Is God Really Good? My Journey through Faith and Doubt

Priscilla Jebaraj   |   December 3, 2020 

“God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He’s so good to me . . . ”

It’s a familiar Sunday School song, with its simple lyrics, easy actions, and translations into most major Indian languages. I’ve sung it in Tamil (Yesu nallavar enaku) and in Hindi (Yeshu acha hai mujhko) as well as in English, thousands of times. And for the longest time, if you’d asked me whether I truly believed it, I would have responded blithely, “Yes, of course God is good.”

But doubt sneaks in, in the subtlest of ways.

When I was growing up, doubt was often demonised, treated as the first step towards atheism. But it was also presented to me in the context of intellectual debates and philosophical discussions. Especially if you grew up in Christian circles, you know the kind of thing I mean -- the science versus religion debates; the many theories of creation, intellectual design, and evolution; the theological questions swirling around how the Incarnation or the Resurrection or the Trinity could literally be true; or even the philosophical arguments about the co-existence of evil and a God of love.

None of these questions ever worried me very much and I felt no need for the detailed arguments of apologetics. I felt secure in what I believed and was happy to admit there was much I didn’t know, there were mysteries I could not understand or explain with rational argument, but I could simply trust in unfathomable truths because of trust in their Author. So far at least, this has never been my struggle, these have not been my doubts. And so, I happily assumed that doubt was something that happened to someone else.

I have come to realise this: Doubt, for me, is not intellectual; instead, it is a personal thing.

It reared its ugly head last month as I was listening to a sermon on Psalm 103. That’s one of the first Psalms I memorised as a child (in the King James Version, no less!). Its first two verses are the only ones I know in my mother tongue; in most Tamil Christian communities, they are recited at the end of every prayer. It’s always been comforting in its easy familiarity, with its list of benefits to be remembered.

But this time, I got hung up on verse 6. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” it says. “I’m not sure I can believe that promise,” my doubting heart responded. “It simply doesn’t feel true.”

Earlier that week, I had reported about an emerging scandal in the Tamil Christian community. Dozens of young girl students alleged that the staff of a prominent Christian organisation had sent them inappropriate, possibly abusive messages, over the years. I was troubled and sickened by the allegations, and mourned the betrayal of the innocence of those girls, as well as the tarnishing of the gospel in the eyes of thousands of children who had looked up to these men. It was also disappointing that the organisation seemed to have initially hushed the story.

“Where is that promised justice for the oppressed here?” I raged internally.

I’m a journalist; I regularly report on atrocities and systemic injustice, and while such stories can be depressing, they have never made me seriously question God’s character. The Hathras rape case was making headlines at the time; it horrified me, but didn’t shake my faith.

But this Christian organisation is one I have personally been blessed by in so many ways -- I have attended its programmes, read its books, been friends with many of its staff. There was simply no luxury of personal distance in this case. And the aftermath of my reporting left me more depressed -- some people shared stories of even worse cases in other Christian organisations where the offender was only reprimanded, or covered for, or fired and left to go and do the same thing elsewhere. Other Christian friends seemed more worried about the reputation of the organisation, and some even went as far as blaming the girls for what had happened. It all left me appalled and disillusioned.

An agnostic friend helped feed the cynicism I felt in my heart. “Anyone who believes Biblical promises of justice in the face of such evidence of injustice, within the church itself, must be delusional,” she said. “And if you can see that some of these promises are untrue, how can you trust the rest?”

I know the theological answers to the problem of evil. I can see the eternal perspective and trust in the fulfilment of eternal justice. My brain knows the intellectual arguments. But none of that helps protect my heart from doubt when listening to the anguish in the voice of a child detailing what happened to her. I could not promise her justice, just a space to report her allegations.

It’s tempting to stop there, but let me be honest. Doubt is even more deeply personal for me.

When I got married, it came after years of waiting and praying in faith for the right man. Within two years, he cheated on me and finally walked out to live with someone else. Through those painful days facing infidelity and divorce, I clung to Jesus and his promises. His loving presence was the light that brought me through. I came out of the darkness knowing God more deeply. I was even able to testify that I could see how He works all things together for good.

That was almost a decade ago, and I thought I had worked through that trauma and put it behind me. But last month, the possibility of new love arose and panic instantly surged through me. When I sat down to think it through, I realised that I found it hard to trust God to make marriage a good thing for me. I could only think of all the ways it could go wrong.

