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I Believe But...
His name is forgotten. Let's call him Ketar, which in Hebrew means to solve a problem or to resolve doubt...
Ketar's fingers twitched and trembled, but his arm lay warm and gentle around the wet shoulders of his sullen son. Years of fear and frustration choked his voice. With the side of his thumb, Ketar brushed tears from the corners of his eyes.
The terror had struck again. Once more his boy had been dragged from near drowning. The young man's soaked clothing clung to his shivering body but did not cover the burn scars networking his back.
"Sometimes the demon throws him into the water, sometimes into the fire," Ketar anguished as he stood in front of the carpenter's son. "If you can do anything..."
"If I can?" Jesus responded. "All things are possible to those who believe."
"Believe? I do."
But in reality, what little faith Ketar possessed didn't seem to connect with his life. How does one believe? He had often prayed for the boy, but nothing changed. Had he really expected it would? His long days and dark nights seemed all the same. He was running out of hope.
His son was not the only one who desperately needed help. Ketar needed it himself! He could find no clear prism for separating the dark demonic forces from the light of heaven.
"I do believe," he murmured, "but..."
Could there be hope? Maybe the carpenter's son could restore balance to his world and still the voices of its demons.
"I do believe, but...help me. Help me overcome my unbelief...
Although Ketar's words fell only softly, twenty centuries ago, their echo has not died! Some believers still wrestle with doubts today.
And help — real help — is still available!
When Faith Goes Flat
A friend of mine in Houston opened his mail, and out tumbled this troubling letter:
Dear — ,
Something has been bothering me of late, which I think merits mentioning to you. I've lost God. I can no longer find Him in my life. This is no case of sophomoric atheism, but rather a matter-of-fact statement — in the same way, for example, that I might say, "I misplaced my car keys."
I'm not denying God's existence at all. But for me, He simply is not real.
This fact became apparent to me the other night when I tried to pray. About three sentences into it, I realized I wasn't really feeling what I was saying, and probably God wasn't hearing me, anyway. The very act of prayer suddenly became tragically absurd. So I shut up, took two aspirin, and went to sleep.
But the issue has been haunting me off and on ever since. I know one response for this kind of statement is to say God exists in people and we should look for Him there. Well, I'll buy that. But what has become of the transcendent Deity? To whom do I pray? Where's that personal Lord and Savior of yore? If you've any thoughts on this subject, I'd like to hear them.
This letter grabbed my attention because, in many ways, I readily identify with it's writer. I also identify — deeply — with Ketar, our worried friend who begged Jesus for help with his faltering faith. In fact, one reason I am writing this book is that I do believe but still need help for my unbelief.
You may have doubts too. They may take the form of powerful, painful questions about God's love or God's power or even God's existence. Or they may emerge as vague, unexpressed feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment — a nagging sense that your once-vital and fully rounded faith has gone flat as an old tire.
Your doubts may be huge boulders that block the road to Christian commitment. Or they may be little rocks in your shoe, bothersome little distractions that sap some of your spiritual energy and keep you from finding full, wholehearted joy in your Christian walk. Either way, I suspect your doubts are what prodded you to open this book. Maybe you resonate with the old Gordon Lightfoot song: "I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back." Somewhere in your mind and heart lurk questions such as these:
Is God really out there?
If so, does He really care about me?
Does anything really change when I pray and study the Bible?
Why don't I feel as I used to feel about my faith?
If I really believe, why do I have all these nagging doubts?
And that's the second reason I am writing — to connect with your doubts.
In the years since I first summoned the courage to speak honestly and openly about my faith struggles, all sorts of people have come out of the woodwork — many of them conscientious, churchgoing people — and told me, "I feel that way too." They seem relieved that someone like me — a minister, a former missionary, someone who has followed a Christian vocation all his life — still finds faith a struggle at times. And they seem encouraged that, despite my ongoing doubts, I haven't given up on the faith journey.
So let me begin by relating a little of my own story — the story of one who has struggled with doubt since early childhood. It may not be just like your story, but I hope it will give you permission to go back through your own experience and think honestly about how your doubts feel to you.
