Black and white photo of an asian man sitting in a church pew

Faith and Doubt: When You Don’t Know What to Believe Anymore

May 14, 2019

I was over 2,500 miles away delivering a presentation when my cell phone blew up with emergency text messages:

All Schools: LOCKOUT (Secure Perimeter) due to law enforcement activity in the area. Learning and activities indoors. More info to come.

At this time district has placed all schools on a lockout and we are not allowed to let anyone in the building or release any students at this time. All students are safe inside the building.

While my brain tried to register this reality, a room full of expectant faces stared back at me, waiting for a word of hope. I had only questions.

I glanced at my phone, then back at my notes, trying to stay calm. Then national news updates began to light up my phone. CNN. FoxNews. CBS. I called for a break, and immediately fell into the closest chair.

1 student killed, 8 others injured when classmates open fire at STEM School Highlands Ranch

A school only two miles from my house. My community. My people.

Why does this keep happening? What’s it going to take to put an end to this insanity once and for all? God, DO SOMETHING! 

Two weeks before, I scanned my twitter feed after hearing about an online friend’s medical crisis. Friends and strangers from around the globe poured out their lament and begged for prayer. Rather than healing, we all ended up mourning.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

I’ve heard these words—in one form or another—from friends and strangers alike over the past several weeks. This isn’t necessarily unusual. I often see people wrestle with their faith in the public and social media space. Pain makes us inconsolable. We want company in our struggle and companions in our questions.

School shootings. Unexplained medical crises. Untimely deaths. We may long to be people of faith, but the pain we can’t explain leaves us drowning in doubt. Whereas faith fuels hope, pain stirs up a deluge uncertainty enough that even the hottest faith embers start to dwindle and go out.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore. If anything at all.”

It’s difficult to make sense of God when people we love suffer.

When we suffer.

Doubt erodes trust, costs sleep, sparks panic. It ignites insecurity at best, flat-out desperation at worst. Like quicksand underneath feet searching for cement, it leaves the sinking person clawing and grabbing for something to grip, even if that something is anything but strong.

We’ll hang on to a lie, even if we have to close our eyes to do it. 

Life is hard. Suffering infiltrates the planet. Evil thrives and, too often, those who claim to be religious cause more harm than good. Faith flickers.

Even, at times, my own. 

When years of suffering left me with a body that will never work the same again and pain that will never go away, doubt about God’s reality, goodness, and love felt like a weight tied around my ankle.

Is God even real? If so, why so much pain without relief? Why pray if it doesn’t deliver? 

It’s hard to believe when your belief doesn’t keep you from drowning.

And yet, I’m learning that doubt, as uncomfortable and alarming as it is, isn’t the enemy of our faith. Doubt is part of being a living, thinking person, one who wrestles with hard questions and impossible answers. To doubt is to care, to care so much about what is wrong that you can’t stop your brain from trying to make sense of it all, that you refuse to give up hope without an honest-to-goodness fight. 

Theologian and pastor, Dr. Timothy Keller, said it this way:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.Timothy Keller, The Reason For God

There is more I plan to write on this topic. For today, however, I write to those who doubt and yet long to believe. I know how you feel like the Earth has turned upside down on itself and you wonder if you’ll ever find your footing again.

You will, I believe it enough for both of us. In the meantime, I hope these reminders provide a bit of a lifeline while a very real God walks you through your dark: 

FIRST, your questions don’t condemn you. Your doubts don’t compromise either God’s reality or His love. You don’t possess enough power to make either any smaller. Giving voice to your questions is not apostasy; it’s honesty. And although well-meaning Christians might heap guilt on your doubt, God is not shocked, offended, or surprised. So go ahead and say it out loud. Ask Him your questions, tell Him those things that make you angry, confused. His love is bigger. 

SECOND, doubt is a spring board, not a destination. Doubt is part of the human experience. And doubt and faith go together, the former serving the latter, as long as doubt doesn’t turn into a longterm destination. Don’t let your questions become a comfortable, self-protective prison that walls you in. Instead, let its discomfort push you to study, pray, explore, ask questions, listen, and learn. Doubt doesn’t have to be the enemy of your faith. It may be the means of deepening it. 

THIRD, the presence of doubt doesn’t mean your faith is weak. On the contrary, it means you’re thinking. And growing. A weak faith is an untried one, one that is ignored, neglected, disregarded, pushed aside. However, a faith with questions means it matters to you. You’ve decided to make existence and meaning and eternity a priority for your consideration. Your questions will never be fully resolved, your doubts never fully absolved. However, when faith keeps burning in spite of doubt’s every attempt to snuff it out, that is the real miracle after all. And that is the kind of faith that shines a light, even in the dark. 

QUESTION: How do you face moments or seasons of spiritual doubt? What has proved helpful to you as you navigate questions and unknowns?

12 Comments

  1. Fount Freeman

    From your original question… “Why does this keep happening?” You & I know this is a relatively recent horror show. This did not happen to kids in school in the 60s (well it did once at UT in Austin) – but now its everywhere and in most months. It is simply because evil is rising. Satan is running a Dark Crusade against our entire world. If he ensnares Christians in his plots he is gleeful but he is also content to get the non-born again people too. If he gets them, they can never again decide come into the true light.

