Suppressing our Doubts is like Covering an Uncleaned Wound by Pablo Martinez
All the passages below are taken from Pablo Martinez’s book “A Thorn in the Flesh,” published in 2007.
Jeremiah: the prophet who knew how to face his doubts
One of the great dangers is that the sting of a thorn can affect our faith. Suffering does not always cause us to draw closer to God—at least not initially. Sometimes it has the opposite effect, leaving us so perplexed that it causes us to doubt everything, including our firmest beliefs. ‘Where is God’s goodness?’ we ask ourselves. Is faith maybe an illusion? Why does God seem so distant?’ If you feel like this, you are thinking no differently from some of the giants of faith. David, for example, frequently exclaimed, `How long, 0 LORD? Will you forget me for ever?’ (Psalm 13:1). ‘Hear my prayer, 0 LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping’ (Psalm 39: 12). Even John the Baptist, of whom the Lord said, `Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist’ (Matthew 11:11), oppressed by his imprisonment and imminent death, came to doubt Jesus’ identity and asked, `Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ (Luke 7:19). In times of crisis God can seem far away, absolutely silent, and everything seems to be caving in. This is fertile ground for the doubts that start to thrive like thistles in the field of belief.
How do we prevent these incipient doubts from causing our faith to run aground and sink? The key is to face them squarely. The illustration of a snake or stinging insect is appropriate here. After being injured, we have to do everything possible to get the venom out. When a thorn strikes us the worst thing we can do is close in on ourselves even more, ignoring the questions that rise out of our perplexity, immersed in a silence that reflects a false acceptance. Suppressing the doubts is like storing the snake’s venom, for sooner or later its poison will end up injuring us. The author and speaker Os Guinnessstarts his excellent book on doubt1 with a chapter entitled `I Believe in Doubt’. This may seem a contradiction, but it contains a great truth: in the measure that we are able to understand the meaning and nature of doubts, even their healthy value as inducers of faith, we will lose our fear and be able to face them correctly.
For this reason, Jeremiah serves very well as an example. We can easily identify with the so-called `weeping prophet’ and his apparent ‘fights’ with God. His ups and downs are a mirror reflecting the spiritual life of many believers struggling against a thorn.
What was Jeremiah’s thorn? In fact, he had several, but I’m highlighting one: his absolute loneliness in the midst of such great opposition that it even took him to his death. Why absolute loneliness? Because it affected his entire being. It was an emotional, a spiritual and even a physical loneliness: everyone had abandoned him. He had no family—he could not have wife or children (Jeremiah 16:1-2); he was relentlessly pursued even by his friends (20:10); he was slandered and insulted (20:7b); he was impoverished to the point of losing all his possessions (12:7-8). Surely, Jeremiah had every right to exclaim, `No one understands me, no one supports me, everyone has left me, and my life has no meaning or purpose.’ And so much effort for what? His prophetic ministry bore no fruit—a complete failure in spite of the high cost he had paid.
His thorn was the result of his faithful obedience to God, as impressively described in chapter 20, one of the most striking lament prayers in the Old Testament. As we saw in chapter 1, some thorns are the direct result of obeying the Lord fully. And this was the case with Jeremiah.
A key aspect of this prophet’s life was his relationship with God, a loving relationship that was at the same time interspersed with protest and laments. Frequently his faith entered a crisis period because he did not understand certain aspects of the divine will, but it wasn’t `weak faith’, far from it, for it was his strong faith that enabled him to be—in God’s own words—like `a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall’ (Jeremiah 1:18). A strong faith, however, does not preclude ups and downs, times of perplexity before the mysteries of providence. The questions Jeremiah asked echo with many believers today. `Why? How long? Where is God when he allows these things to happen?’ His prayers sometimes became fiery protests. He threw the entire weight of his heart on the Lord. In his vehement complaints he used judicial language: `I bring a case before you’ (Jeremiah 12:1). Is there anything wrong with this? Isn’t doubting sin?
