Among those I hear from regularly are people struggling with their faith.
Their ambivalence toward God — wanting to believe, trying to believe, but not seeing any logical reason to do so — is something for which I have great sympathy. I’ve been there myself and occasionally am still there.
After my last column, I received a fairly lengthy and quite thoughtful email from a reader I promised not to identify.
He was raised in a Christian denomination and still attends church, but he finds himself beset with doubts. His wife and their adult child have become atheists.
The crux of his own doubt is that it’s hard to know what’s real about the Christian faith and what isn’t. Particularly, he’s troubled by inconsistencies in the scriptures.
“One simple example is Palm Sunday,” he said. “There is no non-biblical account to support the events of Palm Sunday. However, there is the Jewish (primary) feast of Sukkot that occurs in the fall that closely resembles events of Palm Sunday. Did Mark or (another) writer simply transfer Sukkot to Palm Sunday or maybe someone else did along the way? How do we know what’s real?”
That sort of issue creates credibility problems for him.
“Still, I just cannot believe that this world, this universe, is totally random,” he wrote. “I think that many atheists want to believe, but logic and intelligence keeps (them) questioning scripture. What’s real, what has been added over the millennia since Jesus walked among us?”
These are legitimate questions, questions all thinking believers must wrestle with. And yes, despite the contrary assumptions of some nonbelievers, many folks manage simultaneously to be thinkers and believers.
I’m a thinking believer myself. I started off my adulthood as a budding academic. School work was a breeze for me. I earned multiple college degrees, including a couple of graduate degrees. I thought I was pretty smart.
In fact, I thought I knew the answer to just about any question, great or small, and if I didn’t know the answer immediately I could figure it out with a bit of effort.
But even apart from religion, life subsequently has since taught me too well that, no matter how high my IQ might be, I’m pretty much a moron.
The number of things I don’t know and could never understand always outnumbers the things I do know and can figure out. The fact is, we’re all just ciphers.
Indeed, I’d argue that in spiritual matters, human intellect is profoundly overrated and probably a hindrance. It easily becomes a graven idol that keeps us from God. If we’re not careful, we come to worship our own intelligence — and that’s the height of folly.
We decide that if we can’t parse it, it must not be real.
Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — the answer is to quit trying to out-think an infinitely superior being, which is to say, God, and simply surrender to him. Sometimes the answer is to humble ourselves before the grand mystery.
Both Jesus and St. Paul addressed this. They said there are two main types of people who rarely find God (that is, in addition to the rich).
The first type is those who think they can work their way into heaven through their own righteous deeds. The second type is those who think their intellectual superiority enables them to figure out God.
The Lord despises hubris, Jesus and Paul said. He deliberately hides himself from religious prigs and self-appointed smartypants alike.
Yet he joyfully reveals himself to those who come to him as children, who recognize their own moral and intellectual lack. He embraces those who fall to their knees and cry, “Help me!”
So, here’s my response to the good and sincere fellow who wrote me last week.
Truly, I feel your pain. The Bible isn’t perfect. I do believe it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it was composed by flesh-and-blood humans, then translated and re-translated by other humans over hundreds of years. Certain mistakes crept in.
Similar things could be said about anything else regarding Christianity. Mistakes were made.
That’s why we don’t worship the scriptures or our rituals or the preacher. We don’t worship our own charitable deeds.
Neither do we worship our intellect or our flawed reason or our Phi Beta Kappa key.
All these things — the Bible, say, or an academic hypothesis — can be fine, helpful and even needful.
But we worship the Lord, and him only.
God is real. He loves you, and he wants to have a relationship with you. He wants to show you how real he is.
When battered by doubts, I suggest laying the questions aside for a time. You can always pick them up again later. They’re always available.
For now, though, take a few minutes or days just to say what one man famously said to Jesus.
“Lord, I believe,” he said. “Help my unbelief.”
You may get some answers — answers you didn’t quite expect.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.