Confessions of a Rock Kicker
The white rubber toes of my black canvas sneakers carried fresh grass stains and scuffs from kicking rocks. The snow was finally gone, new green spread softly across the rolling Canadian prairies, and crocuses bloomed on the hillsides. For most twelve-year-old country boys, the two-mile walk home from school on a warm spring afternoon would have been a sheer delight — but not for me. While my lowered eyes watched the toes of my sneakers and the rock I was kicking down the road, my restless mind tumbled and wrestled through a labyrinth of brooding thoughts.
"Why have I never seen God?" I mused. "I talk to Him, but He never talks to me. All last year I begged Him for a bicycle, but I never got one. Is there really any reason to believe in God? Or do people just pretend there is a God in order to frighten each other into being good? If there really is a God, He sure seems far away.
"But then...everyone loves my dad, and he believes in God. Could he be wrong?"
My father actually homesteaded land in Canada, and he farmed over half of his life. Six grades measured his formal schooling, but not his learning. Until his death at age eighty-five, he read voraciously. He had the soul of a poet — and a winsome, authentic faith that led people to respect and trust him.
Dad seemed to see the Almighty everywhere.
After supper, on many frosty winter evenings, Dad and I pulled on our parkas, mittens, and overshoes and trudged to the barn to finish a few chores. I recall how one night, as the hard, dry snow scrunched under our boots and the soft light of the lantern spilled across the whiteness, Dad stopped and pointed to the bright particles glistening at the rim of our pool of light. "Look how rich we are," he reminded me. "God has scattered diamonds on our path."
Late one spring, as two storm fronts met over our farm at sunset, the sky displayed an awesome extravaganza of color and motion. Dad took off his cap and stood transfixed as if in worship with the swirling colors reflected in his eyes. Then he pulled me close and talked quietly of the power and majesty of God.
During the long, bitter Saskatchewan winters, our house was heated by an ornate, glass-windowed, coal-devouring heater. A brief moment of one long-ago winter night still stands vividly in my memory. Deep in the night, I heard movement nearby and sleepily opened one eye. The glow from the heater, the only light in the room, danced across Dad's rounded shoulders and his tousled head. In his longhandles, with the funny rump-line, Dad was kneeling by my bed in prayer.
My father possessed the purest heart and most steadfast faith of any man I ever knew. I loved him and respected him deeply. But somehow, I couldn't seem to feel the things I sensed he felt. As I kicked rocks down the road, I would think, "Daddy would be so disappointed in me if he knew that I don't really for sure believe in God. Will I ever believe for sure? Or will I always wonder?"
But the fabric of my doubt was not cut with a clean edge. Interspersed between periods of kicking rocks were times when God seemed intensely real.
The year I turned thirteen, I rode horseback five miles to school each day. Sometimes this meant riding alone through stormy weather and arriving home after dusk. God became a frightened boy's comfort then. More than once, I now recall, faith dispelled anxiety and loneliness. To the jerky rhythm of my plodding black mare, through swirling snow and gathering darkness, my child's voice, half whispering, half singing, often mingled with the prairie wind:
He leadeth me! O blessed tho't!
O words with heav'nly comfort fraught!
Whate'er I do, where'er I be,
Still 'tis God's hand that leadeth me.
In those moments, God seemed not only real but near and personal, lifting my spirits and warming my lonely places. I savored those feelings, sometimes for days. Years later I would long for their return. For in the years that followed, I continued to kick the rocks of doubt ahead of me. My doubting changed shape over time, but it never completely went away.
My childhood uncertainty grew into an adolescent fear that I could never measure up to God's standards, which in turn was fed by a college student's intellectual quest and a young man's spiritual searching. Even though I chose to enter the ministry and even became a missionary for a time, I often felt like a fraud, because I wasn't sure I myself had bought into what I was "selling." For much of my life I have been haunted by feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and fear — all stemming from these fundamental doubts.
From time to time I have experienced special moments, when God seemed intensely real — when I could almost physically feel a "presence." But those special experiences wouldn't last long, nor could they be recaptured at will. Sometimes they seemed like brief moments of faith against a backdrop of ongoing doubt.
But don't let me leave you in these dark, haunted chambers, Yes, I have been a periodic doubter all of my life. But life is different for me now — vastly different — than it was in those painful days.
And no, the doubts haven't all disappeared. In fact, sometimes they still come thick and fast, from unexpected directions and with formidable power, presenting surprising new profiles. But I view my doubts differently now, and they don't torment me the way they used to.
I have not arrived. I don't really expect to. But that's okay, because I have learned that finding faith is not so much like finding a parking place as it is like discovering a winding road — and I am on the road. As a believer coming to terms with my doubts, I have chosen to follow the trail of faith (in spite of a few rocks in the road), trusting each day to the best light I have. And I do not intend to turn back.
The Many Faces of Doubt
Possibly you identify in some way with my pilgrimage. Even now you may be wandering in some dark haunted woods of doubt, wondering whether God is really there at all. I have met many a fellow traveler in these shadowy places.
One pilgrim was a business executive, accustomed to having his orders carried out on the spot. His doubts multiplied when confronted with God's apparent silence. He blustered, "If I were God I would show people who was boss."
That man could well have been the little boy in the cartoon who was down on his knees by the bedside, saying his prayers, almost out of patience with the Almighty: "Aunt Stella isn't married yet. Uncle Hubert hasn't got a job. Daddy's hair is still falling out. I'm tired of saying prayers for this family without getting results."
This silence in the sky, this waiting around for something to happen that never does, can be quite serious. You soon discover that life is often full of this waiting — and full of sad or angry people wondering why. Vice triumphs over virtue, things go terribly wrong, good people get killed or knocked around, the heavens don't open to destroy the wicked, evil people laugh in the face of God, the world rolls on, and nothing changes.
William Blake seems to understand the pain of this kind of doubt in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way till a void boundless as the nether sky appeared beneath us, and we held on by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity, but I said: "If you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether Providence is here also."
Those of us whose doubt stares at the silent sky or hangs over a void sometimes find ourselves wondering, "Is anyone really here?"
But that may not be your problem at all.
You may be thinking, "Yes, I am a doubter too," but you can't seem to connect with my story or with the impatient executive or with Blake. That's not surprising. Countless conversations across the years have convinced me that doubt comes in many shapes and sizes, and my size may not fit you at all.
You may not be a minister, for example, but a CEO or homemaker or farmer or student or accountant or physician. Your disposition may not match mine either. And your doubts may have an entirely different feel to them.
You may relate to Eric, whose doubting was more like wandering through a dry, dusty landscape than struggling through a dark wood.
Eric grew up in a Christian family. Christ stood at the center of Eric's world during high-school days. After graduating from a prestigious university, Eric landed a teaching job in a top-flight high school. But now Eric was at mid-career. He loved his work, but the pressure of the secular environment had relentlessly eroded many of his feelings about God. And although he remained active in his church, he gradually felt his faith sliding down his relevancy scale.
Eric's voice sounded tired, almost cold, when he described his reaction to a public Scripture reading:
That impersonal voice reading from the King James Bible seemed so irrelevant. I was neither moved by it nor ashamed of it. It just felt bizarre, antiquated language. Ideas that seemed disconnected from any realities around me. I felt as if that mechanical reading voice were trying to converse with a person inside me who had already died. It wasn't as if I decided not to believe it anymore. Just that somehow it didn't connect — and I didn't care.
Eric said he had begun to feel that worship was an absurd routine at best. He was bored with the same old paths through religion and the lingo that went with it. He longed to be grabbed by some new gusto because, to him, "The Christian tradition crackles with dryness and sterility. The whole business of believing seems either deadly dull or impossible to achieve very well — at least by me."
Or maybe you would understand Louise better. Louise called herself a doubter too, but doubt felt different for her than it did for Eric and me. Louise's doubt was interlaced with guilt and fear:
James and I slept together quite awhile before we got married. This violated major rules for both of us, but rules didn't seem to matter then. Now, we've been married four years, and we are overwhelmed by a flood of guilt that interferes with everything — even our sex life! Is God punishing us? Intellectually I know God forgives, but I chose to turn my back on Him for so long, how could He accept me? In fact, I can't even remember a lot of simple things about Jesus that I knew before I quit church. How can God still like me?
Then again, these examples may seem a little too extreme for you to relate to. You would never use words like bizarre, absurd, dull, or impossible about your religious tradition, and you aren't racked by guilt over turning your back on God. In fact, you may care deeply about your faith — it just doesn't seem to be working the way it should. Maybe your doubt feels more like vague dissatisfaction or, to use Philip Yancey's phrase, "disappointment with God." You even hesitate to call it unbelief — but it still bothers you.
"I've been a Christian for years," confessed Carmen, "and church is a big part of my life. But lately — I don't know — I've had a little trouble keeping my mind on God. I sit in the service, but my mind wanders. I teach Sunday school, but mainly because somebody has to do it. I try to have a quiet time in the morning, but I keep thinking about what Andy said last night or what I'm doing for lunch — or I fall asleep. I keep telling myself I just need to be more disciplined. But I also keep wondering, 'Is faith supposed to be this hard?'"
Then again, you may be one of those people whose doubt rises out of the crucible of suffering. Rather than creating a sense of distance and disconnectedness or disappointment, your doubt may focus on sharp areas of pain and raise pointed questions.
Deborah certainly had a right to ask those kinds of questions. Two years ago Mark ran off with a much younger woman and left Deborah to raise their three kids on her salary as a secretary. Although Mark claimed some new relationship with the Holy Spirit, he conveniently forgot about child support and alimony payments for months on end. When desperation drove Deborah to beg Mark for financial help, he only chided her "weak faith." Deborah had long since used up all her tears. Her anger and helplessness hardened, leaving only a steely glint in her eyes.
She faced me across the table, but somehow I sensed she was actually contemplating a horizon somewhere miles behind my head: "I don't feel much like talking to God these days. Frankly, for a little while, I don't want much to do with Him. Oh, I'm not going to give up, but, Lynn, could you tell me where is God in all this? I have no idea."
I understand Michael's doubts too. He and Susan both loved their new jobs and good salaries. Three years ago they bought a new house. Their four-year-old son lit up their lives.
Then came the news of Susan's second pregnancy, and the little family rejoiced. But when Michael came by my office four months later, his chin dragged the floor. There were complications with the pregnancy. Susan had been ordered to bed, which put a quick end to her income. Already, medical bills were piling up. And Michael's company, hit hard by an economic recession, was making severe cutbacks. Michael was shuffled to a different department, his salary cut nearly in half, and the possibility loomed that he would be out of work altogether.
The baby came prematurely and spent six enormously expensive weeks in the hospital. Then there was some problem with Michael and Susan's medical insurance, and they discovered the baby was not covered. Michael and Susan had never made a late payment in their lives, but suddenly they couldn't even manage their house payments, let alone the staggering medical bills. They lost their house and their credit rating. Whenever the doorbell rang, Michael and Susan hid, fearing bill collectors. The mounting pressure was beginning to threaten their marriage.
"A year and a half ago," Michael told me, "I was more excited about God than I ever have been in my life. Right now, I don't even know if He's there. If He is, He sure doesn't care about me. Or if He does, He doesn't seem to be able to do anything.
"Lynn," Michael asked me sadly, "what do you do when you're fresh out of faith?"
"I Really Want to Believe!"
That question, in a nutshell, is what challenged me to write this book.
What do you do when you're fresh out of faith?
Or, more to the point, what do you do when you want a strong, confident, vital faith but for one reason or another you just can't find it?
What can possibly be more disconcerting than to genuinely long for faith but have it continually elude you? Or to sense that your faith in God no longer connects with your day-to-day living.
Regardless of the shape doubt takes or the reason it comes, doubt can torpedo your peace of mind. Your confidence in God can leak out of your belief until faith goes flat. You may keep on following the same religious forms, but you don't really seem to live inside them. Consequently, whatever faith you have left seems only a secondhand religious experience. (As I and many other Christians have discovered, it is possible to know all the stock answers, to go through all the motions of religion, and still feel "fresh out of faith.")
If you cannot get in touch with God, if you lose the ability to trust in Someone bigger than all of this, life turns bland at best and unbearable at worst. We human beings need faith — to give us strength, to give us courage, to give our lives hope and color and meaning. As Cherea says in Camus's Caligula,
To lose one's life is a little thing, and I will have the courage when necessary. But to see the sense of life dissipated, to see our reason for existence disappear; that is what is insupportable. A man cannot live without a reason.
We all long to know that our lives have meaning, that there really is a purpose for our existence. Perhaps for this reason, I have found that most of those who still talk about their doubts, deep down, really want to believe. Of the hundreds of doubters who have opened their lives to me, I cannot remember one who said, "I do not want to believe." There seemed to be a universal will to have faith. Each in his or her own way sounded a lot like Ketar: "I believe, but help..."
