Monday, August 27, 2007

Room for Doubt: The Faith Crises of Bill Lobdell, Mother Teresa, and Holly

Belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of
faith. Either you have the gift of faith
or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't
be willed into existence. And there's
no faking it if you're honest about
the state of your soul."

--William Lobdell, religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, in a column he wrote last month. Lobdell wrote about the hypocrisy he’s witnessed within the church—including the handling of cases against Catholic priests who’ve been accused of molestation—and how it has caused him to lose his faith.

Holly sez:
My faith life's had its up and downs. At its worst, I checked out of the Christian church in my late teens because all I saw there was hypocrisy, arrogance, and superiority. It seemed if these were the people who followed Jesus, either they were very wrong, or Jesus was a fraud. Shortly after college, I read an article in a reputable news magazine stating the historical Jesus was nothing like the man recorded in the Bible. It seemed to confirm both of my suspicions about Jesus and his followers.

Had I been older, I would have known those scholarly attacks on Christ’s character and legitimacy come around every few years, are quickly disproven and disappear. (A recent example was the discovery of the so-called "lost tomb of Jesus.") Had I been wiser, I would have realized my observations of hypocrisy, arrogance, and superiority were actually about my own life! I thought I was better than others, and I didn’t feel love or compassion for anyone. Yet somewhere deep inside, I wanted a real relationship with God, one that would change my attitudes. Rather than saying, “OK, God, I’m messed up and I want to let you fix me,” my immature mind decided the church had corrupted me with its bad environment. I spent nearly a decade feeling angry toward the Christian church, and wasted all that time trying to find an alternate way to know God.

My crisis of faith seems mild in comparison to Bill Lobdell’s, the L.A. Times writer quoted above. I merely needed to grow up. Lobdell is a grown, thinking man who’s been knee-deep in true church hypocrisy. Inside the church, he witnessed greed, false teaching, and a complete lack of justice for church members who were violated by church leaders.

There are plenty of ways to downplay Bill's experience, to say, “Well, we live in a fallen world,” or “Bill, you can’t judge the goodness of God by the actions of sinful humans” or "We can't understand the mysteries of God's infinite wisdom" or "Bill's just got to trust God." But if you've ever experienced doubt, you know none of those simple statements rebuilds faith—in fact, that oversimplification can cause a person to think faith is one big farce.

Perhaps we minimize other's doubt because we're afraid of confronting doubt in our own lives. Bill's story awakened questions in my mind. If I were in Bill's shoes, I would wonder, How could a loving God allow such atrocities—within his church! Didn't he care about those children who were molested, and the infirmed who were exploited by phony "faith healers"? How could a just God not provide justice to those who’ve been victimized by leaders of his church? This isn’t a “if God is good, why do bad things happen” question. This is a “if God is real, wouldn’t he care about the actions of his representatives here on earth” paradox.

That's only my guess of what’s going through Bill's mind. I can say honestly that if this were my crisis of faith, I'd likely give up on my Christian faith, too.

That’s because I sometimes feel Christians are expected to have profound, unrelenting faith. I emailed Bill and told him as much. Perhaps, as this verse suggests, such faith isn't available to most:

"A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have" (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, NLT, emphasis mine).

(Some other versions of that Scripture—NIV, King James, NASB—don't even use the word "great" to qualify faith: "... to another faith by the same Spirit" (NIV). The Message version says, "simple faith.")

In my email to Bill, I tried to share some observations about my own faith:


Faith doesn't seem to be my spiritual gift. It's logical to me that a God who gives and takes life could heal, too. But I've never had faith God would heal a person. If "faith" is defined as "belief that is not based on proof," I'm not even sure my belief in the Resurrection is about faith. My belief in the Resurrection came only after reading such apologetics writers as Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis. Arguments, such as those in The Case for Christ, seemed plausible, so I started to believe that God and Jesus were possibilities. But it was observing the faith of others that made God real to me.

For me, faith has been like a life-long science project: I've researched, hypothesized, experimented, and observed. A scientist friend told me basics such as Newton's first law can't be mathematically proven; it's technically a theory. Yet we accept it as fact because humans have observed it in action for more than 300 years. Similarly, my friend believes, we can observe faith and thus strengthen our acceptance of the theory that God exists.

