The night after I wrote my last post, Yosemite, I could not fall asleep. Well, that is common for me. But it was 3:00 a.m., and I had the song “Royals” running through my head. The lyrics suggest contentment living on the lower rungs of society, but the music video shows such listlessness in the characters. A boy (or is he a teenager or young man?) stands in a swimming pool submerged and alone. I was thinking of all my life goals yet unaccomplished, and I tried to pray. And all of a sudden, I had this sense of stillness, and I wondered if I was just talking to myself. And God was not there.
I have had doubt about God before then, but never before was it such a profound loss of faith. There was no doubt. There was just no faith. The flickering flame was extinguished, and with it all anxiety. Before when I had doubted, I had wanted to know the truth, and I had wanted to seek out answers. What indicators could I find that God is? But this time, the indicators at the forefront of my mind were the unanswered prayers. How could I keep praying to this God who was silent. It was ridiculous. All that seemed to exist was this material world.
My utter lack of faith scared me. But after struggling a few minutes, I forced myself to think back on my life, and I remembered experiences that hinted strongly at the existence of an immaterial world. And I remembered prayers that had been answered in the past, with answers seen within minutes of a prayer uttered. I do not recommend this approach as the cure-all for no faith, but at 3:00 a.m. it gave me a skinny thread of faith. I went to sleep knowing I was at the brink. When I awoke in the morning, my doubt was like a bad dream, disturbing but gone.
I have heard friends mocking the prosperity gospel, saying it is foolish because if God does not answer your prayers as quickly as you hope, then a loss of faith is a natural consequence. I know faith in God in does not make one immune from disappointments, sorrow, and suffering. Faith in God does not mean that if I have found favor, all my dreams will come to fruition. The hope we are given from God is a hope of a new heaven and new earth, where there will be no more sorrow and no more tears. But I also believe that God wants to hear our prayers and answer now, too.
Perception is a curious thing. It ought to be trustworthy, yet it is so fickle. I remember another night at 3:00 a.m. where I had an overwhelming sense of the reality of God and an overwhelming sense that the purpose in life is to love each person. The seeming reality of that perception scared me.
Deep down, I am still unsettled and distressed by how few people seem to fathom that God is. Should not we be able to glimpse God through nature such as Yosemite and divine revelation such as scripture? Not to mention eye-witness accounts of a real man named Jesus? If I really believe that God is, why at that 3:00 a.m. moment of doubt (and ok, many other times) was I not also trusting the promise that God works all things to the good of those who love him? And if so, I can give wholehearted thanks. Not that I deserve good things anyway. But, you know, trusting God should produce a thankfulness.
Doubt fuels anxiety. Elimination of faith produced a few minutes of peaceful nothingness for me. My mind and heart were not reeling in discord, dueling with each other and within themselves. There was simply nothing. But a thankful faith gives an even better peace. A thankful faith is somehow happier than that stillness I had felt. The peace hums with joy, and I feel alive.
I know faith can’t be conjured. I have taken courses that presented philosophical arguments for the existence of a God. I have compared religions. I have studied alternative reasons for answered prayers. I have studied the origin of the Bible. And I have considered its message. What else? Um, oh yes, I have seen miracles. But I also remember another time of doubt that I had, and it was shortly after close encounters with seemingly miraculous healing. Even though I sought out reasons to believe, I could not shake the doubt. It was not until I visited a friend who attended a “holy roller” sort of church, when I went up to the front of the sanctuary and some elders prayed for me. They surrounded me, and they were praying for me, and all of a sudden I started laughing at one of them because he was waving his hands at my armpit. And I suddenly felt like I had blinders or a blanket lifted off of me, and I could fathom Yahweh, the God of the Bible, again. And it was so wonderful. The doubt was gone.
Other times of doubt seem to be helped by remembering and thankfulness. When I think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, they faced hardships. But they had also seen in their past some amazing miracles and evidence of Yahweh. Instead of remembering God’s goodness and trusting him, they grumbled. And God was angry with them for their lack of faith. And honestly, they sound like me these days.
The following excerpt is Moses preaching to the Israelites right before entering the land promised to them. I cannot appropriate it to myself exactly, but it is interesting to see what Moses, who was said to meet with God until his face glowed, taught was God’s reason for the desert:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way. He guided you in the desert for these 40 years. He wanted to take your pride away. He wanted to put you to the test and know what was in your hearts. He wanted to see whether you would obey his commands.
He took your pride away. He let you go hungry. Then he gave you manna to eat. You and your parents had never even known anything about manna before. He tested you to teach you that man doesn’t live only on bread. He also lives on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes didn’t wear out during these 40 years. Your feet didn’t swell.
Here is what I want you to know in your hearts. The Lord your God trains you, just as parents train their children.
Obey the commands of the Lord your God. Live as he wants you to live. Have respect for him.
The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land. It has streams and pools of water. Springs flow in its valleys and hills. It has wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey. There is plenty of food in that land. You will have everything you need. Its rocks have iron in them. And you can dig copper out of its hills.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God. Praise him for the good land he has given you. Make sure you don’t forget the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 8:2-10 (my emphases)
Moses is saying that there were good lessons to be learned in the desert when the Israelites thought God was taking too long. Moses is saying that for faith to flourish, we need to always remember God’s provision. Moses is saying that an important part of faith is to be thankful for the many good things that God has given us.
I think that my natural state is spiritual blindness, but that by grace, my eyes are occasionally opened. I am like one of the many blind men who asked Jesus to heal them. Jesus took dirt and spit and covered one man’s eyes with the mud (some people think he was creating new eyes for him) and told him to rinse it off. And after he had rinsed off, he could see. In another account of a blind man, Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and touches them. Then Jesus asks him what he can see, and the guy says he sees people who kind of look like trees walking around. Sight, but a tad inaccurate. So Jesus touches his eyes again, and full healing happens that time. My own sight seems to be a tad more inconsistent than those two healed men. I can see! Oops, no, I can’t. I can see! Oops, no, I can’t. Well, I suppose that is what faith is – being sure of what we hope for and certain of things not seen.
I hope those 3:00 a.m. revelations of God’s presence and our call to love one another are true.
Anyway, I will pray for you, that God will open the eyes of your heart and mind to see God in even greater clarity than you have ever seen before now. And I am praying for myself the same.
And, since we are drawing close to the Thanksgiving season, my prayer is also that our faith will be filled with thankfulness, trusting God’s goodness in both our plenty and want.