Have you ever had something happen in your life that illustrated the power of doubt verses belief? A time you were telling someone a simple truth, but concerning which you met with skepticism? A time when you tasted something and people doubted that you ate? I have, and I’m about to tell the story. (Note this post is a shortened, edited version of something I first wrote about for my personal blog, Travissbigidea, in Nov of 2017.)
I’m in the Army Reserve and in 2017 I and other members of my Army Reserve unit attended a training exercise that lasted a month for my unit (called JRTC) held in Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fort Polk is rather infamous among people in the US Army for not being a very pleasant place. Perhaps some of its reputation isn’t completely deserved, but I personally had a miserable time at Fort Polk.
That misery included many particular aspects of my experience, including sleeping in body armor many nights and not having proper bathroom facilities (so I had to go to the woods and dig a hole on numerous occasions) but especially touched on food. Not only had I been in a field training environment for two weeks in which we ate field rations (MREs and and “First Strike” rations), we had been poorly fed during the week prior to going out into what everyone called “the box”–the place where the training exercise took place.
US military dining isn’t usually bad, not anymore. The modern Army usually has contractors provide meals, unlike the infamously bad Army cooks of the Vietnam War and earlier. And it happens to be true that the contractors feed us very well, almost always. The food I ate while deployed to Iraq was especially good–and I realize that may sound like a joke, but it really was true. KBR (later BR) ran the military dining facilities in Iraq while I was there in 2008 and the food was actually amazingly good at times.
But in the week of getting ready to go to the field in Louisiana, we had eaten hot food provided by one of the supporting units for our JRTC exercise, the 52nd Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). Which meant that instead of the contractors who usually feed troops in the modern Army, our food was actually supplied by US Army cooks. What they prepared wasn’t very tasty, plus, the dining area was horribly mismanaged, with thousands of troops trying to pile into the same single fabric-topped building at the same time. The building was large; it sat hundreds, but the demand was in the thousands, so lines were long; sometimes food ran out before everyone ate and the hot portion of the meals usually wound up being cold. Plus there were limited places to sit, so you had to rush through the bit of food you got and the trash cans that filled up with accumulated debris from the cardboard food trays and cups and plastic eating utensils were not quickly emptied out, so piled up garbage in the back of the building became common. It was better than eating grass and dirt, but wasn’t very nice, overall.
So after coming back from the “box” we spent the night at one of the mock bases that wasn’t far outside the training area (i.e. the box). (It was called “FOB Warrior.”) We finally were in the position where we had some freedom back, even though we still were going to sleep in a barracks building that night. Some members of my Army Reserve unit were talking about ordering pizza for everyone.
But I didn’t want to pay for pizza (I’m awfully cheap at times). So I decided to trudge out to the military dining facility this base had and eat whatever food they offered. My expectations were pretty low, but food is food and its primary job is to keep you alive, so I was willing to put up with whatever they served.
I came to a building with a fabric top, not too different from the place where the 52nd BSB had poorly fed us. But to my surprise, contractors were serving the food. And the meal was steak and shrimp. With fresh salad and fruit. With cheesecake for dessert (chilled cheesecake). The building was clean, the contractors were polite; it was really good food and furthermore, was free.
I returned to the barracks we’d been put in with the good news of how surprisingly good the food was. And I immediately met with skepticism from two soldiers, a sergeant and a captain, who both reasoned with me that what I was saying could not be true.
In fact, they acted like they believed I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. To make fools of them. And as we talked, I remembered more details than what I had already mentioned. I said, “And they had mashed potatoes. And cans of soda in the corner, Cokes, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, lots of brands. And in addition to the cheesecake, they had chocolate chip cookies, really big cookies, soft, with M&Ms in them.”
“And I bet the woman serving them was a beautiful blonde who had really big breasts pouring out of her blouse,” said the sergeant with obvious snark.
“Yeah, Perry, I can’t help noticing this story keeps getting better and better,” added the captain with a laugh.
Answering the sergeant, I said, “Um, no. But the woman taking our numbers was really cute.” Turning to the captain, I added, “Yeah, I recognize this sounds incredible, but every word is true. Honest.”
The conversation went back and forth like that, never in the exact words I just used, but along those lines. In the end, I failed to convince them that the shrimp and steak meal really existed. But it did.
