Dealing With Difficulty and Doubt

Once we understand that a healthy faith has room for difficulties, we should take stock of difficulties we struggle with and put them into perspective.

First, there are difficulties concerning things we would never expect to know or perfectly understand in this life. This might include what our unending life in heaven will be like, since St. Paul says of these realities, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Or it might relate to our understanding of God’s attributes, such as how God can be timeless, or be immaterial, or create something from nothing. God is infinite, so “our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” (CCC 42), and we shouldn’t expect our minds to understand the mystery of God’s “inner life.” But that doesn’t disprove the solid reasons we have for believing that a timeless, immaterial God created the world from nothing.

In other words, we can have the wow even if we can’t grasp the how.

Another difficulty we wouldn’t expect to resolve in this life relates to God’s plan for our individual lives, especially when they involve suffering. The most difficult questions I have to answer as an apologist usually go like this: Why did God let this terrible thing happen to me or to someone I love?

My honest answer is “I don’t know.” 

Because God has infinite power and perfect knowledge, I know he can bring good from any evil and always make things right. But my tiny, finite mind can’t even come close to explaining how God can do that in the face of certain evils. In those instances, I remember what the prophet Isaiah said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). 

Second, there are difficulties concerning issues that are not essential to our Faith. For example, some people may have difficulty accepting that certain miracles attributed to the saints or Marian apparitions really happened. But since the Church doesn’t oblige us to believe in these events, any difficulty we have with them doesn’t threaten the integrity of our faith as a whole.

Third, there are difficulties concerning issues of secondary importance for which the Church has not officially endorsed a particular answer. For example, the Church has not defined how one should interpret passages in Scripture that appear to describe God commanding the nation of Israel to kill the men, women, and even children among their enemies, the Canaanites. Theologians have proposed a variety of ways to interpret those passages, from literal commands that are justified based on God’s sovereignty over human life to non-literal commands that were symbolic of totally rejecting Canaanite culture. (I survey these approaches in my book Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties.) 

Even if you’re not sure how to resolve a difficulty, it won’t prove that God does not exist or that Christianity isn’t true. We have to balance the skepticism that might arise from a difficulty with a secondary issue against the confidence we have that comes from our faith in a foundational issue. 

But what happens if we have difficulties with doctrines that are foundational to our faith? This might include the existence of God, the Incarnation, or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These are the most serious difficulties, as they can quickly lead to doubt and then a complete rejection of our faith. Here are some ways a person can approach difficulties with these doctrines:

  • Remember that there is a difference between knowing that these doctrines are true and showing they are true. If you faced with an objection you feel unable to answer, that in itself should not necessarily be a cause for doubt. You can know that something is true (including our Catholic faith) even if you can’t show that it is true to other people.
  • Accept the limits of your own knowledge. Just because you may not be able to answer an objection or question about our faith, it doesn’t follow that no one else in the 2,000-year history of the Church has likewise failed to respond to such a challenge. Prayerfully consider what the Magisterium has said on these issues as well as theologians and apologists who have studied it. 
  • Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. The only way to have a belief system that doesn’t face any difficulties is simply not to think very hard about it. For example, even if one abandons God because of the problem of evil, the problem of evil remains. The pain of suffering doesn’t change, but now the hope of redeeming it is gone, and questions about how to reconcile evil with God get replaced with questions about how to reconcile things like objective good and evil with a purposeless, accidental universe. 

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