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.
A longtime topic of interest for me has been the concept of “spiritual dry spells,” when you can’t seem to feel God’s presence. I haven’t had a whole lot of emotional religious experiences, and when I was first in the conversion process, I had none. I felt like I was doing something wrong since so many other Christians seemed to have all these great, powerful experiences.
I’ve read a lot on the topic, and probably the best analysis I’ve heard comes from Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book Jesus-Shock. He writes:
What is precious in believing-without-seeing is not the not-seeing but the believing, the strengthening of the faith muscle when the crutches of seeing and feeling are removed. Seeing Him was not enough, for thousands saw Him yet turned away, and even shouted, “Crucify him!” Feeling Him in the heart is not enough either, for that is subjective, that is ours, that is fallible. Furthermore, we are self-centered experience addicts. We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.
I’ve definitely been guilty of this. After I did have a few really powerful experiences where I felt overwhelmed with emotion, filled with happiness and joy, I would often go back to church seeking that — the experience. I can think of more than one occasion when I’d sit in the pew, staring at the crucifix with longing; but, unfortunately, not a longing for Jesus. I’d look right past the image of him on the cross, my desires fixated on those big emotions I felt last Sunday. It was as if I were a junkie, and Jesus was my dealer. I was happy to see him not for who he was, but for the “high” I wanted him to give me.
Kreeft points out that this is why the Eucharist is such a perfect way to encounter God: we get all of him, his full self, and our feelings about it are a completely optional part of the package. Kreeft writes:
We long for joy, and He tells us that He is our joy, and that He will be in us Himself, not that he gives us joy. (Jn 15:11) He is not a means, and our joy is not the end. That is idolatry. He is the end.
Kreeft then recounts a famous saying about Fact, Faith and Feeling walking along a wall. Fact goes first, then Faith, then Feeling. As long as Faith keeps his eyes on Fact, they all make steady progress. But Faith keeps turning around to see what’s going on with Feeling, and he gets unsteady. Faith and Feeling both end up tumbling off the wall, while Fact walks on alone.
Looking back, I now think that it was to my advantage that I felt nothing during the conversion process. Back when I had no emotional experiences, I had no temptation to make them idols. Since I didn’t have Feeling walking behind me, I just put one foot in front of the other, steadily following Fact.
It’s not as simple now that I do occasionally have those wonderful emotional experiences. I’m very tempted to make idols of them. But now, when I catch myself sitting in a pew, looking right past the Lord in search of a fleeting emotional high, I think of what Kreeft said. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the facts, to behold Jesus for who he is, to receive him in the Eucharist, and let that be enough. Because, as Kreeft so wisely reminds us, “He is not a means, and our joy in not the end.”
I occasionally hear from people who say that “seek and ye shall find” didn’t work for them. They explain that they prayed, read the Bible, researched, asked Jesus to help them, opened their hearts and minds, etc. but didn’t end up any closer to belief. A commenter named Amy once summarized it eloquently in the comments to a post about doubt when she wrote:
Finding faith in 5 steps didn’t work for me [referring to this post], nor did finding faith in 20 steps. I sincerely, truly tried. I prayed. I asked others to pray for me. I sought humility. I went on not only a cynicism fast, but a complete media fasts more than once (no internet, no radio, no tv, no reading, no writing). I cried myself to sleep on more than one occasion, begging God to help me. I spoke to priests. I blogged. I attended Mass several days a week. I signed up for RCIA. I went to adoration. I read books. I went on retreat at a monastery…
I’m at the point now where I don’t even believe that God, if God exists, has any interaction with humans at all, and to me the question of God has become irrelevant, let alone Christianity. I assure you, it is not a place I wanted to end up, but I am coming to terms with it.
I had to smile when commenter Destry offered her own wry summary in response to this post:
Reaching out to Jesus feels like hearing that some guy likes you and wants to get to know you, but never calls. You sit by the phone, wondering what you did wrong.
First of all, a big thanks to Amy, Destry and everyone else who has offered perspectives like this. It takes courage to talk about this sort of thing, and I’m honored that you shared your experiences with us. I assure you all of my prayers, wherever your journey takes you.
Since this is a blog about conversion, I thought this would be a good subject to bring up. I’m going to write a post about it soon, but first wanted to offer a chance for others to share their thoughts: For those of you who are believers, what would you say to someone who says, “I sought, but I didn’t find”?
Last week I was praying about how I’m bad at praying. (I use the word “praying” loosely here; “whining in God’s general direction” would be a better term.) I was walking around as I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner, half-consciously thinking stuff like, “I dunno, I do try pray, but I always get distracted, or I forget, or I just don’t feel like it. Actually, let’s be real, it’s usually that I just don’t feel like it…”
I try to “pray without ceasing,” turning to God regularly as I go about my days, but lately I’d been increasingly apathetic about having any kind of set prayer time where I give God 100% of my attention. Even though I recognized that when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours it helps me on every level, even when I tried setting simpler goals like just focusing on freeform prayer for five minutes per day, it still wasn’t happening. And so I found myself whining about it in the kitchen one night last week.
And, to my surprise, I got an answer.
In the midst of my unfocused rambling, a loud message interrupted all my other thoughts and got my full attention. I guess it could have been from my subconscious, but it really seemed like one of those moments of “hearing” God since it came out of the blue and was so foreign to all my other thoughts. It said:
You pray before battle.
What? I wasn’t even sure what that meant. I responded prayerfully: “Huh?”
I heard it again. As I rinsed dishes and swept the floor, I thought about what that meant in relation to my struggles with prayer. Then I realized:
If I were going into battle tomorrow — a real battle, facing bloodshed and mortal danger — I would pray. I wouldn’t have to remind myself why it’s important. I wouldn’t whine about it. I wouldn’t drag my feet. And I dang sure wouldn’t forget.
In fact, if I were doing anything of great importance, I would naturally turn to prayer. Let’s say, for example, that Oprah invited me on her show to make the case for orthodox Christianity, or that I had a chance to meet with an influential politician to talk to him or her about an issue that’s important to me. Not only would I not forget to pray beforehand, but you’d hardly be able to get me to do anything else.
A big problem with my prayer life is that I’d stopped feeling like I do anything important on a day-to-day basis. Now, I’ve always known that my job is the most important job in the world; I’ve never doubted that my role as a mother is critical in the grand scheme of things. But on the average day? Hmm. Not so much.
Somewhere along the way my attitude had become saturated with ennui, and I came to see my days as consisting of “make breakfast,” “clean up after breakfast,” “try to keep the house from getting destroyed between breakfast and lunch,” “make lunch,” and so on. Not very exciting. I’d made the dangerous mistake of forgetting that every day is a battle, a war of good against evil, that every time I choose love instead of sin it’s a victory on a cosmic level that I can’t imagine. There are always opportunities to step out of my comfort zone in trust in God, to serve in ways I’ve never served before, to bless other people with the love of God — and that’s on days when I don’t leave the house! It’s a vicious cycle, really: the more I skip prayer and lose touch with God, the more I forget that the Christian life is always the exciting life, regardless of your external circumstances.
As the new year rolls around, I think that one of my biggest goals is simply to break out of this lackadaisical approach to daily life and renew my understanding that every day really is an opportunity to fight a glorious battle. Anyone have any advice?