By Mr. Nathaniel Kostick
Since the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, man has been plagued with the question: Does God exist? The more we grow in our lives, the harder the struggle is for us to always accept that he does. Sometimes, we even tempt God to prove he exists. As a kid, I remember hiding privately in a corner and whispering to God. I told him that because I didn’t do my chores that day and my dad was upset, there was no way on earth my dad would let me stay at my friend’s house for the night; He’s said no three times already. So I challenged God; I said if he would make my dad say I could go to my friend’s house, I would forever believe in him. Five minutes later I got permission, and for the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop asking myself “was that really God, or am I just really lucky?”
We often act like this. We question whether God really acts in our lives, or just deny the possibility all together. We are like a man who’s late for work and looking for a parking spot. He looks up to his Icon and says “Lord please help me find a spot.” At that very moment, the man sees a spot open up right in front of him and says “Never mind Lord, I found one.” It seems humorous, but this is a frighteningly accurate example of us in everyday life. We attribute everything that happens in our lives to our own abilities or to luck. When we do come to our senses and thank God for what He has done for us, we eventually are carried off in our lives once again and forget He’s a part of it.
It is completely normal for us to question God. Every day we are confronted with many questions that we find hard to answer and many things that drag our belief in Him and our faith in the church down. Those who claim not to believe in God often love to challenge those who do believe in the possibility of God’s existence. We often are asked by skeptics “Where’s the proof?” or “If God exists, how come He lets so many people suffer around the world?” or “Even if God does exist, why would you follow someone who calls for hate and discrimination?” Usually these questions are based upon the skeptics’ frustration with the Church’s stance on social/cultural issues, the Church’s unwillingness to share communion with other faiths, or perhaps to historical wars in God’s name. Sadly, it seems that no answer will be acceptable to many of these people. In the worst cases, these doubters, lacking their own convictions and faith, seek to destroy ours as well.
However, these questions are all too familiar, aren’t they? In fact, they are our own. How can we avoid wondering why so much evil is let into the world? Or why God allows so much hate to ensue? Why does God allow me to hurt as much as I do? Does he not care? These tough, but normal questions should be asked.
When I was in my senior year of High School and early years of college, I struggled incessantly with these questions, and I always felt like I had two lives: One was in the life of the church, and the other was my every day school life. My friends were all mainly Protestant and Catholic, and we spent a great deal of time talking among ourselves about theological questions, and why things are the way they are, and what it means in our lives. Coming from an Orthodox background, I felt like I had experienced a deeper life in Christ and the Church. Yet trying to figure out answers to these questions, as well searching for answers about my own pain, led me to a time of depression that lasted many years through college. People whose presence I longed for with were disappearing, I had no direction in my life, and I felt like I was from a different universe growing up Orthodox around very unorthodox people. It hurt. Eventually, I started changing my prayers to God, asking him to just let me have this one thing go my way, and end my suffering. Nothing changed. As the years went by, matters only got worse and my faith was constantly in question. How could God allow someone to feel this way all the time? Why is he not answering my prayers? The hardest thing for me to accept was that God was answering my prayers: he was saying “No.” Finding out the answer I did not want to hear made me doubt my faith. My prayers eventually stopped altogether. Excuses came up for me not to go to church, and I was in a rut.
Thankfully, I had previously taken a lot of responsibility around the Church that forced me to keep involved. For many days, I attended church because I had to, yet my heart was not in it. This forced me, even though I didn’t like it at the time, not to abandon the church altogether and listen to what the priests had to say. Feeling I should not belong there or have the responsibilities that I had made me seek out advice from the priests. Thinking I would be relieved of my duties, I went to them. Finding answers that were satisfying and working with a spiritual father started lifting my spirits a bit and started me on the path back to Christ. It took a great deal of time, but my depression eventually faded as well thanks to the help of a few of my closest friends.
When talking to my friends about their experiences on doubting faith, a common theme began to appear. They became doubtful of God when they had heard something they did not necessarily agree with. For some experiencing an Orthodox Church or a Roman Catholic Church, they were turned off by refusal of communion to non-members. Others made comments explaining how they switched churches because they didn’t like a certain pastor or another pastor was more entertaining and loving. In general, one way or another, something went against what they personally thought was right morally, be it beliefs on communion, individual pastors, or social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, or any other teachings. Many have even said they choose to be “atheist” for the same reasons. But disagreeing with the teachings of the Church is not merely doubting God. It’s rejecting God, or at least what we know of Him. As St. Augustine of Hippo said “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
So the overall question is this. If it is natural for us to question and doubt our faith, how do we appropriately deal with our disagreements, without expressing the extremes of ignorance or rejection of the truth? My experience has taught me that the proper response to unbelief is a practical one.
Obviously, it is good to pray, but answers are not just going to come to us if we aren’t at least working at them ourselves outside of prayer, too. Question things, talk to your priest or a priest you trust, read a spiritual book from an Orthodox library that talks about the topic in question. These are all great ways to learn about Christ and the Church on a deeper level – to face our doubts head-on. What at first seemed ridiculous or wrong may just turn out to be heavily spiritual and full of love. We need to be open to the answers we get, and to consider them not just logically, but pastorally as well.
It seems somewhat clichÃ© to offer these suggestions, but they are so effective if done properly. However, they take time and effort. They require struggle and commitment, rather than simply following the path (or faith) of least resistance. I would also recommend starting a Bible Study with a priest or community leader and a group of peers. My friends and I started a Bible Study at St. Mary’s (OCA) Cathedral in Minneapolis under the direction of Fr. Benjamin Tucci, as a way of seeking answers to our questions and confronting our doubts and unbelief. After a year, our group has more than doubled and more college students are learning the reasons behind the things we do and believe. Having a Bible Study is a great resource that also helps prevent us from falling into the easy trap of ignoring God’s word.
Unbelief is a reality that we all must confront. Through the course of history, it seems that nobody is immune. Benjamin Franklin once told the members of America’s fledgling congress:
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of superintending providence in our favor… And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?
Franklin recognized our quickness to forget God while enjoying all of his blessings in our lives, especially here in America. Our repeated willingness to take blessings for granted opens the door to unbelief. And when unbelief strikes us, it is our responsibility not to give up on what’s important to us. Instead, we are taught to actively seek out Christ, and ask for his help with our struggles. As I have experienced, Christ’s help often takes an unexpected form, but thankfully, his help and his love is always there for us, so long as we ask him for it.
 Benjamin Franklin, “Request for Prayers at the Constitutional Convention” made on July 28, 1787, as recorded by James Madison, Notes Of The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987), 209-210.