October 23, 2017

From the Classic iMonk Archives (2002): I Have My Doubts

Question MarkNot a piece on atheism, but an honest recounting of doubt and faith in my life. From 2002.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”- Mark 9:24

Let’s start with bugs.

Bugs have always….well…bugged me. They bite me. Wasps hate me. Mosquitoes swarm around me. Gnats head for my ears and eyes like some bad remake of “The Birds.” There are a thousand varieties of bugs that all seem dedicated to devouring me. When I was a kid, my friends called me “bug eyes” because of this curse. Now, I can go for a walk and look up to see a swarm of bugs like a cloud over my head.

Is this right? I mean, even if there is a curse on creation, didn’t mosquitoes always drink blood? Aren’t they designed that way? So why would God make the little bloodsuckers? Why make wasps that sting? Why make me in such a way that bugs want to appropriate my body for their own purposes? Sure, the wonders of biology speak of intelligent design, but wasn’t there some way to do this to the glory of God without eating, stinging and killing me?

It’s one of those thoughts that hit me a few dozen times a day. One of those thoughts that make me wonder if God is real, or if I am a fool to believe that God created and runs this universe of mosquitoes and gnats.

Ever think about forever? I hear the word all the time, but when I get down to thinking about it, it grinds my pea brain to a halt. An atheist friend once asked me if a person would want to do anything forever. No matter what it happened to be or how pleasant the experience. I’ve gotta admit, heaven seems like a wonderful alternative to earth, but every time someone says we will be “praising the Lord forever,” I get a little sullen. I’m sure to get bored.

It makes me stop and wonder if Freud was right. Do we make it all up to make ourselves feel better?

My daughter just got her driver’s license. I now go to bed, wake up and spend all day worrying that she will die in an accident. (I’m just being blunt here. Sorry if I am shocking you.) I worry about that because I know people–lots of good, Christian people–who have suffered such a loss. Most of them hold on to their faith and make it through–somehow. It’s a miracle to me. I can’t understand it because I suspect such a loss would gut me beyond ever being able to stand up and say I believe in God. My best scenario would be to become like C.S. Lewis, who at one point said his wife’s dying with cancer made him believe God was a vile, cosmic monster who no moral person could trust.

If God won’t answer my constant prayers for my daughter’s safety, why am I praying them? What kind of God asks me to trust him, and then is, in the matter of my daughter’s safety, very untrustworthy? Is it really easier to believe in such a God, or as Anthony Flew says, in no God at all?

One more. When I think of how often God has been real to me; how often I’ve sensed His reality in other people; how often I’ve seen direct and specific answers to prayer; how often I’ve had a no-questions-asked assurance that God is my Father, the Bible is true and Jesus Christ is Lord, I find myself wondering if it’s all true, or am I just pretending, faking and putting on an act? My honest Christian experience is pretty meager, and the experience I have that goes beyond all doubt to the “I just know it’s true” category is even slimmer.

I have my doubts. About it all. God. Jesus. Life after death. Heaven. The Bible. Prayer. Miracles. Morality. Everything.

“But you are a pastor. A Christian leader.” That’s right, and I am an encyclopedia of doubts. Sometimes it scares me to death.

I’m terrified by the possibility that I might have wasted my entire life on the proposition that Christianity was true, when in fact it wasn’t even close. I wonder if I have been mentally honest with myself or with others, or have I compromised my own integrity in order to collect a paycheck and have a roof over my head? Have I acted as if the case for faith was clear when it was a muddled mess in my own mind?

What’s really frightening is that these doubts persist and get stronger the longer I live. They aren’t childish doubts; they are serious, grown-up fears. I don’t have the kind of faith that looks forward to death. The prospect terrifies me, sometimes to the point I am afraid to close my eyes at night. I have more questions about the Bible and Christianity than ever, even as I am more skilled at giving answers to the questions of others. I can proclaim the truth with zeal and fervor, but I can be riddled with doubts at the same time.

When I meet Christians whose Christian experience is apparently so full of divine revelation and miraculous evidence that they are beyond doubts, I am tempted to either resent them or conclude that they are fakes or simpletons. The power of self-delusion in the face of a Godless, meaningless life is undeniable. If there is no God, can I really blame someone for “taking the pill” to remain in his unquestioning certainties?

There is sometimes nothing worse than being able to comprehend both all my doubts and all the accepted, expected answers. It tears at the soul, and declares war on the mind. I feel remarkably alone in my moments of doubt, and wonder, “Do other Christians feel this yawning abyss of doubt, or am I just a bad Christian?”

My doubts are bad enough that I have to make frequent daily reexamination of the very basics of my own faith. These aren’t matters that were resolved in a conversation somewhere back in college and have never visited me again. Oh, no. Almost daily I travel back down some of these well-worn paths. Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt has given me many opportunities to ask myself why I am a Christian, and to appreciate those who chose not to believe.

These doubts have made me respect my honest, unbelieving friends. To many of them, it isn’t so much the content of Christianity that is ridiculous. It’s the idea that Christians are so certain; so doubtless. They find it untenable that anyone could bury their own doubts so deep that you are as certain as Christians appear to be. Our television and radio preachers, our musicians and booksellers, the glowing testimonial at church, the zealous fanatic at the break table at work–they all say that Christians no longer have the doubts and questions of other people. Only certainties. And for many thoughtful unbelievers, that appears to be lying or delusion, and they would prefer to avoid both.

So do I. I profoundly dislike the unspoken requirement among Christians that we either bury all our doubts out in back of the church, or we restrict them to a list of specific religious questions that can be handled in polite conversations dispensing tidy, palatable answers. Mega-doubts. Nightmarish doubts. “I’m wasting my whole life” doubts are signs one may not be a Christian, and you’ve just made it to the prayer list.

Martin Luther was one of the few Christians who honestly experienced and conveyed what it was like to live in honest suspension between one’s worst doubts and fears, and the promises of God in the Gospel. In his book Luther: Man Between God and Death, Harvard professor Richard Marius says of Luther’s theology,

In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, and God does not reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Weak human nature will not let us believe in the promises of God with a confidence that purges from the soul the anguish of fear and unbelief, the Anfechtungen… Therefore, in Luther’s discovery of justification the Christian was liberated from the self-imposed requirement to present a perfect mental attitude to God, to confuse belief with knowledge, faith with the direct intuition of an observed world. Whereas in the earlier Luther the fear of death was the ultimate form of unbelief, the Luther who discovered justification by faith understood that no matter how great our faith, it cannot be strong enough to stave off terror before death.

It is interesting that many skeptics fault Luther for being, well….frankly, nuts. But I believe Luther was courageous enough to see and feel the verities of a universe without God and a universe where sinners were under the judgment of a Holy God. With such options on the table, it is hard to be coolly academic about reality. Only in justification by faith through Christ did Luther find a spirituality that contained room for both his damning doubts and his liberating experience of grace.

Such a spirituality is the only option for an honest Christian. As Luther suggests, there is no escape from human nature, and therefore no escape from the kinds of doubts that can vacate the universe of God’s presence. It is precisely this spirituality that I find in the Bible, and it is a significant discovery.

The early chapters of Genesis make it clear that sin created a profound division between God and human beings. Not just an interruption in communication, but a universe-sized separation.. There is great evidence that this abyss creates a situation where human beings may reasonably, sensibly feel that God is absent, or that there is no God. This is not because of an absence of evidence for God’s existence, or because God has abandoned the world, but because human experience is fundamentally changed and we are blinded to the resident glory of God in the universe and within our lives.

We see this most clearly with Job, whose tragedies bring him into a disparate experience of being certain of God and his justice, and also being overwhelmed with the absence of God. The ringing cry of many Biblical sufferers is “Where is God?” The skeptic says “There is no God.” Israel experiences judgment and announces that “God has forsaken us.” It is not uncommon or strange for doubts to overwhelm faith, or for life to take on the appearance of a universe without God. The Bible attributes this to who we are as fallen persons, and seems to accept it as part of the fabric of Christian spirituality. Even Jesus, in his human nature, knew what it was for pain to bring him to the point of saying, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

Justification does leave us as people who are still fully human, and the more honestly human we are, the more aware of our doubts we may be. The question may become, “Do I banish my doubts, call them the devil and refuse to examine them, or do I accept my doubts as part of the paradox of my human experience, and realize that faith may exist right alongside such feelings and questions, as Mark 9:24 suggests?”

This is my own experience. I cannot remove my doubts, but I cannot erase my faith. At every level, these two experiences exist together, convincing me that I am, indeed and exactly, the kind of contradiction that Luther believed all Christians were at the center: both righteous and sinful simultaneously. (Simul justus et peccator.) While these two experiences are at war over the most basic assumptions of my life, they actually blend together into a single experience that is what one person called “the awesomeness of being human.”

At a fundamental level, I cannot get past the fact that the universe exists, and it is completely unnecessary. That there is something rather than nothing overwhelms my doubts daily. No matter how many times the brevity and meaninglessness of human life plunges me into despair, I look at the world around me, at the Hubble photos, at the beauty of the mountains or of my children, and cannot explain why these things should exist, could exist, or have any possibility of existing if some being did not call all this into existence, and sustain this universe out of pure pleasure. It is not the God of deism or of Islam or Aristotle that explains this. It is the God of Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. For him. There is no other explanation, no matter how contrary it all seems to the life I may experience today.

My doubts exist alongside my appetite for God. I believe no one has put forward a more cogent and persuasive critique of theism than Sigmund Freud. Freud’s contention that human beings create a God in the sky out of their longings for a perfect father and their fear of death has the virtue of common sense and realism. As a Christian, I do not doubt that vast tracts of human religiosity can be explained by Freud’s analysis. Yet, Freud is wrong. The Biblical God is not wishful thinking, but the center of the spiritual “appetite” of human beings. Billions of human beings would prefer no God exist. Billions of human beings would like to make God in the image of Santa or Oprah. Yet, Christianity, Judaism (and even Islam) persistently put forward a God who is terrifying to who we are. A just, holy God of judgment. A God of heaven and hell. Not the God of the wishful thinkers, but the God who is a consuming fire.

And it is this God that we long to know. This God who repulses us and damns us. This God who demands the purity of thought and action. A God who demands that we love Him with all that we are and love our fellow persons as His creations. It is this God that we long to know in intimacy. It is this God we long to be accepted by, to trust and to praise. This God is the source of all the notions of beauty, truth and goodness that we find in this universe. C.S. Lewis said that appetite could not prove the existence of food, but I don’t think that speaks for the experience of the starving person.

I cannot explain my longing to know God. Talking about it is like undressing in front a crowd. I am not embarrassed that I avoid the topic. But I know to what extent it is a part of my deepest identity. As Augustine said, I have no doubt that I was made for God and my heart is restless till I find my rest in Him. I am persuaded that my longing for human happiness is the echo of my creation in the image of God. I believe my doubts are what it means to be told I cannot go back to Eden, but must go forward to the New Jerusalem.

My doubts about the Bible are profound, but my faith in the Bible is persistent. I know all the apologetic schemes for “proving” the Bible. They persuade me a bit here and there, but they fall far short of answering my worst doubts about whether a God that exists has communicated to me in words that I can understand and depend on. What ultimately persuades me that the Bible is, indeed, such a communication are two things. First, the truthfulness of the Bible in describing who and what I am is convincing. There is the glory of being made in the image of God contrasted with the rebellion and evil of my depravity. The shadow and the light within our souls. The Christian view of humanity is the only one that makes sense of my experience. The longer I live, the more the scriptures describe me accurately. This feeds my faith that scripture is also describing what I cannot see behind me and ahead of me in the journey of life. The Bible is not, as a whole, a book that would be created by persons like me. It is simply too truthful. It is not a fairy tale or a myth. It is autobiography of the most surprising kind.

