When belief is not enough
When I was a 25-year-old pastor I had better answers to the questions of life than I do now. When I took my first church at 23, I knew I didn’t know anything about almost everything. By the time two years had passed, I had all the answers.
Why do some people suffer? I could tell you. Why do bad things happen to good people? I had the insight. In fact, when a supervisor suggested I read a certain theologian, I declined. I knew what I believed.
It is not so simple now. I have seen too much, experienced life at its most raw, and have more questions now than I have answers. I have learned to say, without either pride or humility, “I do not know.”
This I have learned: people, especially people who suffer the unspeakable tragedies of life, need other people. And they need God.
Most people know that they need God — there are a few who claim they don’t, but the book of their life has not been fully written yet, so we will see.
However, it is not so clear to most that we need other people to navigate the dark waters of doubt, uncertainty, sickness, pain, and loss. In our culture, we value the self-made person, the rugged individualist, the lone wolf, the solitary soldier.
In the larger Church, the Apostle’s Creed is the baptismal creed, the creed of the individual. It begins with, “I believe in God ...”
There are several “I believes” in the Apostle’s Creed. The creed of the Church, the one shared in unison on Sunday mornings, however, is the Nicene Creed. It begins with, “We believe in God ...” and contains several such statements of corporate belief.
Sometimes, “I” simply cannot believe. Sometimes the doubt overwhelms me, especially during the long dark night of the soul that comes my way — “when sorrows like sea billows roll.”
It is not a sin to doubt — it is, rather, quite normal. One author wrote, “The greater the faith, the greater the doubt.” This was certainly true of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
This great woman of tremendous faith was often plagued by doubts and uncertainty as revealed in letters published after her death. Her letters give hope to the one who struggles and demonstrate that even the most faithful occasionally flounder.
It is during times of doubt that the individual needs the rest of the Church. It is as though the “we believe” carries us when the “I believes” cease to function.
In James 5, the apostle encourages the sick to admit their sickness and call for the “elders of the church” to pray. It is the elders who are to pray the “prayer of faith” and not the sick person.
When the sickness — whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual — overwhelms us and the “I believe” is mired in doubt, we are carried by those whose faith remains strong.
When I cannot pray, there are others who carry me. When I cannot sing, there are other voices that are not silent. When I cannot at that moment believe, there are others who will believe for me and stand with me until my faith awakens once again.
I have also learned that I do not cry alone. Others, the “we believe” people, shed tears at my misfortune, touched by the depth of my anguish. They, too, somehow take on and bear a portion of the burden that weighs me down. I discover during these times that, like a soldier who is wounded, I am not left on the field to suffer or to die alone. Others come to my rescue.
I no longer have all the answers. Sometimes, I am not even certain just what I believe. Such matters are too weighty. My faith can be shaken and battered — even destroyed for a season.
I am not a solitary believer who proclaims, “It’s just me, my Bible, and Jesus,” as though I am an island. I have learned, and have also come to know, that I do not believe alone.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec,org) He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]