Faith, Doubt, and Christianity
Faith, Doubt, and Christianity
By Janey Fugate
When Mary the sister of Lazarus asked Jesus to come help her brother because he was sick and dying, he didn't come. When she sent word that Lazarus had died, he waited several more days before showing up at the place of mourning (John 11).
This is an article about the experience of doubt as a Christian. Just as Mary felt betrayed when Christ didn’t show up when she thought he should, so many of us feel frustrated and in doubt of God’s goodness, his presence in our lives, and his very existence. For different reasons, I spend a lot of my time as a Christian white knuckling my faith, trying to stay loyal to things I’ve seen that I can’t ignore, while probing places I can’t understand but believe are important.
Getting caught in the crosshairs of this tension can be tiring and guilt-inducing — especially when this tension is mixed up with the pain of life events. What does it mean to stay ‘faithful’ when I wonder why people suffer so terribly? Why can’t I feel God when I pray? Why are some people completely uninterested in and seemingly unaffected by matters of the spirit, while others are totally dialed to a different faith I hardly understand?
These are more questions than I can answer right now in my own wisdom. But I do believe I can pick up a few key threads God has used to lead me out of the woods in the past.
Stories in Scripture
One thread is the fact that the Bible is completely transparent about the problem of doubt.
Writers question God's reality and their faith not only in the context of their individual lives, but they ask it in the great landscape of an entire period of history. In the whole book of Esther, God’s name is not spoken once, His people are on the verge of succumbing to genocide, and readers are left to infer how distant Israel’s past as a people with whom God communicated directly must have felt. Esther must have wondered if she was risking her life for a God who had long since abandoned her nation.
There is also Job, drowning in the pain of loss with none but arrogant men for company. The book of Job takes a much more direct approach to questioning who God is and where He is. And there are more examples. I think of the psalmists hungering for some sign of God’s presence, and Thomas the disciple asking to see Christ’s wounds before believing his friends.
I think of King David, weaving his doubt over God’s favor and justice into songs. The writer of Ecclesiastes laments the meaninglessness of the human experience, wondering how the life’s messiness can hold any purpose.
These passages and stories all touch on doubt as an essential part of the Christian experience. It seems that faith and questioning are locked in an eternal dance of give and take. However, the chapter I want to highlight is Jeremiah 2. The prophet Jeremiah writes that after his people turned away from the Lord, He spoke to him saying, “The priests did not ask ‘where is the Lord?’” In other words, the priests in the prophet’s time stopped asking hard questions of God. They grew lazy.
In this passage, God speaks to the nation of Israel once again after they have traded glory for idols, traded their heritage for new gods. In this place, this prophet seems to imply that the cause for turning away from God’s laws wasn’t necessarily doubt or absence, but that they grew lazy in their pursuit of truth. He accuses the priests of complacency. They stopped taking their troubles and questions before the Lord. They were not diligent in waiting for His response in the silence.
And God said, “Those who deal with the law did not know me” (Jeremiah 2:9). The priests, holy men set apart to lead the nation of Israel, did not know Him.
This is where I pause. If God’s own people, the men and women for whom God freed from centuries of slavery and led with a column of cloud and fire, allowed this truth to seep out of them again and again, how can we be expected to maintain such a faith? His priests couldn't keep the reality of God before them, or they chose not to. But here, God rebukes them not for asking hard questions, but for not seeking Him when they wanted to turn to idols.
When I read this passage, I think that God does not ask his people to accept his Gospel, and then disengage from all intellectual thought. He does not ask us to believe blindly; He does not even ask us to treat our faith in Jesus Christ like something static, unshakeable, and an end. But what about Jesus’ admonishment to have the faith of a child? Well, don’t children ask the simplest, most difficult questions of their parents?
The unavoidable thing about faith is that we cannot prove God or Jesus or the reality of our spiritual experience. If we could prove or disprove their existence then the question would have been settled a long time ago. To know empirically, mentally, scientifically, emotional and intellectually all at once is not possible, in my opinion.
I think this is where many Christians turn away, as seeking the Lord becomes tiresome when He isn’t so emotionally or dramatically intervening in our lives. I can only say that the trail of bread crumbs I’ve followed, and that is truly the metaphor I use to describe it, has shown me enough to plod on, enough I cannot ignore and still feel honest with myself. I can only fall back on the reality that His still small voice, his mysterious workings, make me feel most alive. This is true even at the end of a string of poor decisions and disappointments, even when things are going so well I feel I could almost do without God.
If the trail of crumbs in your life is not leading you to the same conclusion right now, I think that is really okay. However, I think that the only place to begin finding Him again is utter honesty with oneself and with God, and the discipline of humility in the face of big questions.
The Problem with Pain
But there is another issue bound up in the pursuit of truth as a Christian, and that is pain. About a year ago, I was listening to a podcast about Tim Keller. Called Finding God, it turned out to be an exploration of the psalmist’s experience feeling forsaken by God and wondering why he no longer feels joy in the house of worship. In the podcast, Keller described how the phenomenon of spiritual doubt is something that every Christian will undergo at some point in his or her walk with God, and that nearly no one prepares you for beforehand.
What stood out to me the most about his analysis of this part of our walk is why some people enter into that phase of doubt and never find their hope in Christ’s story again. Maybe they fall into complacency about the big questions, maybe they find themselves so genuinely entangled in the pursuit of understanding and knowledge that they can’t see Christ’s story the same way they once did. They can’t accept it as the ultimate truth. In many cases, people are left with deep pain and maybe resentment associated with Christianity that they never move out of. That frustration is a wall maybe not broken down in their lifetime.
Keller spoke about how Christians are most afraid to talk to other Christians about their questions and anxieties about their changing spiritual life. They expect to hear responses like, “You obviously need to read the Bible more” or “You just need to pray more and ask God to help you.” Frustrating responses when someone hasn’t really stopped doing these things, when they perhaps haven't done anything wrong.
This is a great failing of the church, and of people who let fear govern their relationship with God or with religion. When people move into a space of questioning and exploration, this can be one of the darkest and most critical times in a person’s life. After all,
In stories like the parable of the lost coin, and all throughout the Bible, we see God seeking the lost, we see the lost seeking after God. This is so central to the Christian faith. The search for truth is the deepest and the most important part of our identity. Trusting God to meet us in the maze is hard. This is where the story of Mary and Lazarus comes back. Mary ran to Jesus and told him how he hurt her, she grieved for how he disappointed her. Jesus in turn told her to take her to Lazarus, to very root of her pain. Naming that place was the first step toward healing.
There is no conclusion! I don’t know why I have had such a hard time writing this post. I’ve come back to it a dozen times and gotten nowhere. I feel pressure to write for other people, and usually when I write in the first person I write just for myself. When thinking about this tension between faith and doubt, I don’t have a way to tie it up and leave it shining and neat on the reader’s front porch. It’s more like a box of little items overturned and left out in the garage for people to pick up one by one and contemplate. I even fear writing too much about God and Jesus, ironically. Will non-Christians roll their eyes and say, “She is still just a conservative Christian deep down after all, whatever is swirling around on the surface is an act.” Or will people genuinely seeking to challenge their faith and learn say, “she hasn’t gone deep enough?”
Well, I can only return the idea of humility and honesty. I think Jesus, no matter what your thoughts are about him as a historical figure, exemplified this approach so beautifully in the Gospel.