If faith is the foundation on which a Christian life is built, doubt is all the things that threaten the stability of the building. Doubt is subsidence, wet rot, dry rot, storms and earthquakes.
And doubt affects everyone. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, declared in an interview last year that even he was affected by doubt and that he had a bit of an episode of it after the Paris terrorist attacks.
He’s an interesting man, Mr. Welby. Not your stereotypical clergyman at all. He was born into a well-to-do, well-connected family whose social circle included politicians and actors. But his parents were both alcoholics and the stability which most of us enjoyed was not there for him. However, he made it to adulthood and a successful, conventional career until his mid 30s, albeit a high-flying one as an executive in the oil industry.
But then, with perhaps his easiest and most rewarding years ahead of him, he felt a calling from God. He thought he was destined to be a priest. So he looked into it, spoke to some senior Anglican figures.
He was rejected. A bishop told him “There is no place for you in the Church of England.”
But that didn’t put him off. It seems to happen quite often, applicants being rejected, to put them in their place and show they can’t just waltz into a position of such trust and responsibility.
Justin Welby persevered and with the help of people who knew and vouched for him, he made it into the clergy. And he quickly climbed the ladder and eventually landed the top job.
Privileged background or not, in today’s parlance he is “a grounded person”. He didn’t float down to earth on a cloud and it wasn’t all handed to him on a plate. He has experienced life as a layman. He has lived in the real world. And he has needed his faith to see him through the tough times.
If occasionally doubt afflicts someone like him, it can attack us all.
As recounted two weeks ago, I came to Christianity through the Alpha Course, and there was a point quite late on when those of us who had stuck with it (some dropped out) came to the evening when the Holy Spirit is invited to come to us and put the seal on our growing faith. It affected some of us more than others, and one very down-to-earth guy got it big-time: trembling, utterly convinced and raring to go.
Yet a few weeks later he stopped coming to the meetings and told us through a friend that he had lost it and should no longer be considered part of the group. I don’t know what happened to him in the long term, but I never saw him again.
My own journey continued happily for a couple of years before life in general turned sour: financial problems, hostility at work and eventually unemployment.
I prayed and I waited, increasingly desperate, until one day my belief just faded away.
In spite of the overall gloom that surrounded me, I had met the woman who was to be my new wife, but she lived on the other side of the world and I needed to get my act together to make that work, too.
I moved to England and banged my head against the wall of a world that didn’t seem to want me anymore. No luck, no success, no hope. Down and down, adrift and directionless. Giving up on God hadn’t helped me any more than believing in him had, so I started moving back towards him. I went to church in this new town, and then I gave up on the town and the whole country and went home.
I found work in the end – not my kind of work, but something to do and a little money coming in. Working in a hotel bar, then a social club bar.
In my free time I got in the habit of going to sit in a church: a Roman Catholic church. I didn’t go to my own church; I wanted to be where no one knew me. I sat there and talked to God and I met the priest and talked to him about what I was going through and how I wanted to get back to where I had been spiritually. He encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. He didn’t try to recruit me for the Catholics. We’re all just branches of the same union anyway.
And it came back, my faith did, stronger than ever. I learned that life isn’t guaranteed to be easy, whatever you believe. But I would rather go through it with Jesus than without him.