presence. Whether it’s the “name it and claim it” crew who see material success as intrinsic to the life of faith or the “follow your heart” contingent who cannot fathom that any desire should be thwarted, our world today, and sadly far, far too much of our Church, has little patience with suffering of any sort.
As much as this is so for suffering, it is all the more for doubt. When faced with questions, we either stuff canned answers down others’ or our own throats or we take them as an immutable sign that it’s time to “evolve” in our understanding of God and His will for our lives. Never does it seem to occur to us that there may be moments in our lives when our experience in this world will outstrip our understanding, where we don’t see where God is leading us yet we are not called to abandon Him or to pretend that the darkness doesn’t surround us.
It is to this counterintuitive, countercultural claim that Habakkuk and Travis Scott speak. The answers we seek are not always the answers we need, or even could contemplate. The evil in the world doesn’t make sense because, well, evil doesn’t make sense (87). While we wait for the restoration of all things, we will not always understand why God is doing what He’s doing. But our faith is not built on knowing all that is knowable but in trusting in the One who has demonstrated He can be trusted (86).
There is a potential misunderstanding in this emphasis, but it is not something Travis says or even suggests. Rather, it is that in his reasonable distinction between “head answers” and “heart answers” (87 and elsewhere) one could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity’s intellectual claims are unneeded or perhaps even unhelpful.
However, the problem with “head answers” is not in their inaccuracy or inadequacy but that, as he says, “head-answers aren’t always the best replies to heart-questions.” As personal beings, we need answers of both sorts. As human beings, we don’t merely eat but we dine. We don’t only walk but we dance. We don’t merely speak but we sing. In Habakkuk and Travis’s commentary, God’s replies to our questions reflect this dual need.
Depending on how you count it, as much as a third of the Bible is poetry. Very little is direct, context-less teaching. God, in whose image we are made, speaks to us true truths in song not because He is being vague or imprecise but because, as personal beings, both He and we hear best not in data-points but in verses.
I highly recommend this work as a delightful reminder of the personality of God and His gracious acts of love in His Word. It is a great help to those who doubt, reminding us that God is not afraid of our questions nor is our faith undermined when we complain to Him.