By Charlie Johnston
A few weeks ago someone forwarded to me a note from a young man who claimed to be tormented by his sudden lack of belief in God. He wanted proof of God’s existence – and asked for miraculous evidence, claiming he would then believe fully. I took it seriously, though there were some huge red flags poking up. Lately, I have been targeted by a certain type of backwoods preacher who has read a Chick Publication comic and think they are Biblical scholars and theologians. It doesn’t trouble me: I was weaned on such arrant nonsense, but it is a bit of an annoyance. Alas, my response did not satisfy the fellow at all. He demanded a magic show. But contemplating it, I think he did me a service, for reading it back, it touches on some issues that many here struggle with. It may be helpful, so below, I print my reply (most of it, anyway):
“I could go through the intellectual arguments. Way back in 1993 when I was doing radio in Chicago the national spokesman for the American Atheists called me and asked if we could do a debate on the existence of God on my radio show. We were friends, and I agreed. To his surprise, the show we did ended with him conceding that there was a rational basis for the existence of God and that it was reasonable for people to believe in Him. At 18, you may be deeply intellectual or you may not be quite as solid as you think you are. When someone is seriously intellectual, I suggest they study St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and deal with his arguments before making a decision. But that is very dense and difficult going for most. Instead, you might try Peter Kreeft’s marvelous Summa of the Summa, still requiring some advanced knowledge of logic and philosophy, but much more accessible to get through an introduction of the hard logic behind theology.
But I think you need something more immediate and visceral. Most people think that if they could only see, only be shown, that they would do. They are both wrong and have it exactly backwards. I know, I often thought the same way you and others do – but I had a huge advantage. I was being shown all my life. The first time I came to think maybe I was not as smart as I thought I was was with the abortion issue. It was a horrible thing…but in the 70s when it was first imposed as law on the country by the Supreme Court, I did not take it as seriously as I should have. In those days, there was no talk of a “woman’s right to choose.” Rather, the argument was that a fetus was an insensate blob of tissue – that there was no moral issue at all. I knew that scientific advances would ultimately destroy this argument…and I took the pro-abortion crowd at their word, that they really believed the fetus was an insensate blob of tissue. I naievely believed that once it was firmly established in scientific terms that the fetus is a distinct and individuated human from very early stages, they would step back from the abyss. I loved the growth of ultrasound technology in the late 70s, for I was certain this would be the end of abortion. By the mid-80s it had, indeed, destroyed the notion that the fetus was an insensate blob of tissue. By 1983, internal memos revealed that Planned Parenthood knew it had a major problem on its hands…that their entire argument was being obliterated. To my astonishment, rather than step back from the abyss once they knew it was a child, they toyed with different new arguments, finally settling in 1985 firmly on the argument that it was a “woman’s right.” It shook me badly.
Meantime, all my life I have been shown a coming “Storm” that would be the worst crisis in human history, brought on by our apostasy and reliance upon ourselves. It was terrible. But I argued for decades with God and the angel He sent to do most of my training that if they would just show everybody what they were showing me, there would be no need for a Storm: everyone would turn back from the evil we have let take over our lives. The priests who have guided me and I have laughed ruefully, for over the last decade, it has not taken a prophet to see what is happening in the world. The last few years, it is obviously upon us, and swirling fast. But a great mass of people have not repented at all, only doubled down on the behavior that has brought us to such a terrible border in history. I was wrong again. It has not made me shy about giving my opinion to God, but has made me much more docile to doing it as He lays out.
Now people think that if God would only show them, they would do. Making allowances for all the reports of miracles that turn out to be wishful thinking, there are some modern-day occurrences that are undeniable. The tilma on which the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe is found is one such. If you have not studied it, you should. Now almost 500 years old, the cactus fibers should have disintegrated before it was 40. There is no paint on the surface: rather, whatever forms the image seems to float above the surface. Our Lady’s eyes in the painting reflect the scene in the room where it first appeared when examined microscopically, which there was no technology for or even imagination on how to do such a thing 500 years ago. The Dance of the Sun and the miraculous immediate drying of everyone at the sixth appearance of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal on Oct. 13, 1917, was witnessed by tens of thousands of witnesses, at least 20% of which were atheists gathered to mock and government officials gathered to debunk this “nonsense.” Yet all testified, many in stunned wonder, that it happened.
