I struggle now and then with doubt and am amazed at folk who tell me — truthfully, for all I can tell — that they never have doubts.
Throughout my Christian life, I have been assailed with doubts about all sorts of things, up to and including the existence and goodness of God. It’s rather like being buffeted by storms. And I cannot escape the conviction that God deliberately permits it.
At any rate, the struggle has certainly driven me to my knees in prayer, to my Bible and to the Church for answers. I empathize a great deal with the situation of the apostles, out on the Sea of Galilee when the sudden squall comes up. Mark tells us that they plead in terror and exasperation: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4:38).
That’s where the question typically lies for us, isn’t it? It’s not so much “Hmm. A storm. Perhaps this is philosophical evidence of the non-existence of God.” No, the real anguish of doubt assails us with the thought: Doesn’t God care that we are perishing? Why, if God loves me, has he allowed X to happen?
The fear is of what the pain we face might reveal about God. It’s like being stabbed with the sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that your greatest hero could be a sadist, sociopath or idiot. What if God is like that and not like the things I was taught to believe? What if the whole thing is a sham, fraud and delusion? What if I’m the world’s biggest sucker and have fallen for the world’s biggest con and God doesn’t care at all what becomes of me or anyone else I love?
That is an extraordinarily potent suggestion when we are in pain or traumatized. And it is why so many people who proclaim their alleged disbelief in God are really, quite transparently, proclaiming their rage at him. They have accepted the suggestion that he has betrayed them and made it a fact in their hearts.
Many ex-Christians talk much more like lovers after a very bitter breakup than like people who have been calmly persuaded of a syllogism. And the angrier they are, the more surely they tend not to walk away from the Christian tradition for the cool, alpine meadows of pure reason, but to hang around the church they allegedly have put behind them in order to obsess over, denounce and complain about the God who they think betrayed them.
Now, the thing to note about doubt is that word “suggestion.” It is the devil’s standard coin since he is a liar and the father of lies. He has no actual truth to reveal about the badness of God, so he can only suggest it. The truths he does deal in are always half-truths: worms to bait the hook of a lie. So he takes a truth (“Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest you die”) and mentions it in order to suggest that God is trying to keep you from something good. (“Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”)
From there, he presses on to strengthen the suggestion of God’s badness to a full-throated lie. (“You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”) The ultimate goal is to get you to swallow the suggestion as fact, to embrace the “What if?” about God’s horrible betrayal and embrace it, not as a mere suggestion, but as the truth. We begin to tell ourselves, “God not only doesn’t care about our good — he is trying to harm us.”
We fall for this trick again and again. Which is why it is necessary to learn to fight back. Of which: more in Part 2.
Mark Shea is senior content
editor for Catholic Exchange.
He blogs at NCRegister.com.