The Burden of Doubt

Sri Ramakrishna used to tell a parable about faith and doubt:

“Once a man was about to cross the sea. Bibhishana [a great devotee of the Divine incarnation Rama] wrote Rama’s name on a leaf, tied it in a corner of the man’s wearing-cloth, and said to him:

‘Don’t be afraid. Have faith and walk on the water. But look here – the moment you lose faith you will be drowned.’

The man was walking easily on the water. Suddenly he had an intense desire to see what was tied in his cloth. He opened it and found only a leaf with the name of Rama written on it.

’What is this?’ he thought. ‘Just the name of Rama!’

As soon as doubt entered his mind he sank under the water.” [1]


It is important for us to think deeply about the spiritual life. It is crucial that we work through our fears and our doubts about God. Only then should we give ourselves over to God. Only then should we commit ourselves to the spiritual life.

For some of us, however, doubt becomes a terrible burden. We want to believe in God but somehow we never can hold on to our faith. One moment we are happy in the ecstasy of Divine communion, but then the next moment doubt assails us and we question God’s very existence and curse the gullibility of those who do believe.

We are very sophisticated in our outlook on life, but we often hold on to a simplistic understanding of our relationship with God. We tend to see the relationship as a kind of business arrangement: “I will believe in you, if you prove yourself to me by fulfilling my wishes.”

The thwarting of our expectations throws us into confusion. Be it the failure of a project that we wanted to succeed or the death of someone that we hoped would be healed, we immediately react toward God with anger. We are enraged by the injustices in the world. We want to know how God can allow these terrible things to happen.

Can we know the Mind of the Almighty? Can we fathom the Lord’s infinite and eternal thoughts in our finite brains? Cam we discern which experiences a person needs to go through in his or her lifetime in order to progress in their spiritual evolution?

We refuse to relinquish our simplistic view of God’s part in our relationship, yet we are unable to have the same straightforward faith in God ourselves. We are like the man crossing the water with the sacred talisman, who cannot resist looking inside his cloth to see what it is that is keeping him afloat. Even when God generously bestows His spiritual gifts upon us, we are not content to rest in the miracle of Divine communion. Instead, we analyze the experience and take it apart until we have destroyed the very state of consciousness that is holding us up.

Rebbe Yosef Balach of Alask teaches that this is the meaning of the Talmudic passage (Brachot 35B): “Many did like Shimon Bar Yochai [a mystic in Talmudic times who spent many years meditating in a cave] but did not succeed.”

Externally, they acted like Shimon bar Yochai, but in their hearts they did not really give themselves over to God and trust in Him like Shimon Bar Yochi. Therefore, they did not succeed.

We feel that because we continue to doubt and question, we are somehow superior to the naive souls who accept the idealistic vision of the spiritual life. But in reality, we are simply too arrogant to let go of our pride and trust fully in God. If we continue in this way we will never find happiness, we will never find peace. It is time for us to accept the validity of the path that we have chosen. Serious spiritual seekers are not weak individuals that are unable to face reality. On the contrary, a person turns to the spiritual life because he has confronted the truth about this world – because he has seen through the illusion of material happiness.

Who is the fool? The individual who spends his time struggling with the meaning of life or the person who spends his life running after empty passing pleasures?

Who is wise? The person who understands that his life has been wasted unless he discovers his true Self or the person who doesn’t give a moment’s reflection to the purpose of his existence?

Who is realistic? The person who realizes that this life is just a blink of an eye in the eternity of time or the person that believes that his accomplishments will last forever?

Who is brave? The person who knows that his only refuge is to bind himself to that which is Infinite and Eternal or the person who insists that the only thing that exists is what he can touch and see?

We desperately want to trust in God, but we haven’t got the courage to take the leap of faith that is required. We live in constant fear of what other people will say about us – what other people will think of our choices in life. We are terrified of being caught “naked in the street.” But how will we feel when we stand naked before God and have to admit that our ego, our cowardice and our pride, kept us from fulfilling our purpose in life?

According to the Hasidic Master, Rebbe Yissaschar Baer of Zlotochov, this is the hidden meaning of the verse in the Torah (Deut. 5:5): “I stand between you and God.” It is the “I” that stands between God and us. It is our ego that blocks out our higher nature. It is our ego that keeps us from committing ourselves to the spiritual life. Even if we are doing mitzvot and learning Torah, until we can let go of our ego – our “I” – there will always be a barrier between the Lord and us.

Sincere doubt is a very important part of the spiritual life, but at a certain point it becomes an obstacle to our reaching God realization. When a devotee, because of his many doubts, expressed a lacklustre commitment to the spiritual life, Sri Ramakrishna sharply rebuked him:

“What will you gain by floating on the surface? Dive a little under the water. The gems lie deep under the water; so what is the good of throwing your arms and legs about on the surface? A real gem is heavy. It doesn’t float; it sinks to the bottom. To get the real gem you must dive deep.” [2]

We have been “floating on the surface” for years. We go through periods of faith, followed by subsequent periods of doubt and denial. The time has come for us to put aside all of our doubt and ambivalence. The moment has arrived for us to plunge wholeheartedly into the spiritual life and gather the pearls of high aspiration and perfect faith.

Copyright © 2007, by Yoel Glick

[[1]] ‘M’, The Gospel of Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda [[1]]
Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ‘M’, The Gospel of Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
  2. ‘M’, The Gospel of Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda