"Dad, do you ever have little floaty things in your head that say, 'No'?" My daughter, Becca, was in second grade when she asked this question one night as I was putting her to bed. Taken a bit aback, I asked her what she meant. She said, "Well, like when I say to myself there is a God and the floaty things say, 'No, there isn't.' Or I say, ‘God loves me,’ and they say, 'No, he doesn't.'"
It dawned on me that the "little floaty things that say No" were my daughter’s second grade way of describing her early experiences with doubt. I assured her that I was also familiar with the little floaty things and had been since I was about her age.
I suspect that most of us have had some experience with the little floaty things that say No – with doubts. At one time or another, most of us have wondered about the existence of God, or God’s goodness, or God’s love for us personally. And doubt is not limited to the theoretical. On a more practical level, it includes questioning whether the way of life revealed in Jesus Christ is really the way to our fullest life and deepest joy. Is the way of gentleness, love, and forgiveness really the way? Whether they are theoretical or practical, the questions are bound to arise. What do we do with the little floaty things that say “No”? Here are some suggestions:
1. Do not be ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid of your doubts. They come with the territory and actually act as a spur to spiritual growth. Frederick Buechner calls doubts, "The ants in the pants of faith."
2. On the other hand, beware the snare of pride. It is easy to become self-satisfied for being so clever and sophisticated as to see all the difficulties with faith for "thinking people".
3. Don't be surprised by doubt. It is part of the conversion process. The gospel is, after all, foolishness and a stumbling block. When the values and biases of the gospel conflict with the values and biases of this world into which we have been enculturated, there will be tension. That is true whether the prejudices are intellectual, moral, or theological. That tension leads to doubt. It also leads to a choice. Which biases am I going to live by?
4. Be skeptical of your own skepticism. We live in a skeptical age. It is quite easy – and comfortable – to be a complacent skeptic. But, the bases of many doubts are also subject to doubt. In the areas of science and history, for example, the methods used are not as objective or certain as was once claimed. They are themselves based on assumptions that cannot be proven and their results are shaped by the biases of the researcher. And they are unable to answer every question. Nothing that matters can be proven beyond a shadow of doubt. Truth can only be demonstrated by the living of it. This is no more or less the case with the truth of faith.
Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts can become merely excuses to avoid the implications of believing.
5. Do not use doubt as an excuse not to follow Jesus or respond to the Spirit's call. If I neglect to apply for a job because I doubt I will get it, I surely won't. I can remain unchallenged and comfortable right where I am. Hans Denk, a Christian of the seventeenth century, asserted this basic axiom of faith: "You cannot truly know Christ without following him in life.” Jesus calls us to follow just as he called the first disciples. We are left to choose whether we will or not. Thomas exemplifies this in chapter eleven of John’s gospel. When Jesus heads back toward Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, the disciples counsel him not to go because those who want to kill him are there. Jesus starts walking toward Jerusalem anyway. Thomas says to the others, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." He had come to believe that following Jesus was the way to his deepest joy and was committed to following him and sharing his fate. The knowing often comes in the following.
6. It is helpful to recognize that while faith has its difficulties, so do its opposites, unbelief and apathy. For example, the persistence of evil and suffering has been a perennial problem for those who believe in a loving God who desires our good. The problem is not solved, however, by removing God from the equation. The question is only changed to "If we are no more than the most recent byproduct of a cosmic accident, why do we care so much about the suffering of others?" Or, even more problematic, "Why should we care?" Some people are starving. Others are tortured. If there is no God, and life is accidental anyway, why do I care so much? Why should I?
7. Talk to God about your doubts – even if it means starting your prayer with, "I'm not even sure I believe you are there . . ." God is not afraid of your doubts or offended by your questions. After all, Jesus invited Thomas to examine and touch his wounds. He has promised his love to you – no matter what. God would much rather have you spend time with him asking hard questions than have you not spend time with him at all.
8. Continue with the discipline of regular prayer and worship. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). An intimate realization of God's presence and love puts to rest a lot of the questions. Such a realization does not usually happen without some discipline and time on our part. We need to be trained to pay attention spiritually. As with physical discipline, it usually takes time to see the effects of spiritual discipline.
9. Remember that the Church includes and has included many who have struggled with believing. You are not the first person to ask questions about the faith. It is helpful to find out, through reading or conversation, how others have answered – or learned to live with – particular questions.
10. Recognize that there is mystery at the heart of it all. As Christians, we believe that God has spoken and acted definitively through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But God has not seen fit to provide answers to our every question. And even the answers we've been given contain mystery. At some point, we can only rest with humility in the presence of the Mystery at the heart of it all.
There is no simple formula that will silence all “the little floaty things that say no” once and for all. They are natural companions of faith. But, the above suggestions can take away some of the power of our doubts. And even when our questions are unanswered, the struggle with them leads us deeper into the mystery of God where the little floaty things that say, “No” are countered by God's resounding "Yes!"