Part 2 of a 3 part series called “Certainty, Doubt, and the Invisible God.” You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.
Why would a good God allow us to struggle with doubt? This question lies at the heart of C.S. Lewis’ book Till We Have Faces, which retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis frames his story as the narrator Orual’s accusation against the gods for unfairly punishing her and her beloved sister, Psyche. Psyche had told Orual that she’d been chosen to live in a beautiful castle with a god as her husband. However, when Psyche brings Orual to this supposed castle, Orual sees nothing at all—it is invisible to her. Doubtful, Orual convinces Psyche to test the god by disobeying him. And as a result, Psyche is banished to wander the earth alone.
Years later, Orual comes across a small temple dedicated to Psyche, who has come to be viewed as a goddess by some. Orual hears the story that has arisen about her and her sister. In this version, Orual is portrayed as sabotaging Psyche out of envy, not disbelief in the unseen. Orual is furious. Below, she describes her anger at how the gods have told her story:
It was as if the gods themselves had first laughed, and then spat, in my face. So this was the shape the story had taken. You may say, the shape the gods had given it…That much; and wiped clean out the very meaning, the pith, the central knot, of the whole tale. Do I not do well to write a book against them, telling what they have kept hidden?…For if the true story had been like their story, no riddle would have been set me; there would have been no guessing and no guessing wrong. More than that, it’s a story belonging to a different world, a world in which the gods show themselves clearly and don’t torment men with glimpses, nor unveil to one what they hide from another, nor ask you to believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongue and fingers…
In such a world (is there such? it’s not ours, for certain) I would have walked aright. The gods themselves would have been able to find no fault in me. And now to tell my story as if I had had the very sight they had denied me…is it not as if you told a cripple’s story and never said he was lame, or told how a man betrayed a secret but never said it was after twenty hours of torture?
Why do the gods allow us to doubt? Orual’s answer: because they are not good, but cruel and capricious. They ask you to “believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongues and fingers” but tell your story as if you “had the very sight they had denied [you].” Orual’s bitter accusation haunted me after I first read it. She had voiced one my worst fears: that my God was somehow like her gods, one who hides and obscures himself and then judges us as if everything were easy.
The implications would be devastating. I knew my doubts weren’t free from the stain of sin. Still, I longed for God to understand that there are honest struggles that come with believing the invisible. I wanted to know that God had a reason for my unwanted doubts and that he was with me in my confusion. But if God was like Orual’s gods, there would be no room for nuance or sympathy—all my doubt would be treated as sinful, willful unbelief.
There are countless good reasons, I’m sure, why God allows his people to experience difficult seasons of doubt. Here is one I’ve found personally helpful—in his love and wisdom, God uses our doubts to teach us that the certainty of his Word is more sure than what we see.
In my previous article, we established a crucial difference between Orual’s view of the gods and the God of the Bible: namely, God has given us a path to certainty through the self-authenticating glory of his Word. But if God’s Word is so glorious and certain, we might ask, then why do we still struggle so much with doubt? Shouldn’t trusting the Bible be easy? I would argue that we experience doubt, even as Christians, because we encounter tension between the real certainty of God’s promises and the felt certainty of what we see—the greater the tension, the more intense the doubt we’re likely to feel.
Our deepest instinct is to trust what we see. From the moment we’re born, we rely on sight to make observations and recognize patterns. Over time, we form complex webs of beliefs about how the world works. To us, these beliefs are self-evident and certain. We rely on them without thinking twice. Faith, however, challenges our natural instincts. We arrive at certainty in Christ not through physical proof, but by beholding his beauty through eyes of faith. As his disciples, Jesus calls us to make decisions not based on what we see but on present and future promises found in his Word.
What we find all throughout Scripture is that God goes out of his way to pit faith and sight against each other. He actively and intentionally creates discrepancies between his promises and what we can see. Think of Abraham and Sarah who were promised a child when their bodies were old and dying. Or the Israelites who saw the fearsome Egyptian army approaching on one side and the Red Sea on the other. Think about Jesus who was crucified and buried before being raised on the third day. Or Paul who was called to preach the Gospel amidst constant persecution and suffering. In each case, God made his promises seem impossible according to sight.
Why does God do this? Living by sight is not necessarily a bad thing—it can help us make wise decisions and plan for the future. However, there is a close connection between living by sight and our sinful tendency toward self-sufficiency, pride, and idolatry. To live by sight alone is to live independent from God. It is to live as if God doesn’t exist and the physical is all that matters. When we live by sight alone, we look for happiness in earthly possessions. We base our confidence in our human abilities and plans.
The trouble is that even after we’ve come to faith in Christ, we still view sight as primary. Our instinct is still to trust what we see more than what God has told us. We know God alone provides lasting joy, but instead seek temporary earthly pleasures. We affirm God is sovereign and all-powerful, yet rely on our own strength to better ourselves and change our circumstances.
And so, God, in love, refines our faith through the fire. He places us in situations where we must cling to his Word even though everything we see tells us otherwise. He strips away our earthly joys and sources of confidence. He brings us to the end of ourselves, to a place of utter dependence, so that in our weakness, he might powerfully show us his grace (2 Cor 12:9).
God does this over and over again until we learn to trust him. It is an agonizing process, but it is the most loving gift God could give us. Dependence on sight feels sure but results only in disappointment. Dependence on God’s Word feels foolish at first but provides true safety and satisfaction. Through inward trials, God produces in us endurance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3-5). He molds us into a people who are recklessly courageous, generous, and loving because we know our God is greater than all we see.
To borrow the analogy from our first article, God doesn’t send storms of doubt to punish or destroy us but rather to teach us that Jesus cares for us in the storm and is sovereign over the storm (Mk 4:35-41). So that with that knowledge, we would be emboldened to walk on the waves with our Savior (Mt. 14:22-33).
At the end of Till We Have Faces, an aging Orual is finally able to bring her complaint before the gods. However, when she looks down to read the book she’s written, she sees it has been replaced by a much smaller book. This book is her real complaint, stripped of self-righteousness and pride. When she reads her true complaint, she realizes it is petty. She had felt so justified in her anger towards the gods, but she had loved Psyche selfishly just as the gods had said. The gods had known her better than she had known herself.
Having given her complaint, it is now Orual’s turn to be judged by the gods. On the day of Psyche’s banishment, Orual heard a voice from the heavens declare, “You too shall be Psyche.” Orual interpreted this as a word of judgment. Ever since that day, she had waited for their punishment. She would be a martyr, she thought with bitter satisfaction, her death would be evidence of their injustice. But now, before the gods, Orual learns that those words had been words of grace all along. Psyche’s banishment had been for the purpose of bringing Orual into the divine fold, that she too might be beloved and beautiful.
My journey with doubt is not unlike Orual’s, albeit with less bold rebellion and more fear. I couldn’t understand why God allowed unwanted doubt to persist in my life. I was afraid what it might say about his character—that he somehow couldn’t understand my doubt or that he would react to it with scorn and not mercy.
But like Orual, I have realized that God knows me better than I know myself and has all along. He knows when I am sincerely trying but struggling to believe. He also knows my sin—when I refuse faith and desperately cling to what I can see and control. God comforts me in my weakness and does surgery on my unbelief. In either case, he has the same loving goal in mind: that I would know the peace of resting on his promises.
When I cry out to God for help in my doubts, then, I have no need to fear I will encounter a cruel and capricious God. I can be confident I will be welcomed by my loving Father, whose very desire is that I would always humbly depend on him.
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