Recently I was searching for something to watch and stumbled across Ken Burns’s documentary about the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin). Not knowing too much about these famous presidents, certainly nothing about their personal stories, I’ve given the series a whirl. At one point the story turns to FDR and goes a bit like this:
Wednesday afternoon, August 10, 1921, had been filled with the kind of activity for which the Roosevelts were famous. Franklin took Eleanor, James, and Elliot for a long sail and spotted a forest fire on one of the rocky islands. Once it was put out, he sailed home again, took everyone swimming at the family’s favorite pond two miles away, and insisted on racing his sons back to their cottage.
When he got back, he felt funny and a bit feverish. He looked at his mail for a while on the porch, then finally said, “I feel so funny that I’m going to go to bed.” He went upstairs to go to bed and never walked without help again.
“The next morning, when I swung out of bed my left leg flagged. I tried to persuade myself that the trouble with my leg was muscular, and it would disappear as I used it. It refused to work, and then the other. By the end of the third day, practically all the muscles from the chest down were involved,” reported FDR.
At first, no one knew what was wrong. Franklin shook with fever and suffered severe pain. His thumbs refused to work for a time so much so that he couldn’t sign his name. Eleanor did all she could to nurse him, administering a catheter when his bladder failed. She and his close adviser, Louis Howe, took turns massaging his limbs, despite the severe pain it caused.
Local physicians continue to be mystified. Franklin’s fever rose still higher. He became delirious, cried out. Momentarily lost his religious faith, couldn’t understand why God, who had favored him for so long, seem to have turned away.
A specialist from Boston finally made the right diagnosis: Infantile paralysis—Polio. A mysterious virus that attacked the central nervous system, randomly destroying muscles. In those days it was a little understood, greatly feared, illness that killed or crippled tens of thousands of people every summer, most of them children. FDR was only 39 years old.
Doubt serves as a channel; it throws us with force back on faith; it causes a yearning for the Word of promise.
Polio was not merely an invading virus; it was an invasion of fear. And it pushed FDR to a place of agonizing doubt, despair, and darkness, to a bewildered questioning of God himself. But notice that it was God whom he questioned, not his muscles, not the virus, not his children or his wife. His words rose to heaven.
Doubt always has a specific object: He doubted God. God consumed his thoughts, even while he doubted his connection to God and God's supervening, protective care. And this strangely means that doubt, not faith, is the path to relational knowledge.
Doubt serves as a channel; it throws us with force back on faith; it causes a yearning for the Word of promise. In his book, Proper Confidence, Lesslie Newbigin writes:
The faculty of doubt is essential. ... Rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relation between the two cannot be reversed. Knowing always begins with the opening of our minds and our senses [“awakening”] to the great reality which is around us and which sustains us, and it always depends on this from beginning to end. The capacity to doubt, to question what seems obvious, is a necessary element in our effort to know reality as it is, but its role is derivative and secondary. Rational doubt depends on faith. (25)
My study of doubt is quite fascinating: I’m learning how it calls to our attention the very need to live, and continue to live, by faith, and especially faith in what God has declared about us, namely, that in and through Christ he loves us and is well pleased (Matt 3:17).
The prayer of the late French priest, Michel Quoist, describes faith’s knowing on the far side of the doubt:
Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness? ...
Lord, once more you have made a desert around me, but this time it is different.
You are too great, you eclipse everything.
What I had cherished now seems trifling, and my desires melt like wax in the sun under the fire of your love.
Nothing matters to me,
Neither my comfort
Nor even my life.
I desire only you,
I want nothing but you. ...
Thank you, Lord, thank you!
Why me, why did you choose me?
Joy, joy, tears of joy.
This is the relational rhythm that doubt triggers; and we find it in so many of the psalms, especially those of personal lament.
Dr. Daniel Bush is author of Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians and Embracing God as Father: Christian Identity in the Family of God. You can follow Daniel Bush on Faithlife, where he shares devotionals, interviews and more. Interested in spiritual direction? Check out Dan's ministry at TLDynamics.com.