St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Faith and Doubt

Most of us, I believe, engage in internal struggle to come to faith and, having come, to shrink from it.  Denial and affirmation proceed from the same mouth, the same mind, the same heart.  The words of the Roman centurion who approached Jesus in the Gospel ring true for most of us: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Doubt and faith strive for dominance within each of us.  Those who think otherwise must wall themselves off from the trials of daily life.

Look, we live in a world that is prone to violence.  Children die, are maimed or hurt in various ways, and most distressingly in other people’s wars.  Accidents we can somehow grapple with, but the furies of violence that descend upon innocent civilians are both inexplicable and quite inexcusable.  The rockets of Hamas are answered by the rockets of Israel.  Who wins?  Surely not the people, and often not our faith, which disintegrates in shrapnel and smoke with the rockets in times of dismay and disorder.

We must deny our humanity in order not to ask “Why?” in times of chaos and violence.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories, I believe from the Vilna Gaon, the great rabbi of Poland, who taught his students about the meaning of forgiveness by showing them another rabbi who lived in an apartment, windows visible to the public.  On the Day of Atonement that rabbi would take a book from his shelf and recite all his sins from the preceding year and then ask forgiveness from God.  Done with that task, he took the second book down from the shelf and, opening it, would begin “And now as for you, God…”  “And that,” said the Gaon, “is the true meaning of Yom Kippur.”  Sometimes we need to forgive God – or our perception of God – for the wretched things that happen in the world and the time we occupy.

Such doubt is not unbelief, but may instead be the threshold to a deeper faith.   There is immense wrong in a world where children die before their parents, either by sickness or accident or act of war.  Our sense of being wronged can move us in two directions: toward or away from God.  Maybe it does both.  We move toward God when we attack the injustices of life, when we grope into our darkest experiences, when we look through tear-stained eyes for the light in a bad situation, and even when we rail against God in the name of God.  We move away from God when we allow the situation to overcome us.

I’m not counseling a Pollyanna view of life, that everything is really rosy after all if only you look at life the right way.  I’ve stood by the coffins of children and heard those who meant well say that the parents must accept this as the will of God.  And I wanted to protest such banter.  Well-meant or not, such words are simply not enough to cover the dirt on a grave.  People who make such comments are probably too uncomfortable or too unwilling to walk through the valley in a genuine sharing of another’s loss.  True faith is hard-won and must come through the valley of the shadow, whatever shadows befall your path.

It’s no insult to God to question divine motives.  God is surely big enough to take the darts and arrows we have to unleash when we are hurt to the heart.  Doubt and faith can co-exist in the human mind and heart.  Offer them both.

Published 16 Jan 09