by Meghan Aelabouni
I have always loved the conversation in Mark’s gospel between Jesus and a father who pleads for healing for his son. The father describes the son’s ailment as an evil spirit:
Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)
What an honest statement of faith, and what a gift to those of us who also say, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
Doubt can be an agonizing wrench of the heart and mind, or a window through which we glimpse a truer world. Many times, it’s both. “OK,” you might say. “But how do you turn doubt from a wrench to a window?” I’m no expert; but I can offer some of the things that have been helpful to me in my own life of faithful doubt:
1. RELAX. Even when you don’t believe in God, God believes in you. This isn’t just my wishful thinking: this is what happens in Scripture to faithful doubters. Sarah laughed at the absurdity of God promising to give her a son, and Isaac was born. After the crucifixion, Jesus appeared to show his hands and side to a doubtful Thomas. Paul doubted Christianity so much that he worked to stamp it out; God called him to build the church. Doubt doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you. It could, however, mean that God is calling you.
2. ASK THE QUESTIONS. What’s bothering you? Say it out loud. Jesus says in John’s gospel, “The truth will make you free.” The doubts that tear us apart are often the ones we carry alone for fear of judgment. Speaking your doubt can provide some perspective, and give you a sense of where to go next. Is it head doubt? Chances are good that theologians have been puzzling over the same questions. Is it heart doubt? Remember the man who cried from his heart, for the sake of his son, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Cry out, and you’ll likely find you’re not alone.
3. TALK TO GOD. You don’t have to work out all your doubts before you come to God. You don’t even have to be sure whether God is there. When I pray, I often wonder whether I’m just talking to myself. But I listen, and wait; and there are times when I distinctly feel heard, or when a response pops into my head that is partly me and partly not me. It could be my imagination—but it could also be the Spirit of the living God.
4. TALK TO SOMEONE YOU TRUST. This could be a pastor, mentor or friend, sharing the kind of conversation that unburdens your heart and helps you navigate your thoughts. It could also include spending time with the writings of other faithful doubters—like C.S. Lewis, who moved from atheism to Christian faith, or Mother Teresa, who discussed her doubt at length in a collection of private letters. The “holy conversations” of my life have rarely produced easy answers, but that’s where I have most sensed God’s real presence.
5. READ THE BIBLE. Faith and doubt stories abound! Throughout the Bible, God works with and through human doubt in powerful ways.
6. REMEMBER GRACE. Martin Luther cautioned that even belief—our mental assent to religious propositions—can turn into “work” we think we need to do to earn God’s acceptance. Modern Christianity can also leave us with the impression that it’s our job to squelch doubt and achieve a perfect faith. But grace promises us that God accepts, loves and forgives us by choice, not because our rock-solid faith unlocks God’s heart.
7. RE-DEFINE “FAITH.” If faith is trust and not just belief, you can trust God in the midst of doubt. Do you cross the street when you get a “WALK” sign? Do you know for sure the cars will stop for you? Congratulations. You have faith. Human life is a daily exercise in trust, as we stake our lives on things we can’t prove or verify: like love, meaning, and hope. Human beings may struggle with belief, but we are wired for faith!
8. PRACTICE FAITH. Try it out: live and love like you know for sure that God loves you unconditionally and calls you to love your neighbors. Sometimes, it’s in the living of faith that we find it; and either way, you probably won’t regret letting love guide you.
9. ACCEPT MYSTERY. We can’t, and won’t, understand all things until we meet God face to face. That doesn’t mean they’re not real.
10. “RINSE AND REPEAT.” When Luther felt doubtful, he would shout, “I am baptized!” Find some water: at the baptismal font in your local congregation, in a stream or a snowdrift, or from your sink. If you’ve been baptized, drip some water over your hands or head and remember: you’ve been rinsed in God’s promise, and it doesn’t wear off! If you haven’t been baptized, see step #1: maybe the doubt in your life is a holy nudge to explore faith, and to consider joining the ranks of faithful, doubting Christians.
1. Why would God choose and call doubtful people to represent faith?
2. What trusted person or author provides you with “holy conversation?”
3. Where do you place your faith and trust? How might God be there?
God of faithfulness, you call us to come to you as we truly are. We believe—help our unbelief! Show us, as you did Sarah and Thomas, that you are present with us in our faithful doubt. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Meghan Johnston Aelabouni serves as co-pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Co., with her spouse, Gabi Aelabouni. Baptized as a (screaming) infant in 1979, raised in the church, and ordained in 2007, she is a faithful doubter, mom of two small children, writer, and guest speaker.