Faith and doubt
Almost everyone I know who has faith also has had doubts. There is a story in Mark chapter 9 about a man who brought his son to Jesus for healing. Jesus asked the man if he believed. The man said “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (vs. 24). All of us who live by faith have had these times when we cry out to God “help me believe!” and God accepts the faith we have and gives us more.
My first serious bout with doubt
When I was in my first year of college (way back in 1978!) I took a class in Ancient History from a professor who made a point of frequently criticizing the Bible. I don’t think she actually made any real criticisms of the historicity of the Bible. She mainly just objected to the accounts of miracles, like the parting of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea?)
Her criticisms made me think. Did I believe the Bible and follow Jesus just because that was the way I had been raised? If I had been born into a Muslim home, I would probably be a Muslim—and think that was the only right way. What were the chances that I had been born into a home where I actually had learned the right way to God?
I decided to set aside my beliefs and investigate their historicity. I thought that a good way to start would be to read a historical account of the life of Jesus written by a non-believer. I found a book on the life of Jesus in the college library written by a secular historian—he made a point of saying that while he respected Jesus as a good moral teacher, he didn’t believe he was divine.
As I read the book, I compared it to the accounts of Jesus’ life in the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible. The only significant differences between the secular accounts and the Biblical accounts were the miracles. The secular historian either dismissed them or explained them in terms of some natural phenomenon. Two things surprised me: first, that there was so much in the biblical accounts that was corroborated by other historical sources; second, that the scholar who wrote the book didn’t give any objective basis for dismissing the miracles—he just didn’t believe in the supernatural.
In one of the last chapters of the book, the author described the crucifixion of Jesus and discussed it from multiple historical perspectives. Again, everything he said agreed with the biblical account—until it came to the resurrection. The author thought maybe Peter or John had a dream, or made up a story about Jesus coming back to life; but he considered a real resurrection to be an impossibility. Then, in the last chapter, the author said that what came next was a mystery to him. Jesus’ followers should have all gone back home, and the movement should have died out. But instead, Jesus’ disciples were energized with a new passion, and their number grew at an astonishing rate.
When I read that last chapter about the phenomenal explosion of people following Jesus after his death, I thought, “Wow! That’s pretty strong evidence that Jesus really did come back to life!” The author, who didn’t believe in the supernatural, couldn’t account for what actually happened. He declared it a mystery. But it seemed clear to me that the best explanation was the supernatural one—Jesus really did rise from the dead! That was the end of my doubt … for a few years.
Why doesn’t God show himself?
Several years later, a couple of students in one of my classes told me about how they used to believe in God and the Bible but had found it hard to believe in a God who was invisible and didn’t do anything to make his presence or even existence indisputably clear. For example, one of them said, “Why doesn’t God make an appearance, visibly, to each of us?” “Or,” the other one said, “Why doesn’t God write a big message in the sky where we can all see it?” Those examples might sound kind of silly, but the point really hit home with me. I had never had a personal experience of anything clearly supernatural–never heard a voice or experienced a dramatic miracle.
The more I thought about God’s seeming non-appearance, at least in my life, the more I began to doubt his existence. I prayed and asked God to show himself to me—nothing happened. I asked for miracles, like being able to walk through a wall—I almost gave myself a bloody nose. I read the Bible looking for something to help me. I talked to friends who believed. Nothing and no one seemed to be able to resolve my doubt. I finally concluded that God didn’t exist and that I had been following a delusion.
You might be wondering why I wasn’t taking into account the experiences of other people who claim to have seen miracles, some of them pretty astonishing. I’m not sure. Maybe I doubted the credibility of anything I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. Or maybe I was just really focused on my own experience–or lack of it.
The months that followed my decision to abandon faith were dark. If there was no God, then there was no basis for determining right and wrong, or good and bad. If there was no “higher power,” then there was no higher purpose to pursue. In fact, I felt like there was no purpose at all. My life compass was pointing nowhere.
My inner emptiness drove me to continue searching. Searching for something to give me direction and hope. One day I decided to re-read the Gospel of John (the 4th book in the New Testament of the Bible). When I got to chapter 6, I started to pay attention. This is the chapter where Jesus feeds five thousand people with five barley loaves and three fish. A definite miracle. Except I wasn’t there to see it, so I dismissed it.
But the last part of the chapter really got my attention. The day after Jesus had done this notable miracle, crowds of people (many of the same people who had eaten the bread and fish) came to Jesus and were saying “do something supernatural so that we’ll believe in you” (my paraphrase of vs. 10). They even asked for him to do the bread miracle again. This is where I really sat up and took notice. They were asking Jesus the same thing I had been asking: “Give me a sign, prove yourself.” But this is how Jesus answered them:
I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst –Jesus
When I read those words, “I am the bread of life,” I realized that Jesus himself was the proof I’d been looking for. And I realized that in my previous life of faith I had actually been experiencing the effect of God’s presence. When I had faith, I had hope and purpose. I experienced love, joy and peace. In the account in John 6, Jesus never does the new miracle the people ask for. He only offers them himself. (That’s an ironic “only.”) I realized that Jesus was doing the same with me. He wasn’t going to empower me to walk through a wall in order to prove himself to me. He wanted me to pay attention to the bigger miracle. The miracle of a satisfied life. Even more, the miracle of a new life, eternal life—in vs. 40 Jesus says, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life”.
I asked God to forgive my lack of faith, and I know he did. I know because when I asked him to give me faith, he did. Once I resumed living by faith—by faith in God through Jesus Christ, I felt the inner satisfaction I had been missing. I once again had purpose, love, joy, peace, and hope.