Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great Russian novelist, once wrote that “the death of a single infant calls into question the existence of God.”
And he was a devout Christian!
One can understand how Dostoyevsky might have had his doubts after some of the experiences he went through in life. Arrested in his 20’s for being part of a liberal intellectual group, he was imprisoned by Czar Nicholas in Siberia. Dostoyevsky described the experience this way:
“In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall...We were packed like herrings in a barrel...There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs...Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel...” It must at times have been difficult to see God in the midst of that kind of suffering.
And, sadly, that was not even the worst of it. In prison, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death along with his comrades. One day in the dead of winter, they were marched outside to be executed. Forced to stand in the freezing Siberian cold, they waited to be shot by a firing squad. One by one they were each tied to a stake. Then, at the very last moment, a messenger burst onto the scene with an announcement. The Czar had determined to commute their sentence and spare their lives. Later, however, it came out that the “execution” had been entirely faked - part of a cruel plan by the Czar to torture Dostoyevsky and his comrades.
It was an effective torture. Later two of the condemned prisoners went permanently insane.
Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, became a more devout Christ-follower and wrote his famous novels, Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamozov, two of the greatest works in all of literature.
Nevertheless, despite his devotion, Dostoyevsky readily admitted that doubts frequently crept in. And he’s not alone among devout followers of Jesus. For instance, an elderly woman, deeply troubled by doubts, once asked the great Reformer, Martin Luther, for advice.
Luther asked her, “Tell me, when you recite the creeds - do you believe them?”
“Yes, most certainly,” she answered.
“Then go in peace,” Luther responded, “you believe more and better than I do.”
In fact, belief and doubt always coexist in the heart of a believer. That’s because we’re never completely free of our natural, sin-filled, doubting Old Adam, nor of Satan’s whispering voice, nor the world’s skeptical cynicism. Our New Man, enlightened by the Holy Spirit working through word and sacrament, clings to Christ in faith. But the gut-wrenchingly honest and simultaneous truth is that our Old Adam is uncannily adept at dredging up doubts, suspicions, fears and misgivings. And life is really the constant wrestling of these two - Old Adam and New Man - for control of our hearts and minds. Luther once said that we are simultaneously “saints and sinners.” He might just as easily have said that we are simultaneously “beggars” and “billionaires” when it comes to faith.
Jesus once met a man who recognized this in himself. This man’s approach to the problem was both beautifully elegant and brutally honest; it was direct and simple: Admit, humbly, the truth of his doubt, and ask Jesus, humbly, for faith. And it began as a plea to rescue his son from demon possession:
“But if you can do anything,” he said, “take pity on us and help us."
" 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."
Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:22-24, NIV)
Humble honesty. And a humble plea.
Do believers doubt? Of course! But Jesus’ ability to grant faith is far greater than your lack of ability to believe. Don’t forget, he is the one described in the Bible as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV)
“Jesus, I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” When God gets “called into question” in your heart, there’s no better solution than that same simple confession of doubt and that same straightforward prayer for faith.