For me, this is a crucial distinction. I am convinced that being a doubter is very different from being a nonbeliever. Nonbelievers are people who have made a conscious or unconscious choice not to have faith. Doubters, on the other hand, may not be sure that they have real faith. They may even wish they didn't believe, or they don't know exactly what to believe. But even when they cannot recognize it, they still want to have faith.
Before you spend the time it takes to read the rest of this book, you may want to pause and ask yourself, "What do I really want from this book? Do I long for more faith than I have? Or am I actually looking for a way to get rid of whatever faith I do have? What really is important to me?"
If your answer is "I believe, but help my unbelief," keep reading.
You Are Not Alone
Most of all, I hope this book convinces you that whatever your experience of doubt, you are not alone.
I have taken the time to tell my story and the stories of others so that you can hear a variety of experiences and perhaps relate to one of them. I hope I have helped you connect with the feelings and experiences of some other doubters.
Many who have "groped this winding cavern" alone for years have never heard anyone talk about such things. Each fears him- or herself to be the only person in the world thinking such unthinkable thoughts and experiencing such bizarre feelings.
I felt that way. For years, through these dark, lonely, and frightening periods of my developing faith, I had not the slightest notion that so many others shared my private hell. Convinced that discussing such things was definitely off limits, I was terrified that somehow my true feelings might get out and I would be ruined. Surely to be so different from people I trusted and loved must either be sick or evil or both.
Paradoxically, I was immobilized by the fear that other professed believers, deep down, were just like me and thus not to be trusted. No wonder I felt alone in my universe.
The fog began to lift for me when I discovered that it was okay to talk about doubts. I gradually learned that admitting my faith struggle does not make doubt worse — as if admitting my doubts would make them come true. Instead, facing up to my doubts somehow opens up the possibility of renewed faith. Now I am convinced, as Os Guinness says, that "the shame is not that people have doubts, but that they are ashamed of them."
I have also found that admitting my doubts has introduced me to more fellow strugglers than I ever dreamed existed. In recent years, I have begun to talk about these feelings — furtively, privately, secretly at first, then more openly and finally publicly to thousands of people. And every time I speak on this subject, I am overrun at the door by fellow doubters, then besieged with weeks of follow-up letters and phone calls.
Like me, crowds of others walk in the shadows alone, fearing they are "different." And they are profoundly relieved to know that they are not alone in their struggle, that other people feel the way they do, and that doubt is not the death knell of faith. It is my prayer that this book will bring you that kind of relief and encouragement — and then provide some practical help for getting your faith back off the ground.
A Look down the Road
This book is for you,
If, like Ketar, you believe but still need help with your unbelief, then take heart. There is a road back to faith.
We have already looked at some of the many forms doubt can take. Next we will consider some of the factors that may shape your experience of doubt. We will block some blind alleys that seem to lead many searchers in disappointing directions. Then we will sharpen our definition of faith so that we will know what we are looking for on the road. We will mark the developmental stages of the faith journey so that you can get a feel for your own progress.
The core of the book will suggest five clear steps to take in order to get your faith journey underway — or get it started again when it has floundered. The book will end not by guiding us into a parking spot, at an arrival point, but by calling us to the unfolding mystery and excitement of a road that winds through faith's heartland.
Let's start our journey by looking at some of the reasons faith may go flat.
Foreword by Bill Hybels
Prologue: "I Believe, But..."
Part 1: If I Believe, Why Do I Feel This Way?
1. When Faith Goes Flat
2. Tracing Your Tracks
3. Blind Alleys: How Faith Does Not Come
Part 2: I Think I Believe, but What Exactly Is Faith?
4. What Faith Is Not
5. What Faith Is: A Walking Definition
Part 3: I Sort of Believe, but Why Is My Faith
Different from Yours?
6. Stages of the Journey
Part 4: I Believe, but How Can My Faith Grow?
Five Practical Steps toward Stronger Faith
Introduction: Five More Steps on the Journey
7. A Will to Believe
8. Touching Faith
9. Targeting Faith
10. Feeding Faith
11. Doing Faith
Epilogue: Dancing on the Rim of Mystery