Chapter 3: When we doubt God’s existence
Henry sat in the second row of the sanctuary. It was 4:10 p.m. He had knocked on Pastor Jenkins’ office door, but there was no response. Henry sat, mulling over his spiritual struggle of the past few weeks – how he had dared to open up, speaking the truth about his doubting himself and others. He sat, trying to steel himself for today’s encounter; he had been thinking about it most of the week, with some fear and shame.
“Hello, Henry,” sounded a familiar voice. “I apologize for being late. I was called unexpectedly to the hospital. One of our parishioners had emergency surgery. I am sorry that I kept you waiting. Please come into my office.”
Henry found his way to the familiar overstuffed chair and waited for Pastor Jenkins to hang up his coat and sit down.
“How has your week been, Henry?”
“Better in some ways and not so good in others.”
“Well, studying Scripture, using the Pray, Think, Stop, Decode method you talked about gave me some direction. I kept stopping when reading about Peter. When Jesus asked, ‘Do you love me?’
I had to ask myself if I loved Jesus, or if I loved God, for that matter. Then when Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep,’ that really stopped me. I thought about that a lot, and I think I finally got what you were saying last week. Though I doubt myself, Jesus still trusts me; and though I doubt others, Jesus is challenging me to change my attitude, to stop isolating myself and to start caring for others as he cares for me.”
Pastor Jenkins was a bit stunned. “Henry, I’m not sure what to say; it sounds like you really made Peter’s story your own story.”
“Yes, well, then there is the not so good part. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” I thought about that a lot, too. That question troubled me.”
“What troubled you?”
“I am ashamed to say so after growing up in the church, but I don’t really think I believe God exists at all. How can you love someone who doesn’t exist?”
“Tell me more. When did you start feeling this way?”
“As I said when we first got together, I have seen a lot. In the service, I saw people who seemed to get along fine, who had good values, who were kind and understanding, hell… er, I mean heck, they would have died for me.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well they didn’t believe in God and they seemed to be good people.”
“The children. I saw children living in poverty, dying from our own well intended but misdirected actions. And then one of my buddies actually saw a teenager blow herself up. They said it was because she believed God would reward her. I have seen so much suffering; I can’t believe there is a God. It’s more than doubting God’s existence; it’s that I can’t believe at all.”
“Is it that you can’t, or that you won’t?”
Henry was startled by the pastor’s question. “Well how could I believe in a God that would let stuff like that happen?”
“Well, if you can’t believe in a God that would let children live in poverty, or blow themselves up, or let people suffer, what kind of God could you believe in?”
“What do you mean, what kind of God could I believe in? How many Gods are there?”
“The Scriptures portray many beliefs about the nature of God. There were those who saw God as the Creator as in the creator of the world in the book of Genesis, those who saw God as the giver of the Law as in Leviticus, those who saw God as the punitive judge as in the story of the Noah and the great flood, those who saw God as the covenant maker as in the Ten Commandments, those who saw God as the one who tests us as in the story of Job, those who saw God as the faithful lover as in the book of Hosea, those who saw God as the one to uphold justice as in the book of Amos, those who saw God as the one who sent his Son to call us to join God in attending to those in prison, the hungry, the naked, and the orphaned, those who saw God as the one who sent his Son to die for our sinfulness, and those who saw God as one who sent his Son to reveal that God also suffers in love with us rather than take revenge.
“I apologize for going on so long, but I am wondering what God is it that you don’t believe in, that has caused you to doubt so much?”
“I never thought about it that way. I don’t know. I never thought about the Scriptures giving us so many different pictures of who God is. I never thought about what kind of God I believe in and what kind of God I don’t believe in.”
“Well, now that you are thinking about it, from what you have seen in the world, what kind of God don’t you believe in?”
Henry squirmed uneasily in his chair. It didn’t feel as comfortable as it had. He closed his eyes and pictured the impoverished children he had seen; he saw again his friend being shot and dying, he smelled the death of enemy combatants after battle.
“Take your time; think about it. What kind of God, after all you have seen, don’t you believe in?”
“I don’t believe in a God that would let children suffer, I don’t believe in a God that would promise some kind of reward to a teenager for blowing herself up; yet, I don’t believe in a God who protects good people from all the bad stuff that happens.”
