It’s a well-known reality in the world of OCD that whatever can be doubted, will be doubted. Did you really turn off the iron? How do you know? Are you sure? Doubt is the ever-present fertilizer that keeps our anxieties growing. And for those of us with religious OCD, nothing more head-bangingly annoying than having unwanted doubts about God’s existence.
We believe God exists–really, we do.
In fact, we’ve read stacks upon stacks of apologetic books that give persuasive reasons for our faith. But the questions keep circling back, prodding us with the mind-numbing anthem of chronic doubt:
How do you know that ‘s true? What if it’s not like you think? Yes, those are good answers, but what about this…?
How can we understand the difference between unwanted doubts about God’s existence–which clearly have their source in the anxious mind of religious OCD–and the doubts of someone who is genuinely de-converting? Knowing the markers is not difficult. Let’s take a look together.
Dealing with Unwanted Doubts About God’s Existence
Doubting God’s existence, presence, power, love, and wisdom are fairly normal human experiences. After all, we are mortal beings who are invited into a relationship with an invisible deity. Historically, most people have left the wizards, priestesses, witches, shamans, and prophets to attempt such contact across the spiritual gulf. But the God of the Bible invites us to cross the gulf for ourselves, opening our hearts and minds to somehow comprehend and connect with an unseen spiritual Being.
Our source for knowing this unseen God is twofold. We learn of Him through the natural world, which contains the fingerprints of a loving and powerful God, and we learn of Him through His revealed Word, the Bible.
…because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,Romans 1:19-20
Romans 1 speaks to us about “general revelation,” the knowledge of God that is available to all human beings as we contemplate the great works of God in nature. Through an observation of the seasons, the world’s perfectly balanced ecosystems, the wonderful interactions of the animal kingdom, and the incredible mysteries of the natural world, people can recognize that there must be a higher power that has created our planet. This truth is available to all people, and it helps explain how even primitive, illiterate tribes understand that there is a “Great Spirit” or a “Creator.”
But beyond “general revelation,” we also have “special revelation.” This is the insertion of God’s greater truths into a specific time and historical context. First, such revelation came through the prophets of old–but then, through God’s Son Jesus Christ, who perfectly revealed the Father to a fallen world.
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…Hebrews 1:1-3
These two streams of truth are the predominant ways that we understand God’s existence: creation and revelation.
How to Know God Exists: Isaiah’s Evidence
Isaiah elaborates upon this truth when he describes how creation and predictive prophecy are two key evidences for knowing that God is who He says He is.
For thus says the Lord,Isaiah 45:18
Who created the heavens,
Who is God,
Who formed the earth and made it,
Who has established it,
Who did not create it in vain,
Who formed it to be inhabited:
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
God claims He is God because He has created the earth. Who else can do that? (So far, human beings haven’t even done a good job taking CARE of the earth, much less creating something of our own.)
But the second reason God is God is because He can predict the future.
Remember the former things of old,Isaiah 46:9-10
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things that are not yet done,
Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
And I will do all My pleasure,’
Predictive prophecy–the type found in books like Daniel and Revelation, or the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament–helps us recognize that a document like the Bible must come from a divine source. Even our best weather predicting software can only tell us what the sky will do a few days in advance–and even then, not with certainty. But God’s Word predicted events hundreds and even thousands of years ahead of time.
This helps us recognize the touch of a supernatural hand in the pages of Scripture. God is God, because He creates, and He reveals the future.
Yes, but…I Already Know This
Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “Yes, I know. I’ve already read this.” And maybe you believe it with all your heart and your soul. But somehow, the doubts keep circling back, nagging you with a persistent feeling of uncertainty. You’re plagued by unwanted doubts about God’s existence that you can’t get rid of, no matter how hard you try.
Friend, this is a good indicator of religious OCD. And I’ll tell you why.
A truly de-converting person, someone who is on a one-way trip away from Christianity, is not having the same experience as you.
