“My faith is that my faith will return.” J.K. Rowling, well known author of the Harry Potter series, said this in a documentary several years ago, and it has always stuck with me. I have come to believe that part of having faith is having doubts; or, in other words, that doubt is simply part of faith itself. True, unwavering faith is not something I have experienced in my relatively short life, and therefore, I cannot lay claim on understanding what it truly means to having such faith, if it exists at all. I remain skeptical that there is anyone walking this earth today who has never had a moment of doubt in their faith journey, with the notable (and obviously, at least to me) exception of Jesus Christ.
Let me state a disclaimer before I embark any further on my internal monologue put down in words here. Like Baz Luhrmann says, “…my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience…” Of course, what I am about to share is not advice, but it is heavily based on “my own meandering experience.” It is not my intention to tell you how to live your life or what to believe. I am not an expert on theology, science, or anything else, although I have studied Biblical scripture in several settings, have learned some about other religions in a few classes, and have read many books and listened to lectures on science, especially physics. I also majored in biology in college and have a B.S. in it and did eight years of research, so I do have a strong basis in science. Everything I have to share is merely my thoughts from an accumulation of reading, sharing with others, and my experiences in life. I simply ask that you please be respectful of my opinions, and I will do likewise toward you should you choose to share them. Having an open mind is, I feel, vital to such discussions.
I am writing largely from stream of consciousness, hopefully over several days. If this seems polished enough as you read it, it’s only because I went back and revised. I want to start with something that’s weighing heavily on my mind right in this moment. I just read about a girl who I only “know” online, and even then, I cannot truly say I know her. We’ve never met or ever exchanged words. I’ve watched several of her vlogs on YouTube, which, for those of you who may not be familiar with the vernacular of the Internet these days, means “video logs,” in which a person talks into the camera about what’s on his/her mind, much like journaling, only by speaking and sharing it with others. She is an inspiration to me in many ways because she is an artist and has such a beautiful spirit, and I admire her courage for speaking to, essentially, the world about her condition. I will not disclose her name, but she suffers from depression, largely due to an obsessive/compulsive disorder that gives her the urge to pull out her hair. She has bald patches at times because of this and has had to shave her head several times. What many people don’t seem to understand is that she has no control over this urge to pull her hair, so despite her creativity and charisma, she lives weeks of her life at a time in a pit of depression. As with any mental condition, trying to explain it logically often falls short of the reality of the emotions and thoughts that are going through the mind of the person who is suffering. I cannot know what she is going through, as I have never been through something like it, but I can try to imagine. Of course, what she shows us online are just glimpses, so we, the viewers, can’t really grasp the minute-to-minute existence of feeling numb, unworthy, down, etc. Now that you have some idea of her background, I will get back to my original point: She stated today that she is no longer a Christian. I know she used to be a few years ago, and it is due to what she has gone through that her faith has apparently deserted her. It breaks my heart that she has lost her faith, but I hope and pray she finds it again, that she knows, deep down, that it never really left.
I know many people who have been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, etc. What does it say about our society when so many people have some sort of mental illness at some point in their life? I have had three close friends in my life who have expressed a desire to commit suicide, despite the beauty and worth many others and I see in them. Millions of Americans suffer from insomnia, and I have battled this on and off for years. To make matters worse, I have a dependency on sleeping pills that I struggle with. To know that something is going to guarantee me sleep is a comfort, yet a vice. I know I cannot depend on a pill every single night, but the temptation is always there, and I fight it. So, I have some idea of what it is to have a vice or a weakness in my life. We all have them. For some, it’s alcohol. For others, it’s food. For others still, it’s sex. We are unhappy and unsatisfied with life, so we try to fill it with things that will “make us happy,” but they don’t last. We are over-worked and live lives too full of stress, and here’s the crux of the situation: We do much of it to ourselves… yet sometimes we want to lay blame elsewhere: with others, with the situations in our lives, or even with God. I’ve blamed God before and been angry with him to the point where I’ve questioned if he even exists, so I do understand why the girl above had turned away from God. For me, however, “my faith is that my faith will return.” There has always been enough faith left inside me to bring me back to God: “the faith of a mustard seed.” I say it again: I hope and pray it returns for the girl above as well.
