by Barbara Milligan
By the time I was 12 or so, I was a committed Christian. But despite my personal commitment to Jesus and my involvement in a church community, I began to have some basic doubts about God. I was haunted by questions like, Am I really saved? Does God really love me? Is there really a God, and did Jesus really die for me, or did somebody make all this up? I asked Jesus into my heart over and over, just in case I wasn’t sincere enough the previous time. I kept hoping that the next Bible study, the next church youth camp, the next Sunday sermon would set me free from my doubts.
My childhood church was evangelical, which means that the emphasis was on Jesus as revealed in the Bible, the Word of God. That still sounds good to me, but a common belief in my church was that Jesus reveals himself only through Scripture, except sometimes through starry skies and redwood trees. Doubt was not an acceptable part of being a Christian in that environment, so I never shared my doubts with anyone. I didn’t want to be told, “My dear, you need assurance. And I can settle that for you once and for all. It says right here in 1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’* You see? You’re saved. So don’t give the devil a foothold by doubting.”
Now, I believed 1 John 1:9 and similar verses. I memorized them. I meditated on them. I quoted them to other people. And I firmly believed (and still do) that the Word of God is as powerful as a two-edged sword and that God could speak to me and transform me through that Word. God had already done that through some passages of the Bible. But as much as I wanted to trust God, my painful experiences with authority figures had made me fearful. So my doubts remained.
That was many years ago, and although I still sometimes have lapses in trusting God, I’m no longer haunted by doubts. What made them go away? Well, it didn’t happen all at once. In fact, for me, it took years; I was in my thirties when I realized the doubts were gone. And contrary to what I’d been searching for, the solution was not in a compelling, intellectual argument or presentation. It was not in finding the answers to my questions. What helped me the most was experiencing God’s real presence.
During those years of doubting, I experienced God being with me in many ways. I remember the dark nights of crying out to God when I was lonely or afraid, and the warmth of God’s presence that often came to me within minutes. I remember sensing that God was leading me as I decided to move 400 miles from my childhood home without a job or a place to live. I remember God beginning to heal my emotional wounds, freeing me from some codependent patterns and helping me develop healthy boundaries. And I remember many of God’s personal, daily gifts to me–a hummingbird in flight, staring into my face from two feet away, or an encouraging conversation with someone I trusted, or a glimpse of something good that God was doing in a situation that had tied my stomach into knots.
I remember one Christian friend in high school who had a lifelong impact on me. She knew lots of Scripture but never used it to try to fix me or “assure” me. Instead, she lived Scripture. She listened to me. She responded with compassion. She affirmed me. I know Jesus was in her, using her to draw me closer to him and to trust my experience of him. I felt loved, accepted, respected, valued, comforted, nurtured, strengthened. Later I met other supportive friends, communities of believers, who taught me how much we all need each other to survive.
I also remember how God made many Bible passages come alive for me in the midst of my doubts. For example, I identified with the man who told Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). That story told me that Jesus wanted me to be honest about my doubts. And that I could ask him to help me with them.
Despite my doubts, God met me in all those ways, and more. Over and over, I was invited to experience God. I experienced God’s presence, God’s guidance, God’s compassion, God’s comfort, God’s nurturing, God’s strength, God’s love and many more aspects of God’s character. I experienced God through nature, through other people, through circumstances, through words and pictures and impressions, and increasingly often through the Bible.
God used those experiences to gradually vanquish my doubts. My unhealed wounds from the past had caused me to doubt God, while my conscious mind wanted to trust God. And because my doubts were on a feeling level, not on a thinking level, God addressed them emotionally, not intellectually. Hearing, reading, and thinking about God’s love for me, and all that Jesus had done to demonstrate God’s love, did not diminish the doubts. I needed to experience God’s love for me before the doubts would subside. And as I began to experience God’s love, my heart began to open to the living truths of the Bible.
My experiences of God during those years of doubting taught me a few things about God. The Bible clearly communicates all these truths, but they’re meant for us to experience as well as to think about. “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8) is one of the ways that David talks about experiencing God. Tasting is not primarily an intellectual exercise; it’s an experience. Here are some things we can discover when we taste, or experience, God:
God is kind.
I was taught this at church, as many of us were, and my conscious mind believed it. So then why was I often surprised when God did kind things for me or spoke gentle, respectful words to my soul? Those of us who grew up with critical authority figures tend to brace ourselves for shame, put-downs, guilt, mistrust, impossible demands, performance reviews, and other harsh treatment from God. But that is not God’s way. God surprises us with kindness.
God’s love has no strings attached.
God’s love has no “if” clause (“I will love you if you please me” or “I will love you if I feel like it”). God’s love is not a smothering love (“I love you because you make me feel good”). And God’s love is not a controlling love (“I love you because you are my property”). God simply loves us–unconditionally, eternally.
God wants us even more than we want God.
In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus compares God to the father who unashamedly hitches up his garment and runs to meet the lost son. Jesus says that while the son was still a long way off, “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20). We may find this illustration of God’s affection too intimate, too threatening. But God invites us to come a little closer and to experience God’s compassion.
God is more gracious to us than we are toward ourselves.
We have high expectations of ourselves, and we tend to judge ourselves harshly. We fear failure, we reprimand ourselves when we fail, and we might even punish ourselves for failing. But God knows our limits even better than we do. And when we fail, God does not scold us or shame us. God always has grace for us, no matter how many times we fail.
God is trustworthy.
God never gives up on us, never rejects us, never leaves us. These things are especially difficult for us to believe if we didn’t grow up in an environment of trust. But God understands our mistrust and invites us to discover, through experience, how trustworthy God is.
God delights in giving to us.
It’s God’s nature to give. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t very good at receiving. We find it hard even to receive from God, unless it’s mainly for the purpose of serving someone else. But when we slow down, pay attention to what God might be doing in us and around us, and receive the good gifts God is offering us–especially God’s love for us–we become healthier human beings. We become human beings who know we’re loved. And then we’re prepared to serve others out of love.
We can tell God exactly how we feel.
God can handle our doubts, our fears, our anger, our disappointment, our anxiety, our sadness. Unlike some people we may have known and trusted, God doesn’t turn away from us or tell us to go away until we get a better attitude. Instead, God invites us to share all our feelings with him, including the unpleasant ones. If we find this hard to do, we can browse the Psalms for helpful scripts. Psalms 13, 31, and 69 are good examples, and there are many more.
God wants to heal our wounds.
It took me quite a few years to let this truth sink in, but God is always patient. While we may want our emotional wounds to be healed, we may avoid the healing process. We fear the pain we’ll experience as we expose wounds that we buried long ago, or we fear God’s responses to those wounds. However, God understands all our fears. And as we take them to God, one fear at a time, God slowly and thoroughly drives out our fears while healing our wounds.
The Bible is full of stories about how people have experienced a loving God. And the Bible is full of invitations for us to experience this God. Fortunately for us, God does most of the work. Our part is to ask God to make us willing to have our wounds and fears revealed to us so that God can heal us. Our part is to ask for eyes to see and a heart to receive God’s loving gifts to us each day so that we can experience and truly know this One who loves each of us beyond the telling.