Just about all human beings struggle with faith in God at one point or another. Some struggle nearly all the time and some struggle very seldom. Others have ceased to struggle and just have tried to forget God, or quit believing in him. Regardless of where you find yourself, you are not alone. Many of the Psalms reflect this faith struggle between the writer and God. Nearly all Psalms of this type begin with the struggle and end with faith rediscovered. Psalm 88 is an exception to that general rule, as the alleged writers (the sons of Korah) ended with this dreary, faithless statement: “the darkness is my closest friend.” Have you ever felt like that? I certainly have.
The reasons for our struggles may be both varied and numerous, but the two main sources that produce them are likely either things in the Bible or things in our life that don’t square with what we think God should be doing or allowing. I recently taught the Book of Colossians to the church in Honolulu. Colossians 3:22-4:1 deals with the subject of slavery—by regulating it, not condemning it. As I thought about God’s approach to the topic, I not only found myself repulsed by the idea, but wondered how much more strongly I might be affected if I were a black African American. For most Americans, regardless of race, the slavery era of our nation’s history is a dark and painful era to contemplate. But we can find many other biblical topics that are unsettling and troubling: the annihilation of entire nations by the direction of God in the Old Testament; the existence of a place of punishment called hell; the clear teaching of Jesus that most humans would be lost in eternity; etc.
Besides the biblical issues that may be quite disturbing and difficult or impossible to understand, we have life issues that seem even more challenging to our faith. Among such issues would be the baby born severely handicapped, or stillborn; deadly diseases striking not only the aged, but those in the very prime of life or in childhood; natural calamities killing hundreds or thousands at once; our own lives and family affected by health challenges, family challenges or financial challenges (and maybe a combination of these and other painful possibilities); etc. The old bumper sticker statement, “Life is tough − and then you die” seems more true than not. To me, life often seems very challenging with God; but life without God is too much for me to contemplate.
As I think about the nature and results of such faith struggles, I can see at least four possible outcomes. Going from worst to best, some people give in to the struggles and end up saying something to this effect: “I cannot and will not believe in a God like the one I see in the Bible or in my world.” Thus, they choose atheism—or at least try to. Let’s call this category four. Other people feel much the same, but have a slightly different response intellectually (although not practically). They say, “I cannot and will not serve a God like the one I see in the Bible or in my world. I can’t deny his existence, but I will choose to live as if he didn’t exist.” The term to describe one who comes to this conclusion would be “practical atheist.” He or she lives as if there is no God. We will call this category three.
Most of us find ourselves in one of the two better categories of strugglers. I’m in category two myself, which is to say that I often struggle with my faith in God through the circumstances of life. I have found ways to harmonize to my satisfaction the biblical issues that some have not yet resolved regarding God and his nature, but I don’t always find it easy to harmonize my view of God with my life as it tumbles in. Thus, like the writers of Psalms or the biblical character Job, I find myself questioning how God is running the world, especially my little personal world. The category some folks are in, and I wish I were one of them, is category one, in which a childlike faith seems to rule supreme most of the time. Their mantra is simple: “God is God, and God is good, and since he knows all things and can do all things, whatever happens will work out for my good—somehow, sometime and some way.”
My wife, Theresa, is pretty much like that most of the time. She has what the Bible calls for − a childlike faith. Jesus words in Matthew 18:2-5 ring loudly in my ears (if not always in my heart): “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. ‘And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’” One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 131, reads this way as David declares his childlike faith in God: “My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” What an upward call that is for all of us!
If we don’t live most of the time in category one, what are we to do? Let’s start at the worst place once more. What if your faith struggles have led you to tout atheism? Honestly, that one isn’t as difficult to deal with as some think. It’s hard to maintain the atheistic position. Too much evidence for the existence of God is readily available. When I was a young man in Graduate School, I had a professor named Thomas Warren, who specialized in debating well-known atheists. Tom had a PhD in philosophy from Vanderbilt University, and developed some ways to refute atheism that made me glad I was on his side of the issue! Along with several thousand others on a university campus, I observed him debating Anthony G. N. Flew from England. Flew believed that the existence of evil and tragedy in the world proved that there was no God, but he was unprepared for Tom Warren, who pretty much obliterated his arguments. Interestingly, although that debate took place decades ago, and Tom Warren is now dead, Anthony Flew renounced his atheism within the past few years. It’s simply a difficult position to maintain when the signature of God is written all over the universe in myriad ways. Only the fool says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1), and the bigger fool blurts it out for everyone to hear!