    OVERCOME. Overcome through the blood of Christ. Claim your being in Him on a 24/7 basis. Pray to the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit at various times (pray continuously is how Paul put it). Our encouraging, strengthening and protection seems to be granted to us on a daily basis. We must keep that fellowship with God on a daily basis for it to be effective against all that the world (and Satan) is throwing against us now. The rising tide of evil from Satan’s “Dark Crusade” will only get worse as we journey deeper into these last days of the end of our age. Claim Christ now and on every day as you go!

    Reply
  2. Bruce R. Cross

    I face moments of doubt by talking to the One who is Truth. He is undaunted by my WHY questions and offers me a place called Hope.

    I cry, get frustrated, and express my concerns about whatever may be the issue and in Him I find rest and a place where He restores my soul.

    It is summed up in two words – GOD KNOWS!!!

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      “In Him I find rest.” Yes! Like you, Bruce, I find such solace in turning to Him with my questions and doubts. I rarely receive clear black-and-white answers. But I often feel His presence. It is enough.

      Reply
  3. Andrea

    Oh how I’d like to say my doubts are completely allayed by my morning prayers and devotions. But, that’s just not the case! I love and cherish my early mornings with God but as the day wears on the doubts creep in, the anxieties creep in, and I doubt myself and my place. I’m not depressed or non functional but I get sad and seek solace with God away from others with their well meaning words of wisdom, authority, and often unhelpful advice. I have become more of an introvert with age and as much as I love people I need less time with people and more time with God. My prayer and devotional time is truly my source of strength and stability. God is with me. God is with all of us!

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      I, too, have become more of an introvert with age. I need less “noise” and more of the quiet of Jesus’ presence (Is. 30:15). It truly anchors me, keeps the chaos at bay, helps me make sense of life and work and complexity. And it gives me hope in a world so saturated with bad news. The Good News really is good news! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Julie Stiles Mills

    I love what you said in your email linking to this post: “But faith and doubt aren’t mutually exclusive.” Counter-intuitive, but so true. I often say “Faith requires doubt. If you had proof, you wouldn’t need faith.”

    What helps me when I face moments or seasons of spiritual doubt?
    I’m encouraged by the words of the father in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

    Reply
  5. Renee

    Ahhhh, Michele, such strong and encouraging words! Thank you! For those of us who’ve walked with the Lord for many years, we can so easily be ashamed of our doubts. I’m in the middle of John Ortberg’s “Know Doubt”, so your post made me smile. You’re right in step with what he’s saying! I love how the Lord converges moments like this in our lives to show us more of Himself. Thank you for your willingness to be to transparent with your readers. Your wisdom comes from such tremendous depths of pain and struggle. You teach me and I’m grateful.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Ah, I love it when God does that! The unity of the Holy Spirit’s speaking and leading. Beautiful.

      Reply
  6. Audrey Lauri

    Hi, I ask God for the grace to trust in him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding.(Prov 3) I remember that the secret things belong to God (Deut 29:29) and that there is much in this world that I cannot and will not ever comprehend but I can fix my eyes on the Savior(Hebrews 12;2), I can see the perfect sinless son of God (2 Cor 5:21) dying for me and overcoming death (!!!). This great act of mercy and love moves me to completely trust what God has said in his word….He is good and He does good(Ps 119:68). And I can find shelter under the shadow of his wings(Ps 91:4). When doubts come, he quiets me with his love through his true and mighty word by his Spirit and delivers me from all my fears as he has promised. We remember, as God’s beloved children, One day…… There will be a new heavens and a new earth…and God himself will be with us and be our God….’He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev 21. May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13!

    Reply
  7. Shane

    I like how you said “ those who claim to be religious cause more harm than good. Faith flickers.”
    I live in a nearly predominant “LDS” aka “Mormon” area and a member myself but haven’t been to church for awhile and have noticed that, even tho I know I shouldn’t base my personal faith on others, I find it very difficult to believe in the church anymore as I see so many members who attend church every Sunday yet don’t seem to “practice what they preach” the rest of the week, helping others, being kind, practicing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ, imo should be an “unselfish life” but they seem to be “selfish” instead. Using their education and more so their wealth as a means to “bully” others to get things “their way.” And honestly, at 53 I never knew nor understood the word “narcissist” is, was my whole life because I didn’t experience it that much until recently dealing with a very wealthy person in my life these past few months. All my life that word was never a part of my vocabulary as much as the word “F*+k”. And if you were to ask me now, I would say that the word narcissist” is MORE of a foul word than the “F” word.
    And yes, most my life I have done my best, as in the lyrics from Barry White, “Practice What You Preach” thru serving others and giving what and when I can selflessly.
    And tho I pray and pray and pray, it breaks my heart to see continuously the injustice and selfish acts of those around me that I see attending church but are no different the rest of the week and often wonder “if God sees this, and I am sure He does, then how or why is it that He allows it to continue? Allows these people who claim to follow Him but don’t thru their actions of the way they are living. And just as you explained, I see and know of people who are either members also but like me don’t attend church or some non believers or from other churches that are MUCH better people than these so called “active” members are. And all the while I just step back and smh in disbelief.

    Reply
    • Ranie

      Thank you for this, Shane.
      As a 48-year old, lifelong LDS member, I suddenly find myself crushed under the weight of a lifetime of dealing with the “practice what I preach, not what I do” (to you, especially the abuse and neglect) mentality and approach.
      I want to believe, and the god I think I may know looks NOTHING like what I see around me…
      I’m grieving.

      Reply

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