Should we be afraid of questioning our beliefs in Christ? Should we accept our struggles as normal? And how do we overcome our uncertainties? Does God turn away from us when we are hesitant? Priest Dmitry Palamarchuk of the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in Gorlovka, Ukraine, shares his ideas.
Faith is a work in progress
We cannot believe in God and not have questions. Faith is a journey; it never stays the same. We change and grow in our faith. That is a part of our human nature. In our spiritual lives, there is time for prayer, the Holy Scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers. We learn about our lives through the lens of Christian teachings. There are times when we are undisposed to prayer. We cool off to the faith, and the reasons may be many, from weather to the state of our minds. In these moments of weakness, we may not be sure if the Lord hears us. We may even question His existence. But our crises are our opportunities to progress. As Clive Lewis brilliantly remarked, without the torment of false beliefs, we could not know the true God. His thought is an excellent description of our search for God: sometimes we think we have found Him, but still cannot overcome the sense that something important is still missing, without which our faith is just too bland.
Questions from ignorance
The sense of blandness often comes from our illusion of knowing everything about Christianity, which can be very dangerous. This false idea took me over when I was fifteen. I was an assistant to a priest. I had read a lot of books and was convinced that I knew everything there was to know about the Christian faith. But then I came across the list of exam questions for seminary student candidates and found that I could not answer a single question. It turned out that I knew nothing! Saddened, I asked myself if one’s spirituality came from knowledge alone. Of course not! But genuine belief is impossible without it. Without learning about Orthodoxy – at least by reading the Catechism, we cannot honestly call ourselves Christians. How can we deserve this name if we do not understand the Creed, or cannot explain the content of the prayer “Lord our Father”? Unless we challenge ourselves to learn, we can expect to encounter doubts and uncertainties. It was a shock for me to discover one day that King David did not write all of the psalms. “Why have they been deceiving me?” I exclaimed in disdain. But I was not being misled – I just knew too little.
Nevertheless, the knowledge of the doctrine alone will not protect us from wavering in our faith. Unless one experiences Christ’s presence directly, nothing can convince Him of his existence. Apostle Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Faith, too, must pass through the crises of youth and adulthood as we rediscover it. For example, our fear of God matures in stages., First, we were afraid to upset Him lest He might punish us, and then out of fear of not having our reward. Now we obey Him because we would hate to sadden Him who loves us infinitely. When we fall before God, He does not drive us away. Instead, He calls us to Himself: “Come, and I will remove all the dirt. I will make you clean again, and you will be alright, brother!” Without crises, we cannot mature as Christians and cannot grow stronger in our beliefs.
Does God hear us?
Our creed may flag when we deviate from the commandments of Christ and live only by our selfish desires, ignoring the teachings of the Church and even the voice of our conscience. These days, many will argue that it would not be wrong for an African cannibal to devour another human, but let us not be deceived. Even for a non-religious person, the voice of the conscience is the moral law. If he cares to listen and hear, the voice of conscience will tell him in a difficult situation: “Wrong way. Go back!”
When we are in doubt, we sometimes have the feeling that God may not hear us. He is not certain that He will answer our pleas or if our prayers reach His ears. How should we react? Take heed of the teachings of Apostle James: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3). The Holy Fathers also teach us that the Lord does not always answer our prayers or pleas immediately. Sometimes, I also have the feeling when I pray as if my prayers are hitting some invisible wall, that its words are going into emptiness or striking an insurmountable barrier between me and God. I seem to be doing everything right, so what is the problem? It turns out that there is something in my heart, a grudge or an unresolved conflict – like me making peace with my wife after an argument, but still keeping a trace of bitterness against her. All these things stand in the way between us, and keep us from hearing Him. This barrier will not disappear unless we repent.
We must understand that God does not turn away from us or close His ears to our pleas. We have only ourselves to blame for closing our hearts to His grace with our actions and behaviours. Our hearts are not in a position to embrace it. Hesitancy can reveal our human self-centeredness. It is far more comfortable to think that God will not listen than to change ourselves from within and reconsider our lives. Here is one saying from Elder Nectarius (Morozov), which I think is very much to the point. He said that a Christian was not a title received once and for all. We must prove that we are worthy of it every day of our lives.
Sometimes, we forget that we are Christians, and end with a sense of emptiness and abandonment. The best we can do in these situations is to examine our lives to understand where we might be wrong. We will be relieved when we locate the root of our problem and the causes of our wrongs.
Sometimes, we forget that we are Christians, and grapple with feelings of emptiness or abandonment. The best we can do in these situations is to examine our lives to understand where we might be wrong. We will be relieved when we locate the root of our problem and the causes of our misdeeds.
I am hesitant. Should I still take Communion?
Should we still approach the cup when we feel hesitant about our faith? The Lord teaches: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37). In the parable about the healing of a demon-possessed boy, we read: “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). As humans, we believe and disbelieve and repent of one thing and not of another. When hesitant, let us pray, then, “I do believe, O Lord. Help my unbelief!” If we keep ourselves from coming to the Cup until we are strong enough in our faith, we may never reach the Cup in the first place. But, as the Bible teaches, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13). When our faith is being put to the test, who else do we have to run to than Christ Himself? When our leg or heart is giving us trouble, where do we go? We ask for the doctor, even if we are not too sure that he will help. But when our soul torments us so much that we cannot pray or fast, where do we run? We turn to Christ. We ask Him to give us the strength and energy to live and believe. We cannot live in today’s world unless we stand on the firm foundation of our faith.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds