If I could turn back time and return to my friend’s living room that day, when she was telling me with tears in her eyes that she wished she could believe, that she tries but is not able, I would probably find more appropriate words than I did then.
Back then, the conviction with which she told me she feels God is busy with something else other than her pain, made the possibility of such cosmic injustice take root in my mind, too. The injustice in my mind was, however, a logical fallacy.
That afternoon I admired my friend for being authentic. She was capable of voicing fears I would not have even dared to express had I felt them. I wouldn’t have dared to admit I shuddered at the thought that God could choose to be silent before her either, that He might not answer nor comfort her.
Years later, I was telling a friend about C.S. Lewis’ conversion. He answered, in a poor attempt to hide his bitterness, that he would have liked to feel as Lewis did, that God is looking for him, rather than him being the one struggling to find the Great Hidden One.
When I was directly affected, I rarely felt alone, like God was not with me in my suffering, or as if He didn’t exist. However, I’ve often heard others using suffering (theirs or that of others) as an argument against God’s existence. For a long time, I felt I could not argue against this because I had not suffered enough to have the right to say something. What if I was among the privileged ones, with an easier life? I thought. Perhaps God really does not answer these people who suffer. Who am I to contradict their experience?
The human side of faith formation
While watching over a sick person who was fading away in the ICU, a nurse, who felt angry at God for leaving the man alone, realized that God was comforting him through her.
It took me a while to get a hang of this principle. In the living room flooded by the afternoon sun and my friend’s tears, it never crossed my mind that, perhaps, I myself was the comforter. That, were I not frightened by her pain and the other pains she evoked, I could have told her that I am not visiting her by coincidence. Perhaps, He knew she needed a shoulder to cry on, and sent me. It’s not fair to accuse God that He left you alone, when He sends His own people to you (no matter how weak or unprepared they might be).
While travelling in my friend’s car, it did not occur to me that I could have told him that perhaps that very discussion, that he had not initiated and where he felt free to express his doubt and feel accepted, was part of the way in which God was searching for him. Perhaps the restlessness that troubled his sleep and made him seek support in people and memories was a mechanism God allowed as a warning that his soul was not in the right place.
Sometimes, when they are in pain, people seem to accept God’s help only if it comes through supernatural intervention. In this way, however, they are rejecting the help He wraps in simpler forms, which are less arresting to the senses. Bible history teaches us that the miraculous is, by definition, an exception. If suffering made us worthier of God’s visible manifestation, the Earth would be consumed by His glory, because the world is filled with pain.
When we are in the presence of a suffering person, God is with that person, through us. That person can notice God’s presence more easily if we do not overshadow it with our own fear. Sometimes fear, as an enemy of the soul, can be as strong as unbelief.
Faith through tough times
I never thought that my pain is worthier of a miracle than other people’s pain, but I also lived through moments when I felt that pain empties the world of any meaning, even of God’s presence.
In those moments, logic is helpless and the next best thing is refraining from making major decisions. I also experienced moments of atheistic pain, but, when the fire was put out, I came to my senses, and found true north again. However, as you cannot force yourself to believe in those moments, it is neither good to push yourself towards the decision never to believe again, “because, look, when I needed it, faith seemed nowhere to be found.”
It is true that having to tolerate uncertainty, besides the fact that you need to live with the pain, is harder than to claim a false sense of certainty (“there is no God”) and stick only with the pain. It is, however, better to acknowledge that sometimes you cannot suffer and, at the same time, still think with utmost precision, that you are only human and that suffering may at times colour your reality with deceptive hues. What you can do is simply wait for the halo of God’s apparent alienation to fade away and, in the meantime, do your best not to hurt yourself or others.
The pain that is so often used as an argument against the existence of an all-powerful good God can, however, enhance faith, since faith is not a logical conclusion, but a decision. The bigger the challenge against the evidence for faith is, the stronger the decision to invest in what you believe needs to be. Faith is logical, but it’s not based on logic. Logic cannot have the last word, nor would it be fair for it to have the last word, since not everyone masters logic equally, but all people are “justified through faith.”
We cannot come to believe as a result of a mathematical calculation. At this point, no matter how much we might claim that a decision about faith will be the result of a careful and objective search, in reality, it is subject to various influences that we must acknowledge. Our social environment, the education we have access to, the information we manage to process, the life experiences we go through, our personality, wishes, and needs—these all form an indivisible mixture that is translated, in relation to our faith, as our “inclination” to either embrace or run away from faith.
The Christian who is tormented by the old reproof that says that “faith is a consolation for the weak” might be relieved to realize that unbelief is also a consolation for those who are inclined to not believe in God. There are people who deliberately choose to believe God does not exist, like there are people who deliberately choose to believe that God exists. And both categories admit they have reasons to doubt.
As far as I am concerned, I choose to believe God exists, because I couldn’t otherwise. I even remember that, when I first struggled with doubt, I saw fit to pray to God that He would… exist. My world is unfathomable without Him.
Perhaps this is no reason for an atheist to believe, but maybe it is not my mission to convince atheists of the existence of God. Maybe my role is rather to learn to navigate through life with this faith, together with those who believe in God’s existence. Because this would not translate to making dry scientific observations, but living out this faith, which claims its right to direct my life. It asks me not to worry about the things I cannot control, to no longer be afraid of the unknown, because fear and love cancel each other out, just as faith and love attract each other.
For those who may think that mine is a cheap and unfought for decision, I am sure that God will find suitable debating partners.
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