Atheists may rule the Internet, but Christians still rule the radio. Sometimes when it’s late, and I’m tired of my own thoughts, I find a talk show to keep me company—even if it’s Christian. One Christian virtue is honesty, and I’m interested in anyone who has an honest story to tell, or is grappling with an issue honestly.
I play ice hockey, and recently driving home on a weekday after a late game, I came across a show which I believe was called “Night Talk.” The host, in a deep, tired voice promised that tonight he would address a taboo topic: What if you don’t feel God’s presence at all? What if don’t hear God’s voice when you pray? What if you are struggling with doubt?
The host proceeded to tell his heartbreaking first-person story with an eloquence I won’t be able to match. He had gone years without feeling God’s presence even as he had to continue his work counseling others as a pastor. He talked about an inner darkness and a feeling that the only thing keeping him going was inertia. He maintained a busy schedule out of a fear that if he ever paused he’d never get going again. Like he might sit down in a comfortable chair and never get up out of it.
Sadly there was no resolution to his story. I think the poor pastor was too honest to describe a resolution that hadn’t occurred. Instead, he let people know they were not alone in their “struggle with doubt” and advised those who felt this way to keep praying, even if it had been years since they truly felt God’s presence.
As an atheist, I have a terrible feeling when I hear such counsel. It’s like watching the beginning of the TV show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” when the re-enactors of some true survival nightmare suggest cheerfully, “The best thing for this trip will be to leave all this food and water behind. It’s just too heavy to carry. Why don’t you go that way and I’ll go this way, and we’ll meet up in an hour.”
If God is not there, then the worst thing a despondent person can do is to keep praying. Take it from one who started many a “prayer diary.” The prayers trailed off after a page and a half of pathetic rambling. Listening for voices in the silence is a way to make yourself crazy—literally.
Many, many of my Christian friends admit to “struggling with doubt,” but the cruelest twist is those most prone to suffer this “malady” are those who have gone above and beyond in their commitment to God: the pastors, the volunteers and counselors, the seminary students, and others whose very job is contingent on their continued belief. If a layperson does not hear the voice of God, they presume it’s because they aren’t listening that hard—a problem easily remedied. If a priest does not hear the voice of God, he is screwed.
It is painful to overhear these struggles with doubt: one person hangs their hope on tiny miracles; a scientist “listens for the whispering of God in the microwave background radiation”; many take comfort in stories of Bible heroes (David, Jesus) who also struggled with doubt or a feeling that God is absent; liberal Christians make jokes admitting the absurdity of most of their religion, while valiantly trying to believe at least one unbelievable piece of it (the Resurrection.)
Yes, these struggles are presented as valiant. But anyone struggling with doubt knows the struggle does not feel valiant. It feels sick, and depressing. It feels like a mental illness where your thoughts go in circles.
I have advice for those struggling with doubt: Don’t. Just stop struggling. You have been tricked into thinking the struggle is noble. It is not. Doubt is a very good thing. It is how we discover what is true and what is nonsense. Let your doubt run its course. Test your beliefs by pursuing any doubts about them. If your beliefs are true, they will hold up, and all will be well. If they are not, well at least the struggle is over and you can pick up the pieces of your life and move forward. It is not valiant to struggle to believe in things you don’t really believe. It is valiant to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, and to let the chips fall where they may. Be bold and brave in your pursuit of truth. I am convinced that “struggling with doubt” is a leading cause of depression, and the cure is to free an otherwise healthy mind to do its thing.
It amazes me that “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis is as edgy as Christians ever get. After you finish “Mere Christianity,” go read the book you are afraid of reading, the book that is mildly scandalous in your circles. If you are struggling with doubt, read “The Age of Reason” by American founding father Thomas Paine (this book, written beginning in 1794, is available free online). If your Christianity can’t stand up to simple common-sense arguments from three centuries ago, maybe it shouldn’t stand up.
And please stop blaming yourself for not hearing God. If he wanted you to hear him, he should have tried harder to send you a message.
A good God, if he exists, will not blame you for testing your faith against the obvious alternatives.
A note to clergy: (Clergy who feel trapped in their ministry should check out The Clergy Project a confidential online support group for current and former clergy/religious leaders who no longer believe in the supernatural.)