Hail Mary, Blessed Art Thou Among Skeptics
Very often, Christmas stories get lost in sentimentality. In reality, however, they have great potential for sharing redeeming, comforting truths that help in any season of the year. The following article is the first in our series which will feature stories connected to the Christmas narrative that have been or may be used to connect to the everyday questions, struggles, and faith of teenagers.
One of my favorite characters in the Bible is the Virgin Mary (hence the name of my baby girl, Mary Matthews). Very often, the honest, authentic, and skeptical nature of Mary is lost in Christmas sentimentality. Furthermore, Protestants are often quick to diminish the richness of this character out of overreaction to their disagreements of the Roman Catholic elevation of Mary.
Working from the text in Luke 1: 26-38, there are several ways in which Mary serves as a superb model and entry point for teenagers struggling with and doubting Christian faith. More than anything, examining the nuances and reality of Mary’s doubt serves as a comfort to students through the revelation that such a celebrated figure in Christianity did not accept the truths of God without questioning and wrestling.
1.) Mary questions whether things that come from God are good or bad.
When the angel appears to Mary to deliver a message from God, Luke says that she was “greatly troubled at the saying and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Although she knew the message came from God, Mary did not just assume that all circumstances or words that originate from God are good.
In reality, this is the deepest question with which teenage skeptics wrestle. At the bottom of their doubts- regardless of whether they identify themselves as an atheist or agnostic- they usually believe in a higher power or force at the very least. However, they question whether that “god” is personal and good. Mary, the mother of God, shares their same hesitations when the angel appears to her.
2.) Mary wrestled with questions about science and religion.
When the angel pronounced to Mary that she had conceived a child, she asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Given that Mary stands as perhaps the most celebrated and revered woman in Christianity (or any world religion for that matter), many teens may be surprised to see that she raised doubts about science and religion. She did not just assume, “Well, of course, the answer is that God will perform a miracle.” Mary raised the reasonable question that her conceiving a child defies the biological explanation of how women are impregnated, since she had never engaged in sexual intercourse. She needed help and reassurance from God to come to the point where she could believe that He could perform a miracle – and to believe that He was at work in the physical realm. What a comfort for teens to see that their struggle with questions over science and faith is not new, and that even the strongest of Christians experience it too.
3.) Mary came to faith in light of suffering.
So many teenagers resist embracing God because they have encountered trauma or have seen so much evil in the world. Many times, I hear teenagers say that they can never believe that there is a good God because they have seen and experienced so much suffering. Mary serves as an example of one who has experienced the worst and still maintains faith in God. Mary is a poor, disenfranchised woman who will become ostracized from Jewish society because she appears to have become pregnant outside of marriage – an act of severe shame in her culture. This forthcoming pregnancy has disrupted her life. Her family will have to flee and leave the country due to wicked leaders who want to slay her baby. Herod will murder all of the children in her hometown on account of her child’s special status as King of Kings. A suffering teenager, who really wants to believe but simply can’t, may find comfort and hope in seeing how much the matriarch of Christianity suffers and yet still embraces God.
4.) Mary’s faith comes from God, not effort.
Mary makes a significant leap from doubt to faith in the course of her conversation with the angel, Gabriel. She moves from doubting whether this is a good thing and questioning how she may become pregnant to saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her transition from doubt and questioning to humble obedience does not come through effort, self-talk, or technique. Mary’s faith grows from hearing the word from God and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary, not only in a way that impregnates her but also gives her an obedient, trusting heart. God does something in her heart to make that giant leap across this spiritual impasse.
After hours of conversation and reference to apologetics, I often come to the conclusion with a student that he or she needs to ease off of trying to generate faith and simply ask God to give them the faith they desire. At some point, we all come to a ledge where we have to say to God, “help me with my unbelief.” In walking alongside the skeptical student who is wrestling with faith, encouraging them to ask the Holy Spirit to “come upon them” in such a way that grants them faith is a pivotal step to take.