“I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!”
by James Strong
Faith in God was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t even have to try. My parents were strong Christians who read me Bible stories from as far back as I can remember and I went to Sunday school every week. When I got older, I went to Bible camp and youth group and weekend youth rallies. The simple phrase “Jesus is the answer” told me pretty much all I needed to know. It told me where the stars came from, explained what was in my heart and covered everything in between.
And then one day, I started to doubt. It really was that sudden. One day it all made sense–the next, it all started to crumble. I was in Bible college when it happened. My professors taught me some big ideas that started a chain reaction of questions and doubts that seemed to go on forever. How do we reconcile Jesus’ love with all the violence in the Old Testament? What does it really mean to call the Bible “God’s word?” If God is loving and powerful, why doesn’t he stop terrible things from happening to people? Do I believe in God because he’s actually real, or because it’s simply what I’ve been taught? I knew I wasn’t the first person to ask big questions, but they were all brand new to me.
Now, I didn’t go looking for doubt. I wasn’t rebelling against my Christian heritage or against my parents. And my troubles weren’t sparked by some great tragedy like the tragic death of a sibling, or a friend who suddenly discovers she has cancer. Doubt just happened. All of a sudden, “Jesus is the answer” didn’t explain everything anymore. The questions I had were too big for such an easy answer.
Looking back, I can see how my childhood faith is set up to protect against doubts like mine. If Jesus really is the answer, from the stars in the sky to the feelings in my heart, then I wouldn’t need to go looking for any other explanations. Everything would be fine if I just kept giving the right answer. But I started to see that the answer wasn’t always as simple or as obvious as I had thought. Maybe my faith had been a no-brainer because I had no brain, and now that I was starting to learn something, my simple answer wasn’t going to work anymore.
I loved Bible college. I loved being on my own, away from home, free to start making decisions for myself. Dorm was full of pranksters, jokers and guys who listened to cool music. There were more Christian girls around than I had ever seen in one place before, and I wanted to marry them all. (In a week, I narrowed it down to one. We did get married, though it took us seven years to get there.)
But my biggest thrills were in the classroom. I loved learning. I loved reading new books, listening to lectures, trying to understand new things. Often I stayed up late, talking with friends about what we heard in class, feeling inspired and sometimes a little bit scared. Learning felt dangerous, but I wanted as much as I could get.
But I really felt like I was losing my faith, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. I remember visiting my family at Christmas and scowling for the entire two weeks I was home because I was sure they could never understand what I was going through. I felt lost. If the simple answer didn’t work for me anymore, then maybe I was too far gone.
My story doesn’t end there. But the fact is, I don’t have a tidy way to wrap things up. The questions I had 15 years ago are the same questions I have now, and I still don’t have easy answers for any of them. Mostly, my questions just raise more questions.
And yet, like the man in the crowd in Mark 9, who asks Jesus to heal his son, I too say to Jesus, “I do believe.” I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my doubts: I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. I’ve found others who wrestle every day with doubt, yet still believe with all their heart—men and women whose faith is not simple or easy but is very real. I have discovered that the Body of Christ is diverse and complex enough to have room for doubters like me. In Christ’s body, I might be just an uptight bundle of nerves somewhere deep inside the brain, but just because I’m not the hard-working heart doesn’t mean I don’t have a place.
I still love to learn, still love to read and think, even when it unsettles me. I have some pretty big questions, questions that go a long ways back, questions that still don’t have satisfying answers. And I still doubt. But I don’t worry about it like I used to. Doubt is a companion to my faith because when I really know something for certain—like that the sky is blue— I don’t really need faith. But when I have my doubts, when the questions don’t have easy, no-brainer answers, only then do I really need faith. Doubt isn’t the enemy of my faith. Doubt is a sign that I need to have faith.
So “I do believe,” I really do, even while I doubt. And at the same time I pray: “Help me overcome my unbelief!”
James Strong is a freelance writer from Winnipeg. He lives with his wife, two children and two housemates.
The article above was featured in the March 2009 issue of SEVEN magazine.