I believe. Help my unbelief.
Heartfelt thanks to those who have written to me with your Questions of Faith. Your honesty and vulnerability has moved me deeply. As one person said at the church I visited last Sunday, these are the questions that lurk beneath the surface of our lives that we don’t know how to acknowledge and, as people of faith, are often embarrassed to ask. Yet these are the questions, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “that have no right to go away.”
The first two people to respond asked about the very existence and the nature of God.
Are there days when you wake up in the morning with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?”
How can we truly know that God is good?
Yes is the answer to the first question. Thankfully, I have learned that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to a life of faith. Doubts and questions are faith’s fertile soil. Like anyone, I’ve had my share of both, in large part because of all that I see in this world, that we all see, that cannot be easily reconciled with the notion of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
From the great spiritual traditions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, there are, in fact, “answers” to the hardest questions human beings have asked for milenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found those answers particularly compelling or satisfying. I’m more drawn to the questions themselves and those who across the ages have had the courage to ask, and to live in the ambiguity of unknowing.
For example, there’s a book in the Bible, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man named Job. Job, as the story begins, is the embodiment of faithfulness and righteous living. But then catastrophe strikes on every front: his children die, his possessions are taken from him, he is afflicted with all manner of disease. All this happens at Satan’s hand, with God’s consent, as a kind of cosmic test of his faith. It’s a terrible set up for Job, and if you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems that many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything, Job never loses faith in God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. Job lashes out in grief and anger at God. He rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these terrible things have happened to him, which amount to all the best religious answers given to explain the reasons human beings must suffer and sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that after Job exhausts himself and falls silent, he has an experience of God speaking to him at last. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to trust in God, accept grief as a given in this life, release his anger, and keep living.
Such moments, when they come, are what keep me going, too. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of God’s goodness is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, or equally compelling, when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.2
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love, or a longing for it. Often it’s the memory of a sacred encounter, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith that keeps us going when our faith wanes. As a young adult, when my heart was deeply broken, a wise person in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.” I held onto her words as a lifeline through that dark time.
I wonder who has been a lifeline for you in such times, and I suspect you have been that faith-carrying presence for others when they have felt most alone. We matter to one another more than we realize. So let me emphasize again the importance of your questions, and to encourage you not only to honor them for yourself but to share them with one another. Please continue to share them with me, if you like. Offer them to God as well–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens.
1“Sometimes,” by David Whyte, in River Flow: New and Selected Poems, 1984-2007 (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2007), 53.
2I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir