When I Stopped Believing in God: How Doubt Gave Me Faith

“Purge the doubt.”

That’s the general sentiment of a great deal of Christian thought on the definition of faith. Faith is, in the eyes of perhaps the majority of American Christians, not “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11.1) but, rather, the substance of assurance, the evidence of lacking doubt. 

This view of faith, of course, always bothered me growing up. It was one of the reasons why in college I embraced so adamantly Christian rationalism (i.e. used, abused, and misappropriated apologetics). I wanted to find the certainty that so many professed to have.  And yet, ironically, it never once created an ounce of true, relational faith. A lot of head knowledge, but no faith. At the climax of it all, after three degrees in theological studies, I found myself sitting in the center of my living room, staring at the wall, and telling God with exhausted eyes and a sinking heart the words I never thought I would hear myself say: ‘I don’t think you exist.’

I had all of the answers…and yet the pain and the questions and the doubt of experience nullified them all. If by “belief” you meant agree intellectually with certain principles–like that the resurrection had a lot of evidence to back it up, that teleology pointed towards a designer, that morality needed a ground outside of human beings–then yes, I believed. But that’s not what Christians really mean when they say ‘believe’ (or at least, what we should mean). We mean “trust.”  And of that, I had nothing left. I even in fact seriously wondered whether my Calvinist friends were correct and whether I was just realizing my own inevitable damnation.

But what I learned is nothing that a book or a classroom or a blog post can ever teach you…Only experience can. Screaming at the sky is not the sound of faithlessness. Despite the concern that I know most around me would have had to hear the very words I spoke that night (and how many ‘gossip…er…prayer lists’ I would have found myself on), it was the sound of freeing myself from delusional piety. It was not an embrace of atheism. It was an embrace of my own existential self. To say I ‘believe’ in him, in the sense that I could ‘trust’ in Him when I really didn’t is like the proverbial teenager who tells his parents ‘I’m fine’ when he really isn’t. Would not the heart-searcher know, as well as I did, where my heart really was? Can we excuse falsehood for the sake of piety? Or would the creator of both the cosmos and our hearts rather have us as broken as we may be.

Professing my doubt didn’t make me one step closer to being faithless for the simple reason that I just had already run out of any faith to have. Why sit on the side of the highway pretending to have fuel in your take when you can’t even start the car? Screaming at the sky, admitting my utter lack of trust in God simply put my mouth where my heart already was–and this, I guarantee you, is what God really wants. He wants us as we are, nothing more. It was as if by admitting to him, to myself, and to the sparely decorated four walls surrounding me that I had couldn’t muster one more ounce of faith that he responded softly ‘Good. Now let me make it for you.’ And he did. Slowly, surely, he taught me that it was only by admitting that I had hit rock bottom that I would recognize the rope thrown down to me.

Doubt is not the enemy of our faith. It does not need to be exorcised, it does not need to be answered, it does not need to be ignored. It needs to be confessed in its brutal honesty to the only one who can actually do something with it. What we need is not to rid ourselves of doubt; we need to learn how to doubt faithfully. Indeed, doubt is a part of faith for me and always will be. But I find comfort in that actually, for it makes the Bible speak in new ways, ways that those who seek an incorrigible faith never allow. I have found, since that night of complete transparency, that Scripture is chalk full of my voice. Can I not say, as Jesus himself did, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” Can I not say, as the Qoheleth, “This too is pointless”? Is it not, in fact, one of the central themes of Scripture to cry out to the sky ‘Where, God, are you to be found?’ Is God so fragile that I cannot be honest with him, even brutally honest? If the very term ‘Israel’ means one who wrestles with God, then count me as part of Israel. We shall wrestle…and this is the way I think he wants us.