I felt like the child in the parable of Matthew 7:9-11, except that I had asked my heavenly Father for bread and fish and been given a stone and a snake instead. So, while I do trust Him to help me endure pain, and to bring good out of pain, I don’t really trust Him to give me the simple, uncomplicated, good gift of a happy marriage. In this area of life, I am braced for pain, not joy.

So no, I can’t sing that Sunday School song quite so blithely anymore. Doubt chokes me; yes, my brain knows that He’s good, but good to me? Not always, says my heart.

This month’s topic was doubt, not faith. And I’m still in the midst of battle, so I don’t have grand strategies to present from the aftermath of victory. But let me simply share some of the ways my heart is fighting the invasion of doubt.

The first step is to name and acknowledge my doubts, not sweep them under the carpet. That’s really what the majority of this piece has been about. And if, like me, your doubts are personal, not intellectual, don’t discount them.

The second step is to recruit help from an infallible Source. I have always been moved by the story of healing in Mark 9. A distraught father recounts his son’s desperate condition and all the remedies that have not worked.

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us,” he tells Jesus. And Jesus says to him, “‘If you can’?! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately, the father of the child cries out [with tears] and says, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

It sounds illogical, to ask the very One you doubt to help you defeat that doubt, but paradoxically, it’s the only way it works. I am promised a Divine Helper, the Holy Spirit, who gives me faith (1 Corinthians 12:9), and it only makes sense to claim his powerful support by echoing that prayer: Help thou mine unbelief.

Help also comes from others around me; there’s a reason it’s called the “community of faith.” In sharing these doubts frankly with friends and prayer partners, I am provided with empathy and encouragement from fellow travellers, who point me to the truth when I can’t quite see it, hold me up when I am slipping, and pray constantly for and with me.

Third, it helps to remember that just as my doubts are not impersonal, neither is my faith. I don’t believe in a set of dead doctrines, precepts and promises; I believe in a living Person.

Paul’s last letter to Timothy is a personal one, probably written from the darkness of prison shortly before his death, urging faithfulness despite suffering, at a time when the old apostle had been abandoned by many. And yet, he writes with utter confidence, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” He doesn’t say, “I know WHAT I have believed,” but rather, “I know WHOM I have believed.”

The more I come to know God, the easier it becomes to trust his goodness even when I can’t quite feel it. It is only when I know the Person that the truth of His words can move from my brain to my heart.

And finally, there’s the simple direction in 2 Corinthians 5:7. “We walk by faith,” it says. Walking is an action, not a philosophy. Sometimes, I simply have to act as though I believe, even when doubt ravages my heart. And the action then feeds back into the belief.

I am struck by the litany of the warriors of faith in Hebrews 11. For almost all of them, faith is described with an action verb. Abel “offered” a sacrifice, Noah “built” an ark, Abraham “went out” from his home into an unknown land, Moses’ parents “hid” their child, the Israelites “crossed” the sea, Rahab “welcomed” the spies...In most cases, it doesn’t tell you what they felt, only what they did. I am sure that many of them felt doubt. And yet, they acted in faith. After all, faith is defined as “the substance of things hoped for”. Substance comes from action, not feeling.

And so, I continue to write about and expose injustice, even within the church, acting as though I trust God to bring righteousness and justice for the oppressed, and often, that then helps me to actually believe that truth. And I step forward in the midst of fears, and open myself to the second chance of love, acting as though I have a Heavenly Father who gives good and perfect gifts, and that then helps faith in His goodness to percolate from my mind into my heart.

I am particularly encouraged by the inclusion of Sarah in that list of faith warriors. In Genesis, we read how she was rebuked for laughing at the promise of a son, disillusioned by long disappointment. And yet, here in Hebrews, she is commended for her faith because “she considered him faithful who had promised.” She knew the Person and so clung to His faithfulness in the midst of her very understandable doubts.

And so, because I do know Him who is faithful, I can still sing -- not blithely anymore, but out of hard-earned conviction despite my doubts -- “God is so good to me.”

Photo by Ricardo Rocha on Unsplash
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Priscilla Jebaraj

Priscilla Jebaraj is a journalist living in Delhi, a city she loves for its sense of being rooted in a storied history and rushing forward into an unknown future at the same time. Some of her favourite things: books, travel, books, baking, books, children and did she mention books?

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