Even the Saints Had to Overcome Doubt

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

John 20:29

St. Thomas the Apostle may have received a bad rap: everyone remembers him for doubting the other Apostles’ excited report that they had seen the risen Lord (John 20:24-25), but we usually overlook his earlier willingness to die for Jesus (John 11:16) and his later missionary activity and his death as a martyr.

Indeed, far more important than Thomas’s initial difficulty in believing was his proclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) Moreover, Thomas’s doubts actually fulfilled God’s plan. St. Gregory the Great writes,

“Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? It was not by chance, but in God’s Providence. In a marvelous way, God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his Master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief. The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside, and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the Resurrection.”

 

Doubt is not a sin when it leads us to greater faith; an honest wrestling with the truth can result in a stronger, more mature commitment to Christ. Skepticism that is at least willing to be convinced allows God to do great things. We see this in the case of St. Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael. When his friend St. Philip spoke of Jesus of Nazareth as the One prophesied to come, Bartholomew wondered whether anything worthwhile could come from such an insignificant place as Nazareth. However, because he was “an Israelite indeed, in whom [was] no guile,” (John 1:47) Bartholomew was able to recognize and accept Jesus very quickly.

To recognize Jesus as Lord, however, does not immunize us from crises of faith. St. Jane Frances de Chantal suffered frequent doubts and temptations against the Faith late in life, but she remained cheerful and active; St. Thérèse of Lisieux responded to a similar situation with determination, crying out, “I will believe!” when tempted by disbelief.

It’s true that faith is a gift from God, but it must also be a choice on our part — and when we decide we do believe and act accordingly, even though it seems difficult or impossible (or even like so many empty words), we give great glory to the Lord.

Holy people are quite capable of experiencing doubts, and, because they’ve felt a deeper sense of God’s presence in the past, the loss of His consolations can seem all the more painful. The devout Italian priest St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, who died in 1968, described his spiritual sufferings in a letter to a fellow priest:

“Blasphemies cross my mind incessantly, and even more so false ideas, ideas of infidelity and unbelief. I feel my soul transfixed at every instant of my life; it kills me. . . . My faith is upheld only by a constant effort of my will against every kind of human persuasion. My faith is only the fruit of the continual effort that I exact of myself. And all of this, Father, is not something that happens a few times a day, but it is continuous. . . .”

Padre Pio had received many spiritual gifts, and his prayers were known to be particularly efficacious with God — yet the Lord allowed him to suffer intense doubts.

Even the Saints Had to Overcome Doubt
This article is from Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.

The path of holiness is often a rough one, many times lacking signs to reassure us of our direction, but God is with us in our journey, helping us every step of the way. He will work miracles on our behalf if necessary, but He often chooses instead to use other people — all the better to test our faith in Him.

It’s said that, a few days after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea near the Holy Land in 1237, Bl. Jordan of Saxony appeared in a dream to a young Carmelite monk who was plagued by doubts about his vocation and reassured him: “Fear not, brother. Everyone who serves Jesus Christ to the end will be saved.” Perseverance is necessary, but not always easy. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, had a sister who was herself committed to growing in holiness, but who suffered from doubts against the Faith. Responding to her request for advice in overcoming these temptations, he wrote, “Every morning and night say with fervor the Apostles’ Creed, and when such temptations come, say it again, and you will easily overcome them.” She followed this suggestion and found great assistance through it.

Faith isn’t just a feeling we have; it’s a decision we make. When we choose to believe in God, He will give us the means not only to persevere in our faith, but ultimately to make it deeper and stronger.

For Further Reflection

“The First Commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against the Faith: Voluntary doubt about the Faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the Faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated, doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2088

“In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on course.” — St. Boniface

“Faith opens the door to understanding; unbelief closes it.” — St. Augustine

Something You Might Try

St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us, “Faith is the foundation of love, on which love is built. But love is what brings faith to perfection. The more perfectly we love God, the more perfectly we believe in Him.” Therefore, if we have trouble making an act of faith in God, it’s all the more important that we make an act of love — by going out of our way to do a good deed, by doing a favor for someone we dislike or usually take for granted, or by any act of charity that we specifically do in Christ’s name.

Remember that God is with you. When St. Catherine of Siena was going through a long period of spiritual dryness and temptation, she cried out, “Where have You been, Lord? I have been having terrible thoughts and feelings.” She heard God answer her, “Catherine, I have been in your heart all this time. It was I who was giving you courage and strength to keep going each day!” God was with Catherine all the time — and, if you’re truly searching for Him, He will be with you.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

Fr. Joseph M. Esper

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Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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