I hear from a lot of people who fear they’re losing their faith. They’ve had some doubts come to mind that they just can’t seem to get past, and they’re rattled to the core to think that their entire belief system just might be false.
Since I’ve spent so much time in the spiritual desert, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve spent a long time thinking and praying about how to respond to people in this difficult situation, and thought I would share my answer, which has two key parts, in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
Explore your doubts…
The first part of my answer is simply to say: be not afraid. Doubts aren’t a bad thing; they’re a sign of a questioning mind. That’s good. My entire conversion from lifelong atheism to Catholic Christianity was paved by asking every difficult question I could think of, and I’ve heard a lot of conversion stories very similar to my own. I also know a lot of people whose faith grew by leaps and bounds when they began seeking answers to what were originally disturbing doubts.
So look at it is an exciting intellectual quest, and get ready to go seek some answers!
But before you start, there’s something you should keep in mind about this process:
…But do so in peace
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve been through a lot of spiritual ups and downs, and I’ve corresponded with countless people who have navigated through intense periods of extreme doubt. And what I’ve learned from all of this is that the search for truth is not as simple as it seems — especially when it comes to the truth about God.
God is love, love itself, so keep in mind that a quest to find the truth about God is a quest to find the truth about Love. And it doesn’t take much life experience to know that the way we approach love can be easily tainted by bad experiences and woundedness. An example I often think of is someone who has a hard time forming healthy, loving relationships because of unresolved hurts from his past: he can’t see the truth about current, potentially positive relationships because his view is clouded by all the lingering negativity. He can’t see the truth about love. Similarly, when we’re looking for the truth about Love itself, it’s as much an emotional quest as it is an intellectual quest, and it’s easy for emotions to throw us far off course.
I think of all the various forces that can cloud our quest for truth like a fog descending on a traveler: you can see bits of the road here and there, but can’t quite get the big picture. It commonly descends in the form of unresolved feelings of hurt, especially if someone feels like he or she has been harmed by:
- family members
- fellow Christians
- the Church as a whole
- God himself (e.g. feeling like critical prayers weren’t answered)
Our relationships with all of these entities are sacred, and should be should be sources of pure love. So any festering hurts in those departments are going to be particularly virulent sources of that “fog” that can obscure the truth.
And then, of course, there’s our own sin. I know that in my own life and the lives of people I’ve talked to about this, some common sins that can turn honest doubts into a dangerous road away from God are:
- Pride – e.g. associating lack of faith with the intelligentsia, therefore thinking you’re more sophisticated and erudite if you don’t believe; feeling like your life is 100% under your control and therefore God is irrelevant to you; refusing to see evidence for God if it doesn’t look like you would expect it to; etc.
- Laziness – e.g. feeling lured by the idea of having free time on Sunday mornings; not wanting to sacrifice yourself for others; etc.
- Desire for revenge – e.g. enjoying the idea that it would hurt family / community / church members who have harmed you if you announced that you were no longer a Christian.
- Greed / Vanity: e.g. becoming wrapped up in the glamor of the pursuit of money, status, career advancement, etc. and feeling like the Christian faith is bogging you down.
…And so on. Now, again, rarely do we articulate these things to ourselves. At no point in my own conversion did I say to myself, “I think I’ll bias my research toward atheism because it’ll make me look smarter! And, plus, I’m lazy!” Yet, on a subconscious level, that is exactly what happened. Without doing a regular, serious examination of conscience in a spirit of humility, I never even realized that those forces were at work within me.
It’s all about the big picture
To give you an example of one very small way these sort of forces played out in my own life, I’ll tell you about a day a few months ago when I was at Mass:
I’d been sitting there thinking about the Ascension, and how odd the specifics of the event seem to me. Admittedly, it’s one of the harder Christian stories for me to grasp. Jesus floated up into the air? Behind a cloud? When I first read the New Testament I was amazed by how honest and authentic it all seemed. But when I got to Acts 1:9 I thought, “Umm. Seriously?”
So anyway, that morning at Mass turned out to be one of those survival days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, including encountering a man who was shockingly rude to me. By the time I had to haul a screaming toddler outside into cold drizzle, let’s just say I was not fully at peace. I felt so weighed down with frustration, so exasperated that something as simple as going to Mass should be so difficult, and so indignant that a fellow parishioner would be so rude in the sanctuary during the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
I paced around outside, fuming so much I thought the rain might turn into steam when it hit me. And then it occurred to me: this would be the perfect time to take another look at the Ascension!
“That really DOES seem kind of fantastical!” I grumbled. My mind quickly trotted out some of the old, comfortable atheist arguments about how that kind of story was rooted in ancient people’s ignorance about meteorology, when they thought that heaven literally existed in the clouds, and that it was ultimately a retelling of Greek traditions about Zeus, the God of the Sky.
And there was more! Now, I was on a roll. I did the same analysis for the few other doctrines I had questions about, and by the time the Mass was over I had worked myself into a tizzy in which I had pretty much convinced myself that the entire Faith was false.
But here’s the thing: I had thought of all these questions plenty of other times, when I was in a peaceful state. I had taken the time to do my homework and seek — and actually listen to — the Christian explanations of these teachings, and I found them to be solid. Not only that, but I was able to see the big picture: the overall evidence had convinced me that this belief system is reasonable and true. There were no fatal flaws that I could find. Sure, there were a few things that struck me as odd, like the specific details of how Jesus returned to heaven, but, in a peaceful state of mind, I could recognize that this was not a linchpin on which the Faith hinged — plus, I could see that maybe I was just missing something.
But in my burdened, unsettled state of mind, I was drawn to fixate on details. I just couldn’t pull my head up far enough to see the big picture. I’d fallen down a rabbit role, and I started running.
Now, this situation wasn’t that big of a deal. I ended up feeling fine after we got home, and all my angst about faith dissipated as well. But it’s a small example of what can happen at a larger level in anyone’s spiritual life.
In summary, if you’re plagued with doubts, my heart sincerely goes out to you. I’ve been there, and I know it’s painful. The very short version of my advice would be: explore your doubts, but do so in peace. And never forget the the search for God, i.e. for Love, is inextricably entwined with our spiritual and emotional states. Any kind of unresolved stress in those departments can cloud our vision and keep us from seeing the big picture, and therefore the truth.