Ultimately, I am persuaded of the truth of the Bible by its presentation of Jesus. I cannot explain or unpack this reasoning, for it comes down to an encounter with a person. Those who are Christians know well what I mean. You know what it is like to see no evidence of God in the world, in the church or in the mangled mess of your own heart, yet to be drawn powerfully after the Jesus of the scriptures. You know what it is like for Christians to act completely contrary to anything resembling Jesus, and to be sickened by their mistreatment of people in the name of God, yet to know that you cannot abandon Jesus himself as flawed, because you know the resemblance between Jesus and those who claim to follow Him is superficial at best.

The portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels towers above the paltry whinings of modernists, the thrown pebbles of critics and the repeated foibles of a scandalous church. Jesus is not the creation of any person or any tradition. He alone, of all the versions of a human soul, radiates the undoubtable evidence of “God with us” that other spiritual leaders only hint at. Jesus alone defies categorization and trivialization. He towers over history, culture and the human heart. This is no portrait of human longing or an exercise in wishful thinking about what we might become. This Jesus is, as John said, the Word made flesh.

I am persuaded that something happened that Christians call the resurrection, an event so galvanizing and transforming that its aftershocks continue to reverberate across history. Unlike any other person on planet earth, Jesus exerts a continuing and growing influence over individual human lives. The transforming, liberating, revolutionary power of Jesus breaks into the mundane of human history in a way that cannot be compared to Buddha or Mohammad’s insights into reality or inspirational example. Throughout the world, the Spirit of Jesus creates life and hope in a world where philosophy and technology have explained all the questions and made irrelevant all the answers.

There is simply no one like Jesus. And all the lofty things that might be said about him cannot begin to explain why one doubting soul will repeatedly choose to place his life’s hope of meaning in a person that lived two thousand years ago; a person who communicates unconditional love through his brutal death on a cross. Jesus is, ultimately, a mystery. We can point to him, and point to his cross, but each person must walk to that cross alone and choose whether this is a meaningless, pointless execution, or God saving the very world that despises Him.

What I believe Luther recovered was the stunning truth that God saves doubters who believe. Jesus chides Peter for doubting when he sinks on the sea, but the scripture also tells us at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. I have returned to this verse many times and thought about the meaning of its inclusion in the Gospel. Men who had seen miracles. Men who had spent days, even years, with Jesus. Men who had been with the resurrected Christ. Men who had personally experienced the power of God in their own hands and words.

These men doubted, even in the presence of the resurrected Christ; and these men believed and died for their faith, having turned the world upside down. Nothing could banish, once and for all, from their experience the possibility that they were wrong and that it all meant nothing but delusion and deception. For this Jesus did not condemn them, but commissioned them to be His Church, and to preach the announcement of the Kingdom to the world. I doubt if they ever stopped doubting. I also am quite sure they never stopped believing.

On that point, I return to a promise that belief itself, in this barren world of ours, is a miracle of God’s own creation. The seed of faith is planted by the very God that we reject in our disbelief. This is part of His gracious dealings with those He has made for Himself, and is surely among the greatest mysteries. Yet, for those who believe–and still doubt–it contains a hope. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6) If faith is the work of God in the life of those who believe, it exists and triumphs, in spite of the doubts that continue throughout our human journey.

Because of this, we can be honest about our doubts and be grateful and unashamed of our faith. Perhaps among Christians who are unafraid to say that they sometimes tremble in uncertainty, there will grow a more beautiful and authentic faith. Let the wheat and tares grow together, Jesus said, until the day of judgment. So our belief and our worst fears grow together, until the time when God Himself harvests the faith that He has planted.

Comments

  1. Just for Quix says:

    Beautiful interpretation on the Wheat and Tares, iM. I grew up accepting that doubt was a bad thing, and finally gave up on belief. Maybe it was God’s grace that I still had an intellectual attraction to theology, philosophy and the like for over 10 years as a waffling Agnostic-Deist.

    Then at a time my life was broken about two years ago I experienced an unexpected rebirth of my heart, a new conviction for my humanity, and a new ray of hope after a dark night of the soul. I didn’t find certainty I longed for all those years, though. I still savor the sharpening candor of atheists, agnostics, skeptics and unbelievers in my life. But I also savor a community of believers because — despite its shortcomings — I have found faith in God beyond religiousity. I try to grow more patient in understanding of what “relationship with God” can mean. Even though some things still make me angry, sad and doubtful toward God I still choose to trust and believe because I have also tasted Grace and goodness in a way that feels so irrational yet meaningful. I was broken and needy. How do I not know this is all emotional wantingness? I don’t. But I know I disliked God and my heart has changed. And somehow, He touched my soul and didn’t condemn the doubts I still live with.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Maybe you needed those 10 years as a waffling Agnostic-Deist to give you perspective. A viewpoint from the outside, without the blind spots of those who stay on the inside.

      For those who stay on the inside (what IMonk calls above “The Christians that are so Certain, so Doubtless”) have no depth., only a coat of paint. Theirs is the doubtless certainty of doubleplusduckspeak, of doubleplusgoodthinkers doubleplusbellyfeel INGSOC — 2 + 2 = 5!. Christ as Party Line, nothing more.

      • I needed to serve my time out in the wilds before I could even begin to appreciate Jesus. I had been innoculated along with my salvation, and without being scoured down and having my presuppositions dismantled I could not grow in my faith. “He whom he loves, he chastises” definetely happened too! I do have regrets about those years, mostly in worries that I did damage to other people’s view of Christ, people I have no contact with now and cannot even apologize to.

        • Yep sounds like me.
          I have a hard time appreciating my peers who have never been in the wilds nor needed an inoculation . Those who have been Christians since age 8 or whatever… the “life long believer” . I admit I don’t quite trust a lifer that claims they never struggled with any doubt, or have never fallen into
          sin.
          (I myself was raised as a faithful Roman Catholic until my late teens, then, after a thoughtful time of “leaning on my own understanding” , I went for a very long trip to the wilds ).

  2. This was so good to hear. I feel I could have wrote this article, I agree with all of it when applied to me. I doubt a lot, but I never lose my longing or awe for Jesus. I have arrived to a place where the only reason I can still call myself a Christian is because I still, unexplainably, feel love for Jesus.

    Heres one question I have for you Imonk, and I would love to hear your (Or anyones) thoughts. I can spend weeks or months at a time in this mental position. It completely zaps any desire I have to minister or even share my faith. I’m in the ministry! I can still give the answers I know a good Christian would, but more than anything I try to avoid anything that makes me want to honestly share my heart, therefore I feel completely bound to do any kind of sharing, ministering, evangelizing, teaching or praying. In regards to the outward part of our faith . . . how should this / can this look during these times of wrestling?

  3. Thank you.

  4. It’s really disturbing how easily the human mind and heart can switch channels.
    Just a few days ago, while I was helping to lead worship at a youth rally and (for the first time in a long time) I really let myself get lost in worshipping my God and it felt like the Spirit was as thick as smoke in the room, the question of whether or not God really exists wasn’t even on the table in my heart and mind. Now, sitting here and reading your post, what was undeniably real to me at that moment seems questionable and easily dismissed as emotionalism or a particular firing of chemicals in my brain. And, for all I know, I may be facing a long, hard struggle with my own extensive capacity for doubt before I arrive at another mountaintop of momentary certainty. So far, God has come through with a faith-renewing revelation or experience before I reached the end of my rope, though I have certainly passed what I thought was the end of my rope on several occassions.
    Maybe spiritual survival can be just like physical survival in extreme, life-threatening situations, by which I mean that sometimes the preservation of our faith may require something as seemingly unspiritual and irrational as a bull-headed refusal to let it die. And, maybe (as much as it might suck), real faith requires that we put all our chips out there without prior, irrefutable proof that we’re going to win the bet.

  5. I’ve always made it a practice to chronicle the days when I struggle to doubt, because I know from my sinful heart and mind that when days of doubt come (as they have and will), that I will blind myself from remembering them completely.

    I’ve also found that the biggest cure for doubt is to get off the computer and go out and spend time with people. In these times, I try to do my best to love beyond personal capability and to bear another’s burdens. This practice hasn’t failed me yet.

    Of course, as Ratzinger says better than anyone else (although Barth and Tillich aren’t far behind), doubt can be an essential part of faith…and if we continue to press on in the faith, despite the doubt, we will ultimately see it’s rewards.

  6. “I cannot remove my doubts, but I cannot erase my faith.”

    That is it for me, too, Michael. I often wonder if we have got so many things straight about God or not. I have the same kind of questions you have, right down to couldn’t God have done something other than make mosquitoes and other annoying bugs. In the end, I just can’t “let go” of Jesus.

  7. iMonk, a quick question. Would what you described back then be similar to what is called the Dark Night of the Soul? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_night_of_the_soul

    “In the Christian tradition, one who has developed a strong prayer life and consistent devotion to God suddenly finds traditional prayer extremely difficult and unrewarding for an extended period of time during this ‘dark night.’ The individual may feel as though God has suddenly abandoned them or that his or her prayer life has collapsed. In the most pronounced cases, belief is lost in the very existence of God and/or validity of religion, rendering the individual an atheist, even if they continue with the outward expressions of faith. Rather than resulting in devastation, however, the dark night is perceived by mystics and others to be a blessing in disguise, whereby the individual is stripped (in the dark night of the senses) of the spiritual ecstasy associated with acts of virtue. Although the individual may for a time seem to outwardly decline in their practices of virtue, they in reality become more virtuous, as they are being virtuous less for the spiritual rewards (ecstasies in the cases of the first night) obtained and more out of a true love for God.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Ever seen a car dyno-tested? The dyno has breaks on the rollers, to test the car under load. It’s only under serious load that a lot of the problems surface.

      Same thing with workouts. You need to put the body under serious load (to the point of muscle burn) before the muscles actually start developing and strengthening.

      But it’s still rough to go through.

  8. A college professor of mine was fond of saying, “If you never seriously doubted, you never seriously believed.” It is only now, twenty-five years later, that I am even beginning to unravel the truth of that statement.

  9. This makes me feel like I’m not so alone.

    But I got to say, the more I read about Luther, the more I like him. I had studied him from a historical perspective being a history teacher but had, shamefully, never studied him from a theology perspective.

    I’m still no expert, not even close, but so much of what Luther writes seems balanced and liberating.

    Again, I’m no expert, and I’m not trying to start any debates, just my conclusions, that he is the middle ground b/w works based Roman Catholicism on one side, and the highly intellectual constant reasoning of Calvin etc. on the other. That may not make sense to anyone, I really can’t find the words I want right now.

    Too often, we get an idea, or at least the laity does, that ministers are somehow supperior in all things as they pertain to doubt etc. If they only knew.

  10. The honesty of this post is inspiring.

    I also have doubts, but I usually don’t have the mental energy to doubt the truth of Christianity in general. I’m too busy freaking myself out to death with the possibility that God will send me to hell because I chose the wrong form of Christianity (Catholic).

    Sometimes I feel so certain, other times I can barely breathe and feel paralyzed with fear. Sometimes I’m ready to go serve the Lord where I am, other times I feel the need to spend 20 more years studying all the different forms of Christianity so I can make a more informed choice. When I see that each side has good arguments, and that God has not made it perfectly clear to me, those facts drive me towards atheism, skepticism and agnosticism. It is easy to get mad at God for not making things more obvious/easy.

    Your honesty is inspiring, but it also makes me curious. Should we be this honest about our doubts with our friends and family? I’m afraid that if I start sharing my countless questions with others who are not prepared for them I will send them into the same doubt that I am in. At the same time, who wants to be alone and silent about this?

