Do you believe in God? The answer will change your life

A man stands on the precipice of an underground forest deep within the cave of Son Doong in Vietnam. Like the light the floods the darkness of the cave, allowing life to spring up in even the darkest of environments, the light of God's love changes everything when it penetrates the human heart. (Dave Bunnell | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Editor's note: This is the first in a multi-part series exploring the fundamental questions Catholics face by virtue of their baptismal promises. Look for future installments in the weeks ahead.

What do you want to be when you grow up? What did the doctor say? Will you take the job? Will you marry me? 

Life’s critical questions place us at a crossroads. Our answers to these questions do much to direct our lives from that point forward.

Even among these critical questions, some are more important than others. This article is the first in a series of reflections on the most important questions any of us ever face. Our answers to these questions testify to what we believe about whether God exists, Who God is, and our identity as human persons. They express our conviction about good and evil, as well as the meaning and destiny of our lives.

The questions and answers to which I am referring are the baptismal promises. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a good time to begin reflecting on these promises, which we make at baptism and renew each year at Easter. The baptismal promises express our Catholic faith in its most essential form.

Although it is not the first question asked, I want to begin with the most fundamental question contained in the baptismal promises: Do you believe in God? Then we will look at the other questions in order.

Revisiting the crux of our faith

I doubt there are many avowed atheists reading this article. Why, then, is an article about belief in God relevant to us? Do calculus students go back to study arithmetic? Is there any value in professed Catholics going back to the most basic question of faith?

In a word, yes. There is tremendous value in revisiting even the most basic questions of faith from time to time. In fact, this question concerning our belief in God has lifelong relevance. It is one of those questions we answer once-for-all and must answer again and again every day of our lives. Our answer is like a fire, built once, but which needs to be renewed again and again so that it does not die down and become extinguished.

Do you believe in God? As with each of the questions contained in the baptismal promises, to answer “I do” to this question is to affirm something that many millions of people deny.

Do you believe in God? As with each of the questions contained in the baptismal promises, to answer “I do” to this question is to affirm something that many millions of people deny. Some deny the existence of God outright, while others say they do not know whether God exists and frequently give up on the possibility of discovering the answer to this question. 

Still, others profess their belief in the existence of God but live as practical atheists or agnostics. These people fix their attention on this life, on worldly relationships, desires, events and goals. They invest little of themselves in the promise of heaven and think little about God’s plan for their lives, though they would not go quite so far as to deny His existence.

To say that you believe in God is to say that there is more to reality than meets the eye ... or any of our senses, for that matter. To believe in God is to marvel at the sheer fact of existence, at the fact that there is something rather than nothing. 

”The Baptism of Christ” painted by Guido Reni, circa 1622. (Wikimedia Commons)

To believe in God is to recognize the beauty, goodness and order of this world and that such a creation must have a source and must be designed according to a plan that is beyond human conception.

Proof of God's existence

The Catholic Church teaches that by means of the gift of our human reason, we can know God’s existence. For centuries, the world’s greatest thinkers have recognized that beyond the created world there must be a Creator. Beyond the beauty, goodness and order of this world there must be One Who is all-beautiful, all-good and all-wise.

Traditionally, we have recognized two steps in what is called the “act of faith,” our profession of belief in God and all that we know to be true about Him. The first step is to establish that faith is reasonable. Often, we arrive at this step both by formulating proofs for the existence of God and by answering objections to the Catholic faith. We have already hinted at some of the most powerful proofs of God’s existence, which propose that the created universe cannot explain itself, but points to the existence of its Creator.

The most potent objection to God’s existence is to ask why there is evil in the world. There is in this life no completely satisfying answer to the problem of evil. And the best answer we have lies beyond the scope of the question we are currently considering. The suffering and death of the Son of God for our salvation provides the most perfect answer to the problem of evil, but we are not there yet. In the meantime, there are still helpful ways to address this objection. 

One way to address the problem of evil is to ask why we care in the first place. For example, we might ask, is not our hatred of evil a sign that goodness exists? Otherwise, to what would we be comparing that which we call “evil?” And is it not the case that the goodness we see around us  and even the goodness we wish we saw around us  can only be explained by the existence of the good God?

We only know evil to be an aberration because we first recognize goodness and order as the normal state of things, the way things “ought to be.” If that basic insight about creation is correct (and it is), then it points to the God Who created the world to be good and rational.

This kind of argumentation, applied to any of the objections against God’s existence, leads us to conclude that belief in God’s existence is reasonable. By “reasonable,” we mean that a rational person could accept the truth of God’s existence without prior faith.

