I’m a Christian, and I really struggle with doubt. I wish I could tell you that my faith has never been jeopardized. I wish I could say “psh! Of course I don’t ever doubt the Bible is true, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that God is real.” But I can’t. Doubt is a major part of my Christian journey- some days more than others. But it’s always lurking, always present.
Though I’m not the only Christian who struggles with doubt, the path of questions can sometimes get lonely. Doubt shouldn’t be glorified in the Church but we lose something when we hide our struggles from each other. For if we believe that faith is the foundation of our Christian identity, then it’s worth considering that Christians are defined, not by the things we know, but rather by the questions we ask.
Thus, I’d like to share my three greatest, most consistent, and prevalent doubts and how my faith- the Christian faith- addresses them:
1. Sometimes I doubt that God is good.
All it takes is watching the evening news: ISIS is beheading children in the Middle East; the international sex trade continues to abduct, rape and sell thousands into prostitution. Elsewhere tornados rip through entire towns and flooding causes a mudslide that wipes out a village. Later I sit and cry with a friend who just lost a parent to cancer.
So it seems necessary to ask the question: with all this evil taking place under his watch…how can God be good?
Asking this question necessitates a concrete definition of what ‘good’ really means. And we have only to look around us and see that ‘good’ is an obscure concept, at best. For instance, I’m currently on a diet. Ergo, I don’t always eat as much as or whatever I’d like; instead of cheesecake, it’s steamed vegetables, which definitely don’t taste as good. And yet my doctor would say that dieting is good.
It’s a trite example but illustrates the question: what is good? Does an end result of goodness justify the temporary lack thereof? If so, could this same logic be raised to a cosmic level?
Many people do just that: they claim that God’s ways are mysterious, everything is within his will, and (somehow, eventually) all the evils of this life will be atoned and the sufferings of the world redeemed.
Is such thinking a cop-out? Perhaps. One of the most memorable scenes in Fyordor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a dialogue between two brothers over this same question. The older brother decides the eternal redemption of all humanity could not possibly be worth the suffering of just one child, that nothing God might do could justify or redeem all the evils of the world.
There’s a third way to look at this, one that’s grounded in the thinking of an early church father Irenaeus. Under this proposition, love requires suffering. For love is too rich, too true, too real, not to know the evil it has overcome. God’s choice in creation was a choice to create humans capable of love- which meant we were also created with an inevitable ability to suffer. Is this a cruel thing? Dostoevky’s character would probably think so. But I married my wife knowing that, in doing so, I opened myself to the possibility of unthinkable pain should she ever die. It’s a terrifying consideration. But love is worth it.
Along these lines, it’s worth suggesting that what I consider ‘good’ usually equates to a false sense of mortal security: “safety”- for lack of a better word. Whereas true goodness- love lived out- is actually something much richer and more profound than mere safety or comfort. CS Lewis aids this assertion with his analogous description of God in The Chronicles of Narnia:
“Course he isn’t safe…but he is good. He’s the King, I tell you.
2. Sometimes I doubt my own salvation.
Sure I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve only cheated once (or twice), and I tithe (about) 10%. Plus I’ve prayed- numerous times- for God to forgive me of all my sins. But when the rubber hits the road, can I really be sure that I’ll be saved?
I’m not the first to have such a concern. The eighty-first question of Westminster Catechism asks: “Are all true believers at all times assured that they shall be saved?” The answer? No, certainly not. Instead, the catechism states, true believers are prone to: “…sins, temptations and manifold distempers.”
Yea- me neither. But what I think this means is that I’m not the only one who falls into pits of despair, worried that some skeleton in my closet that will label me ‘damned.’ It means I’m not the only one who looks around in church quietly wondering “am I sure this is the right denomination? What if God only saves the Baptists?”
In this, I find comfort in Jesus’ Parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). It’s the Catch-22 of grace: if you think you should be saved you’re screwed; but if you think God ought never spare you, then he’ll look upon your humility with mercy.
In other words, grace is a terribly beautiful thing. And I struggle with it every day.
3. Sometimes I doubt that God even exists.
If faith is a rope bridge over an abyss called ‘atheism’ then I’m dangling somewhere in the middle, flailing for a better grip. While I take these doubts seriously, I also find great comfort and truth in Karl Barth’s words on the matter:
“One may, of course, be confused and one may doubt; but whoever once believes…may take comfort of the fact that they are being upheld. Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that they ought not to take their own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have faith as a grain of a mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”
In other words: faith is not something I do; it is not an action I complete. Rather, faith is the realization that I’ve been caught up in grace. If I realize this one day but am unable to reckon with it the next, it doesn’t change my state or God’s provision. Faith is not a rope bridge over an abyss- it’s a helicopter that’s carrying us above the Grand Canyon. It’s terrifyingly beautiful. But, in grace, we’re safe and sound.
Which is where I find myself, more days than not: caught up in grace. I have doubts. But at the end of the day they can’t oust the grace that’s been poured out.
It makes sense, then, that my favorite passage in the Bible is a five-word entreaty. Because these simple words describe my spiritual journey better than all the creeds and church doctrines ever could. They are beautifully comforting. And every trial of doubt I experience, ends with them as my prayer:
“I believe; help my unbelief!”