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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Infinite doubt, infinite hope

Editorial note: The Lutheran had originally planned a six-page section on the role of doubt in one’s spiritual life for its November issue. Reporting on this fall’s hurricane season took precedence, however. Amber Leberman of The Lutheran staff gives readers a taste of the theme, now planned for the March 2006 issue.

Infinite doubt, infinite hope

All Saints’ Sunday always leaves me a bit conflicted. It’s a holiday to celebrate the stalwarts of the faith, those who had that “blessed assurance” and shared it with the rest of us.

In the years before the deaths of faithful family members, I would clutch a candle intended for the saints and instead contemplate the doubters, the agnostics and the atheists of my acquaintance.

The religious figures I admire are the spiritual underdogs—the strugglers, even the defiant: Jacob who wrestles all night with God; Jonah who hears God’s call and runs the opposite direction; and the servant in Julian of Norwich’s vision who sets out on a task for God and falls spectacularly into a ditch.

I have a bit of a soft spot for those who can’t—or won’t—believe in God. I used to be one of them.

I’m not going to tell you about some great conversion experience. This isn’t that kind of story.

I got the highest grade in my confirmation class. I got the mechanics, the details, of Lutheran Christianity right. But I didn’t really believe it. I wanted to believe, but whatever metaphysical bit of us that believes (heart, mind, soul), in me, didn’t register belief. I loved the stories and the history and tenets of my faith. But I didn’t have faith.

I didn’t admit my doubt because I considered it to be my failing.

I continued to struggle. I dated a nonreligious man who challenged me to defend tenets of Christianity. I felt I couldn’t very well admit that I, too, doubted the virgin birth, the journey of the Magi or the Resurrection. I didn’t admit that his questions needled me because they were my questions. I felt as if I needed to defend my religion, even though—and perhaps because—I felt I’d failed as a true believer.

I felt that going through the motions was the least I could do.

Then I met Foster, who would become one of my best friends. Like me, Foster attended church regularly. But while I went to the local Lutheran church and felt empty, he went to the Roman Catholic church and felt God’s presence. We’d compare notes about church over lunch, and eventually I admitted my doubt. His response was a faithful: “You’ll feel it again, someday.”

And he was right.

Slowly, eventually, an awareness of God crept into my life. Somewhere, somehow doubt alchemized into faith.

I had no great blinding-light realization of God. I shudder when I hear that becoming a Christian is as simple as “asking Jesus into your heart.” Perhaps for some it is. But for me, it took repeated and desperate pleadings. I clutched to Foster’s assurance that there was hope for my doubt as if it were a spiritual lifeline.

So it’s not the shining examples of faith whom I remember on All Saints’ Sunday. It’s those who have struggled, and continue to struggle. They might be next to me, this Sunday, going through the motions.

And it’s the least I can do to pray for their encouragement.


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