    • I don’t think it’s a matter of God not making things obvious and easy — the heart of the gospel (as I’ve come to see it) is absurdly and beautifully simple — rather I think it’s a matter of we Christians complicating things and muddying the water with a lot of useless religious nonsense.
      If I were to give you advice – which I’m hesitant to do because I’m a seriously screwed person with my own doubts and struggles — I would recommend that you start by meditating on the reality that God really does love you and that He loves you without any conditions or hidden agendas or requirements that you live up to any set of moral or religious standards. My mountaintops of faith tend to occur in those rare moments when I manage to truly believe that that He loves me just because He chooses to and that He really wants to share His life with me and take part in my life, as well. The trick is convincing myself of something as seemingly absurd and implausible as the Creator of everything and everyone not only taking notice but actually feeling love and affection for a screw-up and moral failure like myself.

  11. Yes – Im not alone! Thanks for you Honesty Michael!

  12. Seven years later and this still echos exactly my thoughts and feelings. The thing I find most troubling about it all is the whole idea of hell. Its seems terribly cruel that God would create so many people only to have them spend an eternity in torment because they didnt accept something they couldnt see, feel, touch or verify in any way. Calvinism makes the problem much worse – they were created from the beginning for hell. Sure, we may all deserve it, but why create people for hell? It would have been better if they never lived.

    Yet, the thought of dismissing it all an becoming an atheist brings about far more doubts than the things I cant reconcile about Christianity.

    • “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” – Psalm 103:14

      I kind of like this verse because it gives me hope that perhaps God is more understanding of me then I realize.

  13. Excellent article from a brilliant mind. I do have one question.
    Male mosquitos drink from flowers and nectar-bearing plants, not human blood.
    Could it be said that the reason the female drinks blood is related
    to Eve’s primal deed of accepting the serpent’s call to eat the forbidden fruit?
    Adam yielded to her will, but to who’s did she yield?
    Mind you this, this comment will be viewed as sexist, chauvanistic
    and bloody well stupid by about 99% of the females that see it.

    • Brooks Friend says:

      I thought the female mosquitos need blood as food so that eggs can be created and layed. Without blood as food females lay a lot less eggs. Mosquitos are an important food source for fish, both the adult and larva. So the whole biting to get blood as food enables enough food for fish. Then we get to eat the fish, the trout anyway.

      It’s fleas I don’t understand.

  14. “Jesus is, ultimately, a mystery. We can point to him, and point to his cross, but each person must walk to that cross alone and choose whether this is a meaningless, pointless execution, or God saving the very world that despises Him.”

    I agree with this. In my own life I do feel that I was prodded in a way that I can’t fully comprehend. And yet the walk was my choice.

    Oddly, after so many years of doubting, Jesus is the one aspect of this that I do not doubt. What happened in my life was a major change because of my mindset and priorities before and after.

    I don’t know what actually happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, but I am absolutely certain that Christ is with us still. How? I have no idea. Nor can I think of any way to prove it scientifically. Nor do I think it is mere emotionalism. It is something outside of human understanding and human reason. I sincerely believe this.

    Having said that, I do have doubts and uncertainties about almost everything else related to Christianity.

    I don’t know what eternal life really means.

    I don’t know if there is an afterlife.

    Maybe I’ve read too much Marcus Borg but I honestly don’t know how much about the life of Jesus should be taken literally or as metaphor.

    I have many doubts about the direction of Christianity as practiced in the majority of churches I’ve visited over the past three years.

    I doubt I will find a church that welcomes somebody as outside the mold as me.

    Here is how I process these doubts.

    Whatever my feelings about the Christian church, and no matter how many aspects of Christianity I may question, none of that impacts my desire to follow Christ. My only regret is that I didn’t come to this realization many years earlier.

    Whether Job is a true story or a magnificent work written to explore our views of God, how does that change my desire to follow Christ?

    Whether Jesus really turned water into wine or that is a metaphor about His message, how does that change my desire to follow Christ?

    If absolutely no Christian church in my community is right for me, how does that change my desire to follow Christ?

    I trust that if there are issues I need to understand better, I will be led to understanding as I am capable of understanding.

    Three years ago, back when I began to feel compelled toward Christ, I honestly did not believe that I was capable of faith. I am astonished how much my journey has led me to a place of simply trusting God.

  15. Well I don’t know about the rest of you but I’M well beyond this stuff. I turned over every rock long ago. I fought a long, hard, and excruciatingly painful battle with God, gave the guy a run for his money but ultimately got the snot kicked out of me (he may have even been taking it easy on me), and I didn’t quit until I had absolutely lost all. From here, there is no going back.

    Amen, amen, I have graduated from the realm of doubt. Into the realm of self-doubt. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

    Faith is the basis of our salvation, but despair is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Despair at the moment of death, and you’re done.

    I know it’s because I rely on myself and not on grace, but it’s no comfort knowing the mechanics of the situation. Knowing with certainty that it’s all true only makes things worse.

    Sometimes I’ll sin seriously. And I’ll reflect upon my motives. A motive that always surfaces is this: I deserve to be damned.

    What can God and I have in common when he loves me and I hate myself? Could there be a more awful way of throwing Christ’s sacrifice back in his face? I can’t even imagine a sin more awful than sinning for the sake of sinning out of self-hatred? I think this offends God even more than sinning for the sake of sinning out of hatred for God.

    Sometimes when I think about how I must make him feel I cry.

    Anyway, can’t imagine things ever getting any easier for any of us. I don’t think it’s supposed to. But what develops, I think, through all of this is humility and trust. Only a God of perfect glory and love would want anything to do with me. We each have a long and storied relationship with God that will give us solace and maybe amusement– and God glory– in eternity.

    • “…despair is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Despair at the moment of death, and you’re done.”

      I never heard this before. Sounds kind of fishy to me. Despair seems like a very understandable emotion to have when you are dying, Christian or no. No one in their right mind wants to die.

      • Catholic teaching. But the case is made extensively by Kierkegaard as well. I THINK it’s probably one of those things that’s interpreted like I said by most Christian theologies. But no promises. Anyway, extraBiblical.

        I’m not sure that you’re using “despair” in the theological sense. If we were talking about despair as Merriam-Webster defines it, I’d agree with you.

  16. Thanks, iMonk for such an encouraging, honest post. I think most, if not all Christians can relate. This post was especially close for me. The internal dialogue is so similar to my own.

    There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter movies where one of Harry’s friends explains to him that Voldemort would want Harry to feel alone, because if it’s just him, he’s less of a threat. I think there’s real wisdom in that. The devil puts all manor of doubts in our mind, then tells us we’re the only one who has those doubts. We fear discussing these questions because we may be shunned by our community, or maybe our questions will be too hard to answer, and we’ll cause someone weaker to stumble. Isolated from our community, our questions go unanswered, and we slowly come to believe that our questions have no answers.

    It’s good to be reminded that other Christians have the same doubts we have. A Christian community where we can ask these questions and have people help us grow in our faith is so very precious. Sadly, many times, we may be nestled square in the middle of such a community, but we just assume we are alone.

    I suggest that we just let it hang out. Put our doubts out there and take our chances. If our community rejects us for it, we’ve lost nothing except a false community. On the other hand, we may well find out that our community was a much more valuable resource than we realized, and we may all grow together. This has been my experience. In short, we’ve nothing to lose, but if we take the chance, we might just get a taste of the Kingdom.

  17. Now remind me what the difference between actual religious doubts and the mean resignation of not finding your religion, at the end of the day, to be the gateway into the kind of life you consider worthy of yourself? Just bitterness all the way through.

    I keep not finding one.

    • Let me give it a shot. First, there is a difference between what is true and what is proven. It was true in 1492 that there was an undiscovered continent across the Atlantic ocean, though this was unproven until Columbus sailed there.

      Faith is the belief in what is unproven, but what we deduce to be true based on the evidence available. Christians come to have faith based on a variety of different kinds of evidence: logic, emotion, tradition, experience, intuition, etc. The doubt we are talking about occurs when we question the validity of that evidence. Maybe that evidence is faulty or incomplete. Maybe we reached the wrong conclusion. This leads us to re-examine our faith to see if we still believe it is valid. Perhaps we look at different evidence, or reinterpret evidence. However, I think on some level we remain aware that there are things that are unproven, but are nonetheless true.

      The position you seem to be advocating is that your particular evidence, (the results from your study/practice of religion) has been found wanting. Rather than conclude, though, that there is nothing to be known, you may just conclude that your particular evidence is insufficient to reveal the unknown. From that perspective, perhaps you reevaluate your expectations, or consider different evidence in searching for truth. Hypothetically, you might decide you conduct an extensive study of the history of the Christian church, and in so doing become convinced that its teachings are true. This belief might then cause you to redefine “the kind of life worthy of yourself.”

      I would say, keep asking questions. Keep searching.

  18. Michael, I too wonder often about the passage where some were still doubting him even after the resurrection. I think, “Did they doubt it was really him because he looked so different than before the resurrection?” Or maybe, “Did they doubt that he had actually died in the first place?”

    I also wonder, “If he resurrected with a glorified body, why did he still have the holes in his hands and feet? Was it just to show Thomas? Did the holes go away afterwards?” You may think this is a minor point, but I think about all the people who have infirmities, disabilities and whatnot and you would think that these folks would want to think that if God gives them a glorified body during the time of the general resurrection of us all that they would no longer have those “problems.” It’s really hard for me to even conceive of being resurrected with a glorified body, period. I DO hope my new body will not have the aches and pains of THIS body. If Jesus still had the holes in his hands and feet, maybe I will still have my earring holes in my ears!

    It’s this resurrection of our bodies thing that my husband finds perhaps most ludicrous within Christianity. Sometimes, I even wish that Christianity just taught that when we die, we go to heaven in some kind of spiritual state and that is that. But if that was so, why did Jesus resurrect with his glorified body? Perhaps it was just God reinforcing again that Jesus was his Son. But if Jesus has a physical body, then it would be odd if the rest of us were with Jesus after our deaths with only our spiritual bodies apart from a physical body. Most of the time, I try not to think about this because I know it is beyond me to understand it all.

    • I have always found inadequate the idea that the wounds in Jesus’ resurrected body somehow proved it was really him, a living being, no longer dead. This same “normal” body passed through locked doors and somehow hid it’s true identity at will. Glorified body? Perhaps. But if this body is so unlike the body that hung on the cross or was laid in the tomb, what does its display of “wounds” prove?

      • So what DO you think about the passages in the Bible indicating Jesus resurrected with a somehow-changed body, Scott? I’m just curious. Thanks. (Oh, and I also wonder about the fact that he could walk on water prior to the resurrection, so again, I wonder in what way he body changed.)

        • I don’t know what to think of those passages. All three of the “post-appearance” Gospels include these kind of encounters – albeit different scenes. Of course, God can do anything He wants but Thomas cannot go out and say, “I know Jesus lives because I saw the very wounds body myself. ” As you point out those wounds could very well disappear once they served their purpose or stay fresh for all eternity as a symbol. We don’t know. In the later case, the wounds would not heal like we would expect in a normal, non-glorified, living person.

          As to Jesus walking on water, Peter walks on water as well and he had the same kind of body that we do. Something else would be going on there.

          Of course, my thoughts are not ironclad certainties here. The probability that the stories that we received in the Gospels were transformed in various ways during transmission/composition complicates things beyond hope of certainty.

  19. Some months ago, when I first discovered this site, this was probaby one of the first ten essays I read. Outwardly, I was living the life of a spirit-filled Christian, wife, mother, friend. Inside, hardly much could have been farther from the truth. I accepted Jesus in VBS in 1973 at a fairly tender age, and did the evangelical two-step for much of the ensuing decades. At some point, I realized I didn’t believe in a young earth, wasn’t in line with the “religious right” politically (and boy, does that make those folks mad!) and had no interest in waging a “culture war” or “taking back my country for Christ”, and had no real certitude regarding the end of times.

    However, I shared this with no one, beyond some careful hints to my husband over the years. I was raised spiritually to believe that the expression of doubt was the death knell of faith and I was terrified that these doubts, and some of an even greater import, might actually mean that I was “not a real Christian”. This fear caused me to fall into a secret despair of types, and I began to wonder if I had been seriously duped the whole time. Maybe I was just an idiot who had drank the kool-aid.

