Monday, February 23, 2015

Help My Unbelief! Facing Doubt on the Journey of Faith

“Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 28:31)
What is Doubt?

In our faith journey, we inevitably have some experience of doubt, of uncertainty in our belief in some aspect of our faith, be it in our own value, in Jesus Christ, or even in the very existence of God. We are often tempted to think of doubt as weakness, worthy of shame, or even sinful. However, all of these are false understandings of doubt. Many of the greatest saints throughout history experienced times of intense doubt and even unbelief. Even people who believed in Jesus' power to heal and who encountered him directly still felt doubt. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, the father who brings his possessed son to Jesus to be healed says to him,"I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24). Realizing that people with tremendous faith still experience doubt, what does doubt tell us about our own faith?

First of all, doubt indicates that our faith is maturing, that we are integrating the faith which most of us received as children into our adult thinking and acting. When Jesus taught that we must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of God (Mt 18:3), he meant that we must have the humility of a child, by admitting that we are not self-sufficient and we depend on God for literally everything. He was not telling us to reason like a child, as Saint Paul made clear in his first letter to the Corinthians:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways (1 Cor 13:11).
We all experienced the physical, emotional, and psychological development that took place during our transition from childhood to adulthood. Our spiritual development involves a similar transition. There is a process that must take place if our faith is to evolve from the cooperative faith of a child into the integrated faith of an adult. That process varies significantly from person to person, but the road to our mature faith is never completely straight and smooth. There are potholes, curves, twists, steep hills, and severe weather conditions along the way. Some of us may even look up to see that we have run off the road completely. In our darkest moments we may ask ourselves,"Where am I going? Do I even have a destination? What is the point of this journey?" This is doubt: anything that causes us to lose sight of who we are, who God is, or what He wants for us. If the doubt we're feeling is particularly severe, we may even stop believing in God for a time. This is commonly referred to as a "crisis of faith." It is rightly considered a crisis, because it is the collapse of the existential foundation of a person. If our faith is real, and it penetrates all the dimensions of our life, then the loss of that faith indeed constitutes a tragedy of monumental proportion.

What Causes Doubt?

What is the cause of doubt then? There are two primary causes of doubt: a lack of knowledge and a lack of faith.* A lack of knowledge is increasingly common, especially in recent times when religious education has been, to put it nicely, far from optimal. If we have confused or mistaken views about the Christian faith, then it cannot provide us with the consolation and hope that we need to endure the various trials of life. For example, if we believe that as Christians we must hold to a strictly literal interpretation of the book of Genesis in regards to Creation, then we are likely to see the discoveries of the natural sciences as detrimental to our faith. However, as we learn more about the proper way to read and interpret the Bible, which includes taking into account literary genre, style, and techniques, we see that there is no contradiction between scientific knowledge and revealed knowledge. The Bible only contradicts science when you try to read it as a science textbook, which it was never intended to be.

* (By "faith" here I am referring to the theological virtue of faith, not merely the cognitive act of believing a given proposition, e.g., "I have faith that Jesus Christ rose from the dead."). 

Dark Night Spirituality

A lack of faith is also common. If we lack faith, we are not necessarily confused about the nature of God, or hung up about an apparent contradiction in Scripture. Rather, we may simply feel unable to be convinced by what faith proposes to us. In other words, we sincerely desire to believe, but we can't will ourselves to do so. Maybe you find yourself in this position. Maybe the idea that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God who created this mind blowing universe and yet still loves you so much that He became a human being and died to redeem you seems way too good to be true. Maybe you've cried in prayer and felt like God wasn't even there; maybe you've sat in Mass, watched the priest elevate the Host and felt nothing; maybe you've struggled with the same sins for years and you've given up hope that you can ever be free. If any of this resonates with you, then guess what? You have a lot in common with some of the greatest Christians who ever lived! Saint John of the Cross wrote a spiritual masterpiece based on the feeling that God has withdrawn from you (The Dark Night of the Soul). Blessed Mother Teresa, who experienced Christ in a direct and personal way (He spoke to her multiple times during her youth), said that she felt an intense spiritual "dryness"––an absence of consolation and feeling of God's presence––for more than forty years! The feeling that God has abandoned you is also brought out countless times in Sacred Scripture, especially in the Psalms:

          I said to myself in my good fortune:
          Nothing will ever disturb me.
          Your favor had set me on a mountain fastness,
          then you hid your face and I was put to confusion (Psalm 30).

