Where Doubt Leads
Agnes Bojaxhiu, who died in 1997, was one of the most influential persons of her time. She was so, because she was so passionate about her beliefs that her life became an articulate expression of her faith. She loved life and so hated abortion; thus even when called to speak to a predominantly American audience, she strongly criticized the policy. When asked to comment on her remarks, President Bill Clinton only noted, "Who can argue with a life so well-lived?"
Yet, Agnes Bojaxhiu was privately racked by an emotional vacuum in her relationship with God. In some of her writings, published posthumously, she is quoted as saying: "The more I want [God], the less I am wanted." Sometime later she writes again, "Such deep longing for God—and...repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. [The saving of] souls holds no attraction. Heaven means nothing. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."(1)
Ordinarily, this would not be anything noteworthy, as many would privately disclose that we, too, have been troubled by doubt. But the world looks back at the legacy of Agnes Bojaxhiu, who was better known as Mother Teresa, and these letters, which are very private expressions of her personal struggles, are publicly analyzed. There are many questions that this honesty about doubt raises. What does doubt mean? Is doubt a sign that faith is futile? And most importantly, how do we deal with our own doubts?
We do see throughout the Bible many who wrestled with doubt. Job who was the midst of suffering said, "If I called and he answered me, I could not believe that he was listening to my voice. For he bruises me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause."(2) Look at the extent of his struggle—even if he were to hear the voice of God in answer to his plea, he would not believe that it was in response to his prayer. His bruises, which were many, constrained belief and encouraged doubt.
Then there is Jeremiah who cried out to God in the face of persecution. "O LORD, you have deceived me and I was deceived; you have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me."(3) Though this was not a cry of outright unbelief, it was a struggle with a God who seems to be silent in the face of unjust suffering.
In addition to these voices, the list of doubters would not be complete without mention of Thomas, whose name brings to mind the very word. When the disciples recounted to him their encounter with the risen Jesus, he refused to blindly believe their words. "Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."
Where there is faith, it seems there is also the possibility of doubt. How does the Christian faith handle doubt? Firstly, we can be honest about our doubt. In the Gospel of Mark there is an account of a father who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus. He implored him to cast out the demon. Jesus agreed, saying that all things were possible to those who believed. The father of the boy then confessed, "I do believe; help my unbelief." While there is no mechanical method or technique to rid ourselves of doubt, we can approach God with honesty, confessing our doubt, and a need for God's help.
Secondly, the Christian does not live by simply depending upon feelings. While feelings are important, they do not tell us what is real. They supplement the other facets of how God has made us as humans. The Christian worldview is a joining of heart, soul, mind, and strength to Father, Son, and Spirit. God is loved not just with emotions, but also with all bodily faculties, the will, and the mind.
And finally, while we are often hard on Thomas in our memory of him as the doubter, he is to be commended because he doubted so that he could believe. It was not a doubt that was destructive, but a doubt that led to a faith that would not fail him. A blind faith would not satisfy him; Thomas wanted to truly believe. Far from a troubling and shameful secret, doubt can be a gift. Where doubt leads us to investigate, God may well be leading, the Spirit enabling us to respond like Thomas to the evidence provided by the risen Jesus—with surrender: "My Lord and my God."
Cyril Georgeson is a member of the speaking team with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Delhi, India.
(1) David Van Biema, "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith," Time, August 23, 2007.
(2) Job 9:16-17.
(3) Jeremiah 20:7.