Faith, Doubt, and the Game of Scrabble

By Mark Russell


Over the Christmas holiday, my wife and I enjoy staying in with family

and playing board games all day long.  We play all sorts of games.  There

are the six-hour-long and intensely rule-laden board games and the quick,

20 minute Uno sort of games.  This article will highlight how 20 seconds out of a Scrabble game taught me a fundamental truth about coming to know whether something is true.  How is doubt overcome?


Risky Scrabble
On the Saturday afternoon following Christmas, members of my family and I were playing Scrabble when the following scene went down.  My brother believed he had a high-scoring word in his hand, and he wanted to put it down on the table.  However he was not sure it was a real word.  (Before the game began, we all agreed which dictionary we’d use to settle disputes over word challenges.) Now, if he lost on a challenge he’d have to forfeit his turn – it’s a very costly mistake for him, and we are free to challenge at no cost.  So, instead of running the risk of putting his word down, he tried to poll the other players seated around the game board on whether we’d accept his potential word.  In other words, he tried to hedge his risk by first gathering a consensus from us.  Now, being the cutthroat competitors we were, we didn’t stand for such charades and we assumed a default skepticism towards his word.  He was forced to put the word down and see what would happen if we challenged it, or play a safer word.  It didn’t cost us anything to be skeptical of his word, but it cost him potentially an entire turn if he was wrong.  He had to personally commit to his word, staking his turn on it in an act of trust, before coming to know whether it was a word.

Commitment before knowing
To exercise trust in something or someone, you have to first personally commit in order to know.  St. Augustine is famous for saying, “Credo ut intelligam” which means “I believe so that I may understand”, St. Anselm after him said “fides quarens intellectum” (Faith seeking understanding) Commitment always comes before knowing.  Here are two examples from life: (1) To know if a hypothesis is correct, an academic must stake his personal career and reputation by publishing his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.  He cannot do it any other way, he must put his name and reputation behind his research. He gathers his facts, interprets them, and then pledges himself personally to what is yet to be known.  He is vindicated when his hypothesis is accepted as a reproducible theory and he’s shamed when it turns out to be wrong.  He personally commits to his hypothesis in order to know if it is true.  (2)  A man who is dating a young woman does not first ask a young woman to marry him contingent on a 30-40 year trial period of her successfully baking of an Apple Cake.  He first marries her in order to know her.  He cannot provisionally test-drive her for 30 years and then commit to her.  He must do the risky thing of proposing marriage in order to open a future of real knowing.

As my brother hesitated to put down his tiles I told him, “Belief entails commitment, put the letters down and you will know if it’s a word”. (Well, maybe I didn’t say it exactly like that!) My brother had to first personally commit to that what is not yet known in order to truly know.  So you see, the axiom “Dare to doubt” turns out to be quite cowardly.  Doubting is easy.  Committing is hard and risky.   Proof is always found in justification not falsification.

It’s neither a blind faith nor a “faith to believe”
This is how all faith operates.  Faith is never “blind”, but it always takes an object.  The robustness of one’s faith is a function of the object of the faith.  In other words, your faith is only as good as the object in which you put it.  The academic’s faith is only as good as his hypothesis, and the young suitor’s faith is only as good as the character of the woman he wishes to marry.  In both cases, personal commitment must come before knowledge.  For the Christian the special act of faith consists in receiving Christ and resting on Him as He is presented in the gospel…Strictly speaking, it is not the act of faith as such, but rather that which is received by faith[1]  By faith – it’s a transitive verb!  We faith into Christ, who is our salvation.

Lesslie Newbigin, an Anglican Missionary to India, in his book Proper Confidence relates the following story to illustrate this.  He says that as you are walking by a street corner and observe new construction occurring, you don’t know immediately what is being built.  It could be a church or an office or a school or a great many other buildings.  At that point, there are only two ways to know what is being built.  First, you can either wait to see the finished product.  This could take a very long time, and you may die before it’s finished.  Second, you could ask the architect.  But if you ask the architect, you will have to trust him, and only Christianity says that the Architect revealed himself and his plans to us through his Word.

Christ, the word worthy of our trust
The Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as the Eternal Word.  On the Christian view of truth, God came into the world as a person, and he is described in the Bible as eternal truth.  But he’s not an abstract idea or force to be studied; he is a human person capable of relationship.  As such, to personally and relationally know Jesus we must commit to him.  He’s not a set of propositions, he is a person.  Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian-British polymath, spoke about knowing this way, “…into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this is no mere imperfection but a vital component of the knowledge.”  It’s the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit causes us to embrace Christ as he is presented to us in the Gospel.  We get personal knowledge of Christ as we rely, trust, believe, and obey[2] him.  Jesus Christ is the only Word which is worthy of all our trust.



[1] (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p 506).

[2] Knowledge and Obedience have a very close relationship in the Scriptures.  Knowledge of God produces obedience (John 14:15, 21; 17:26), and Obedience leads to the knowledge of God (John 7:17, Ephesians 3:17-19, 2 Tim. 2:25-26

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