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Dealing with “pop-up” doubts

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Have you ever found yourself doubting your faith? I am not talking about serious doubt. I am referring to “pop-up” doubts.

You are driving to work and, without prompting, your mind wanders to the funeral you attended last week. You ask yourself: “What if there is nothing after death?” This is a momentary lapse in faith. Others we might encounter are: “Did Jesus really mean this is my body?” “Why is the chaste life so important?” “Is heaven real?” You get the idea.

When this happens to me, I immediately feel guilty for not being a true-blue believer. I will never make saint with this attitude. I began to ask the question: “Is doubting okay?” What I have learned is that it is not only okay, it is also an important step in growing in our faith. An honest question about faith leads to a deeper understanding, and that leads to stronger faith. It is good to know that all of us experience pop-up doubts. They are simply the way the Holy Spirit primes the pump of wisdom.

Think for a moment of your own doubts. The tough issues that cause you to debate what the church teaches (check out “Twelve Tough Issues” by Daniel E. Pilarczyk). Faith is about believing those things unseen, the things for which we have no proof. We also have a list of sure things that do not require that great leap of faith: the earth is round, Jesus of Nazareth lived in time, thousands have been martyred for their faith, etc. We have proof for these facts. Those things we cannot prove are the crux of the matter. The church teaches that faith is a gift. This means we cannot accept the tenets of faith without God’s help.

So, how do we deal with our doubts? Doubts that occur because of difficult circumstances like a terminal diagnosis or doubting that we merit heaven are linked to the need to accept that a merciful God cares for us. I read the First Letter of John when I struggle with believing that God’s mercy is real. Then there are intellectual doubts: you read or hear something that conflicts with your beliefs or you simply have one of those pop-up doubts. Remember that God often allows these doubts to sound an alarm in our soul. When we confront the questions, we can see things more clearly and more passionately follow the Gospel. There is a three-step process that always seem to work:

First, embrace the tension. As one of my theology professors said, “Stand in the question!” Our doubt forces us out of our comfort zone. Tension handled in a healthy way forces us to grow. Our faith is not always black and white, and the answers require difficult and thoughtful work. It is perfectly okay to admit that not knowing makes us squirm. Doubt is not comfortable. But we shouldn’t ignore it. We must be honest with ourselves and others. Allow the tension you feel to lead to God’s word, teaching, and prayer.

Then do some research. God gives us brains and He expects us to use them to wholeheartedly embrace our faith. While we honor God with our faith, God expects us to be ready to defend it. We must “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for [our] hope” (1 Peter 3:15). We should know why we believe what we believe.

Finally, pray for understanding. This is the most important discipline when we wrestle with doubt. God wants us to find answers more than we realize. When we ask God for wisdom, He always delivers.

We can all look back and recall our personal struggles with doubt. These three steps can lead us to peace. So, in our times of doubting the Resurrection, the power of the sacraments, the call to a holy vocation, and why a good God allows bad things to happen to good people, we can accept the tension, do the research, and pray. Let’s hope that we can say, “[We] do believe, help [our] unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

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