Karin Michael | 24 December 2019
Karin Michael is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is studying Political Science and is currently the social media and event planning officer of her OCCM chapter.
When we think of doubt, particularly towards the Coptic Orthodox faith, it’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily take form only in questioning the existence of God, but it can also appear in the moments when we let emotions which stem from difficult circumstances that we experience, such as anger, anxiety, sadness, or fear influence our thoughts in a manner that makes us question God’s ability to take care of us, at times pushing us to take matters into our own hands. A major tribulation I experienced, which I will be sharing with you, is one that led me to better recognize the beginning signs of the latter and how to deal with them but is one that started with the former.
There was a time in my life in which I was going through a major struggle, and it began to take a considerable toll on me, both mentally and spiritually. I would seek guidance through my friends, my family, and spiritual guides, to whom I am infinitely grateful, especially in highlighting the importance of bearing one another’s burdens. Yet, there was still yearning for peace within me, one that I knew I could only attain through God. And with that, when the time came in which I was upset, I decided to converse with God as I would with a friend. And it worked; day by day, I increasingly began to feel my relationship with Him improve, and in return, peace began gradually seeping into my life. That is, until one prayer when a troubling thought made its way into my head, subtle, like a thief in the night: “what if you aren’t praying to anyone? What if He isn’t even there?”
Of course, the devil’s timing, perfect as ever, put me in panic mode the moment the thought entered my head, quickly turning the peace that I had begun feeling into confusion, shame, and fear. So what did I do? I shoved the thought away, hoping that by ignoring its presence, it would fail to take form and have an effect on me. But with each attempt I made to pray after the first incident, the same thought of doubt made its way into my head again, and again, and again, interrupting the quiet peace I so desperately sought from God. At some point, however, the torment of the thought became unbearable and I couldn’t push it away anymore, and I finally decided to address what I was feeling head-on. I was doubting the existence of God. Although I am grateful for that tribulation, which I will explain why later, I still remember how I felt at that moment: lost, confused, ashamed, scared. So I did what I felt was the most appropriate given my situation, and I self-diagnosed myself through Google.
Mind you, I know using Google wasn’t the brightest idea in the starting phase of dealing with my dilemma, as many of the ideas which I come up with under stress, in general, aren’t, but please bear with me. I decided to search and see if there were other Christians who went through the same tribulation that I was going through and how they got through it. Through the search, I came across an amazing article written by a woman named Andrea Lucado, a daughter of a pastor, who shared her story of dealing with doubt that she experienced in her faith once she began attending Oxford, which although is a Christian university, was populated by many students with atheist ideologies that began to influence her, and eventually caused her to question the foundation of her faith. Nevertheless, she went on to explain that the doubt she experienced ended up being the reason her faith in God was strengthened, as well as why the foundation on which her faith is built on was understood better. She also emphasized the importance of not denying or fearing your doubt, for the presence of doubt is not the absence of faith. Take Saint Peter’s story, for instance, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus sent His disciples on a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee shortly after the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. Throughout that journey, Saint Peter, out of fear, doubted God not once, but twice, even to the point of testing Jesus out of doubt after He said “be of good cheer! It is I: do not be afraid” (Matthew 14: 27) as affirmation to His disciples when they became afraid, seeing Him walking on water, and thought He was a ghost, to which Saint Peter replied, saying “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to You on the water” (Matthew 14:28). But it didn’t stop there. After Jesus allowed Saint Peter to walk on water towards Him, Peter doubted again when “he saw that the wind was boisterous” (Matthew 14: 30) and became afraid, causing him to sink and cry out “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14: 30) in which “...immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14: 31). Here you have Peter, a disciple of Jesus, endowed by Him to be a fisher of men, and a man who witnessed miracles upon miracles being done by Jesus as he was by His side, doubting. Yet, once he returned to the boat with Jesus and saw that “the wind ceased...those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14: 33). Although he doubted, Peter’s tribulation strengthened His faith by allowing him to see why his doubt was irrational. How his fear, his doubt in Jesus’s ability to protect him, is the reason he started sinking and putting his life at risk, not because Jesus failed in His ability to protect him.
Moreover, it’s important to note that throughout Peter’s trial, his faith was not absent. Jesus did not tell him “O you of no faith, why did you doubt?” but “O you of little faith,” showing that one, although Peter doubted Jesus, even as He was right in front of him, his faith was still there and did not disappear, and two, even the little amount of faith which Peter had at that moment saved him, because he sought the Lord and asked for His help, crying out “Lord, save me!” and he was saved. And so in the heart of difficult times, we are essentially like peter, sinking from the doubt that grows out of the stressful, suffocating, negative emotions which stem from the state we’re in, and it is in that time that the devil takes advantage of our confusion by pushing us to doubt God, to forget the endless blessings which He bestowed on us and how He was there for us, instead of seeking His rescue as Peter did. The devil, knowing that we are sensitive creatures, uses our feelings to confuse us and make us believe something is true when it isn’t. However, feelings do not always equate truth. Therefore, it is vital that we work rigorously in constantly strengthening our faith so that it may be strong enough to sustain us when we have the least amount of strength during our tribulations.
Saint Thomas, saying "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20: 25), after hearing the same testimony of seeing Jesus from ten other disciples, and still refusing to believe that the Lord truly appeared until he felt the wounds himself, served as another example of doubt driven by emotionally-burdensome circumstances, such as the time in which the disciples spent in grievance after the Lord’s crucifixion. Saint Thomas allowed his doubt, his inability to walk by faith and believe unless he touched the Lord’s wounds, to steal his joy in celebrating the Lord’s resurrection and fulfilling what He had foretold to the Jews when He said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up” (John 2: 19). Yet, out of compassion and mercy, Jesus appeared to Thomas and allowed him to touch His wounds with his own hands and see Him with his own eyes so that he may believe, first to help him understand that He does not need to physically appear in order for him to be assured that He is there, and second so that Thomas may begin to let go of his tendency to only believe in the presence of physical evidence, for a time will come when Jesus will not be there in which Thomas, as well as the other disciples, will be called to walk, preach, and see by Faith.
