Facing doubts

Photo:  Mike Babiarz, Creative COmmons

Photo: Mike Babiarz, Creative Commons

One of the mistakes people make about faith is what to do about doubt. They just aren’t sure about God, so they’re waiting to be convinced. They imagine themselves in the role of a juror, expecting the prosecutor to come forward with evidence that convinces them beyond a reasonable doubt. Since the imaginary prosecutor never does, they are never convinced. In this state of perpetually suspended judgment, it’s not too hard to convince yourself that it’s “more reasonable” to doubt than to believe. Watch out for this: It’s tempting to feel a kind of loyalty to your doubts. The modern world urges and applauds this kind of thinking. By not making up your mind, you can imagine yourself as somehow fairer and more sensible than people who pick a side.

But life presents us with questions. We yearn for answers. It’s one of the things that makes us human. So how do you get past these doubts?

Imagine yourself not as the juror but as one of the attorneys. The other side has some strong evidence that goes against your case, and you don’t really have any evidence to counter it. What should you do? One good strategy is to try to exclude the other side’s evidence, to keep the jury from seeing it. You use the rules of evidence to exclude all those inconvenient facts. And this is what we tend to do when looking for evidence of the existence of God. We look for evidence that’s immediately perceivable to our senses. What about the testimony of witnesses who’ve seen miracles? “Objection, Hearsay!”

If this is you, you’re like a juror who will never convict unless you witness the crime yourself. That’s not a reasonable position. We don’t operate our civil and criminal justice system along those lines. In fact, we hardly make any important decisions under such a strict regime. Consider applying these strict criteria to the decision to marry someone.

Let me preface this: Marriage works for me as a metaphor for faith, because I am blessed with a good marriage. I say in all humility that I know not everyone is as blessed as me, so if this metaphor does not work for you, please don’t take that as evidence that the faith is likewise objectionable. Consider some other person or cause or commitment to which you are deeply drawn and consider yourself bound, for life, come what may. If you have no such relationships, you should.

So marriage starts as an emotional attraction without much information – “hey, who is THAT?” Then I go through the process of getting to know her. This involves emotional and intuitive compatibilities. I find that I feel happy when I’m with her. And there are rational factors as well. I don’t just find her find her company delightful, I find her character admirable and her goals compatible with mine.

But before I ever ask her The Question, there’s the question I ask myself: is she the right one?

In deciding whether to marry someone, you do weigh things in a rational manner. But the decisive moment involves more than a tipping of the scales slightly in favor of marriage, more than the elimination of a reasonable doubt. Maybe there wasn’t that one piercing moment when she changed completely, when you stopped thinking of her as a girlfriend and started thinking of her as the woman you wanted to marry. But even if it happened in steps, it still happened. At some point you know: She’s the one. Is it something you realize, or something you decide? Is it something you do, or something that happens to you?

Finding God works like that, at least it worked like that for me. I wasn’t sifting through evidence, trying to come to a conclusion about the matter. I was glancing aimlessly through the Bible – strictly as a literary work, you understand – one lonely and desolate evening, and I came to the part where Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane, after the Last Supper. “My soul is sorrowful,” he said, “even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.” Mt 26:1. At that moment, I knew Jesus was real, that he actually did these things, and that this somehow mattered even now. Did I realize or did I decide? I don’t know. But it wasn’t analytical, not at that moment.

To be sure, I started analyzing again, and that is fine. And the more I thought about it, atheism made no sense. So the whole faith vs. reason dichotomy is a false. If you’re a logic-oriented person like me, you need Christianity to make sense. But my point is: if you think that stacking up evidence is all you have to do, then you are mistaken. You can stack up evidence forever and never find Jesus. If you think you need to wait till you’ve eliminated all the doubts, then you are mistaken. Doubts are as common as pebbles in a stream. You can always find reasons to doubt the existence of God, if you insist on looking for them. The possibility of doubt is not a new insight of enlightened modern people. The prophets of the Old Testament knew all about it. Isaiah gives us this answer from the God we are seeking: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Is 55:9.

Finding God is not like solving a math problem, where you have to keep working through the steps until you get the right answer. No matter who you are, or how earnestly you seek Him, every answer you find will be wrapped around a question. Seek Him anyway.