By Alie Benge
A while ago I was waiting for the bus to work, wrapped up in a thousand layers because New Zealand. Nothing was different to any other morning, except for the massive existential crisis taking place in the ol’ brain. It was time for my biennial period of doubt. Doubt is something that occurs in the quiet places. It happens at bus stops, in uni lectures, while you’re driving around. Doubt creeps up slowly, and it seems to be recurring. It’s not like acne – in that you don’t wear it on your face where everyone can see. It’s an invisible affliction. No one believes they’re the only one with acne because we can all see it on other people, but we can’t see one another’s doubt. I have gone through many episodes of doubt, not just about the existence of God. I’ve doubted his goodness, his love, his sovereignty, whether we’re truly saved by faith and not works, I’ve attributed miracles to coincidences and coincidences to miracles and been super confused about which is which. Some of these episodes have been dispelled in a week, others have become defining periods in my life. Before starting this post I asked people around me about doubt. Every time I was met with a sigh and a look that says ‘you too?’
Here are three different people: One person is trying to reconcile the idea of a sovereign God with a suffering world. Another is passing by the cross asking Jesus to bring himself down if he’s the son of God. The last is a Jew who expected the Messiah to be someone who would kill Romans, not someone who would be killed by them. These people seem disconnected from each other, but they are all cases where faith is based on a certain expectation, and doubt comes where reality doesn’t match the expectation. People expected the Messiah to be a warrior, so when they got a humble servant they didn’t believe that this was who they’d been waiting for. Doubt appeared where expectation wasn’t met. I can understand the position of the people at the cross. If, like them, you couldn’t see God’s full redemptive plan then why wouldn’t Jesus save himself if he was really the Christ? We have the gift of hindsight so can see that if Jesus had come down off the cross he would not have been the Christ, but all they saw was what looked like a big disappointment. So often we’re like those people. We form an expectation based on a portion of the picture. After a hundred answered prayers, one might go unanswered and I can’t think of any reason why except that perhaps God doesn’t exist. I form an expectation of what someone with infinite power and infinite love would do, and when the expectation isn’t met, I doubt. Sometimes the reason it wasn’t answered is made clear later and I facepalm, but sometimes it’s never made clear and I have to just remind myself of those guys at the cross, with a narrow lens on a wider plan.
I remember one time in particular. I was walking back from church, I’d left the army and started using my brain again and all the dormant questions that I’d pushed aside for three years had reared their ugly heads. I’d also started studying philosophy – which is like majoring in doubt. The questions that I’d left unanswered since high school hadn’t gone away with my avoidance of them. I felt like I was walking in circles under a laundry line, and had gotten all tangled up in sheets. On that walk home I completely lost my faith. I could feel it falling off me in waves. For a moment I felt quite free. No more doubt. I took about three steps when I got dumped with a whole new set of doubts. If God doesn’t exist, how does anything exist? I do believe in evolution to a certain extent but I also believe that it can only go back so far (see: theory of infinite regression). I wondered, if God doesn’t exist where did the bible come from and how did a bunch of fisherman come up with such an infinitely complex theology? Why would they create a story in which they are constantly putting their foot in it? Why would they make a story that was so crazy, and then hold to their story when it meant they’d be poor, without a permanent home, always persecuted, always suffering. Wouldn’t Peter have admitted he made the whole thing up as soon as his own cross loomed on the horizon? Did they sit in their boats and come up with lines that read like the most incredible poetry? I can see it now. Peter saying to the guys, ‘hey bros, what about something like, pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’. After deciding that I couldn’t justify the existence of God, I realised that I couldn’t justify the non-existence of God. Of course then there was the matter or making sure I had the right one, but the lesson I learnt from this is that doubt doesn’t go away, even if you decide to become an atheist you will likely still have periods where you wonder if there is a God.
That was a defining moment for me and my faith was set in concrete for a long time after that. But I still get episodes of doubt. Recently – the day of the bus stop existential crisis – I was at work. I think I was polishing bracelets and I caved and asked God for a sign. I knew it was a dangerous move. Nearly every story I’ve heard from people who’ve asked for signs has ended in something insane and terrifying happening, so I’ve been hesitant, knowing the sign wouldn’t be as simple as a light tap on the shoulder. I thought if I finally just resigned myself to it, perhaps I’ll get something I can’t deny and I finally put an end to doubt. Ten minutes later I took it back. I realised that I have seen a hundred signs, yet in moments of doubt I can argue them all away. How many miracles have I seen, yet doubt still comes. Instead I asked God to strengthen my faith, and my doubt fell away. The proof is there if you want it, but beware – proof will melt in the sun. It’s faith that will get you through anything.
The funny thing about asking God to strengthen your faith is that it requires a measure of faith. I’m reminded of the guy who said to Jesus, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’. Peter did the same thing when he was walking on water. He took his eyes off Jesus and started to doubt and in the midst of that doubt he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him”. Peter’s doubt didn’t cause him to lean on his own ability to swim. He didn’t start doing freestyle. His reflex reaction was to look to Jesus. I’m calling this the Doubter’s Paradox. I don’t know if that’s already a thing but whatevs. The paradox is this: Peter called out to Jesus to save him when he most doubted that Jesus could save him. What this says to me is that there is a place inside you that is holding fast. When the wind and the waves cause you to doubt, something in your soul knows what to do – call out to Jesus. It’s one of those funny things that makes no sense but it just works because our God doesn’t always make sense. If you are doubting, go with it. Jesus can handle it. He can take the questions and he’s with you in the midst of your doubt. If Peter braved the storm on his own he would potentially have drowned. Don’t go it alone. In the midst of doubt you can lean on Jesus, walk through it together and come out stronger on the other side, even though it’s him you’re doubting.
You can’t avoid doubt by refusing to look it in the eye. It will only loom large in your peripherals. Doubt is like that bear hunt song. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ll have to go through it. Doubt forces us to examine what we believe. Don’t be afraid of it, and definitely don’t be ashamed. It means you haven’t been brainwashed. People always ask me if I’m a Christian because my parents are, but I have confidence that my faith is my own because I’ve doubted it. After the worst periods of doubt I’ve come back around to Christianity because I believe it to be true and because it’s the only thing that makes sense – not because it’s a family heirloom. Each time I doubt I look closer, I do some research, and I pray to the one I’m doubting.