I hear from a lot of people who fear they’re losing their faith. They’ve had some doubts come to mind that they just can’t seem to get past, and they’re rattled to the core to think that their entire belief system just might be false.
Since I’ve spent so much time in the spiritual desert, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve spent a long time thinking and praying about how to respond to people in this difficult situation, and thought I would share my answer, which has two key parts, in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
Explore your doubts…
The first part of my answer is simply to say: be not afraid. Doubts aren’t a bad thing; they’re a sign of a questioning mind. That’s good. My entire conversion from lifelong atheism to Catholic Christianity was paved by asking every difficult question I could think of, and I’ve heard a lot of conversion stories very similar to my own. I also know a lot of people whose faith grew by leaps and bounds when they began seeking answers to what were originally disturbing doubts.
So look at it is an exciting intellectual quest, and get ready to go seek some answers!
But before you start, there’s something you should keep in mind about this process:
…But do so in peace
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve been through a lot of spiritual ups and downs, and I’ve corresponded with countless people who have navigated through intense periods of extreme doubt. And what I’ve learned from all of this is that the search for truth is not as simple as it seems — especially when it comes to the truth about God.
God is love, love itself, so keep in mind that a quest to find the truth about God is a quest to find the truth about Love. And it doesn’t take much life experience to know that the way we approach love can be easily tainted by bad experiences and woundedness. An example I often think of is someone who has a hard time forming healthy, loving relationships because of unresolved hurts from his past: he can’t see the truth about current, potentially positive relationships because his view is clouded by all the lingering negativity. He can’t see the truth about love. Similarly, when we’re looking for the truth about Love itself, it’s as much an emotional quest as it is an intellectual quest, and it’s easy for emotions to throw us far off course.
I think of all the various forces that can cloud our quest for truth like a fog descending on a traveler: you can see bits of the road here and there, but can’t quite get the big picture. It commonly descends in the form of unresolved feelings of hurt, especially if someone feels like he or she has been harmed by:
- family members
- fellow Christians
- the Church as a whole
- God himself (e.g. feeling like critical prayers weren’t answered)
Our relationships with all of these entities are sacred, and should be should be sources of pure love. So any festering hurts in those departments are going to be particularly virulent sources of that “fog” that can obscure the truth.
And then, of course, there’s our own sin. I know that in my own life and the lives of people I’ve talked to about this, some common sins that can turn honest doubts into a dangerous road away from God are:
- Pride – e.g. associating lack of faith with the intelligentsia, therefore thinking you’re more sophisticated and erudite if you don’t believe; feeling like your life is 100% under your control and therefore God is irrelevant to you; refusing to see evidence for God if it doesn’t look like you would expect it to; etc.
- Laziness - e.g. feeling lured by the idea of having free time on Sunday mornings; not wanting to sacrifice yourself for others; etc.
- Desire for revenge – e.g. enjoying the idea that it would hurt family / community / church members who have harmed you if you announced that you were no longer a Christian.
- Greed / Vanity: e.g. becoming wrapped up in the glamor of the pursuit of money, status, career advancement, etc. and feeling like the Christian faith is bogging you down.
…And so on. Now, again, rarely do we articulate these things to ourselves. At no point in my own conversion did I say to myself, “I think I’ll bias my research toward atheism because it’ll make me look smarter! And, plus, I’m lazy!” Yet, on a subconscious level, that is exactly what happened. Without doing a regular, serious examination of conscience in a spirit of humility, I never even realized that those forces were at work within me.
It’s all about the big picture
To give you an example of one very small way these sort of forces played out in my own life, I’ll tell you about a day a few months ago when I was at Mass:
I’d been sitting there thinking about the Ascension, and how odd the specifics of the event seem to me. Admittedly, it’s one of the harder Christian stories for me to grasp. Jesus floated up into the air? Behind a cloud? When I first read the New Testament I was amazed by how honest and authentic it all seemed. But when I got to Acts 1:9 I thought, “Umm. Seriously?”
So anyway, that morning at Mass turned out to be one of those survival days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, including encountering a man who was shockingly rude to me. By the time I had to haul a screaming toddler outside into cold drizzle, let’s just say I was not fully at peace. I felt so weighed down with frustration, so exasperated that something as simple as going to Mass should be so difficult, and so indignant that a fellow parishioner would be so rude in the sanctuary during the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
I paced around outside, fuming so much I thought the rain might turn into steam when it hit me. And then it occurred to me: this would be the perfect time to take another look at the Ascension!
