In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis records his psychological suffering in the wake of his wife’s death. In his scattered, grief-stricken account, he explores the tenuous nature of the human condition. Humans are contingent, fleeting, and vulnerable, living lives fraught with pain. In the face of his loss, Lewis—though perhaps the greatest apologist of the 20th century—has moments where he doubts a good God really exists. His pain insists that “all the prima facia evidence suggests exactly the opposite.”
Lewis’s account stands as a stark reminder that no one is immune to doubt.
For Christians, doubt is multifaceted in both its sources and its medicine. No amount of apologetic knowledge inoculated Lewis against doubt and grief. He knew the standard answers for the problems of evil and suffering—he wrote The Problem of Pain! But intellectual solutions weren’t what Lewis needed in those moments. His arguments hadn’t lost their rationality; they’d lost their emotional weight. In the face of his wife’s death, they now felt hollow.
What Lewis needed to reinvigorate his faith was not the robustness of theistic arguments—he’d already mastered those. He needed the ability to see again, to pay attention to the reasons that just months before had seemed convincing. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis recognizes the human need to attend. In words remarkably reminiscent of Romans 1, he writes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend.”
In our “disenchanted” modern world plagued by doubt, we need to discover practices that will help those who doubt attend to God and the spiritually charged world in which we live. How can we do that? Here are four ways.
1. Strive to be a non-anxious presence.
The Christian faith is world-altering in its scope and claims. As a result, when doubts crop up, it can feel like a person’s entire world is destabilized. Doubt generates fear and uncertainty, which can in turn lead to a more intense search for answers.
Of course, Christianity has a long tradition of critical inquiry we can explore with those in the pangs of doubt. Part of responding to doubt will often include exploring some of the arguments and evidences for Christianity. But if the quest to answer all our friends’ questions becomes a rationalistic pursuit of certainty, the search will soon be a massive, anxiety-ridden feedback loop with no clear way out. The frantic search for absolute proof to settle fear just feeds itself more doubts. This prescribes the wrong medicine to the kind of doubt Lewis was plagued by late in his life. And if your friend is suffering with something similar, this approach won’t help much. It could even make him more skeptical of the medicine.
Instead of allowing yourself to be drawn into the fear-induced frenzy, strive to be a non-anxious presence with the knowledge God is in control. Confidence in God’s sovereignty gives you the freedom to wander along with your friend’s thoughts, offering wisdom and counsel without feeling the need to relentlessly attack their doubts or exhaustively answer every question. There are of course times where you’ll need to dig in and explore certain questions together, but you also should help them attend to the world differently.
2. Participate in the sacred together.
The disenchantment of our modern world isn’t complete. There are moments of enchantment even the most ardent naturalists struggle to dismiss, times when the sacred leaves us longing for more. Even the most secular of cultures feel a deep need to recognize birth, death, and marriage as charged with deep significance.
There are moments of enchantment even the most ardent naturalists struggle to dismiss, times when the sacred leaves us longing for more.
Take any opportunity you can to walk into these enchanted moments with your friend. Hold a baby; reflect on the wonder and frailty of new life. Go to a wedding and attend to the significance of love. Celebrate a holiday. Reminisce about old times and even the fleeting nature of life. Reflect on wisdom and what it means to live well. For Lewis, death was an occasion for doubt, but in the Bible, the Teacher tells us to sit at a funeral (Eccl. 7:2). Perhaps this is because death breaks the illusion of this life’s permanency, and it confronts us with questions we don’t have answers for. It humbles us. If we allow it to, reflecting on the reality of death can focus our attention. Ultimately that’s a pathway through the doubt and disillusionment and into once again living an “enchanted” life.
3. Take walks together.
Our daily lives have been eroded by the acids of efficiency and productivity. In our society, we constantly feel the drive to hurry. Slowing down and taking a walk can open us up so we can attend again.
The Bible says the natural world cries out to us about God (Ps. 19:1–6). So take a walk with your friend. Enjoy the fresh air. Marvel at a waterfall. Wonder as you gaze upon a starry night. Attend to God’s majesty on display around you, and explain to your friend what you see.
In Lewis’s fictional work The Screwtape Letters, a demon who’s experienced in destroying human faith chastises his younger counterpart: “You allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. . . . How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?” Or as Augustine writes, “If sensuous beauty delights you, praise God for the beauty of corporeal things, and channel the love you feel for them onto their Maker.”
The modern, secular world runs on the assumption that nature is a brute reality to be manipulated. Like a spell cast on our eyes, this pernicious lie tricks us into seeing the world as flat, boring, and lifeless. Help your doubting friend to see the beauty in the world around you, and in so doing, the greater beauty of the One who made that world.
4. Invite them to corporate worship.
Sometimes when people experience doubt, they stop attending church. The worship that once felt comforting is now haunted with unsettling questions. It can seem more authentic to simply step away from the community of faith until the doubt goes away. But if we take Lewis’s concerns about attending to God seriously, we’ll invite our friends to worship with us even when they don’t believe.
Church won’t necessarily “fix” doubts; there aren’t any foolproof, three-step arguments your pastor can give to banish all skepticism. But the church is a hospital for sinners, and its corporate worship is an embodied medicine for our broken attention. The church has long believed that singing together, hearing the Bible preached, and receiving the sacraments each offer us embodied ways to attend to God that help our faith.
The church is a hospital for sinners, and its corporate worship is an embodied medicine for our broken attention.
Church isn’t a place to avoid when doubts come around; it’s a place that welcomes all sinners, regardless of how strong or weak their faith may be. Doubt can be brought into conversation with God as truly as faith can.
The writer of Psalm 44 had doubts about God’s faithfulness, but he spoke to God despite those doubts. Invite your friends to do the same. Make sure they feel welcome standing alongside you in worship, whether they can banish their doubts or not. Then, through attending to God in your worship, you may help them once again attend to God as well.