‘God, why have you left me?’ What people of faith can do with doubt
“My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 CEB) This painful cry of Jesus from the cross pierces our souls. Many can relate to feeling abandoned, alone, and afraid.
A devastating diagnosis comes from the doctor. A spouse confesses an affair. You lose your job. A natural disaster destroys your house. "My God, my God, why have you left me?"
Hanging from the cross, Jesus felt it. As the divine Son of God, he knew better, but as a son of humanity, he felt abandoned, if only for a second, if solely on our behalf.
When we suffer, we also know better. Many of us can quote how “God works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28), but in the midst of our own dark night of the soul, we struggle to believe it applies to us.
In those moments, a statement made by a dad who brings his son to Jesus for healing may express it better. When Jesus asks the man if he has faith in Jesus’ ability, the father replies, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!” (Mark 9:24).
Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather a component of it. People of faith, even those with a strong, deep faith, have moments of doubt. Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, is known as a doubter because he had to see the resurrected Jesus with his own eyes before he would believe.
In Matthew's gospel, a group meets Jesus on a mountain following his resurrection. We read, “They worshipped him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17).
Peter, another disciple, has a moment of great faith when he steps out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus. When he notices the wind and the waves, however, he begins to doubt and starts to sink.
John Wesley’s doubt
As United Methodists, we often look to John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement for inspiration. Even this fearless evangelist experienced moments of doubt.
He chronicled one of those times in his journal during March 1738, just weeks before his Aldersgate experience. Wesley wrote, “I was…clearly convinced of unbelief… Immediately it struck into my mind, ‘Leave off preaching…’ I asked [Peter] Bohler whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered, ‘By no means… Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.’”
We may not have a pulpit from which we can “preach faith,” but each of us can “pray faith,” even when we are living through doubt and pain. When we study and pray we follow Jesus’ example from the cross.
In his time of deep physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, Jesus recited at least part of a prayer he had probably memorized many years before. “My God, my God, why have you left me?” is the first line of Psalm 22, a prayer written for times of anguish.
Someone who has been there
The Rev. Ronald Greer, director of the Pastoral Counseling Service of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, talks about Jesus’ cry from the cross. “The pain he felt in that moment was as real as it could be," he says. “That is a Christ who understands what it is like to be human, what it is like to be in agony, what it is like to be in a deep emotional crisis.”
Having someone who understands your pain is extremely helpful in times of struggle. Greer knows this as a counselor and as one who has suffered. Following the tragic death of their 2-year-old son, Greer and his wife shared their grief with their congregation. When he later wrote a book where he told his story to help others in pain, more people learned of his heartbreak.
As a result, Greer noticed something about those seeking him out for counseling.
“I see a radically disproportionate number of people going through grief, especially after the death of a child," he reports. Many of his clients have told him they specifically chose him because, “we wanted to talk with someone who has been there, because if you haven't been there you don't fully get it."
People may not always get it. Jesus does. He felt the grief, the pain, and the loneliness as he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”
Being with others who understand is therapeutic and gives us the opportunity to borrow their faith while we remain doubtful.
The gospels of Mark and Luke recount a story of Jesus healing a man lowered through the ceiling of the house where Jesus was teaching. Both authors include something notable. They write, “When Jesus saw their faith” he healed the man (Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20).
Jesus is impressed not with the singular faith of the man on the mat. It is instead the combined faith of the man and his friends that grabs Jesus’ attention.
When doubt comes, borrow another’s faith. Confess your struggle to one you trust and let their faith be enough. It may bring you to the feet of Jesus.
God is with you
Emmanuel is a messianic title applied to Jesus that we sing at Christmas then largely ignore the rest of the year. The word is Hebrew for “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Jesus, God incarnate, is the sign that God is with us even when we do not feel it.
In the hospital, courtroom, and funeral home, God is with us. In our fights, struggles, and sleepless nights, God is with us. In our faith and in our doubt, God is still with us.
“My God, my God, why have you left me?” People of faith experience periods of doubt. It is OK. Jesus has been there and he will walk with you through it.
Questions for reflection and discussion
- If you could ask God to clarify something with which you wrestle, what would you ask?
- Is doubt a sin? Can it be helpful?
The author states, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather a component of it.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
- How is praying through our doubt an act of faith? How might a prayer learned in childhood, read in the Bible, or found in another book, be helpful?
- Is it helpful to know that Jesus has “been there”? Why or why not? Does it help to know that Bible characters and Christian heroes have doubted? Why or why not?
- Research some of the Bible stories of those who have had doubts. With whom do you most relate?
- To whom will you turn the next time you experience doubt? Will you be able to borrow their faith?
- Why don’t we talk more about our doubt in church?
This story was originally posted March 27, 2015.