In December I was interviewed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who devotes an annual Christmas column to a conversation with a believing Christian. Kristof asked honest questions about such issues as miracles, failures of the church, and the reliability of the Bible. Within two days, 830 Times readers posted comments, and taken together they offer a snapshot summary of the skeptical culture we live in. How can any sane person defend medieval texts! The church does far more harm than good. If God exists, why doesn’t that God do something about the 15,000 children who died today?
Reading through these overwhelmingly negative comments gave me a stark reminder of the modern obstacles to belief. Around the same time, polls from the Pew Research Center confirmed that millennials are leaving the church in droves. The trend brought to mind an old proverb on the decline of faith over generations: “The grandfather believes, the father doubts, the son denies. The grandfather prays in Hebrew, the father reads the prayers in English, the son does not pray at all.”
Although Christianity is booming in some parts of the world, in the U.S. and Europe faith has been on a steady decline. Our ancestors experienced times of doubt while continuing to practice their faith. In contrast, many moderns live in a sea of doubt, and find faith incomprehensible, or at least outmoded.
Doubt has a stubborn power, as the Bible itself reveals. During their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites had clear proofs of God: a pillar of fire leading them, daily provisions of manna, God’s own presence with Moses on Mt. Sinai and in the Tent of Meeting. Yet we look on that time as an example of unfaithfulness. The very people liberated from slavery by the Ten Plagues, who had manna digesting in their stomachs, whined about missing the pleasures of Egypt and fashioned pagan idols to worship.
John the Baptist, who had seen the Spirit descend like a dove and had heard God’s own voice of approval at Jesus’ baptism, later sat forlorn in a prison and sent a messenger to ask if Jesus was really the promised one. You might think that miracles would silence doubts about Jesus’ identity. Quite the contrary. The religious authorities, far from finding their faith stirred by miracles, instead tried to suppress them. They put a man healed of blindness on trial, and scolded Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
Miracles upset the comfortable status quo. When Jesus raised Lazarus, the religious authorities determined to kill Jesus: “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
And even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some of his disciples could not bring themselves to believe, until Jesus made a personal appearance. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus told Thomas, one of the holdouts; “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Out of my own experience with doubt, I have reached the following conclusions:
1. Doubt is a normal part of the human condition.
We are, after all, material beings relating to an invisible God who often seems silent, and deaf to our cries. Instinctively we want God to micro-manage life on earth, by constantly performing miracles that alter the laws of nature. The Bible describes such events, but as unusual pulses of God’s activity, followed by long years of what may seem like inattention.
In 1527, Martin Luther, that bulwark of faith who wrote the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” recorded, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” He later reflected, “the content of the depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me.”
I have yet to find a single argument against God from the New Atheists—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins—that is not included in the Bible, in such books as Lamentations, Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Ecclesiastes. I respect a God who not only acknowledges our doubts but also gives us the very words to express them.
God has no need to “prove himself” by impressing us with supernatural reality. As spirit, perhaps God instead wants us to work on the spiritual disciplines—prayer, silence, contemplation, fasting, study, Sabbath—that connect us to a nonmaterial reality, God’s native environment. Jesus refused to perform miracles on demand, to dazzle onlookers. Miracles attract fans, whereas he sought disciples with faith tough enough to withstand doubt and disappointment.
God “remembers that we are dust,” wrote the psalmist. God must understand that on a broken planet invaded by evil, occasions will arise when for us puny humans nothing makes sense and we feel unloved and abandoned. Surely Jesus understands, for from the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
2. A sense of aloneness feeds doubt.
Jesus uttered that cry from the cross after his nation had turned against him and his closest disciples had melted away in the darkness.
For me, doubt works in an inward-curving spiral, much like self-pity. I begin with a complaint against the church, or confusion about some doctrine, and end up in a slough of despond. I see only the contradictions, the negatives, the darkness. At such times I need a doubt companion, a compassionate listener who does not judge but will walk beside me in strength.
Ideally, the church should supply these companions, yet local churches often react to doubters with suspicion and judgment. More commonly, a trusted small group, or even a single friend can provide what we desperately need: someone unthreatened by doubt who rewards rather than punishes honesty and who can gently bring light into darkness.
In her poem “Exodus,” Annie Dwyer writes:
I surround myself with belief,
The way the Blind surround themselves
With those who can see.
As a writer, I tend to lean on literary companions who have helped form my faith: stalwarts such as Augustine, Pascal, C. S. Lewis, the ancient poets John Donne and George Herbert, and the modern ones W. H. Auden and Gerard Manley Hopkins. During times of doubt I read their words again and pray for God to give me a similar faith, one as resilient as my doubts.
3. Doubt and faith coexist. Indeed, certainty, not doubt, is faith’s opposite.
The struggle between doubt and faith often leads to spiritual growth. John Drummond points out that Jesus consistently made a distinction between doubt and unbelief. “Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.”
When wallowing in doubt, I face a choice. I can either assume a “victimization” attitude about this messed-up world, blaming God for its defects—or somehow, despite my doubts, actively contribute to the solution.
I have found that nothing quiets doubts so well as an encounter with transformed lives, and the best way to see transformed lives is to get involved with a ministry that serves the truly needy. God set in motion a plan in which we, Jesus’ followers, are invited into a divine partnership to bring peace and comfort and love to a planet full of strife and pain and division. I dare not let doubt paralyze my participation in that plan.
Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa of Calcutta made the news again when a book recording her doubts was published, against her wishes. In it, she spoke of the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she had undergone. “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.” Amazingly, apart from a few brief remissions she lived in this state of darkness for sixty years, the entire time she was serving the poor and dying.
Some believers were shocked by her doubts, while others saw them as the “dark night of the soul” common to saints who, like the military’s special forces, take on extreme tasks. I was most struck by the way Mother Teresa conducted her life despite her doubts. She refused to succumb, and in the process became a shining example of faith. As the letters to her confessors make clear, she was sustained by loyal doubt companions.
Jesus had the opportunity to subdue doubts for all time. He could have appeared with a choir of angels on Pilate’s porch the Monday after his resurrection and triumphantly declared, “I’m back!” Or, he could have staged a spectacular display before thousands in the Roman Forum. Instead, he limited his appearances to small groups of people who had already demonstrated some faith in him—which tells me something about the kind of uncoerced faith that God values.
In one of those small gatherings, the apostle who would earn the nickname “doubting Thomas” confronted Jesus. I love that scene, for two reasons. First, it shows the gentle way Jesus treated a doubter, when he had a perfect chance to scold him or pile on the guilt. Listen to Jesus’ approach: What proof do you need, Thomas? Want to touch my wounds? Shall I eat something for you?
Second, I note the poignant fact that the other disciples, who had already encountered the risen Jesus, included Thomas in their midst. To them, Thomas was a heretic: he defiantly refused to believe in the Resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Even so, they welcomed him to join them behind closed doors. Had they not, Thomas may never have met the resurrected Jesus.
Perhaps that gives a model for how the church should handle doubters now. Can we provide a safe, welcoming place for those who need more light?