A few months before I graduated in spring 1999, my girlfriend asked me to go to the cemetery with her. Sara’s Dad passed away when she was in middle school, and she hadn’t been back to the cemetery since the funeral. Now, she wanted me to keep her company on a memorial pilgrimage.
We drove out to the place where her father was buried — towards the back of the cemetery, where there were endless rows of small stone markers set in the ground. They seemed to march all the way to the horizon, each one representing a human soul who had once walked and thought and dreamed. Now, there was nothing left of them but decaying bones and this insignificant slab of granite.
I knew Sara would want some time with her memories, so I wandered off to sit next to a little stream that ran nearby. A thought hit me that I don’t think I’d ever really contemplated before: “One day, I’ll be here, too.” Someday, I was also going to rot in the ground with nothing left behind but a stone marker in an endless row.
I thought about the legacy of Sara’s father, who’d spent his life as a welder while raising three kids. He loved the little house he bought for his family in a Chicago suburb — adding a treehouse for his children; putting up Muppet wallpaper in their bedrooms. But now, the house was falling into disrepair and the treehouse was an unsafe wreck and the wallpaper was peeling. Sara had turned out pretty well, but so what? It wasn’t as though her father were around to see it.
And when I joined him six feet under, then what would my life mean? Would it matter whether I’d earned a degree or published articles — or even gotten married and raised a family? It was all meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I realized that only 60 years hence (if I was particularly lucky), nothing would be left of me but bones and memories.
I might as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. If this life is all we get, either absolute pleasure-seeking hedonism or committing suicide in despair were my only options. They were the only two ways, it seemed, to spend my life that made any sense at all.
Unless, of course … it was true. Unless Jesus really conquered the grave. Unless this life was less than a sentence on the page of eternity. Unless God was able to do more than we ask or imagine, and “the resurrection and the life” was more than an empty phrase. Because if it were true, then suddenly, everything was worth it and more than worth it. Then relationships were forever and life had meaning there was a reason to get up tomorrow morning and eternity could grow even now within my heart …
IF it were true. But on the other hand, it could be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Faith or Desperation?
That realization in the cemetery was the beginning of my journey back from doubt. But of course, the skeptic might say — in other words, sometimes I say — that pondering the emptiness of death is not a good enough reason to believe. Why should I choose to follow Jesus because I see no other hope at the end of my endurance? Wouldn’t it be more courageous to stoically accept that God was not there and death was the end?
Perhaps. I only know that for me, there’s no purpose or passion or freedom in my life apart from God. And perhaps there would be no life at all, because I found myself long ago in the existential dilemma: Why should I go on living if life is a brief and painful affair ending with trip to the boneyard? I might as well distract myself from my own untimely demise, or just reach out and embrace death now.
So is God a crutch; an empty conceit that keeps me from suicide or absolute hedonism? In one sense — yes. And I’m honest enough to admit I’m a lame, blind beggar.
We have this idea as Americans — I suppose because we’ve made the pursuit of happiness the chief end of life — that our wisdom is at its fullest when life is good. When we’re happy and we know it, when the sky is blue and life is a cabaret, old chum, we think that’s when we see most clearly.
But it’s strange that when everything is going my way, I’m most likely to ignore relationships and a legacy. It’s when I have no place else to turn; when despair is my only faithful companion and I realize my life is nothing but dust that I recognize the truly important things in life: my family. My friends. Using my gifts to change lives.
And that is also when I’m most likely to encounter God in a profound way, because I’ve spent the rest of my life avoiding him. As C. S. Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, our God is so extraordinarily humble that He will accept us not only when we’re at our best, but when we’re at our worst — when we’ve tried everything else but Him and He’s our very last hope.
The atheist argues that I shouldn’t believe in a God when I only look for Him in the last extremity. I say, why should I believe in something that I found at any other time? It’s only when my life seems to be over that I can see it clearly.
The Long Road Back
I would like to tell you that day was the end of my doubts: Now, I wake up every morning with the assurance that there is a loving, sovereign God in heaven!
But that’s not true. Some days, prayer still feels like talking to the ceiling.
It was a long road back from the spring of 1999. I read books that defended the faith, showing me there were good, logical reasons to believe. I mustered courage to share the doubts plaguing me with compassionate friends. I learned to enjoy beautiful sunsets and long walks and music that lifted me right over the pain-filled world.
On a different (but perhaps more important) note, I stopped shacking up with my girlfriend.
Yet it all began with a choice: Would I dare to believe? Would I decide with my will, not my empty numb feelings, that there had to be something beyond this life? Was I going to continue wishing faintly that perhaps there was no God because in the good times, I was better off without him? Or would I believe that when you look for God wholeheartedly you’ll find him?
That was the decision before me: The point where my Christianity would live or die. That was the moment when I decided my longing for purpose and eternity might just be proof of a God who made me. That’s when I cried out with Jacob, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”
After the Healing
Sometimes in the days after his encounter with the Rabbi, Jacob still found it hard to believe what had happened. Sometimes he wanted to think his son had just always been a happy, bubbly, talkative young man. Sometimes, he thought it must have all been in his head. Surely a complete, spontaneous healing was impossible. Things like that simply didn’t happen in real life.
Other times — in his nightmares — he was certain that his son would go back to his old ways. One day, the demon that had lived inside him for 20 years would come back to reclaim his old haunts.
But when he forced his mind to consider nothing but the indisputable facts, he knew this much: He had cried out more in desperation than faith in those fateful words, “Take pity on us and help us … IF YOU CAN.” And Jesus had given him just enough faith in return to see it through.
In fact, Jesus gave him just enough faith to see a healing take place right before his eyes. And the happy loving man that Jacob was now proud to call son had never been the same since.
Choosing to Believe
Are you a closet doubter — a “good Christian” on the outside who’s crying daily on the inside? Or maybe you’re a “heathen sinner” who can’t quite bring yourself to believe enough that you’ll leave your lifestyle. Maybe inside the remnants of your soul, you’re wondering if there’s a God in heaven to hear your desperation.
Dare to join Jacob in a cry to the God you hope exists: “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” Because as you pursue God through doubt, He’s promised to respond by giving you faith. “You will seek Me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” He pledged in the book of Jeremiah.
It will take time and pain and emptiness; a fight against easy answers and a struggle to claw your way back to wholeness. But when God fulfills Jeremiah’s promise to you, you’ll experience a healing like Jacob.
It may not be a complete turnaround; that may have to wait for heaven. But God will give you just enough faith to witness the most profound miracle of all: The resurrection of your soul from doubt.
Copyright 2010 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.