Do you believe, with absolute certainty, that Jesus is the Son of God? Are you confident that evidence of His life on earth, and His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, is completely irrefutable? Is your belief in God’s love for humanity and God’s forgiveness for human sins perfect and true, down to the very core of your being?
If so, then your faith may be on shaky ground.
For centuries, theologians have maintained that pure, absolute conviction, the total absence of doubt in religious and spiritual matters, is anything but a sign of faith. Furthermore, doubt itself may be essential to a life of Christian faith.
Still, if God is love, then why is there so much suffering in the world? Why am I constantly in debt if God wants me to prosper financially? If God wants me to be happy, then why did my spouse leave me? You may have asked questions such as these and either shared them with others or kept them hidden deeply inside.
“Doubt can be good,” says Father Robert Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University and president of the Magis Center and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. “First of all, it drives people to ask questions and to seek evidence. If doubt leads people to make real intellectual inquiries, that’s terrific. If someone with doubt looks for and finds strong evidence, [his or her] faith will be enhanced. In this case, doubt is productive.”
Rev. Msgr. Arthur Holquin, episcopal vicar for Divine Worship at the Diocese of Orange and pastor emeritus of Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, brings up the story of Doubting Thomas. “Sometimes he is viewed in a pejorative sense because he doubted the message of his brothers, who announced that ‘The Lord has been raised!’ Thomas’ doubt points to the very human tendency to seek certitude in life.”
This hesitation to trust in blind faith, Msgr. Holquin says, has a strong upside: It compels efforts that ultimately strengthen faith.
“As St. Anselm put it many years ago,” he says, “theology is really ‘faith seeking understanding.’ It is precisely this ‘seeking understanding’ that … can be the catalyst for exploring, pondering and even wrestling with realities of faith, enabling us to arrive at newer insights and clarity as to what it is we believe and why we believe it.”
The path of doubt may be wrought with pain and darkness. A faithful Christian, for example, may believe that he has the core messages of God, Jesus and Christianity figured out. He has, through God and Jesus, all of the answers.
Then something happens in his life, a relatively inconsequential event or a tragic catastrophe, that undermines his “perfect” understanding of God. Doubt enters the picture, and since God is perfect, the Christian believes he must be flawed. So he tries to flee from doubt – as quickly as possible. After all, perfect faith is the absence of doubt, right?
Wrong. His agonizing doubt, allegorically referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” is a sign that his once-ironclad belief in all things spiritual is finally dying.
If this uncertain Christian were to take his angst to a priest, he would be counseled to embrace his doubt, to actually welcome it as a gift, difficult though that would be. He’d be told that his doubt would spur him to move along his path, even if it seems as though he’s lost that path entirely. That’s good, since he’s no longer stuck in certainty.
Father Spitzer notes that, when counseling others, it’s important that a priest determine what kind of person is experiencing this gnawing bewilderment.
“An analytical person should be sent to a place that offers ‘deep information,’ a place like our website [magiscenter.com]. Any number of sites can help. Just lead them to a lot of good, well-researched information.”
Father Spitzer continues: “The second group of people, those who are by nature affective, ask questions such as, ‘Why would an all-loving God allow suffering?’ In this case, the priest must answer this question from an interpersonal perspective. He can explain, from the heart, how suffering can shock someone out of superficiality and into deeper faith and humility.”
And those who are action-oriented, Father Spitzer says, are looking for something to do to make them happy and successful. In this case, “A priest should teach doers the contributive view of happiness: taking action that helps others in the world – doing things with friends, family, community, the church and the kingdom of God.”
A priest for 42 years, Msgr. Holquin always shares an essential fact to those dealing with doubt: They are not alone. “One of the first things I try to do is assure them that Christians down through the centuries have wrestled with such feelings. They’re in good company! I help them to realize that doubting is not the same as denying one’s faith; it is not ‘unbelief.’
Sometimes the answer simply involves letting go.
“I like to convey that doubts in our life of faith can, more often than not, be the opportunity for deeper faith, hope and love if we are open to letting the Holy Spirit guide us through these moments. Questioning our faith can lead to deeper insights into the truth of what it is we believe about God and His vocation of holiness for each one of us.”