    So I asked my husband to read this essay, and asked him how he felt about it. He looked at me, quite puzzled, and after a few moments, declared that he had had similiar doubts throughout most of his Christian life. Who knew???? Anyway, it opened up great dialogue between us which has been going on for months. I can’t say that my doubts have all ebbed away – hardly – but I do know, to paraphrase Imonk, that I cannot erase my faith (and I’ve tried) any more than I can erase my doubts (and I’ve tried).

  20. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” Seems to me He invited honest discussion.

  21. Romans 12:3 (New American Standard Bible)

    For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.
    Pray for faith, it is the only way, it can not be self generated. How some of you waded for so long through the muck and mire of the add-ons, that to me in my opinion smack of cultishness, is a miracle in itself.

  22. Thank you for this. Not seeing this side of belief is what you rightly view as the reason why so many nonbelievers view religions as ridiculous. The number of Christians/Muslims/Buddhists/etc. who express doubt about their most closely cherished beliefs is very few. (I leave Judaism out of this because of the humanistic and reconstructionist movements within Judaism.) It seems that most people (or at least those who do talk about faith) bury their doubts not by expressing them openly and dealing with them like you have here, but instead by proclaiming their innate correctness and viewing all those who doubt or disbelieve as fools (if not worse).

    The unfortunate fact is that the face of belief in this day in age is Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their ilk. Who will never discuss their doubts openly, but instead spend their time proclaiming the inferiority of those with different beliefs.

    So thank you for this article. For one thing, it shows me all the common ground that I have with you, and shows also how the space between us came into existence. I simply find myself incapable of faith in anything outside of my senses (which I acknowledge themselves are not completely trustworthy, but are the best I have). I think the dialogue between believers and nonbelievers (all of stripes) would be vastly improved if the doubts of all could be presented and respected. I think a great part of why many are afraid to present their doubts openly is because they fear they will be mocked or humiliated. This, mocking seems, unfortunately to come from the side of the nonbelievers more than anyone else. “See you agree with us, you’re just to cowardly to admit it and give up you big daddy in the sky” sort of attitude. So as someone who views himself as a permanent agnostic (I either will or will not know when I die, but until then, really, will have no idea), I thank you again. Writings like this and the concept of agape are the reasons why I occasionally attend a Quaker meeting.

    Finally a note on the unloved mosquito. It exists because it can. Because there’s a spot for a small, flying bloodsucking parasite in the ecology of most of the world. Same with the flee (except without the flying bit). From the point of view of a mosquito, humans and animals are simply a food source and no loving god could have created the human hand, the fly swatter, or the bug zapper. They exists for themselves and their convenience, not for yours.

    A commentor above justified to existence of the mosquito as food for fish. Being eaten isn’t a reason for existing, unless our existence is justified by the existence of mosquitos and ticks. Being eaten by something that is eaten by humans isn’t a justification for existence unless we wish to justify ourself purely in terms of the idea that a cannibal might think we’re a tasty snack some day. So give the poor mosquito a break (philosophically that is- feel free to squish them when you see them, as that means less that can bite me).

  23. Is there anyway to get a printable version of this? You said so much that resonates with me, and I just don’t have time on the computer to look at all of it with the attention it deserves.

  24. “If I have any fear, it is not of falling into hell, but of falling into nothing” – John Wesley, in a letter to his brother Charles, dated June 27th, 1766.

    • Wow! It’s nice (for once) to be in the company of someone like Wesley. Last week I had a powerful spell of doubt, and in the midst of it I thought–at the very least I hope I go to Hell–then I’ll know that God exists. Ultimately, that thought brought me back from the brink. To hope to go to Hell some part of my faith must be authentic!

      Either that or I’m absolutely mad.

  25. Thank you for writing this. That’s exactly like I feel right now. I’m full of doubts, but I can’t imagine stop believing in God. I stil consider myself a Christian, but I’m even doubting my own experience with God, and when I see Christians so sure, so certain about what they believe, it frustrates me even more. Are they just hiding their doubts? Or are they really that strong? I’ve been feeling this way for a few weeks and it’s good to know that some people don’t feel the need to hide their questions about their faith.

  26. My creature of doubt isn’t the mosquito, but the penguin.

    Back when “March of the Penguins” was out in theaters, I took my young daughter to it. While she was riveted by the images of ice and wind and storm and animal survival, my mind began to turn to our Creator. At first I found it comforting, spiritually, for I began to feel that the plight of the penguin was a great real-world case against the theory of evolution. All I could think about was how the life of the penguin was nothing but a struggle to ensure one more generation of penguins is hatched, and how there was absolutely no way for the penguin’s precarious cycle of life could happen through evolution. I mean, watching it, all I could think was “this creature should no longer be in existence” and that the penguin could only have come about and keep perpetuating because of a Creator’s hand.

    But then as I pondered that, doubts began to creep in about the Creator. Why, oh why, would He create a creature whose sole existence appears to be an eternal struggle against the forces of nature in its attempts to hatch one more generation of penguins?! Was (is) the penguin some kind of experiment to Him? Is their existence a strange living symbolic thing that we humans are to relate to ourselves and our own struggle? And as I walked out of the movie theater, my young daughter totally oblivious to my spiritual musings and struggle, I wondered…just what is the purpose of the penguin, anyway?! And when I begin to wonder about the purpose of the penguin, it naturally follows that there would be some doubts about the purposes of a Creator, even if there is a Creator.

    So…
    Penguins have a special place in my heart and mind, for even as they strengthen my doubts about evolution, they bring me doubts about the motives of the Creator. Penguins are a mystery to me, and help me realize just how mysterious the nature of God is to me.

    • That first penguin must have been thinking, “Ha! What predator is going to follow me here!” 🙂

      … queue the Orca music …

      Actually, the antarctic waters are very rich in food.

    • ” mean, watching it, all I could think was “this creature should no longer be in existence” and that the penguin could only have come about and keep perpetuating because of a Creator’s hand.”

      I think that the survival of the Jewish people is similar. There are no Hittites, Amalekites, Minoans, or Etruscans any more. I think it is kind of miraculous that the Jewish people survived to the present day despite the efforts of the Romans, Nazis, and the Inquisition to exterminate them. The bible said that that they’d be exiled, peresecuted, and then gathered back to Israel and all of that came true!! No one can deny this, one can only avoid chalking this up to God’s hand by atrributing it to coincidence.

      • That’s nice, except the Jews aren’t the world’s oldest surviving racial group or culture.

        Guess God’s been favoring some other ethnic group above them, huh?

        • China and India are older cultures – but they were never exiled from their homeland or had to wander the earth without a state.

          The only analog to the Jewish people i can think of are the Gypsies. It would be miraculous if all the Gypsies in the world decided to move back to their homeland in India and declare a Gypsy state.

  27. IMonk, you are the blogger I hate to love.

    You write stuff like you were sitting inside my head, except that you get it out better than I ever good.

    I can’t keep up with all the posts of bookmarked to read later.

  28. Hi Michael,

    This is one of my favorite essays of yours. I wrote something on Doubt a few weeks ago, inspired by the movie of the same name. Though I daresay I didn’t ascend to your level of personal honesty! It is truly insidious that we have turned self-deception into a kind of virtue. Indeed, I think God often wants to use our honest doubts to lead us into deeper truth.

    Take your bug problems, for example. Might there be something hidden within that doubt, that is worth doubting? I mean the idea that the world is more-or-less alright with a little curse problem? Should we not groan for the bondage of decay that all is in? I’m thinking particularly of some things David Hart had to say in The Doors of the Sea:

    But, at the same time, all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended – and, indeed, preserved – by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings. It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impassive majesty. Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something enduringly hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life.

    As I was praying in the woods the other day (at a Franciscan retreat center), I swatted Brother Mosquito bent on sucking my blood and leaving nasty welts on me. I then gave his body to Sister Spider, who was gladly sucked every bit of juice in the corpse, then wadded it up like a sponge to drain every last drop, before discarding the dry shell on the ground. I was just struck by the wrongness of it all – the horror, the savagery, the enmity of most living things to one another that goes down to their very physical biology. The pervasiveness of death goes down as deep as we can imagine – we cannot imagine the spider without the fangs or the mosquito without the slender parasitic straw. How can I teach such creatures to love each other, or live in harmony with man? With what would I feed them, and where and how would they live? It’s as inconceivable as resurrection from the dead!

    But this is, I believe, where we should be. We should be horrified by these things – and we should love nature and long for it’s redemption, even though we can’t even imagine how such things could ever be different. Part of what we are called to do is groan.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to give apologetic resources to stifle doubt. I’m trying to use this example to say that what look to us light doubting God or doubting the Faith may actually at times be a gift from God to free us from our own houses of card, and lead us to fuller life in God. And so, though we may doubt, we need not fear.

  29. Excellent article. I think all Christians face doubts—and more seriously than we’d like to admit at times. I’d like to share something though—the article speaks of having to re-affirm faith due to doubts–and often I do this too. It’s kind of funny, but the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” by Steven Spielberg always reminds me of the conversion experience. In that movie, Richard Dreyfuss has an “impression” put into his mind and he cannot escape it. He can’t put his finger on it, but knows it is very important. He winds up filling his whole living room with dirt to build a replica of what he sees in his mind. We find out later it is Devil’s Postpile—-and the aliens have implanted that in him to cause him to seek the place out and find it.

    I share this because whenever I am completely filled with doubt I go back to my room those many years ago. I had received a Gospel of John and sat reading it. No one had told me what I would feel or experience—-I simply had received a “booklet” and was reading it. That day I completely changed—that evening I experience a feeling of being completely clean—innocent, forgiven. No one had told me I would feel this—-or whipped me up into some emotional experience—-yet it HAD HAPPENED and I felt the presence of God so close that I cried in joy and overwhelming thankfulness.

    In my case I feel this memory was “implanted” in me by God in some way. Sure—I need to remind myself of that day—-but every time I do I realize IT HAD TO BE REAL. There was no way I could have imagined all of it, or made myself feel it through some emotional frenzy I created. NO–it was very real—and it serves as a reminder that no matter how many doubts I have NOW—-I can always go back to that day and relive it in my mind and KNOW I was TRULY born-again—I was TRULY visited by God that day. That is how I deal with doubt—-and have for years. I simply cannot deny that what happened to me was REAL. I am wondering if any others have the similar experience.

    By the way, I am not saying that doubts are not real for everyone. I experience them all the time. I am just explaining how I always eventually wind up dealing with them—-in a quiet place—re-affirming a faith i know to be very real.

  30. Thanks, Mike.

    One of the most difficult things I have in my Christian life is the lack of permission from fellow Christians and non believers to admit that I doubt. I am learning, though, that doubt is most likely God’s greatest “thorn in the flesh” to keep us humble and to remind us that it is His strength that is perfect and not ours.

    Faith and doubt go hand in hand and truly make a Christian an honest person.

  31. I’ve had several periods of doubt. The last one was so huge, I walked mentally to the border of walking away from Christ.

    And this after decades of walking with Him, serving Him, seeing Him work wonders in my life and the lives of others.

    When I reached that border mentally, St. Peter’s words flooded my brain….

    “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life!”

    I walked mentally back to Jesus and here I stay, with grace, mercy, forgiveness, and boundless love. No other (Buddah, Mohammed, Krishna, Mithra, Marx, etc. …) can offer what Jesus offers me, offers us.

    iMonk, like you said. It all comes down to Jesus, and I’m grateful He, God the Son, lived in human flesh and fully understands our weaknesses.

    Often I pray, “Lord, I believe! Help, Thou, my unbelief.”

    And, all of the above of what I wrote is why I love Jesus even more today than that first day I believed.

    iMonk, this post of yours is yet another example of why we all love to come to your site.

    Thank you!