For 20 years I doubted the existence of God, yet part of me still held out for the lightning-strike miracle of instant faith.
I yearned for something so dramatic and definitive, an experience so obvious, I would have no choice but to believe. I wanted the road-to-Damascus moment, like the instant Paul was knocked breathless to his knees in the middle of a dusty road, literally blinded by the startling voice of God.
What I got instead was markedly less dramatic. My return to God and faith unfolded over a number of years, at nothing short of a glacial pace.
I learned a lot from my two-decade battle with doubt, but most of that knowledge was acquired in retrospect, after I’d finally found my way back to faith. Here are the four most important things I wish I’d known when I was mired in the thick of doubt:
It’s tempting to sweep doubt under the rug. After all, whether you’re a longtime Christian or relatively new to faith, doubt feels embarrassing and wrong. You might tell yourself that “real Christians” don’t have questions, or that “real believers” never waver in their faith.
Resist the urge to fake a rock-solid faith. Pretending your doubts don’t exist will only lead to a dead-end in your relationship with God. Until you get honest with yourself and with God about your questions and doubts, you’ll simply be going through the motions of a pretend faith.
When the disciple Thomas doubted the existence of the resurrected Jesus, he didn’t squelch his unbelief or keep his doubts to himself, but instead, admitted his skepticism out loud. Frankly, it would have been easier for Thomas to have gone along with the crowd and rejoiced with his friends who had seen and experienced the resurrected Jesus. Instead, he bravely acknowledged his doubts and fears, allowing both his community and Jesus himself to meet him exactly where he was.
God’s deepest desire is to connect with us in a meaningful, authentic way, even if those conversations including questions, wrestling and an expression of our deepest doubts.
Connect with Your Community
Doubt can be a lonely, scary, isolating experience, especially if you keep your questions to yourself. Confide in your community. When you admit your doubts and fears out loud, you open a doorway to let others help you. Your people can help keep you afloat until you find your spiritual footing again.
“In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak,” writes theologian Henri Nouwen. “It can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.”
This is exactly what the disciples, Thomas’ community, did for him. When Jesus reappeared eight days after his initial visit, Thomas was with them (John 20:26). Despite his unbelief, Thomas had remained within his community, a community that did not castigate him or abandon him, but instead, carried him along until he was able to recognize the Lord. Thomas’s community was, literally, the context in which he was able to recognize Jesus and believe in Him again.
Lean into Your Practice
It’s tempting to abandon your spiritual disciplines when you are deep in the throes of doubt. You might be asking yourself, “Why read the Bible when I’m not sure I believe in the Word of God?” Or, “Why attend church when I question whether God even exists?” But focusing on spiritual practices like worship, prayer and Bible study can keep you grounded when the path is obscured.
“I feel blessed to know from experience that it is in the act of worship, the act of saying and repeating the vocabulary of faith, that one can come to claim it as ‘ours,’” says writer Kathleen Norris. “It is in acts of repetition that seem senseless to the rational mind that belief comes, doubts are put to rest, religious conversion takes hold and feels at home in a community of faith.”
Acts of service are a particularly powerful antidote to doubt. When we are mired in the fear and anxiety that often accompanies doubt, we turn inward, succumbing to tunnel vision and an obsessive self-focus. Turning your attention outward toward your neighbors in need and away from your own spiritual angst can reveal the face of God in surprising and unexpected ways.
Live the Questions
In Catholic Mass, the priest holds the Eucharist toward heaven with both hands and proclaims, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” The congregation then sings the response, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The key phrase in that liturgical exchange? The mystery of faith.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) This verse challenges those of us who don’t particularly like to live in the mystery; those of us who would much rather see face to face now. But the truth is, we aren’t privy to every answer because we are not God.
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests, it could be that we aren’t quite ready for all the answers. “Do not search for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them,” Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet. “It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”
When Michelle DeRusha moved from Massachusetts to Nebraska in 2001, she discovered the Great Plains, grasshoppers the size of Cornish Hens ... and God. She is the author of Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith and her most recent release, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning From Heroines of the Faith. You can connect with Michelle at her blog or on Twitter @MichelleDeRusha.