Once understood, the theology of this is profound and beautiful, even if it seems troublesome at first. If God knows and loves us, and if He wants us to know and love Him, then why would He allow us to be "put to confusion," to experience doubt, and to even doubt His very existence? When we pray, our natural expectation is that we will receive some feeling of consolation, some sense of peace and comfort as a result. There is nothing wrong with this expectation, and most of the time we do experience at least some consolation whenever we pray. However, if we always experience positive feelings when we pray, then we become at risk of praying just to experience those feelings. In other words, we may start loving God for what He gives us instead of loving God for who He is. This disordering of our desires in prayer can damage our relationship with God, by making us begin to think that we can control or manipulate God in some way, which is unreasonable, unloving, and unjust. God usually provides us with plenty of consolation early on in our spiritual journey––He knows that we need it (Like a young child who will only behave well in exchange for a piece of candy or other reward). Once we have established a relationship of trust with God, He begins to periodically withdraw His consolation, to test how pure our love for Him is. This ensures that our love for God is properly ordered, that is, that we are loving Him above all other things, even ourselves. At this point, someone might object,"But if God is all-knowing, then doesn't He already know how pure our love for Him is, and how much testing our faith can handle?" Indeed, He does––but we don't. Think of Abraham. God knew that Abraham's faith was strong enough that he would be willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, out of pure obedience––but Abraham didn't know that. Once he knew what his faith could endure, he was prepared to carry out God's plan for his life with the bold confidence he would need. While the testing of our faith probably won't be quite as dramatic as it was for Abraham, we can experience the same transformative effects that he did if we respond with complete openness and trust.

Consider Christ

Jesus himself, while he is God and therefore could never doubt God in the normal sense of the word, did experience doubt in his human nature, and at times, even appeared to feel distant from God.
"Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).   
Being fully God and fully man, Jesus had doubts about what he was capable of enduring in his human body. Those feelings reached their climax as he was dying on the cross:
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46)
Being one with God the Father, Jesus was never actually forsaken or abandoned by Him. However, in order for his sacrifice to be total, Jesus had to experience not only physical suffering, but mental suffering as well. Anyone who has suffered from severe depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders knows that the mental aguish of conditions such as these can at times feel much worse than physical suffering (mental suffering is the cause of far more suicides than any physical suffering). It's relatively easy to maintain a spirit of acceptance and trust when you have the flu or a broken arm, but it's nearly impossible during a panic attack. That is why much attention and healing is needed for those who suffer from mental and nervous disorders; such people are more susceptible to doubt and at higher risk of despairing. The worst suffering isn't always visible, but that doesn't mean it should go unnoticed. This is why we must always be attentive to our brothers and sisters, and do our best to understand their struggles and needs. There is more to every person than what meets the eye. As Saint John Paul II once said, "They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from the inside." That being said, if we are struggling with something, we can't blame other people for not understanding if we won't let them inside. Knowing about a person can be one-sided, but actually knowing a person is always mutual.

An Invitation to Trust

When we experience doubt, it's not a sign that we're doing something wrong. In fact, it can often be a sign that we're doing something right. Doubt tells us that our faith is not merely the creative product of our own wishful thinking, but a priceless gift that is worth having tested and purified of all imperfect desires and motivations. 
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:6-7).
The Lover demands the perfection of the beloved. Each time our faith is tested and we are tempted to doubt is a direct invitation from God to trust Him. With the help of God's grace, let us resolve to do our best to always accept that invitation, recognizing that our faith in Him is not some "thing" that we can simply "lose," but rather a conscious decision to continue trusting a real Person, and to continue believing that our deepest desire has a fulfillment. If you are experiencing doubts about your faith or about God, resolve to take small, concrete steps to learn more about your faith and to grow closer to God. Seemingly insignificant practices, such as 5-10 minutes of reading Scripture each day, a silent drive in the car instead of a noise-filled one, and attending Mass just one extra time during the week, are actually powerful exercises of the will that remove distractions and obstacles, and enable us to a encounter God in a more intimate way. Another avenue is to improve your understanding of your faith by reading books that explain it. I highly recommend the works of C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, and Matthew Kelly as good places to begin. Lastly, never underestimate the power of memory. If you feel distant from God, take time to reflect on the times in your past when you experienced Him in a powerful way. Reflect on the joy and life that those experiences brought you. You'll be surprised at the sustaining effect this can have. Memory is the uniquely human power to make the past present again.

May God bless you and draw you closer to Himself, so that your trust in Him may grow, giving you the strength to endure times of uncertainty, trial, and temptation. Thank you for reading!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.