How do you serve a God that you doubt exists? This is not to sound judgmental or accusing. I just don’t see how it is possible to genuinely give a life of service to God but at the same time doubt His existence … Why is it … you don’t strive to let go of these professed doubts of God’s very existence to serve God more faithfully, without being hindered by doubts?
You mention … you live out your faith but sometimes face overwhelming doubts. Very understandable, but isn’t this simply another sin that all followers sometimes go through? … Why exactly do you call yourself a Christian Atheist pastor? …
Edited for length. Full question is here.
This is, without a doubt (hah), a great question. Please allow some grace here as I try to be as subtle and nuanced as possible.
First please humor me on a silly example. There are some dudes who are naturally muscular, can go to the gym and start off with 300 lbs. on the benchpress, and look just ridiculous on a beach. They’re gifted.
Other guys like me are on the constant verge of being skinny enough to hoola-hoop a Cheerio or at the precipice of blimp-like weight gain. Trying to get in shape is a constant striving against the current, like going uphill on a slippery incline.
A second example, now from C.S. Lewis: he talks about how people judge a “mean old Christian lady” when no one actually knows how far this woman has come along, compared to just a “nice guy” who happens to be nice due to his fortunate upbringing.
A man who has only known cruelty his whole life who does a nice thing “may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.” C.S. Lewis continues: “All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall … see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
I am, by all definition, a spiritual weakling. I’m an “Atheist-Christian” like a recovering alcoholic who fights the bottle. I don’t say that as a free pass. I don’t say that to let myself off the hook. If anything, I’m dangling on the hook right in my flesh.
Having grown up an atheist with so many dark influences and a doubting heart ingrained almost since birth, I still struggle with doubt as one of my greatest sins. I don’t try to paint this as some “beautiful struggle” or some kind of marketable tactic. It’s a downright frustrating, sweat-pouring, tear-drenched, blood-stained battle.
I do not believe that doubt should be our default position or a way of life, because I do believe that God is rooting for us and wants to give us a life of peace, joy, and mercy amidst any hardship — and most of all He wants to give us Himself for His glory.
But I don’t think faith is an On-and-Off light switch. No preacher should be breathing down his church’s neck saying, “You’re either committed or you’re not! You’re in or you’re out! You’re following or falling!” Every human being struggles, sinks, and fails. That’s the point of the Gospel: that Jesus does what we cannot do in and of ourselves. And sometimes the faith to believe him is an accumulating tapestry of knowledge, intimacy, experience, and suffering.
While I might not be as far along as you or the super-Christians who attend that super-church, by the grace of God I’m a little further than yesterday, being renewed day by day.
Shall we have more examples?
So The Bible Says
When Moses passed through a Red Sea with the Israelites, two categories of people went through: those shouting in victory and those screaming in fear. But both made it through by the grace of God.
David in one Psalm will say, “I long to be near you,” but flip a page and he’s crying, “How long will you forsake me?” He made it to his heavenly home by the grace of God.
Most people think Job was some kind of saintly sparkling clean choir boy until they actually read the book of Job. At one point he says he wishes he was a stillborn (Job 3:16) and that his heart is shattered (Job 17:11).
Habakkuk demands an explanation from God why his people have to be pillaged by the Babylonians, who are enemies of God. At one point he says he’s going to wait for God to answer his complaint (Habakkuk 2:1) and he also doubts the eternity and wisdom of God (Habakkuk 1:12).
Both Martha and Mary question Jesus’ late arrival to their poor dead brother Lazarus. “If you had only been here …” And Jesus heals Lazarus anyway: not based on the amount of their faith, but by his grace and power.
John the Baptist, imprisoned for standing up against Herod, passes a message to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus goes to a demon-possessed boy who cannot be healed by the disciples; Jesus calls them an unbelieving generation. And the boy’s father, revealing so many layers in his own confused heart, says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Let’s remember Adam and Eve, who both doubted the Word of God and began the chain of events we are still experiencing today.
Branches, Moons, and (Not) Better With Age
Our “spiritual life” — that is, the quality of our connection with God, if you can even say that — is most definitely not based on the amount of faith we have.
Since faith is also a gift of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8) and God apportions to each of us as He wants (Ephesians 4:7, 1 Cor. 12), then each of us will look different if we held up a Spiritual X-Ray machine on our souls.
So I’ll say it a different way. Our trusting in God’s work is based on the object of that faith, and I believe that with all the strength the Holy Spirit has apportioned me, I am holding onto Him. If I fall off a cliff, I’ll only be saved by holding a strong branch with deep roots. It doesn’t matter how strong my grip is, as long as I use all my pitiful strength to hold that branch. And what matters most is that every single person who falls holds the strongest branch there is.
While the doubts of Adam and Eve led to direct disobedience, there are also lingering doubts of the sincere believer who is overcoming residue from a former life. If you see half a moon in the sky, it’s either waxing or waning. You’d have to know what it looked like a few days ago or watch a few days from now to see which one.
Our grip on the Branch strengthens over time, as it should when we trust God and as He empowers us. But really, over the course of a lifetime, how much “stronger” can our faith really get? It’s possible that trusting God over time is not really “spiritual growth” like we think, but is just getting more tired and lazy with a resignation to accept whatever God does. Not to generalize, but some people with “strong faith” are occasionally empty-headed, dull-witted bandwagon jumpers that suddenly get rocked when they’re asked a serious question, or are totally disoriented when life gets hard.
Doubt, almost by accident, keeps me on my toes about who God is and how He is working.
Authority, Existence, and Three Lb. Brains
Of course, it’s entirely two different things to doubt God’s authority and doubt His actual existence. These days I struggle with His authority. It used to be that when something horribly tragic happened in the news, I would wonder if He existed — now I wonder if He is actually in control. There are also still moments when I read the Old Testament and become disillusioned with the way God handled things. At times I’m still troubled and disturbed by Him.
Is it wrong to want to know God’s reasons for His ways? Is there an extent that we can have the chutzpah to question Him? Because when I get to Heaven, there are some things I’d like to know.
BUT — I’ve also been humbled enough to know that my brain is only three lbs. and is too puny to fit a God-sized God in my head. I know that God, being God, has all the answers, or He wouldn’t be God. Or He Himself is the answer, and His very presence will quiet my soul.
I want to prioritize feelings over truth. Even in extreme swings of doubt, I still want to act as if God exists.
The alternative is outlandishly petulant and childish: to believe that somehow all this is circling around “me,” that life is meaningless and bleak and empty so I can be as cheeky and cynical and nihilistic and deconstructionist as I want, that I can diminish everything to its least common denominator, that somehow we’re all sorry creatures that are lucky enough to walk on two legs, that there is no soul or spirit or eternity or absolute or accountability, that there is no greater redemption than what I can do with my two pathetic hands. It’s untenable, unsustainable, and senseless.
I’ve been an atheist, and no thanks. Despite my stabbing doubts — less and less, I can say by the grace of God — I’ll serve. Until I see Jesus face to face, I’ll walk that road with pain towards His promise.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
— C.S. Lewis