Just because we experience trials, especially ones related to doubt, it does not mean that is our endpoint, as clearly seen with the various encounters which the disciples had with doubt, but nevertheless were able to persevere and move forward from. Our spiritual lives have ups and downs, and while at times it may seem like God is silent, not answering our prayers, He is, on the contrary, saying “be patient, my child. I hear you, I feel your pain, for you are a part of me as I am a part of you. I will sustain you; I have not left you. Have faith, be still, and know that I am God.” God at times not answering our prayers does not equate Him not listening. At times, God may not allow something which we want in particular to happen because it may potentially harm us in the future, and maybe even turn us away from Him. We naturally gravitate towards immediate satisfaction and immediate answers, but God, on the other hand, looks at things from every direction and every scenario; He looks at how it may affect us in the moment and in the future. How it can affect others around us, our relationship with Him, and our path to eternal life. Therefore, have faith that whatever door God closes is for your benefit, even if you don’t quite see it yet. Do not let the silence which you sense in His lack of response make you doubt His power, mercy, or presence. When we pray about a specific thing to God, we are asking the controller of all things to allow it if it is according to His Will. However, if He doesn’t allow it, then chances are it was going to harm us in one way or another more than anything else. Otherwise, why wouldn't He grant us something good? As God said, “...what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?” (Matthew 7: 9-10).
If you are in a situation of doubt towards the Faith, please understand that it does not make you any less of a good Christian. God allows us to face certain challenges in order to become stronger in our faith and essentially surrender our control and ask Him, the Controller, to take care of our problems. However, “for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2: 26). In challenging moments such as these, the devil will put in an enormous amount of effort to dishearten, discourage, confuse, and shame you for the tribulation you are experiencing, and use that to draw you away from God the moment you are vulnerable. As a result, if you have thoughts of doubt, escape the grip of the thought, run away from it, for it is like a snake ready to strike, and upon seeing it one would not entertain it, but flee to not get hurt. However, if you can’t, then don’t face this challenge alone. Read spiritual books by the Coptic Orthodox Church, speak to a spiritual guide or someone you trust will guide you in the right direction, listen to sermons. Although my own efforts helped to an extent, I wish I had come across sermons, such as those of H.H. Pope Shenouda III and Fr. Daoud Lamey, sooner. Listening to topics which relate to your struggles by someone who has spiritual wisdom and is in line with the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church is extremely vital in times when we are not able to discern the direction we must take to overcome the tribulation we’re in, as well as grow in our faith. There are many things in the world which try to make us turn on God and give up on our spirituality, whether it’s through societal ideologies which go against our church’s teachings, incorrect bible interpretations, or scientific and academic teachings that strive to demolish our faith, but do not succumb to the fear and poisonous aura of doubt, for it is the devil’s trap, meant to ensnare you with illogical logic that has no rationale but is capable of major spiritual destruction if it’s allowed to take root in our minds. Just because the Lord is silent at times does not mean He isn’t listening. Just because He doesn’t grant some of our requests doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us. Just because we don’t see God, just because it is difficult to feel His presence at times, does not mean He isn’t there. For as H.H Pope Shenouda once said, “O Lord I do not realize your wisdom, but this does not mean that You do not have wisdom. There is wisdom but I did not realize it.”
At one point, the tribulation which I experienced made me feel ashamed. However, the reality is that if it wasn’t for God’s allowance of this trial to occur, and if it wasn’t for His guidance and mercy, I wouldn’t be where I am today spiritually. With that being said, it doesn’t mean that my spirituality is at all close to where it needs to be--not at all. However, through the lows, I was able to witness how vital it is to have faith in the moments which strive to strip us of it the most, and through the highs, I was able to see the beautiful things which bloom once that faith is held on to. Nevertheless, while tribulations are inevitable, don’t wait until one happens to begin strengthening your faith. As Christians, we are in an on-going battle against the evil in this world which the devil creates, and as a result, we must put on our armor of faith, which can only be durable by reading the word of God, understanding it through correct interpretations, and applying it to our lives in all we do. No trials, no tribulation, no problems which we have faced or will face has not been faced before, and as a result, there are numerous resources, especially through the experiences of the saints, which we can use to get ourselves ready for the battles that await us as sons and daughters of God. We are blessed, privileged, to be born into a religion devoted to a loving, compassionate, merciful God, but we have so much ground left to cover. You and I were bought at a price, redeemed the moment He laid His life on the cross for us and paid for our sins by His blood. Yet, God is so compassionate, His love so sacrificial, that He still gave us the option on whether to choose Him or not. Let us not wait to experience fear as Peter did, or anxiety, or sadness, or anger, to begin to reach out to God. Let us not wait till we must touch the Lord’s wound as Saint Thomas did, refusing to believe without direct personal experience, in order to feel God’s presence. Granted, it won’t be easy--the right things never are. However, God is loving, just, all-knowing, and a keeper of His Word. He does not offer empty words but gives us promises, and fortunately, our bible, our book of hope, is full of them. To conclude, I want to challenge you and me today to choose Him. Let us choose Him, who died so we may live. Let us choose Him, who was tortured, ridiculed, and mistreated, yet would do it infinite times over for our sake. Let us choose Him, who took one look at us, imperfect, flawed, lost, and broken, fully knowing that our imperfect nature will only yield constant trial and error, but He, compassionate and loving as ever, still said “you are who I want. You are My masterpiece.”