Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
“I feel like I’m losing my faith,” an acquaintance told me the other day. This person explained that she used to have an intimate relationship with God, but now feels empty inside, and has even begun to question whether God exists at all. She wanted to know how I recommend that she proceeds.
Even though I’m neither a saint nor an expert on the spiritual life, I get asked questions like this fairly frequently. Perhaps it’s because I’m an atheist-to-Catholic convert, or because readers of my personal blog know that I’m a spiritual spaz and therefore am likely to have been through a variety of rough patches in my relationship with God. Whatever the reason, over the course of the past six years I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who are struggling with doubts. Through these conversations, as well as meetings with confessors and spiritual directors about problems I’ve faced in my own spiritual life, I’ve learned a lot about traveling the rocky road of doubt. So for my acquaintance who’s questioning her faith, as well as anyone else who might be struggling with beliefs that used to come naturally to them, here are the top tips I think you might find helpful:
1. Make sure that the problem is doubt
First, make sure that your main issue is doubt. Problems like clinical depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. can lead to a lack of closeness with God that might initially seem like doubts, but have a deeper root that would be best addressed with a qualified Catholic therapist. Similarly, in my own life there was a time when I said I was experiencing doubts, but when I took a closer look I realized that it was simply a lack of consolation (i.e. a spiritual dry spell) rather than serious questions about the validity of the teachings of the Faith. “Doubt” is often used as a catch-all term that covers a variety of spiritual problems, so it’s important to take a second look to make sure that you’ve diagnosed the situation correctly.
2. Confess your sins
Whenever I complained of problems in my prayer life, my spiritual director would always ask me if I’d made a good confession recently. Having doubts isn’t necessarily caused by being in a state of sin, but certainly our sins can fuel any existing feelings of distance from God. Visiting the confessional is a good first step to clear your spiritual slate before moving forward.
3. Listen to the Church’s side of the story
This one seems obvious, but is surprisingly easy to overlook. When I talk to folks who have begun to embrace viewpoints that are contrary to Catholic teaching (such as those of the New Atheists), I often find that they have not spent much time listening to the Church’s counter-arguments. I see this most often among people who were raised Catholic: There’s a feeling of, “If there were a good response to this I surely would have heard it in Catholic school or in a homily at some point, and since I haven’t, there must not be a good answer.” The Church has a two-thousand-year-old body of wisdom that covers pretty much every aspect of human existence, so it’s perfectly possible that even someone raised in a faithful Catholic environment could have misunderstandings about exactly what the Church believes in certain areas. If you haven’t done so already, find faithful Catholic authors and see what they have to say about the areas in which you’re experiencing doubts. (The EWTN Catalog and Lighthouse Catholic Media both have great resources to get you started.)
4. Research your questions, but wait to do so until you’re in a place of peace
My spiritual director always used to say that we shouldn’t make big decisions when we’re feeling agitated, and never is this more true than in matters of faith. If you’re feeling stressed out, frazzled, angry, exhausted, resentful, or otherwise unsettled, try to regain a sense of calm before you begin seeking answers to your questions. As much as we like to believe that we can turn ourselves into truth-evaluating robots, the reality is that our abilities to assimilate and evaluate data are always impacted by our mental states—especially when it comes to those truths that cannot be deduced mathematically or through the scientific method alone.
5. Practice forgiveness
Per the above, there are a lot of things that could cause a person to be in an unsettled state. However, the one that I see most often in people with doubts is resentment. When I am able to have long conversations with people who are having serious questions about their faith, more often than not the subject will turn to some unresolved hurt in their lives. It makes sense: Since God is love itself, to seek the truth about God is to seek the truth about love; and, naturally, our view of love becomes clouded when we’ve been hurt by those who were supposed to love us. Forgiving those who have wounded us is much easier said than done, and may even take months or years of work with confessors, therapists and/or spiritual directors, but I’ve found it to be a necessary step for evaluating doubts with clarity.
6. Watch out for hidden payoffs
Another point that seems obvious, but is easy to overlook, is that the search for truth can be influenced by the payoffs that await different conclusions. For example, one person recently told me that she now believes that the main reason she lost her faith in college is because she secretly wanted to be “free” to live the immoral lifestyle that was popular on campus at the time.
7. Find a spiritual director
Going through a time of doubt can be an alienating experience. Especially if it seems that everyone around you has a rock-solid faith life, you might be hesitant to talk to your family or friends about what you’re thinking. This is where a spiritual director can be extremely helpful: He or she can help you analyze your questions in a relaxed environment, and you don’t have to worry about it leading to arguments or tension the way it might with people in your personal life. If you’re not sure how to find one, the Catholic Spiritual Direction Blog has a great post about that here.
8. Keep praying (and ask others to pray for you)
It’s a natural reaction to stop talking to God if you’re not even sure that he’s there to hear you, but keep doing it anyway. Tell him you have doubts. Ask for help. Ask him to guide you to the right people and resources—and don’t forget to remain open to any answers you might receive. Ask others to pray for you too; if you don’t want to tell them you have doubts, just say it’s for a special intention. This may be the most difficult step of all, especially if you’ve been questioning your faith for a long time, but it is also the most important step.
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The good news is that many people I’ve talked to over the years have come through their times of doubt to have a faith more vibrant than ever before; in fact, it seems like the worst periods of spiritual confusion often precede the most amazing spiritual transformations. So to anyone who’s experiencing difficulties in your faith life: Keep searching, keep praying, don’t lose heart, and know that I’ll be praying for you as well.