A de-converting person will generally experience a period of intense research and heart-searching. They will encounter doubts about God’s existence that resonate with them and “feel good.” Such doubts feel liberating, welcome, and satisfying. At the same time, the person feels torn. Walking away from God means an upending of an entire set of values they’ve lived by their whole life. It means parting with a faith community that may have given them a sense of belonging. It means disappointing people they love and respect. It’s not an easy decision, but eventually, they make their choice.
Once the de-converting person makes their choice, they generally stick with it. There is no back-and-forth. After the difficult and intellectually straining period in which they reexamine their beliefs, they just move forward.
Typically, there will be a climactic point when they “come out” to family and friends as an atheist or agnostic or non-believer. And that’s that.
They move on and live life.
This pattern is extremely different from the person with religious OCD who is having unwanted doubts about God’s existence. We find these doubtful thoughts distressing, unwelcome, and terrifying. We fear the meaning of such thoughts, and we work hard to answer the questions that continue to arise. But there is always, always, another question.
Just like there will always be another pencil to line up, another doorknob to check, and another germ to wash off your hands. OCD doesn’t care about the content. It just wants to keep you busy checking, circling, and obsessing.
The person with OCD might feel like they’ve “chosen” to disbelieve in God in their weak moments of mental struggle–but 10 times out of 10, they’ll circle back a few hours or a few days later, horrified by the fact that they even thought such a thing.
It’s never permanent.
The only permanence is the constant struggle, the endless looping obsessions, and the anguish that fills our hearts.
How Much of God Can Be Known?
I’ll be honest with you. I have my doubts about God’s existence fairly regularly. Not every day, and not every month, but sometimes when I encounter difficult Bible passages or incomprehensible life circumstances, I question whether God is real. Sometimes I’ll get the thought just out of the blue, without any real trigger. But nowadays, I have a better idea of what to do with unwanted doubts about God’s existence.
A decade ago, when I was lost in the pit of undiagnosed religious OCD, I would lock myself in my room for 8 hours at a time to listen to philosophical lectures in favor of God’s existence. I would pray anxiously for God to forgive me for these awful thoughts. I would try to rein my mind up to a high pitch of absolute, unquestioning faith that never even smelled a whiff of doubt.
It never worked. Those pesky, unwanted doubts about God’s existence would just keep returning at life’s most random moments. So let me share the perspective that has helped me move forward.
Coexisting with Doubts About God’s Existence
I almost hesitate to write my private, inner thoughts in such a public forum, knowing how easily it could be misunderstood if seen by the wrong person. But I write for the OCD recovery community, and I know this audience will understand what I’m about to say–quite possibly in a very immediate and visceral way.
I have learned to coexist with spiritual unknowns in what I believe is a healthy and realistic way. This includes any uncertainties that arise about the existence of God.
Here’s the part that might sound like heresy to someone who has never tried to cope with the chronic doubt of this very pernicious anxiety disorder: I don’t know with absolute certainty that God exists. But I believe He does, and I live my life with heartfelt commitment to Him.
Paul wrote that “we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Knowledge is partial and incomplete. Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: it’s not possible to fit God into a test tube and run quantitative experiments on His ontological being. We cannot touch what is intangible; we cannot see what is invisible.
And isn’t that the whole point of faith? To believe in that which is only shadowy and partially revealed? If it is fully revealed, would it not be sight, not faith?
When God showed Himself to Moses, the people were so flabbergasted by the glory shining in Moses’ face that they asked him to veil himself. They couldn’t even bear the reflected glory of God.
What would we actually do if we stood face to face with God? Would we ask Him to sit tight for a few minutes so that we could snap some photos? Would we ask Him to give a quick blood sample so that we could prove our encounter wasn’t hallucinatory? How much evidence would God have to give for our craving for certainty to be satisfied?
At some point, I began to realize that my knowledge of God can never be absolute, but it can be sufficient.