This struck me after the fact as being something like sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people. I had a story to tell, a true story, but my story was not believed, because it did not match things the people I told had already seen and experienced themselves. It was easier for them to think I was making it up and dismiss what I said than investigate for themselves.
It would have taken the two members of my unit a mere five minutes to walk down the road to find out if what I was saying about the meal was true or not. But they would not do it. If people won’t even walk five minutes down a road, how much more will skepticism prevent someone from giving the Gospel a chance?
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” begins Psalm 34:8, implying the God can be known by those who want to find Him. Those who seek out and test the truth about God can find not only that He is real, but furthermore, that God is good.
My experience led me to make a few observations:
- Those who disbelieve may in fact be very intelligent people and very convincing in their disbelief. The captain and sergeant I was speaking to were actually very smart guys. I wound up laughing after a while talking about the meal because I knew from their point of view what I was saying sounded ridiculous. Of course, when I laughed, they were only even more convinced I was trying to play a joke on them. I promised them I was not and in fact gave them more details—which should have helped them realize I wasn’t making things up (plus, I’m not the kind of person that plays this kind of joke), but that didn’t actually help. Again, these were not dumb guys—they were two of the smartest guys in my unit. They didn’t manage to convince me the meal I’d eaten didn’t exist, but they did have me doubting my own credibility.
- Those who have tasted the meal (or otherwise experienced something good) are in fact under no obligation to explain how it happened. At the time I was talking about the meal I ate, I could and did give more information that should have made the meal make more sense, i.e. it wasn’t the 52nd BSB serving the meal, it was civilian contractors. Plus maybe Fort Polk wanted to make the experience coming out of field training more pleasant than going into the training. But in the end, I did not know why the change in food happened. I just knew it had happened. I offered my speculation as to why the food changed to the skeptics to help them make sense of the event I was describing. And doing that was actually a good thing. However, all I really knew is what I’d witnessed myself. A meal was served; I partook. Likewise, I experience the presence of God in my life every day. My experience is real—I can attempt to explain logically the role of God in the universe to the doubters in order to attempt to make the path to “tasting” themselves easy for them. But in fact I don’t owe them that explanation. My experience requires no explanation to make it true. And I actually may not be able to explain very well, if at all. It doesn’t matter—what I have witnessed is what I have witnessed. Which leads me to the next point:
- Explanations of witnessed events are not required to believe them and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. Yes, it’s possible for people to delude themselves. Yes, it could be I imagined the meal I ate, though for me that would be more unlikely than me eating it, since I don’t regularly have delusions of eating imaginary food, no matter what the skeptics thought about the situation (though in fairness, they maintained I was trying to pull a joke on them, not that I was delusional). Yes, it could be I have imagined God’s presence in my life, but other than God, I do not in fact routinely sense people who are not around. I have every reason in fact to believe what my experience tells me, even if I cannot fully explain it. And that’s normal. Not irrational, not weird. Simply how experience ordinarily works.
- Getting a detail wrong does not invalidate the entire witness. I realized after a bit that I had misspoken—the potatoes were not mashed potatoes, they were scalloped, though served with the kind of scoop you normally see with mashed potatoes. But getting that detail wrong did not invalidate the overall tenor of what I witnessed. Likewise, a person can be mistaken about elements of their religious life and belief while still in fact witnessing something that’s true at its core. Which leads to my final point:
- Disbelief can be a choice. The guys I spoke with about the meal were bright. They knew they were bright. They weren’t willing to be suckered in with false info, which they knew could happen. They may have even noticed a contradiction in what I was saying, that I first mentioned mashed potatoes but later changed to scalloped. But in fact their skeptical reasoning did not and could not trump something that I had eaten myself. Something could happen they had not planned for, something that did not make sense to them. Reality can in fact go in directions they had previously ruled out as “not possible.” But instead of giving the idea they might be wrong a chance, they in effect chose to disbelieve by not even investigating what there was to investigate, by not even walking down the road for five minutes. By ruling out what I said in advance, by deciding in advance not to investigate, they decided to disbelieve. If that happens with something as simple as people disbelieving in a meal, it should be no surprise that some people in fact choose to disbelieve in the existence of God.
So for readers of this post, have you ever had a similar experience in which you were telling people truths that could have been easily verified, but you were treated with skepticism instead? Have you ever been told that something you knew happened, could not have happened? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.