Those in category three who refuse to serve God, although they believe he exists, are essentially mad at him for one of many possible reasons, and don’t work through it. In essence, due to their problems with either biblical issues or life issues, they give up on God. Regardless of which type issue is at the root of their frustration or anger, they need to stop and think about some of the ramifications of their beliefs. Although it is not difficult to find reasons to question God and his love, to stay in that position is not only damaging, it is arrogant to the nth degree. In effect, a person in this category is saying, “God, you are not running the world correctly. I may be a mere human, but I can tell without a shadow of a doubt that you are messing up in the way you have done, or are doing, your business of running the world.” Wow—what an colossal assumption! Job was once dangerously near this conclusion, as his family calamities and person pain led him to question God. Actually, he did more than question: he had his case against God developed to the point that he was ready to enter God’s courtroom and take him on, acting as his own attorney. Finally, God had heard enough. Job 38:1-3 says: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’” This was God’s introduction to a little quiz he had for the self-assured Job.
About halfway through the quiz, Job had now heard more than enough, and he stated: “I am unworthy − how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:3-5). However, God wasn’t through with the quiz yet, and he continued to go after Job. At long last it was all over, and Job’s final reply, with bowed head and broken heart, was as follows in Job 42:2-6:
I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
For those who don’t figure out what Job discovered about God in this life, it will take but a matter of seconds to figure it out in the next life when they stand in God’s presence. The very thought of meeting God in that state takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes—literally, as I write this. We need to learn the most important lessons in life before we pass into eternity. I’m drawn to what the old priest in the movie Rudy said to the young football player who was struggling with his faith. He said something to this effect: “Son, I’m an old man now, and I have learned two big lessons in life. One, there is a God, and two, I am not him!” That’s a good starting place, but we need to go one step further. What has kept me out of this category through my struggles is one basic presupposition, and that is that God must be good.
I go out on prayer walks in nature, and see the beauties of creation all around me, and I know that God must be good. Even in the desert of Arizona, I find myself intrigued by the tremendous varieties of plants that not only survive but thrive where rain is all but non-existent. We have a number of different types of Agave plants that sprout huge shafts right out of their middle that often reach 10 feet high. And the shafts are of different configurations, depending on the type Agave. The Century plants near our neighborhood supermarket are startling to me every time I drive by, with those golden shafts reaching up from an 18” high plant 10 feet into the sky. I have taken dozens of photos of these plants, not only because they are mesmerizing to me, but because they shout out loudly, “God is!” “And he is good.”
The creation of the material world just gets me started. Then I think about the wife of my youth, the love of my life, my bride of 42 years. And I break down and weep with gratitude that I serve a God who is good. I go on to think about my two wonderful children and their wonderful mates and our five beautiful grandchildren—and I weep yet more. I then think about others in my physical family whom I love dearly, and then about those in my spiritual family who have blessed my life immeasurably. Oh, yes, there is a God, and he’s a good God—a very, very, very good God. His patience with my faith struggles is astounding. Paul once wrote with the pen of inspiration that Jesus our Lord had “unlimited patience” (1 Timothy 1:16). Unbelievable! Unthinkable! Unfathomable! Listen, if God were not good, I would have been burned to a crisp years ago, and so would you. Sometimes I go out on a long prayer walk for one purpose: just to start at the beginning of my life and thank God for all of the good things during the 64 years since. Sure, there are plenty of bad things, as I would deem them, but I am not so dense or hard-hearted that I miss seeing the hand of God even in those times. God never said that all things in life are good, but he did promise to work them together for good (Romans 8:28). He didn’t say to be thankfulfor all circumstances, but he did say to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), trusting that his promises to make it all come out right will prove true.
You can mark this principle down: those in category two that don’t accept the presupposition that God is good, even in the midst of fighting for faith, will end up in category three—and ultimately reap a whirlwind that they cannot imagine at the outset. No, I’m not in category one yet, with a childlike faith eliminating most of the battles in trusting God. But I want to be there with all of my heart, and I’m trying hard to be surrendered enough to let the God of all goodness and all comfort win those battles for me. As someone once said, “Doubt is not bad if you use it as a shovel with which to dig for faith.” If you are already digging, keep it up. If you have stopped digging, get started again. When your shovel strikes God’s treasure house of faith once more, the idealism once found in you as a little boy or a little girl will once again lead you to skip down a bright, flower-strewn path, hand-in-hand with God! Oh yes—God is, and God is good! You can bet your life on it − this life and the next life.
—Gordon Ferguson (April 2007)