All Prayed Out
The role of honest doubt in the life of faith.
By Martin Thielen
Years ago, Hollywood produced a powerful film called Cinderella Man, staring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. If you’re not familiar with the movie, Cinderella Man tells the true story of Jim Braddock, a boxer during the depression years. After injuring his hand, Jim’s boxing career came to an end. Unable to find regular work, Jim and his family struggled greatly during the depression years. Although a devout Roman Catholic, those bleak years strained Jim’s faith in God. In one poignant scene of the movie, the Braddock family had no money, the kids were sick, the electricity had been cut off in their apartment, and they had little food.
Late that evening, Jim came home after another unsuccessful day of seeking work. The kids were in bed, coughing with a bad cold; the apartment was freezing; and the only light in the apartment came from a candle. Jim sat down at the table with his wife to eat a meager bite of dinner. He and his wife joined hands and bowed their heads to say a blessing over the tiny meal. She began the prayer, “Lord, we are grateful….” but Jim did not join her. She looked up at him, and with her eyes asked, “What’s the matter? Why are you not praying with me?” For a moment Jim looked at her in silence. He then said, “I’m all prayed out.”
Have you ever felt all prayed out? Do you ever have doubts about God? Do you ever wonder if God really exists? Or, if God does exist, do you ever wonder if God is as good, loving, and just as you have been taught? If so, you are in good company. People have felt all prayed out for centuries, including many biblical heroes.
After years of praying for a child with no results, Abraham and Sarah felt all prayed out. Frustrated with leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, Moses felt all prayed out. Sick in mind, body, and spirit, Job felt all prayed out. Hiding for his life in a desert cave, his enemies in hot pursuit, David felt all prayed out. Crying out to God in anger and anguish, the prophet Jeremiah felt all prayed out. Believing God had abandoned him, the psalmist felt all prayed out. After denying Jesus three times, Peter felt all prayed out. After repeatedly praying for healing but not receiving it, the apostle Paul felt all prayed out. In anguish over his inability to believe Jesus was alive, Thomas felt all prayed out.
At one point in his life, even Jesus felt all prayed out. The authorities were breathing down his neck. Powerful people wanted him dead. He had less than a day to live. So he went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Three times Jesus poured out his soul to God to spare his life. “Father,” he pleaded, “Don’t let me die; let me live!” But the heavens were silent. Instead of being rescued by God, Jesus was arrested, abandoned by his disciples, denied by his best friend, put on trial, condemned, beaten, mocked, and cruelly executed. Hanging on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Like so many others through the years, Jesus felt all prayed out.
Some people believe that religious questions, struggles, and doubts are a sin; but they are wrong. Doubt is not the enemy of faith but part of faith. Tennyson was right when he said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” Her response reminds me of a profound passage in the Bible that says, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Most of us can relate. We do believe, but we also have times of unbelief. That’s always been true for people of faith, and it always will be.
Take, for example, the resurrection of Christ. Most people would agree that belief in the resurrection is the heartbeat of Christian faith. But when God raised Jesus from the dead, skepticism about his resurrection abounded. In fact, doubts about the resurrection are recorded in all four Gospels. When the early followers of Christ heard the glorious news of the resurrection, they struggled to believe it. Matthew 28 says, “When they saw him [after the resurrection], they worshiped him; but some doubted” (v. 17, emphasis added). Mark 16 says, “When they heard that he [Jesus] was alive and had been seen by her [Mary Magdalene] they would not believe it” (v. 11, emphasis added). Luke 24 says, “Returning from the tomb, they told all this [about the resurrection] to the eleven and to all the rest.… but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (v. 9, 11, emphasis added). John 20 says, “The other disciples told him [Thomas], ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand into his side, I will not believe” v. 25, emphasis added). Skepticism, doubt, and uncertainty exist in all four Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Eventually Christ’s followers affirmed faith in his resurrection, but they had to work through their doubts, questions and struggles to get there.
I had my first serious struggle with religious doubt during college. I did not grow up in church but became a Christian believer during my sophomore year in high school. For three years my church nurtured me in an ultraconservative, intensely emotional version of Christianity. My church was heavy on heart religion but light on head religion. Then I went off to college. For the first time in my life, I had serious discussions with agnostics and even atheists. I studied philosophy, world religions, and evolutionary biology. I was also introduced to critical academic study of the Bible and advanced theology. My professors taught me things I never heard in Sunday school.
My simple, conservative, emotion-based Christian faith was seriously challenged. In that setting I struggled deeply with my faith. I grappled with hard questions like, If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? I wondered, How can I reconcile my belief in science with my belief in the Bible? My simplistic, “Love Jesus with all your heart” religion was not adequate anymore. For a while I thought I was losing my faith. I shared my struggles with my major professor and mentor. At the conclusion of our visit, he handed me a book written by an Episcopal priest called Honest to God. In many ways that book saved my faith and my vocation as a minister. It taught me that doubt was not the enemy of faith but part of faith. It taught me that it is OK to ask hard questions about God, that you can be a thinking person and still be a Christian, and that science and religion are compatible with each other. Since that difficult faith struggle during college, I’ve learned that it’s OK to say, along with the great heroes of the Bible, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
[This article comes from Martin’s book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most. Since this book is still in print with the publisher, Martin cannot provide it for free on this website. If you are interested in the book it can be purchased from Amazon.com.]