I can know enough to make an informed choice to follow Him. There is sufficient evidence in His Word, and in the created world, to convince me of the existence of the Creator.
I don’t like that word. I generally don’t use it at all in reference to God’s existence. Because I don’t think it’s possible to prove, conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God either exists or doesn’t exist.
And I think God made it that way on purpose.
He has never fully removed the possibility of doubt. This is because our faith must rest upon evidence, not demonstrations and proofs. Otherwise we will be constantly demanding signs and miracles and fancy new philosophical arguments to tickle our ears.
But God is not like that. He gave us the rock solid Word, which gives us sufficient evidence upon which to base our faith. It does not answer all our questions. It does not explain Him or His existence in totality. But it gives us enough.
Believing and Doubting
Once, when I was speaking with an agnostic family member, I tried explaining my point of view on God’s existence. I recalled how atheists take the stance that God most certainly doesn’t exist, and that this point can be proven, whereas agnostics believe it’s not possible to completely prove God’s existence one way or the other. However, the agnostic’s lack of closure leads them to make value commitments suggesting that God isn’t real and has no moral claims upon their lives.
I probably wouldn’t use this phrase again because of how easy it is to misunderstand, but I share it with you for the sake of making my point. I told my family member that I see myself as a “Christian agnostic.”
I explained that I, too, believe it’s not possible to prove God’s existence with 100% absolute scientific certainty. I base my beliefs on the evidences of God’s Word, the rational explanations that emerge from an orderly created universe, and my own personal experience with an unseen God. These evidences make me cast my loyalty on the side of believing God exists. Even though I cannot put God in a test tube to prove His existence, I have sufficient evidence by which to make life-altering faith commitments.
(I was overheard by a Christian family member and very badly misunderstood. Oh me, the heretic!)
But while it might not be the choicest title–a “Christian agnostic”–I think you get the point I’m trying to make.
Anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty will have to tell themselves it’s not possible (nor biblically required) to “prove” God’s existence. We are simply called to believe, and to live in such a way that our beliefs impact our moral compass and decision making.
For me, this mindset freed me from the oppressive and never-ending urge to prove that God is real. And I believe this “letting go” is biblical.
We are called to “prove” God’s will, but not His existence (Romans 12:2). We “try” or test His character of faithfulness when we trust Him with our tithes and offerings (Malachi 3:10). We are instructed to “test all things” that relate to morals and doctrines (1 Thessalonians 5:21). And we see that God is proving us (Psalm 26:2).
But yet, God Himself is “unsearchable.” His ways and judgments are unsearchable (Romans 11:33). His understanding is unsearchable (Isaiah 40:28). His mighty acts are unsearchable (Job 5:9). His greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3). His glorious motives in the plan of salvation are unsearchable (Ephesians 3:8).
This is why we must stop trying to prove and simply learn to trust.
Unwanted Doubts About God’s Existence: Concluding Thoughts
Some days I have crystal-clear clarity about God. On those days, I am deeply committed to following Him.
Other days, my view of God is murky and distressed. I lack certainty. But on those days, I am also deeply committed to following Him.
If you, like me, have struggled with unwanted doubts about God’s existence, perhaps it would do you well to strive less and trust more. Let yourself become comfortable with the fact that Christians don’t always have clarity, even about some of life’s most important things.
But mental clarity doesn’t need to affect our core spiritual commitments.
You do not have absolute proof–but you do have sufficient evidence upon which to base your faith. Learn to be grateful for this. Learn to detach from your cravings for philosophical ear-ticklings. They will never fully satisfy–especially if you have an anxiety disorder like OCD.
I believe God is real. Some days I get unwanted doubts about God’s existence, but I move forward without letting that bother me. I no longer lock myself in my room to expunge the doubts through hours and hours of research. I embrace the fact that I’m walking, blindfolded, on a tightrope, holding the hand of a God I cannot see. I stake everything in my life on the hand I feel but cannot fully explain.
For me, it’s enough.
What about for you?