More Perplexity, Please
The news is filled with reports of terrorist attacks, shootings, and sexual assaults. At least, this morning’s news had those topics on the home screen. Are things getting worse or am I just spending too much time at news websites? Along with these reports come numerous examples of people raising the perennial, “Where was God…?” questions. Some, not wanting to go as far as atheism, simply say, “I guess I believe in God. But I’m not a fan.” Christians respond with statements about God’s existence and sovereignty. I struggle to find my voice.
I’m tempted to despair but find too much truth and hope in the gospel. I understand why atheists land where they do but they sound rather angry and I don’t find that to be helpful. I agree with those who see God’s sovereign hand everywhere but I still find doubt within. If I had to attach a word to it, I’d say I’m perplexed.
I’m encouraged to explore this when I remember Paul’s admission in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” The context is persecution and much of the persecution Paul experienced involved suffering. But other elements of his trials were not directly related to persecution. (Getting shipwrecked and bitten by a snake come to mind).
A bit of word study highlights Paul’s effort to express the depth and variety of his being “perplexed but not in despair.” The connotation of “perplexed” can imply doubt. And it often contains strong emotion. For example, when Paul tells the Galatians of his concern for them, he sounds upset. He even invokes the image of “the pains of childbirth.” At the crescendo of his rebuke, he states, “how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”
In the 2 Cor. 4:8 phrase, he actually uses two forms of the same root for “perplexed.” A wooden translation might be, “perplexed but not over-perplexed.” I wonder if he chose to word the phrase in a perplexing way to accentuate his level of struggle. One commentator put it like this, “He was ‘bewildered…[but] never at…wits’ end’ (NEB), or (as an attempt to retain the word-play of the Greek) ‘at a loss, but never totally at a loss.’ He was hounded by the foe, but not left to his mercy. He was knocked to the ground, but not permanently ‘grounded.’”
My point is, in my refusal to yield ground to doubters, I sound less perplexed than I really am. Unwilling (and rightly so!) to say, “No. God does not exist” or “No. God’s not in control” or “I guess we should just accept God with all of his shortcomings,” I am tempted to express unwavering certainty. I think that goes too far.
In fact, sometimes I can sound cold and uncaring or, at least, out of touch with reality. There’s no conundrum in those theologically sound pronouncements. There’s no “I’m bothered by this, too” in those responses. I’m too quick to say “but,” as in, “But God’s still in control” or “But God will use this for good” or “But this, too, brings glory to God.”
I do believe God is in control and sovereign but I want to save those affirmations until after I’ve acknowledged common ground with my skeptical friends. “Yes, it’s really disturbing. I really struggle with this, too. In fact, there are times when I wrestle with God a lot.”
I want to allow my hearers to feel some surprise that I doubt. And then I want to express why I still cling to God in the midst of those doubts. Pauses help. Facial expressions of sympathy do as well. I want them to know I am indeed perplexed before I tell them why I am not over-perplexed. I want to give them the option of belief with some doubt and doubt without despair. I might even tell them I often pray, “I do believe. Help me in my unbelief.”