Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.… If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.… How painful is this unknown pain—I have no faith.
– Mother Teresa
Have you ever felt like that? I’m certain that many Christians have experienced this type of spiritual desert, a period of time in which God and his presence seemed so far from you that you didn’t know whether you would ever experience it again. You wondered if he heard your prayers, if he cared about you or if he even existed at all. Some of you are probably nodding your head as you read this. You’ve been there. Perhaps you’re there right now. I’ve been there. The good news is that you’re not alone.
Sometimes Christians will unintentionally make a doubting brother or sister feel worse about themselves and their situation by indicating that doubt has no place in the believer’s life. But many of our Christian heroes struggled with doubt and feelings of desolation. Mother Teresa was not alone. Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, comes to mind as a biblical example of someone who experienced doubt. The great reformer, Martin Luther, once asked a woman if she believed the creeds that she recited. She replied affirmatively. His response? “You believe more and better than I do.” Writers from the last 200 years, such as Soren Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey, all document their wavering between faith and doubt.
There is some comfort to be taken from our Christian history. We sometimes forget that doubt is not the enemy of our faith, but rather faith is the corollary to our doubt. Let’s face it, if there is no reason to doubt, then of what value is faith? Faith is only genuine if a genuine choice exists. Christians often make the mistake of thinking that being a person of faith requires being supercilious and mulish about our beliefs. It is an unfortunate byproduct of 20th-century evangelicalism. Do you remember those evangelism seminars we used to have? They were performed on the basis that the people we would encounter would have questions and we were supposed to have the answers. No engaging in meaningful dialogue. You were the doctor and the soul-winning prospect was the patient. There are a lot of problems with that approach.
First of all, that type of determination and arrogance won’t get you very far in your “soul-winning” efforts in this century. We’ve got good news to share, not a prescription to shove down someone’s throat.
Secondly, it traps many believers in the uncomfortable position of being experts when they clearly are not. We’re not doctors. Admit that we don’t know everything—it’s not the end of the world!
Finally, it is disingenuous. There are a lot of Christians, including leaders, who are doubters. Pastors and officers should not be expected to live on some higher platform of doubtlessness. Very candidly, pastors are often exposed to doubt. The average congregation member probably thinks that his or her pastor has been to seminary or university, so they must know everything about the Bible and theology and be doubly sure of their salvation. The real truth for many of them is that exposure to things such as textual criticism, liberal theology and the study of ancient history and philosophy causes them to have grave questions about some of the things they were taught since childhood. Very few of those Christian leaders will share some of the things they learned with their congregants. Fewer of them will admit that it causes doubts in their own mind.
I will admit that I have had some serious periods of doubt in my life—even during my officership. Some might say that I should have walked away from my calling when I didn’t know for sure what I believed. Some might say I was a phony. But I believed that if God did exist, then he would appreciate my being honest rather than glibly swallowing something that was irrational to me. I clung to the promise of the Scriptures that declares that even “if we are faithless, he remains faithful” (see 2 Timothy 2:13). I should expect dark clouds of doubt sometimes because others have experienced it. And just as they came through their storms, so, too, can I expect him to see me through. To date, each time my faith has gone through the fire of doubt, it has survived and been stronger and more relevant because of it. Now, when I have questions, I lay them before God and let them take me where they will. It is my doubts and limitations that ultimately lead me to put my faith in God.
Major Juan Burry is the executive director of Victoria’s Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre. You can read his other columns here.