Doubt your doubts: how to prevent a faith crisis
What can we learn from Jeremiah’s sincere prayers in which he poured out all his questions to the Almighty? Among the many lessons, there are five that can particularly help us:
• Jeremiah’s doubts were born of perplexity, the fruit of an afflicted heart. Some doubts are born of unbelief; they are the fruit of a haughty mind and a hardened heart, like the doubts of an atheist. This was not the case with Jeremiah. The prophet protests, but always from the position of faithfulness to and trust in God; even in his darkest moments, when his faith seems to be in crisis, he is on the Lord’s side. And we find not a single reprimanding word from God.
• Doubts that are born of perplexity are the sign of spiritual life. Logically, doubt cannot exist without previous belief. A comparison with physical pain can help us understand this: a dead person cannot feel pain: only a living person can feel pain. In this respect, far from being negatives, questions and doubts encourage the believer’s growth and help create his or her own spiritual defences. Someone who has never had questions about their faith is at risk of having a very weak spiritual `immune system’.
• Jeremiah did not complain about God, but to God. The difference is important. It is not sin to tell God how we feel because he is more pleased with the honesty of a bold prayer than with the coldness of a proud heart. Sin lies in defying God, not in protesting to him. We must remember the original meaning of the verb `to protest’, which is `to declare before someone’.
• To express a doubt is positive and necessary because it prevents greater ills. This refers, of course, to doubt born of tribulation. Although it may seem paradoxical, this is the best way to avoid having a crisis of faith. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see the therapeutic value of katharsis—sharing or unloading those emotions or thoughts that weigh us down. Impression without expression easily leads to depression.
• It is not wrong to doubt, but it is to linger in doubt; hence the importance of making known and not hiding the doubts born of a troubled heart. It is like a dirty wound. The worst thing we can do is to cover it without first cleaning it well, thereby risking infection. Hiding our doubts is like covering an uncleaned wound. In this case, the equivalent of infection is a spiritual crisis, and many people have seen their faith dwindle away due to their deficient treatment of this type of doubt. The best antidote for, crisis of faith is to air our doubts, discussing them with someone who can understand and give us answers. That is what Jeremiah did, as he had learned that protesting is not incompatible with drawing near to the Lord.
A lover’s conflict: Jeremiah does not fight against God but seeks God
At first sight, Jeremiah is in conflict with God, his complaints apparently expressing more rebelliousness than trust. However, that is not so. It is helpful here to understand a psychological phenomenon that occurs in relationships with our loved ones, for example between a couple or between parents and children. Every conflict shrouds a double message. On the one hand, there is the confrontation, the negative side of the protest. When two people have an argument, the first reaction is to think that they are one against the other.
However, there is something deeper. I do not argue or fight with someone to whom I am indifferent. If that were the case, I would simply ignore that person. A conflict contains the non-verbal message `You matter to me. I need you to say something to me’. What is really being sought through the conflict is for the two parties to get closer to each other. This is what happens between many married couples: very often, their arguments do not arise from rejection, but out of the love that is already there. The couple are not seeking to distance themselves from each other but to draw nearer. The worst thing that can exist in a love relationship is the silence that comes from indifference, not the conflict that comes from the desire to draw closer.
Jeremiah complained to God because he needed and wanted to come nearer to him and know his answer. He was not struggling against God but in search of God. It is the struggle of someone who loves, not the struggle of an atheist or a sceptic. If Jeremiah had not cared at all about the divine message, he would not have fought God, but would simply have been indifferent or disobeyed him. This is why the Lord never condemns the sincere expression of doubts and feelings of perplexity that spring from a heart oppressed by hardship and pain.
When you find yourself filled with doubts and questions, remember these words, which have always brought me much comfort:2
Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs; but never believe your doubts nor doubt your beliefs. [55-58]
1. Os Guinness, In Two Minds: The Dilemma of Doubt and How to Resolve It, Inter-Varsity Press, USA, 1976, p. 13.
2. Quoted by Jose M. Martinez, Tu vida cristiana (Your Christian Life), Clie 1982, p. 30.