Kids have an almost inherent optimism, a belief that stories have happy endings and that everything will eventually turn out okay. We’re raised on fairy tales where, in the end, the dragon is slain and everyone lives happily ever after.
But as we get older, our optimism fades. We become “realists” who believe that we reap what we sow, that things don’t necessarily turn out well in the end. We’re ground down by the difficulties of life and, rather than have faith that the world is ruled by a loving God who will provide for us, we begin to turn inward, relying more and more on ourselves as our trust in God begins to whittle down.
After all, it seems only natural that this turn towards self-sufficiency would eventually impact the way we see the role of God in our lives.
We begin to struggle with faith, as we search for the relevance of God and the Church in our lives. Why trust in God if I’m told to be self-reliant? Why bother with religion, which starts to feel more like the relic of a less enlightened age?
Jesus becomes, at best, a nice guy; the Bible, at best, a collection of fables. Church becomes a thing I occasionally do on Sunday morning, if at all.
But can it all really be that simple? Would millions of people die for a fable? Would so many continue to put their faith in God based on nothing more than nostalgia?
Or might it be that Jesus Christ is just as relevant and accessible to us today as He was 2000 years ago?
If you’ve struggled with doubt, or know someone whose faith doesn’t feel so firm right now, read on. We’ll reflect on a few ways we can respond in the face of doubt.
1. Questions should lead to encounter
There seem to be two ways we can ask a question. The first assumes we’re looking for information we don’t have. The second assumes we already have the answer, and that we’re asking to be proven right.
When it comes to questions of faith, I find it most helpful to start with humility and genuine curiosity. We should ask about faith and question what the Church teaches not to prove it wrong (as if we know better) but to learn what the Church can teach us.
And it would be a mistake to seek this lesson from just anyone. If you’re interested in learning more about Physics, would you go to an English professor? Or would you seek out the people who have the most experience with the topic, like physicists? In the same way, when we have faith questions, it makes more sense to go to experienced and trusted Church leaders than to rely on those with no more knowledge than we have.
I think many young Orthodox Christians are scared to ask questions. Maybe, when they were little, they asked their parents a question during liturgy and were hushed. Or perhaps, when they are looking for a thought out answer to a difficult faith question, they’re used to receiving a rushed or overly simplistic answer. Or they’re given the “we just have to believe…” line, which doesn’t inspire anything but frustration.
Yet questions, if honestly addressed, can lead to encounter rather than frustration.
To get to know my grandmother, I had to ask a lot of questions. I couldn’t ask her these questions, directly, because she passed away when I was two weeks old. So instead, I have talked to my parents, my aunt, and my sister. I sought out photos of her, and cherished finding notes written by her. I visit her grave, and I pray for her rest in Christ. I encounter her in my seeking to know her. And I know her through asking about her.
The same happens with us and Jesus Christ. Not being one of the original twelve disciples doesn’t keep us from getting to know the Lord. We can encounter Him today, but we have to seek Him out and learn who He was and who He is. By God’s grace, we have the opportunity to know Him not only in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments, but also in the lives of those transformed by His presence in the Church.
And these lives are a more powerful witness than any argument we can come up with.
2. Trust in transformed lives
The first Christians knew Christ during His earthly ministry. The next generation never knew Him face-to-face, but they encountered Him through the lives of those who had. Saint Paul never got to hear Christ preach, but He encountered Him in the Church, through the Holy Spirit.
What made so many people willing to die for their faith in Christ? What continues to give Christians this courage? The first martyrs had either known Jesus, or had been taught by those who had. And, for centuries since, the Church has been strengthened by the witness of those before us and in seeing lives transformed by faith.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman that a time was coming when people would no longer have to go to a certain place to encounter God, but would worship Him in spirit and truth. Now, God makes Himself known not only in Jerusalem or on Mount Sinai, but in the heart of every Christian who unites himself to Him. And the more a person grows to know Him, the more His grace is apparent in their lives. The clothing and even the shadow of St Peter healed people (Acts 5:15). Can this happen today?
I have been blessed to go on pilgrimage throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I visited sites from the life of Christ and venerated relics of saints. They weren’t just places or bones. God made Himself known in those places. His grace was so strong in these saints’ lives that He continues to heal and work wonders through their bodies. What’s more is that people continue to grow in holiness today through living lives devoted to Christ in the Church. Saints are not people of the past; we are all called to holiness today.
Faith is about more than getting knowledge ABOUT something. It’s gaining knowledge OF Someone. It’s growing in a relationship with a Person, not just learning facts about Him. That means that faith takes effort. But it’s also a gift that God gives us through His grace. When we take our little baby steps towards Him, He gives us the grace to keep moving forward.
So ask questions. Encounter Christ through seeking to know Him. Have faith in Him through seeing His transforming presence in the lives of the saints and those around us. Faith isn’t just something we have when we don’t know the answer: it’s an action.
What are you doing to encounter Christ today? Are your eyes open to see His grace at work around you?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Einstein and Tagore
Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Sam Williams 2009