“That really DOES seem kind of fantastical!” I grumbled. My mind quickly trotted out some of the old, comfortable atheist arguments about how that kind of story was rooted in ancient people’s ignorance about meteorology, when they thought that heaven literally existed in the clouds, and that it was ultimately a retelling of Greek traditions about Zeus, the God of the Sky.
And there was more! Now, I was on a roll. I did the same analysis for the few other doctrines I had questions about, and by the time the Mass was over I had worked myself into a tizzy in which I had pretty much convinced myself that the entire Faith was false.
But here’s the thing: I had thought of all these questions plenty of other times, when I was in a peaceful state. I had taken the time to do my homework and seek — and actually listen to – the Christian explanations of these teachings, and I found them to be solid. Not only that, but I was able to see the big picture: the overall evidence had convinced me that this belief system is reasonable and true. There were no fatal flaws that I could find. Sure, there were a few things that struck me as odd, like the specific details of how Jesus returned to heaven, but, in a peaceful state of mind, I could recognize that this was not a linchpin on which the Faith hinged — plus, I could see that maybe I was just missing something.
But in my burdened, unsettled state of mind, I was drawn to fixate on details. I just couldn’t pull my head up far enough to see the big picture. I’d fallen down a rabbit role, and I started running.
Now, this situation wasn’t that big of a deal. I ended up feeling fine after we got home, and all my angst about faith dissipated as well. But it’s a small example of what can happen at a larger level in anyone’s spiritual life.
In summary, if you’re plagued with doubts, my heart sincerely goes out to you. I’ve been there, and I know it’s painful. The very short version of my advice would be: explore your doubts, but do so in peace. And never forget the the search for God, i.e. for Love, is inextricably entwined with our spiritual and emotional states. Any kind of unresolved stress in those departments can cloud our vision and keep us from seeing the big picture, and therefore the truth.
— 1 —
We had our 18-week ultrasound yesterday and found out the gender of the baby. It’s a GIRL! This will be our fourth girl in a row (only our oldest is a boy). What’s funny is that having boys is very common in my husband’s family, so when our first was a boy, all his relatives saw this as confirmation that we’d have an all-boy family. I even joked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we had more kids and they were all girls?”, thinking of it as some outlandish possibility that would never happen. Who knew!
— 2 —
I admit that for a short moment after the ultrasound tech told me, I felt pretty disappointed that the baby wasn’t a boy. (I mean, ya know, after three girls in a row, I was thinking that a little change of pace would be nice.) Since I often write about how the hiddenness of life in the womb tempts us to see unborn life as less human than other people, it’s interesting to see it at work in myself. I mean, if you could open up some portal to the future and have this baby walk up to me as a four-year-old child and say, “Hi, mommy!”, the furthest thing from my mind would be a feeling of disappointment. I’d never come close to thinking, “Hmmph. I wish you were different.” And yet when “the pregnancy” — the hidden child I’ve never laid eyes on in person — turns out to be a girl, I had that feeling of disappointment. My own random, selfish desires supersede the dignity of who she is as a person. Interesting.
— 3 —
My trip to San Francisco was wonderful! A big highlight was getting to have a long breakfast during my layover in Phoenix with my friend Leila, a blogger extraordinaire and mom of eight.
She’s just as sharp and interesting as she seems to be from her blog. Our little meetup was really one of the best parts of the trip for me!
— 4 —
You were all so right: my library — nay, my entire life — was not complete without P.G. Wodehouse. Based on the overwhelming number of comments I got in response to #7 here insisting that I check out some of the Jeeves & Wooster books, I bought Carry On, Jeeves to take on my trip with me. I finished it in two days, and thus realized that I simply cannot get enough of British humor involving witty repartee with butlers.
— 5 —
My meeting with my literary agent went very well. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe right by the ocean, and I had a bowl of the best clam chowder ever made. I had hoped that meeting me in person might somehow inspire him to say, “You know all those huge changes I suggested you make to your book? I see now that you are a competent, intelligent person who knows what you’re doing, so forget about it! Just relax and kick up your feet, and I’ll start shopping it to publishers as is!” Umm. Didn’t happen. In fact, he made some good points that convinced me even further than these epic changes will make it a significantly better book. Sigh. Back to the grindstone for me.
