And what if the Bible is a myth, like all other speculation about the unseen? Or, as someone said to me this week, “What difference does it make? Pray, don’t pray – Is there really a God who hears?” After all, we can’t actually see Jesus.
We are people who can doubt. I can, this man had his doubts, and I suspect we aren’t alone. A curious feature of hard times is that they bring out both the inner theist in people, as in “Why did God do this to me?” and the inner atheist, as in, “Where is God? Does he even exist?” They can even make their appearance simultaneously.
“I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.” So writes Diarmaid MacCulloch, in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. He claims to be a “candid friend” of Christianity. The “crazy,” I assume, is that we believe in someone we haven’t ever touched. And there are times when I know what he means. My doubts typically connect to the unseen-ness of God. There are times when I think that this age of the Spirit, in which we see his power but not his face, is exquisite. There are times when it leaves me scratching my head and wondering…why not just a couple appearances, here-and-there, when I am really in need? At those times it seems almost unfair to me that God would be hidden and silent, at least to my own sense of sight and hearing.
What are your strategies for fending off a case of the spiritual doubts? The apostle Peter exhorted us to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). If I understand Christian apologetics, most of it takes aim not at our unbelieving neighbor but at our own doubts. Our neighbor might not care about evidence for the resurrection, but we do. I do.
I can detect two stages in my dealings with doubt. They roughly bisect my thirty-six years as a Christian. (I turned to Jesus when I was twenty). In the first half, I combated doubts in ways that fit an apologetics class.
- I would have to go all the way back to creation. “Without getting hung up in the details, do I believe that God created?” Yes. That, sometimes, was enough.
- “Do I believe that Jesus really came into human history with flesh and blood?” I would think about Josephus’ Antiquities, in which he mentions Jesus, and the dating of our calendar system – that would usually be enough.
- “Do I believe that the crucified one is risen and alive now?” Yes. For me it hinged on how the creator God existed. If he is the God of life, being raised from the dead is no big deal to him. And if he is raised from the dead, he is the same now as he was then.
I have not grown out of these responses. I suspect they still form the implicit foundation for my own personal defense of my faith. But I am more aware of other means that seem less related to the apologetics of a seminary classroom. I’ll mention just two.
Read the Bible. Here is one of the great “duhs” of all time. When doubts flare, read the Bible. That has become my number one response to doubts. Sounds pretty easy, but it isn’t. The ennui that accompanies doubt works against picking up a Bible. Reading the Bible is hard enough anyway. To read when faith is at a low ebb is counterintuitive and unnatural. That’s why I have appreciated the motto, “Force feed.” There are times when I don’t know what is good for me. A Blizzard from Dairy Queen seems preferable to . . . anything. Those are the times when I have to over-ride my physical cues and tell my body that it is time to eat something decent. So, when doubts come, force feed. The Word of God is what is best for us.
I stick with the Psalms or the New Testament. The Psalms expand our vision and remind us of God’s mighty acts. The Old Testament suggests that one of our prominent sins is that we forget. The Psalms help us remember. In the New Testament I can turn anywhere. Like the Psalms, it reminds me of what has happened, and that is usually enough. But sometimes I need to be surprised again.
One vacation my wife and I read the book of John aloud to each other, and we found ourselves laughing all the way through it, at least through most of it. What was funny was how Jesus always said and did the unexpected. Even though we knew the stories, they never failed to surprise. That, for me, is a profound answer to doubts.
When I was in college and reading about different world religions, I noticed that while all of them were interesting, they were all very predictable. Work hard to be good. Follow the rules. Don’t rock the implicit caste system – some were in, others were out. Men were entitled. Good men are promised good sex, or at least lots of sex. And keep working to be good. All this could be easily invented by a bunch of guys on a weekend getaway.
Then I read the Bible, and it was like nothing else. Jesus never acted like a mere man. No one could have ever invented him or his way of living, especially when we consider the historical situation. The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 is enough to cure the spiritual jitters. Nothing is what you would expect. Throughout the New Testament, the disciples do what you would expect. They get ticked off at the little grommets who follow Jesus, they jockey for the highest position, they run and hide when things get a little risky. But Jesus never does what you expect. And, somehow, that makes him seem more human. Somehow, his unanticipated responses make perfect sense.
The best cure for the doubts is to read the Bible.
Listen to People’s Stories. There is at least one other way my doubts are eased: I ask people what God is doing in their lives. This is made easier because it is both my vocation and my hobby.
I’ll give you a recent example – from the hobby side. We had a friend from church over for dinner, and we started talking about the sermon series that has been challenging us to move out toward those who don’t follow Jesus. Since this man was a good mover-outer, I was looking forward to a story or two, and I wasn’t disappointed.
He told a story from two days earlier. He was tired, he just wanted his work-day to end, and he didn’t need any interruptions from the man with whom he shared an office, who could complain about anything. Earlier, after a prickly phone conversation with his wife, this office-mate had shared some difficulties in his marriage. More accurately, he shared how his wife could be intolerable. My friend knew that this was an ideal moment to move toward his co-worker, but, that day, he just didn’t have it in him. So he offered only a few mindless “mm hmms” and a lack luster, “maybe you should ask her forgiveness.”
It was 5:00. Time to go. The co-worker was leaving. My friend knew he should at least ask if the guy wanted to be prayed for, but . . . maybe another time. Then, the co-worker lingered at the door on the way out and my friend finally had to ask. He couldn’t silence his conscience any longer.
“Can I pray for you?” He asked half-hoping that the answer would be no.
The co-worker came back, my friend prayed. The co-worker was soon in tears, hugging my friend goodbye, and he is not the crying and man-hugging type. The next day he reported on the outcome.
“I asked my wife to forgive me when I got home, and she said that she would. Then we had the most amazing conversation ever. Peace, man. We had peace. Please keep praying for us. GOD ANSWERS PRAYER.”
This once agnostic man was wagging his finger at my friend, though with a smile on his face. He said it again. “God answers prayer. You better believe that.”
I believed that before this story, but, somehow, because of this man I will probably never meet, I believe more.
Ed Welch is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF.