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Faith Is Trusting, Wrestling, and Searching

It was a small group discussion during a youth retreat. We were exploring a question about faith: “Would you describe yourself as a searcher, a doubter, or a believer?” As the discussion went around the circle, the young people shared their thoughts. When it was Veronica’s turn, she responded: “I’m all three. I have faith, so I’m a believer. But there are times when I have doubts, and there are ways in which I am still searching.” 

Veronica captured something of the unique character of faith. It is an intricate mix of trusting God, wrestling with doubt, and searching mystery. These dynamics are like three intertwined strands of a rope. They combine to give faith its strength and resilience.

Faith Is Trusting

The heart of faith is cultivating a deep trust in God. That trust is a profoundly personal experience that needs to permeate our entire being – our mind, our heart, and our whole being. Faith is an intentional openness to the divine presence and a consistent effort to develop a closer relationship with God. As faith grows, our relationship with God becomes more central in our lives, and that relationship is life changing. It shapes our motivation, our thinking, and our behavior. Faith gradually becomes the defining element in our life, and being a disciple becomes our core identity.

Several lines that I once heard as a prayer capture that faith is a profound trust that opens us to a deeper way of knowing. 

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I am alone,

I believe in God even when God is silent.

Faith Includes Wrestling with Doubt

The spiritual journey is not a cake walk that insulates us from the challenges and complexities of life. Our faith must be strong enough to see us through whatever life throws at us. It needs the staying power to sustain us in the midst of suffering, tragedy, grief, and loss.

Life inevitably exposes our vulnerabilities and plunges us into mysteries we struggle to comprehend. As that occurs, doubt is inevitable. Thomas Merton urges us to remember that faith includes wrestling with doubt. 

We too often forget that faith is a matter of questioning and struggle before it becomes one of certitude and peace. You have to doubt and reject everything else in order to believe firmly in Christ, and after you have begun to believe, your faith itself must be tested and purified.¹

In Merton’s view, doubt is not a threat to faith; it is a purifying fire that tests and strengthens faith. He refuses to accept the naïve view that faith is a safe haven that protects us from doubt, and he dispels any notion that faith eliminates uncertainty.

Faith is not an on/off switch – something you either have or you don’t. Like most human qualities, trust in God is a matter of more or less. It begins as a seed, and it needs to grow over time. Faith requires nurture and care in order to mature.

We see an example of faith’s need to grow in the story of the father whose son was possessed by a spirit. (Mark 9: 14-29) When the father approaches Jesus, he is a mix of hope and doubt: “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus’ response is unequivocal and perhaps indignant: “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father’s reply is desperate: “I believe; help my unbelief.” His statement captures an important dynamic about faith. The mustard seed of our trust in God needs to grow into a tree. (Matt. 17: 20)

Faith Embraces Searching

Faith is a journey, not a destination. That journey needs to embrace searching – exploring meaning and mystery to discover and celebrate the marvelous ways of God.

Once again, Thomas Merton provides us with guidance. He frames it in an almost humorous way: “The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around.”² For Merton, faith is not a static view of reality or a definitive answer to everything. He encourages using the power of our imagination to continue to reach beyond what we know in order to explore the mystery of God’s presence and love.

If we accept Merton’s invitation to browse around, it will take us through uncharted waters to unknown places. The journey of faith is a continuing quest to plumb the vast dimensions of God’s presence. That quest takes us from the depths of the ocean to the farthest reaches of an ever-expanding universe to search out our marvelous and mysterious Creator. Richard Rohr once expressed his amazement at the wonders of creation by exclaiming: “What kind of God can this be!”³ His appreciation of creation filled him with wonder and awe.

Our browsing around also takes us where we may not want to go – into the depth of human suffering. When we confront the pain that surrounds us, it can appear that our world is coming apart at the seams. We encounter senseless violence, anguished suffering, and deep despair. In the midst of the woundedness of the human condition, we search for the God of Redemption, the Holy One who is rich in mercy, lavish with forgiveness, and unfailing with love.

Whenever we resist Merton’s encouragement to browse around, we risk closing our eyes to a world in need and giving in to the all-too-human tendency to let comfort harden into complacency. Our faith needs to be courageous enough to counteract this tendency with continued openness and searching. It needs to prevent us from becoming too sure that we already grasp the ways of God. Faith always needs to leave room for the surprising ways the Spirit ambushes us when we least expect it.

After the small group discussion during the youth retreat, Veronica and I became friends. Even as a young person, she was an old soul – wise beyond her years and insightful about the ways of God. She carefully cultivated the seed of faith within her, and it thrived. Her spiritual journey embraced the three intertwined strands in the rope of strong and resilient faith: trusting in God, wrestling with doubt, and continuing to search the ways of God. Her wisdom was a gift and a blessing that helped me nurture the seed of faith that continues to grow in me. Thanks, Veronica!

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to ponder about your own faith and what it needs to grow.

  • In what way do you identify with the father of the possessed boy: “I believe, help my unbelief?”
  • As you think of your faith as a seed that needs to grow, what can you do to cultivate it and help it mature?
  • In what ways has your journey of faith included wrestling with doubt? What was the experience like for you? What gift emerged from your wrestling?
  • In what way does faith encourage you to continue searching? How has it helped you discover the presence of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit?
  • In what ways can you strengthen the three intertwined strands of the rope of your faith: trusting God, wrestling with doubt, and searching the ways of God? 

Notes

¹Quoted from a secondary source; I have not been able to track down the original quote.

² Thomas Merton, Contemplation in World of Action (New York, Doubleday/Image Books, 1971)

³ Father Richard’s quote is from a presentation at the 2017 Conspire Conference sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.