— 6 —
The glacial speed of this book project is made more painful by the fact that it’s somewhat unusual these days. At least among people I know who write books. My friends Ann Voskamp and Rachel Balducci started writing their books around the same time I did, and theirs are already in print. A typical route these days is that someone signs a deal with a publisher based on a proposal, and then has a hard deadline for the completion of the manuscript. It can be pretty miserable hitting the deadline, but at least it doesn’t drag on forever.
My agent doesn’t want to go that route. He wants me to have as much time as I need to get this book polished to perfection, and only then will we call the publishers who’ve expressed interest — that way I’m not rushed by deadlines. God knew what he was doing when he set me on this route: I’m no Ann or Rachel, and I undoubtedly need much more time to craft my story into a great read. I think my agent is very wise. But yeah. I sometimes feel like banging my head into a wall and screaming “WILL THIS EVER BE DONE?!?!?!”
— 7 —
Speaking of books, I stopped by a small independent bookstore out in San Francisco. It was an interesting experience in the psychology of choice. I had far fewer choices at the small bookstore. I’d gone in to get a new Wodehouse book, and they didn’t have it. The horror! As a modern consumer used to getting whatever I want at the snap of my fingers, I was quite annoyed.
But I struck up a conversation with the friendly store owner, and he directed me to a bunch of exciting new books I wasn’t familiar with. I would have never discovered them if I’d been able to get the thing I had my mind set on; the lack of choices forced me to expand my horizons — and I’m so glad I did! (If you’re interested, I walked out of there with: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much; The End of Overeating; A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome; and some other British book involving butlers whose title I can’t remember.)
Below is a linky list if you’d like to add a link to your own 7 Quick Takes post. (1) Make sure the link you submit is to the URL of your post and not your main blog URL. (2) Include a link back here.
I’m excited to report that I was able to make it to the West Coast Walk for Life while I was in San Francisco this weekend. I came really close to confining myself to the comfort of my hotel, but I’m so glad I went. Some pictures and observations:
I’ve never seen so many people in one place.
I couldn’t make a rough estimate of how many people were there, because I could never see them all at once. Even when I found higher ground, the crowd stretched over one horizon to another. This video is the closest I could come to capturing it:
What you see there is only about 20% of the people in attendance. One man said he stood in one place and waited for the entire line of marchers to walk by, and it took an hour. I heard someone say that an estimated 40,000 turned out, but that seems a little low.
I didn’t see a single media outlet there, which was odd given the enormity of the turnout. It basically shut down part of the city.
Overall, it was a young crowd.
There were tons of people there aged 16 – 25, and they were full of energy for the cause. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that they all grew up in the age of ultrasounds, where we have a whole lot more information about what really goes on in the womb.
What I found most interesting was the counter-protestors. I was surprised that there were so few of them — they were like a drop of water in the ocean compared to the marchers. Also, their average age was older than that of the pro-life crowd.
The most striking thing was how many of them wore some sort of disguise.
I’d estimate that 30 – 50% of the counter-protestors wore some kind of costume or obscured their faces in some way.
Also fascinating was their heavy emphasis on the sacrilegious. Notice the upside-down cross on the face of the girl below. (I obscured part of her sign because it was really vulgar.)
A focus of many of the signs was graphic, unbelievably crude sexual insults involving Jesus and Mary. This disgusting sign below is one of the few I can post a picture of, as it was, amazingly, one of the milder messages.
Some of them put on little impromptu plays where they’d pretend to be Jesus or Mary and pantomime lurid sexual acts, shouting profanity-laden narration all the while.
The highlight of the day was listening to the testimonies of the courageous women of Silent No More. There wasn’t a dry eye on the field. God bless these women.
It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city.
After seeing the turnout of this Walk and others like it, I have no doubt that the tide is turning. As I walked back to the train station, through crowds of awed onlookers, many of whom were whispering things like “Can you believe this?”, I felt filled with hope for the future of unborn life in this country.
- How I became pro-life
- My friend Abigail’s story of how she went from a pro-choice feminist at Smith College to a pro-life housewife
- St. Blogustine’s great pictures of the Washington March for Life
- The Anchoress’ link-o-rama roundup of pro-life marches