Why, you might ask, would I have blamed God at some points during my life? My life seems good, and it not only seems good, but it IS good. I know I am blessed with a loving husband, beautiful children, wonderful friends, health, food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head. I have never lived a rough life or truly struggled like half of the world’s population living in poverty. I went through a period of two and a half years when we were trying to conceive our first child and couldn’t. We went through all the tests, and no reason could be found. Every month I would get my hopes up, only to have them dashed against the rocks below, like jumping off a cliff, and I’d come crashing down, sobbing, not understanding why so many people around me were getting pregnant and I wasn’t. It just didn’t seem fair, I’d cry! What had I done to deserve this? Surely, I must have done something terrible. It felt like God was punishing me, and then I’d beg and plead with God, and when it seemed like he still wasn’t answering my prayers the way I wanted, I would start blaming him, saying if he really wanted, he would give me a child. I would start to wonder what sort of horrible God would do such a thing to people, and then my mind would spiral down a dark path and begin thinking about all the bad in the world and come to the conclusion that either God doesn’t care or God doesn’t exist, for what kind of God would allow such suffering?
We were about to try in vitro fertilization as a last effort to conceive, and I was terrified. The thought of having to inject myself every day with the hormones scared me, not to mention the cost of everything: thousands of dollars… and no guarantee it would work. I finally told my husband that I wanted to stop trying so hard, to stop stressing so much over everything, and to give it six months before we tried in vitro. On top of this was the looming knowledge that I would lose my job within the next year, possibly six months, because our lab had run out of funding, and in 2008-2009, the economy was at a really low point.
It was December of 2008, Christmas time, one of my favorite times of the year. I let go of the stress and worry of trying to have a baby and enjoyed friends, family, and festivities. Shortly after the New Year, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive! I will never forget the sheer joy I felt in those moments! Finally, my prayers had been answered! It was only when I stopped trying so hard and let go that God answered my prayers, and I believe he truly did. So often, we want to have control of our lives, but this is foolish and is an illusion. We really have very little control over what happens, but we do have control over our reactions to what happens. When I “let go and let God,” that is when God intervened. I’m sure he had been trying to tell me for months that I needed to stop trying to control the situation so much, but I wasn’t listening. Not only was I pregnant, but it couldn’t have happened at a better time. It turned out that I would be getting laid off in just about nine months, and as I always intended to stay home once I had children, everything with my job fell miraculously into place. (This is not the only time things seemed to “just fall into place” in my life, but I don’t need to prattle on and on. You get the idea. Needless to say, in retrospect, I have always seen God’s intentions for my life. I couldn’t see his plan when I was focused too much on my problems.)
My first son is almost three years old now, and I have been blessed with a second son. The second (actually third; see below) time was so effortless getting pregnant, it almost seemed impossibly easy. I will mention that there was an unfortunate loss of a pregnancy in between my children. I was, thankfully, very early in my pregnancy (five and a half weeks along) when I miscarried, and it was heart-wrenching and awful, but somehow, I didn’t blame God this time. I cannot explain why it happened or why so many bad things happen, but I do believe that God is always there with us, always working for good from the bad. When I lost my second baby, I turned to the church and toward God, and I was comforted beyond measure. I found out I was not alone. I realized how precious life is, how it can be taken at any time, and that to be given life at all is a gift. My baby is with God and was called “home” sooner than most, but when I look at it in the context of “she” will not have to suffer through living life on this earth and instead got to go home to be with her Heavenly Father, that is a comfort to me. I named her “Katrina Grace,” not knowing until afterward that it meant “Pure Grace.” How appropriate.
When bad things happen, sometimes it’s easy to explain it as the result of the bad humans do toward each other. When I find myself wondering why God would allow people to do such evil, I am reminded that we were all given free will. If God had decided to create humans to do everything he wanted all the time, we would just be puppets. How could he rejoice in his creation if we could not think or reason for ourselves? The good that happens would not mean what it does without the bad. As a parent, I know my children do not always obey me, but I love them just the same. So it is with God: He loves us, even when we sin. His love is so much higher and stronger than any human love. Just as parents ultimately want their children to mature and be able to make their own choices, so does God. The love is forever there, but if we are to embrace everything God wants for us, we need to grow and mature in our faith.
When the evil that happens is due to natural disasters, that is much harder to understand or explain, and here, I am at a loss. This is where faith must take over, and I trust that God knows what he is doing. I imagine I might understand one day when I’m in heaven, but that is not the point. I do not think God causes bad things to happen to “make” people suffer, even though I have felt like I was being punished at times by God. In the end, I was always realized that God was not the reason for my suffering, but that I had done much of it to myself (especially mentally, and mental suffering and physical suffering are closely linked; what affects the mind affects the body).
I feel compelled to share one more story about human suffering, one that I feel emphasizes my point: A young woman (only in her mid-twenties) who went to school and church with me growing up was diagnosed with cancer. It spread throughout her body, and she went through numerous surgeries and treatments, only to die too soon. Many people visited her while she was sick and were amazed by her courage and faith. They told her how sorry they were to see her suffer and would cry for her. They wanted to bring her comfort, but she was often the one who comforted them. She would tell them, “Do not be sorry for me. I know God is always with me. Do not be sad for me.” Her spirit was so beautiful (and still is!). She touched the lives of many with her strength, despite what she went through. God worked good from the bad.
Changing direction here, I’m now going to address my faith in the context of a world full of many religions (including agnosticism and atheism). I was born and raised Christian, and with the exception of one Jewish friend growing up, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Christian, practicing or not. If your childhood was fairly average and sheltered like mine, you probably will understand what I mean when I say I thought “everyone was like my family and me”… or not too different. I started to realize how naïve I had been once I was in high school and knew a few people who were nonbelievers. In particular, I remember having strong disagreements, which bordered on arguments, with a couple of individuals about religion. I was convinced that I was absolutely, positively right, and they were wrong, and they had to be shown the difference. They had to believe what I believed! Or else… what?
I came away more or less frustrated that I hadn’t changed anyone’s mind and eventually let the subject drop, not wanting it to come between my friendships, but always in the back of my mind was the nagging feeling that some of my friends didn’t believe in God and probably weren’t going to heaven (or so I believed at the time).
In twelfth grade English, we studied world literature, and that was my first real exposure to learning about world religions. In college as well, I learned about other religions in a few classes, and since it has been a long time since then, many of the things I once knew are foggy, but the important thing is this: I learned to appreciate diversity and to respect others who are different from me. I realized the error in my way of so harshly judging my friends who were different because they weren’t Christian, and more than anything, my approach had been all wrong. No one is ever going to be convinced to change his/her viewpoint on anything because he/she felt forced. Fear may drive people to comply, but would a person whose faith is based on fear truly feel very deeply or well about that faith? That type of faith does more harm than good. True faith builds up; it doesn’t tear down. If someone chooses to believe something, it must be his/her choice, without it being forced upon that person.
Jesus clearly says that the greatest commandments are these: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
If we are to truly love others, then that means without conditions attached and without judgment. Of course, I realize that as humans, we judge constantly, but we must strive, as much as we can, to not judge. Whenever I find myself thinking I don’t like such-and-such about another, especially a certain behavior, I stop and remember that I have more than likely been guilty of the same “crime” toward another. We cannot escape our hypocrisy and our tendency to sin, but that is no reason not to try our best at loving others and God.
When it comes to those who are different, we ought to approach them with love. When hearts and minds are open, interfaith dialogue can occur, and if I share my personal testimony of what I feel God and Jesus have meant to me in my life and it touches someone else, then that is a true witnessing of love and a sharing of my faith. There is no expectation that someone else needs to change to “be like me.” I am certainly not the poster child for a perfect example to follow. Rather, for me and other Christians, that person is Jesus, and if someone is looking for someone to follow and realizes that Jesus fits that mold, then that is wonderful.
But what if he/she doesn’t want to follow Jesus? What if he/she chooses to believe there is no God or to follow another religion? That is where I trust God knows what he’s doing, and that’s part of faith. I do not believe God condemns people to hell because they aren’t Christian. Everything is possible with God and for God, so I will not say I know or understand how he always works. If we believe God works for good, though, (and I do) then God will always find a way. There are many good and virtuous people in the world who aren’t Christian, whether they follow another religion or don’t believe in God at all, and I think God wants everyone to be with him in eternity. One thing that I come back to when wondering about all this is “What about those in the world who never even hear the message of Christ? Don’t they deserve a shot?” Yes, yes, they do, and I believe God gives it to them. I don’t claim to know how, but I do know that judgment is God’s to give and not mine or anyone else’s. It’s not for me to say who is “good enough” for heaven and who isn’t.
Sometimes we want “proof” of God’s existence or reassurance of life after death. To me, it’s not a very comforting thought to believe that there is nothing after we die, that everything we go through in life means nothing beyond what we make of it. To some, life is just this life and what we make of it. Purpose is the result of humanity giving life purpose; nothing else is beyond this life, so it’s important to live life to the fullest. There is some truth in this belief, in that we ought to cherish this life here and now and not get too wrapped up in focusing only on what is next, but I believe there is more than just us. Science needs empirical evidence to prove something; or, more specifically, the data that support a hypothesis simply don’t falsify it. For some (and I fall into this category at times), I demand proof. My faith isn’t strong enough to go on belief alone at times, it seems. I will share with you a true story about “proof” that heaven exists.
When I was fifteen years old, my grandmother was terminally ill. Months earlier, she had had a sarcoma removed from her leg and had undergone radiation therapy. She was given a clean bill of health in February of that year. Shortly thereafter, she went to the hospital because she had fluid in her lungs, and when they did a scan, they found a spot: the cancer had metastasized to her lungs in a matter of months. Although given two to six months to live, her time on earth would be much shorter than that.
The day she was released from the hospital and placed under Hospice care, I wrote a letter to her, telling her all that she meant to me, how much I loved her, and how much I would miss her. I expressed my heartfelt admiration of her courage to face what lay ahead. And I asked her to send me a sign once she reached Heaven, not because I was afraid she wouldn’t go there, but because I needed the comfort.
Two weeks later, she came to our house. It was the week before Easter, and she was to spend the time with us, and her sister from California was to come in as well. On the night she arrived, she was still walking and talking. Although thin and weak, she was still herself for the most part. I remember her eating an orange in the family room as I talked to my best friend on the phone.
The next morning, she never got out of bed. The day was gloomy and overcast with thick clouds of early April showers. We thought it might just be the weather or the fact that she had been transported the night before. I overheard my dad speaking to someone on the phone that morning, saying he didn’t think she would live more than another 24 hours. In denial, I refused to believe such nonsense. All I had ever known was a life that had my grandma as part of it; to imagine otherwise was unthinkable!
The pastor from her church came that afternoon to visit, and while doing math homework in my bedroom, which was adjacent to the room she was in, I heard his voice through the walls, uttering the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff: they comfort me.”
She was asleep most of the day, and the couple of times I approached the darkened room where she lay so still on the bed, I think I was afraid. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way, but I think now it was because I couldn’t reconcile the figure I saw in that bed with the figure I knew of her warm smile, cheery eyes, and rosy cheeks.
Some relatives came to visit in the mid-afternoon, and she seemed to brighten some, even laugh at a few jokes. My family was originally planning on attending a concert at the high school that evening, but due to my grandma’s condition, my parents remained home with her, and my brother and I attended by ourselves.
A couple of hours later when we returned home, it was dark and still raining slightly. We parked on the street because there were a couple of other cars in our driveway, and I felt my heart skip a beat as I rushed up the driveway and into the house, not wanting to believe the worst. The first sight my eyes were greeted with was my mom walking toward me, her face lined with tears, and she was shaking her head. I knew without having to ask. To this day, 17 years later, the events of that entire day as are clear as if they happened yesterday.
Standing in the kitchen were my uncle, my dad, and the pastor. We held hands and formed a circle as the pastor said a prayer. I left the kitchen to go to the spot where Grandma had been, but she was already gone from the bed. I saw the men from the funeral home carrying her out, covered in a sheet.
She was truly gone. That night, I dreamt that my mom died, too. While my parents were away the next day taking care of everything, I was at home in the company of my best friend, and it continued to rain. I found it in me to laugh some, finding a pair of checkered pants that was so hideously out of style, but my grandma wore them, anyway. I pulled them over my own clothes and just laughed, mostly because my best friend could always make me laugh. We were visited by a cousin and her husband, who had brought over dinner, and the four of us laughed some more. There was something therapeutic in this, although it was also a brief escape from the reality of the situation.
The wake was two days later, followed the next day by the funeral. It rained in all the days between my grandma never leaving the bed and on the day of the funeral. My letter to my grandma was read at her funeral by the pastor. The Lord’s Prayer was sang by the co-pastors, a husband and wife team. My grandma’s favorite hymn, “In the Garden,” was played. As the family followed the casket down the aisle, I was a sobbing mess, and my brother, who was walking alongside me, put his arm around me. I remember briefly trying not to laugh, as we had this weird thing about never touching each other as teenagers, so hugs were expressly forbidden.
Much of the graveside service is a blur, but we stood under a tent as the rain continued. A dinner was served, and then it was over. We were on our way home. That evening, the rain finally stopped. I was in my room when I heard my mom exclaim, “Cyndi, come here!”
I ran into the front bedroom, where my grandma had spent part of her last day in bed, and looked out the window. Stretched across the sky was a rainbow! I smiled and knew this was my grandma’s sign to me! There was no doubting that, and to explain this away as mere coincidence is an insult to her, her memory, and to our Lord of miracles. My mom and I turned away for just a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone. To catch such a brief moment in time when that rainbow appeared was not coincidence in the least. Only my mom and I saw that rainbow; it was meant for us.
So, there is my true story. In the years that have followed, I have had my ups and downs. I have had my faith tested, but in retrospect, I always have seen things so much more clearly than when I was in the midst of my troubles. God always answered prayers, although not always in the way we want or expect. Without prayer, I do not think I would have met my husband, had children, gotten a job right out of college, or been blessed with the amazing friends and family in my life. Science, for all its discoveries that I find fascinating, cannot explain everything. Science and religion each have their place, and I think one can enhance the other. To me, exploring science is often a testimony of how awesome God truly is!
“I believe; help my unbelief!” These words of Mark 9:24 of a father crying out to Jesus to heal his son ring true for me over and over again. Doubt may be part of faith, but God is good, all the time!