Whether we identify as seekers or believers, most of us who think the existence of God would be a good thing have experienced times of confusion and discouragement in their search for truth. There are a lot of opinions and philosophies about God, a lot of books to read, and a lot at stake in how one thinks about God. I know this feeling full well. Sometimes it seems that the harder I try to find answers, the more they elude me – like the proverbial ice cube that slips through my fingers when my grip is too tight. However, over my years of study and reflection on the question of God, I’ve discovered some nuggets of wisdom which have helped me to navigate the journey through times of spiritual dryness – when my faith seemed to be in a state of utter suspension. Here are four of them:
1. Keep your expectations in check
In her spiritual autobiography entitled Amazing Grace (1998), Kathleen Norris tells the story of her return to faith and what she learned through the process. She writes, “Perhaps my most important breakthrough with regard to belief came when I learned to be as consciously skeptical and questioning of my disbelief and my doubts as I was of my burgeoning faith” (pp.66-67). In this passage, Norris highlights the danger of being too targeted in one’s skepticism; how habits of thinking can be unrealistic and expectations of the evidence too stringent. For example, are you expecting to have 100% certainty before you’ll believe? Are you focusing on the problem of evil and suffering to the exclusion of the goodness and beauty in the world? Are you refusing to consider evidence outside your domain of expertise or control? When these expectations go unchecked, the evidence for God can pile up, but to no avail because your approach to the evidence (not the evidence itself) is skewed. My advice, then, is to be holistic in your search. Be open to sources of evidence outside your comfort zone, aim for probability in your beliefs rather than certainty, and be sure to consider the whole gamut of sources for knowing: e.g. logic, empirical data, history, personal experience, testimony, etc.
2. Cultivate attitudes that open your mind
Try to befriend the mystery in life instead of fighting for immediate resolution on your questions. Open yourself to wonder and gratitude for the simple things in your daily experience. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Part of God’s infinity is manifested in a little child’s propensity to exalt in the monotonous.” In other words, children have a tremendous ability to view familiar things as if for the first time. This is a skill that adults soon forget and ignore at their peril. We can watch the sun rise and set while thinking little of it. But perhaps God’s perspective is more like that of the child who wakes up each morning to welcome the sunrise and exclaim, “Oh! Do it again!” Cultivating this perspective is important to seekers and believers for two reasons: first, truth-seeking (especially through philosophical arguments) can become obsessive when left unchecked. It can drown out the precious scents and flavours you experience each new day. The irony? It could be through the mundane things that God is trying to speak to you most profoundly! Second, attitudes like humility, gratitude, wonder, mystery (and don’t forget contrition!) make you more receptive to God’s possible involvement in your life. They combat pride, and keep you open to new experiences that point to God. Consequently, these experiences end up giving new shape and vitality to your intellectual pursuits.
3. Tend to your wounds
As a philosophy instructor in an academic environment, I used to work with students from all over the world who where asking deep questions about the Christian faith. I walked beside them as they wrestled through their doubts and questions. During that time, I came to the conclusion that roughly 50% of students’ struggles were actually personal and emotional in nature – not simply intellectual (as if these categories can be separated!). They had difficulty detecting signs of God’s reality because of familiar (yet distorted) ways of seeing that had issued from past hurts and broken trust. My point is that wounds of distrust, invalidation, and shame can generate excessive suspicion of oneself, others, and God in a way that is crippling to faith and to a fair assessment of the evidence. This means that if you are serious about finding or loving God, you will need to take a sobering look at yourself and begin the process of healing your hurts. Trust me. They will influence your ability to reason about God! As a former student of mine disclosed to me after one year into her studies: “When I first came to this school, I thought I hated God. But then I realized that I actually hated myself, and was trying to punish God by withholding my faith.” Needless to say, I was impressed with her depth of insight.
4. Realize that God is seeking you out
Take comfort in the fact that the search is not all up to you. In fact, if Christianity has anything to say about this topic, it’s that God is not far off and aloof, expecting you to make the first move. He loves you and takes the initiative to solicit your response. But He also demonstrates wisdom in determining how much (or how little) of Himself to make known to you, according to his purposes. Ask yourself: has God already provided me with some indications of his existence? Could he be waiting to see if I will respond positively to the indications I already have, before He reveals more? If so, I urge you to be responsible for what you’ve been given, before expecting more.