“OK. And, Henry, I don’t believe in that kind of God either. I only have to look at what happened to Jesus to know that doing good doesn’t protect us from bad things happening to us. In fact, it often seems that doing good may lead to suffering. I guess most of us would like to think that God is going to favor us if we just believe hard enough, just have enough faith; but as I look at the lives of Jesus, the disciples, and those who have really lived the life of faith, whether Christian or otherwise, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“Then I don’t get it. What’s left to believe if I can’t, or as you say if I ‘won’t’ believe in a God who protects the good people and punishes the bad ones?”
“That’s a fair question, and one that is often asked. So are you willing to take another assignment of Scriptures, questions and a daily prayer?”
“You mean you aren’t going to answer my question? That isn’t right. You are the pastor; you’re the one who has devoted your life to God. You should tell me who God is.”
“Well, I will make a bargain with you. If you read the Scriptures I give you, answer the questions, and pray the daily prayer; and if you still want me to tell you who God is, I will give you my answer next week. Deal?
“O.K.; I don’t like it, but O.K.”
“O.K.; here is the list of Scriptures, the questions, and the prayer. As you read the Scriptures, your assignment is to answer two questions:
- What is the person who wrote this particular scripture telling me about who they believe God is?
- Do I believe in this kind of God?
Readings from the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures
God is the creator of the world.
In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water. Then God commanded, “Let there be light” – and light appeared. God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated the light from the darkness, and he named the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” Evening passed and morning came – that was the first day.
God initiates a commitment with his people.
God spoke, and these were his words: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves. Worship no god but me.”
Moses tells the people that there is only one true God.
Job, a righteous man who had been tested by God, acknowledges God’s power.
I know, LORD, that you are all-powerful; that you can do everything you want. You ask how I dare question your wisdom when I am so very ignorant. I talked about things I did not understand, about marvels too great for me to know. You told me to listen while you spoke and to try to answer your questions. In the past I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. So I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.
The psalm writers speak of God’s activity in all creation – God in whom they can put their hope, knowing that he listens at all times when people call upon him in prayer – God who is always near, guiding them each day.
O LORD, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world!
When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places –
what are human beings, that you think of them;
mere mortals, that you care for them?
Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;
you crowned them with glory and honor.
You will listen, O LORD,
to the prayers of the lowly;
You will give them courage.
You will hear the cries of the oppressed
and the orphans;
you will judge in their favor,
so that mortal men may cause
terror no more.
I praise the LORD, because he guides me,
and in the night my conscience warns me.
I am always aware of the LORD’s presence;
he is near, and nothing can shake me.
And so I am thankful and glad,
and I feel completely secure,
because you protect me from the
power of death.
I have served you faithfully,
and you will not abandon me to
the world of the dead.
You will show me the path that
leads to life;
your presence fills me with joy
and brings me pleasure forever.
Reading from the New Testament
Jesus teaches about what God is like. Jesus prayed:
“Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your Son, so that the Son may give glory to you. For you gave him authority over all people, so that he might give eternal life to all those you gave him. And eternal life means to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”
“I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”
Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down.
His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them:
“Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor;
the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!
“Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them!
“Happy are those who are humble;
they will receive what God has promised!
“Happy are those whose greatest
desire is to do what God requires.
God will satisfy them fully!
“Happy are those who are merciful to others;
God will be merciful to them!
“Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God!
“Happy are those who work for peace;
God will call them his children!
“Happy are those who are persecuted because they
do what God requires; the Kingdom of heaven
belongs to them!
“Happy are you when people insult you and
persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies
against you because you are my followers.
Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you
in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived
before you were persecuted.”
“Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks
will find, and the door will be opened to those who knock.
Would any of you who are fathers give your son a stone
when he asks for bread? Or would you give him a snake
when he asks for a fish? As bad as you are, you know how
to give good things to your children. How much more, then,
will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Jesus said to the disciples, “And so I tell you not to worry
about the food you need to stay alive or about the clothes
you need for your body. Life is much more important than food,
and the body much more important than clothes. Look at the crows:
they don’t plant seeds or gather a harvest; they don’t have
storage rooms or barns; God feeds them! You are worth so much more
than birds! Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?
If you can’t manage even such a small thing, why worry about
the other things? Look how the wild flowers grow:
they don’t work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that
not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful
as one of these flowers. It is God who clothes the wild grass – grass
that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven.
Won’t he be all the more sure to clothe you?
What little faith you have!
“So don’t be all upset, always concerned about what you will
eat and drink. (For the pagans of this world are always concerned
about all these things.) Your Father knows that you need these things.
Instead, be concerned with his Kingdom, and he will provide you
with these things.”
The disciples came to Jesus, asking, “Who is the greatest
in the Kingdom of heaven?”
So Jesus called a child to come and stand in front of them,
and said, “I assure you that unless you change and become
like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the one
who humbles himself and becomes like this child.
And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this,
“When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him,
he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations
will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them
into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will put the righteous people at his right and the others
at his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom
which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.
I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked
and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me,
in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will then answer him,
‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty
and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger
and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you?
When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this
for one of the least important of these followers of mine,
you did it for me!’
Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be put to death, but that he will rise to life three days later. He teaches about what it means to serve and be one of his followers.
Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Son of Man must
suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death,
but three days later he will rise to life.” He made this
very clear to them. So Peter took him aside
and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around,
looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter.
“Get away from me, Satan,” he said. “Your thoughts don’t come
from God but from human nature!”
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him.
“If any of you want to come with me,” he told them,
“you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.
For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it;
but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel,
you will save it. Do you gain anything if you win
the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!
There is nothing you can give to regain your life.
If you are ashamed of me and of my teaching in this
godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed
of you when he comes in the glory of his Father
with the holy angels.”
“If one of you wants to be great, you must be
the servant of the rest; and if one of you
wants to be first, you must be the slave of all.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served;
he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”
The apostle Paul writes about God’s abundant grace and how, through God’s love and mercy, he was brought to faith and turned his life around.
I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me
strength for my work. I thank him for considering me worthy
and appointing me to serve him, even though in the past
I spoke evil of him and persecuted and insulted him.
But God was merciful to me because I did not yet have faith
and so did not know what I was doing. And our Lord poured out
his abundant grace on me and gave me the faith and love
which are ours in union with Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 1.12-14
The apostle Paul tells us how we are reconciled, or put right, with God.
God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.
We are assured that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
If God is for us, who can be against us? Certainly not God,
who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all!
He gave us his Son – will he not also freely give us all things?
Who will accuse God’s chosen people?
God himself declares them not guilty!
Who, then, will condemn them?
Not Christ Jesus, who died, or rather,
who was raised to life and is at the right side of God,
pleading with him for us!
Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ?
Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution
or hunger or poverty or danger or death?
No, in all these things we have complete victory
through him who loved us! For I am certain that
nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life,
neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers,
neither the present nor the future, neither the world above
nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation
that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God
which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because of God’s grace, we are saved through faith.
It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith.
It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift,
so that no one can boast about it. God has made us what we are,
and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us
for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared
for us to do.
To know God is to know love.
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love
comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God
and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God,
for God is love. And God showed his love for us
by sending his only Son into the world,
so that we might have life through him.
This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God,
but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means
by which our sins are forgiven.
1 John 4.7-10
Through Jesus Christ, our Savior, we have been given a new birth and eternal life.
When the kindness and love of God our Savior was revealed,
he saved us. It was not because of any good deeds
that we ourselves had done, but because of his own mercy
that he saved us, through the Holy Spirit, who gives us new birth
and new life by washing us. God poured out
the Holy Spirit abundantly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that by his grace we might be put right with God
and come into possession of the eternal life we hope for.
This is a true saying.
Thoughts for Reflection
- Create two columns on a piece of paper. At the top of the first column, write, “I believe in a God who…” and in the second column write, “I don’t believe in a God who…” For each column fill in as many phrases about God as you can. You may wish to reread the scriptures listed above or chose other scriptures to help you think of what to place in each column.
- From the phrases in your “I believe in a God who…” column, write a brief paragraph stating who you believe God is.
God, I am not even sure what name to call you … Dear God, Lord, Savior? You know that I have been confused on what to believe and what not to believe about you.
So now I ask you to help me take my next step in believing. I can see in Scripture that so many people have seen you in so many different ways, but it seems that almost everyone sees you to be a God of love and a God who calls us to care for others. So today, help me to begin here: to understand that you love me and have called me to care for others. Amen.