Now you may argue that, okay, even if those are incontrovertibly miraculous, that is not the sort of miracle I seek. Understandable, but God is NOT a genie to be put through His paces by His creation. Personally, I am not a big fan of miracles at all. Not that I am against them, but that all the talk of them convinces so many people to play prosecuting attorney and demand that God stand in the docket to prove Himself before them. God is author of all things, the natural law by which He set things in motion here, but by which He is not bound. In the normal course of things, He expects us to act in accordance with the natural laws He created. The great French Naturalist, Emile Zola, once decided he was going to prove that Lourdes was a fraud. He took a young girl named Marie LeMarchand, whose face was ravaged by lupus, there to be bathed in its waters. It was just a stunt, that would have proved nothing.
Most who go to Lourdes are not physically healed, though do find an inner contentment. He took Marie to doctors to confirm how hopeless her condition was. Alas for Emile, Marie was one of the rare ones who was to be immediately and completely healed. He was both astonished and furious. He took her to all the doctors around the area, none of whom could give any natural cause for her sudden and complete remission. At one point, he angrily exclaimed that if everyone who came to Lourdes was healed he would still NEVER believe in a miracle. ON the way back to Paris, he maliciously told Marie he thought her uglier now than before she was healed. It was a difficult thing for him…the rest of his life and his writings were haunted by restless efforts to disprove or discount what he had seen.
The thing is, what God asks of us is very simple. He wants us to love one another, to care for each other. He wants us to do. It is a paradox, but I tell people they are wrong: they think if they saw they would do. The reality is that not until they do the very simple things we are asked can they have any hope of seeing – and that once they start doing, they will find real joy and worry less about seeing. We are far more fragile than people realize. I often think the main reason the heavenly host is cautious not to disturb us is that we are like a house made of ashes. The slightest puff could blow us away when confronted with the solid reality of eternity. I have only two people close to me who sought to be shown some things as I am and got their desire. Though I had warned them it was not what they thought – and incredibly intense – they persisted. Both were terrified when it came – and begged and prayed never to see things in that way again. One said that had it not stopped she might have committed suicide. They have both been content to do the little things they should and let angels act subtly around them, rather than reveal the reality that is too scorching for those who are not made to bear it.
But even though God is not a genie who will dance to the tune of earthly supplicants who demand it of Him, He will reveal Himself to those who humbly ask – and do. I am going to give you links at the bottom to three pieces from my website that may be helpful to you in exploring some of this. If after you have read them, you want clarification on something, I will respond. But I will close with this:
Back in the early to mid-90s I taught RCIA (basically catechism for adults) in a large Chicago-area parish. One year, we had a very dapper, smartly-dressed man in the class. Slightly built, he was in his 40s but had a certain dash and panache about him. He rarely spoke or asked questions, though. This led people to romanticize him, thinking he had some great secret. I was a popular instructor because I invited people to ask me or argue anything with me. I knew this stuff is hard…and people knew I wasn’t going to be shocked or offended by their honest, deep questions. One evening, this man asked to chat after class. We went outside to the parking lot in the cool of the evening. He was obviously nervous. Finally he told me that when he was very young, and then for a good part of his early adulthood, he had made his living as an itinerant revival preacher, doing tent shows all over the south. I chuckled and told him everyone had wondered about his secret – and now I knew. Quite earnestly, he told me that was NOT his secret. His secret was that though he had made a lot of money at it, he had never been sure there really was a God. He wanted to believe, but just did not know – and felt like such a hypocrite because of his past. I pondered, then asked him if I gave him a prayer he could say with complete sincerity, would he say it every day. His face lit up and he said he surely would. So what I tolkd him to pray was to ask, “God, if You are there at all, please show me.” Oh, he loved that. He was going to say it hundreds of times a day. I forbade him. Told him once was plenty if said with sincere humility, but not to say it more than three times a day…and just go about his business. He eagerly agreed. Several months went by. After the class Christmas Party, he pulled me aside again, his face aglow. All he said was, “Thank you.” He didn’t elaborate on what had happened and I didn’t ask for details. He knew.
It is in the doing, in the course of our everyday affairs that we begin to see. You are a young man. You do not need to make a definitive decision right now. There is joy to be had, life to be found in simply doing this: in all things, ask for God’s gentle, silent prompting. Then take the next right step and be a sign of hope to those around you. I assure you, in doing little things well, you will discover you have amassed great things along the way without even noticing. In being a sign of hope to those around you, you will find an unending source of hope for yourself. And now the three articles that I think may be useful for you:
What the Next Right Step Really Means
Into the Whirlwind
and one more…
For Those Who Grieve