We only know evil to be an aberration because we first recognize goodness and order as the normal state of things, the way things “ought to be.” If that basic insight about creation is correct (and it is), then it points to the God Who created the world to be good and rational.

The second step in the act of faith is more personal. It is to say, “I believe.” It is one thing to affirm that it is possible to believe something. It is another thing to pledge myself to belief in that something. 

Faith is not simply the outcome of a logical argument, as essential as such arguments are for preparing the way to faith. Faith is an act of the whole person. By faith, I not only say something is true, but invest myself in that truth. I become bound to that truth. I give myself over to it and allow it to shape my life from that point forward.

To say, “I believe in God,” is to become bound to God in a new way. It is to recognize the spiritual dimension of creation and of my life. It is to surrender my life to His plan, to see that I am not the origin of my life or the author of my life’s story.

Being bound to God is at the heart of our religion. In fact, the very word “religion” in its Latin root means “to bind.” The word “communion” has the same root-meaning. Here we begin to see, if only in outline form, the connections between faith and baptism, and between baptism and the holy Eucharist (received as “Holy Communion”). But now we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

The difference belief makes in our lives

I mentioned above that our belief in God is both a decision made once-for-all and a decision we must renew time and again. This is a challenge for us, but also a consolation. Reaffirming our faith in God is often just the medicine we need to heal the sickness of soul all of us face from time to time.

Recently, I heard a young man talk about a time when he was struggling with an illness that really had him down. As he was brooding about his troubles, the question occurred to him, “Do you believe in God?” 

In an instant, he realized that he was trying to face his troubles alone. He was thinking about his illness in a worldly way, and had forgotten God. He had not made any particular decision to ignore God as he slowly drifted away from his usual strong faith. But as soon as the question about belief in God entered his mind, he felt relief and a sense of peace in knowing God was with him and in control of his life. He simply needed to say “yes” to God and surrender to His will!

Perhaps an illustration will help show the difference belief in God makes for us. 

If by profession or hobby you are a speleologist, then you probably already know that Vietnam is home to the world’s largest cave, called Sơn Đoòng. Sơn Đoòng means “Mountain River Cave.” It is approximately nine kilometers long, its largest chamber is 200 meters high and 150 meters wide, and it contains stalagmites up to 70 meters tall. Having a lifelong aversion to the metric system, I just know that means the whole thing is “really big.”

The Sơn Đoòng cave of Tiếng Việt in Vietnam is the largest cave in the world. In one of its chambers, a subterranean forest thrives, thanks to a gaping hole where light has entered in. (Kênh14/Lelong | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feature of Sơn Đoòng is that one of its chambers houses a subterranean forest. In the case of this particular chamber, a huge section of the limestone roof has collapsed, allowing light to cascade two hundred meters from the ground-level opening, flooding the vast interior space below. The light makes it possible for life to emerge and thrive where otherwise all would be dark, dank and lifeless.

A few years ago, I watched a BBC video titled “Life from Light,” in which a speleologist with a heavy Scottish accent marveled at his experience exploring a cave characterized only by darkness, stone, and water, and then suddenly coming upon what he described as a “wonderland” of life and light. A variety of animals and plants exist in the forest, including trees up to 100 feet tall. The Scotsman concluded his description of the forest in a kind of reverie, exclaiming (for best results, imagine his Scottish accent), “It’s a thriving ecosystem here!” Another explorer with more than 35 years of spelunking experience described Sơn Đoòng by calling it “overwhelming” and saying it is “by far one of the most unique and unusual caves I have ever seen.”

Having once descended 1,200 feet underground into the Detroit Salt Mine, I can testify to the utter blackness that encompasses you when you leave all light behind. In the depths of a cave, it’s so dark that you would not dream of seeing your own hand held right in front of your face. To see light again is to see the world transformed, and, as we find in Sơn Đoòng, the gift of the sun’s light brings also the possibility of life, even a superabundance of life where before there was no life to be seen.

Like the light of Sơn Đoòng, belief in God, along with all the truths of the baptismal promises, is a “game-changer” of the most fundamental kind. Faith in God directs our minds to a new understanding of all things, visible and invisible, and expands our horizons beyond all imagining. Faith unlocks the door to a new perception of reality and of our own identity and destiny. And faith sets our feet on the path of life, which begins here on earth but leads to that place where true life is found with Him Who is our origin, our highest goal, and our supreme good.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.