I'm praying God will put a person in your life who has the gift of faith.

I've been praying for Bill for several weeks now. And praying for myself, too, because writing those words to him made me feel pretty disgusting. How could I admit to a lack of faith? I almost wanted to call up the evangelical Christian publications I write for and tell them, “I shouldn’t be working for you because I lack the definition of faith I believe Christians are supposed to have.”

This led to a minor crisis of my own faith. I wondered, Do I have any real faith at all? Using, I looked up every single Scripture that included the word “faith.” Some discussed a lack of faith, others the rarity of great faith, and some spoke of weak faith. But I couldn’t find anything indicating there were people who didn’t have any faith whatsoever--at least, not in the sense that someone could be devoid of the potential to believe in God. (Bible scholars, please correct me if I'm wrong.) Rather, faithlessness seems to describe the choice to not serve God or to be opposed to God.

It seems there must be a nearly universal faith in God, or at least in a higher power or something greater than humanity. Even most self-proclaimed atheists seem to indicate they can’t know for certain there isn’t a God. Maybe that hint of doubt could otherwise be defined as "the prospect of faith in God."

Even if we all have some amount of faith, is the little we have enough? I got to thinking, Maybe my measure of faith doesn't qualify me to talk to you readers about God. Maybe Christian leaders—including writers—aren’t allowed to have a crisis of faith. Is doubt a sign I don't have enough faith? Is it wrong to doubt?

That’s how my mind gets going sometimes when doubt creeps in. So it was a gift from above when I received a press release about Mother Teresa’s “crises of faith” last week. Mother Teresa had written private letters to church leaders about her faith struggles. These will be included in a book coming out next month. Her thoughts both shocked and encouraged me, including these:

"Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. … It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.' " –written in 1953

"Such deep longing for God—and ... repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no
zeal. (Saving) souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing—pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything." -- 1956

"If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true." --1959

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear." –1979

Mother Teresa had asked the Catholic church to destroy these letters upon her death. Perhaps she felt her crises of faith would have shaken or destroyed the faith of others. For me, these letters provide encouragement: Even the devout have moments of deep doubt. Perhaps, like I mentioned before, doubt is simply a way to describe the potential for faith.

But Mother Teresa isn't the only doubting person of faith on file. Flip your Bible open to just about any story, and you'll see faithful followers doubting the power of God. This includes those who have seen God at work. Even after observing miracles and hearing Christ's words, the disciples still lacked faith. Case in point: The disciples were in a boat with Jesus when a storm kicked up. Jesus calms the storm, yet even after he does this, his disciples are still afraid!

Maybe Bill Lobdell has some amount of faith in God left, which is presently being expressed as doubt. I will continue to pray for him, and I hope you do, too. Maybe we all need to have a crisis of faith every once in awhile, if only that God would make our faith stronger:

"Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way" (James 1:2-4, The Message).

To ponder:
1) Have you ever had a crisis of faith? What caused it?

2) If your crisis of faith was resolved, how did you come to resolution? How did those moments of doubt affect your relationship with God? If you are presently experiencing doubts, how has that doubt affected your relationship with God?

3) Is it OK for a Christian to have doubts?
Is it difficult to admit when you have doubts about your faith? If so, what makes this so hard?

4) Do you believe everyone has some amount of faith? Or do you think some don't have any faith whatsoever? What led you to this conclusion?

1 comment:

Brother Marty said...

Thank you for your post.
I come here rather late, but sense that the topic is still abounding in peoples conscience. Sister Theresa was a mere who sacrificed her life for others...but a human nonetheless. I commend the faith for putting her letters up for all to see. I gather strength from her weaknesses.
On your topic of healing...yes, there are those with that gift today. There is a Filipino priest who moved to Canada with such a gift. There are others as well. When they exercise this gift out of love rather than profit, they are blessed with God's intervention by means of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that you find discernment in these areas. May God richly bless you in your quest.
Thanks again for your post!