Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our four-part series on how to balance darkness and hope in fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.
Since the rebellion in the garden of Eden, our souls have longed for wrongs to be righted and life to be whole. Happy stories aren’t heaven on earth because they ignore our brokenness. One of the most challenging aspects of the human condition is when we fall into hardship, where we begin to question who we are and why God has seemingly forsaken us.
If we draw deep fault lines in our characters, our stories will become shadowy arenas where faith is put to the test. Readers need to know that doubt is a symptom of being human, but it’s not without cure.
Trials of faith are transformative, yet often fraught with pain. Glossing over these struggles strips reality of truth and hope, leaving only devastation. When a person is raging against the cruelty around her, she needs the reassurance that she isn’t alone.
How are we, as Christian storytellers, supposed to write about the doubt and despair that suffering stirs up? How do we show a character shaking her fist at God in a realistic but also redeeming way?
Lay the Foundation
Your character’s worldview is the hidden foundation of her identity, influencing her every thought, emotion, and choice. A trial of faith demolishes those beliefs through an onslaught of doubt and despair. The possibility of fallacy is scary for anyone because it imprints a question mark on everything they’ve valued prior to that moment.
A crisis of faith is inseparable from a character’s arc. At the beginning, characters act on a set of assumptions that are wrong. As the story progresses, their fears and problems gradually back them up against a wall where they have to determine whether they should stay on that side or climb over the top.
The object of our faith defines how we think. It can be as simple as faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, or as complex as faith in the resurrection of the dead. Dig into your character’s worldview and try to pinpoint one or two convictions that fuel her decisions and understanding of herself.
When the nation of Israel is sent into captivity, it upsets their confidence in God’s promise to King David that one of his sons would always sit on the throne. As God’s chosen people, they didn’t expect to be judged for their sin. Similarly, your story’s theme will become the framework for your characters’ worldviews. A trial of faith must attack an integral belief, bringing it into sharper focus. Like gravity, the footholds for a character’s worldview are usually imperceptible until they start to crumble.
To wage a compelling battle with doubt, you must first establish the foundation of your character’s faith. The movie Signs drops us into the aftermath of grief: Graham is a priest who abandoned his calling when his wife died. Each scene carries more weight as we learn who he used to be and the sense of purpose he lost when his faith in God shattered. Whether you reveal a character’s foundational faith in flashbacks, like in Signs, or straight from the first scene, his present crisis must be clearly tied to it to be meaningful.
Shake the Foundation
Once you’ve built foundational beliefs and themes into your story, set off an earthquake. Characters who openly question God’s goodness prove that trials can be endured and overcome.
As Christian storytellers, we shouldn’t shy away from these internal (and sometimes external) arguments. When we do, we imply that people of faith are infinitely calm and secure, which is impossible this side of heaven. Uncertainty is excruciating. If we flip a character’s world upside down, and he’s relatively unfazed, we’re cheapening his circumstances. A torrent of negative thoughts and emotions follow on the heels of pain. A part of the character’s identity has cracked, and we need to be courageous enough to let him respond naturally.
Some of the greatest people of faith cried out in protest as they faced bereavement and persecution. King David, while being chased by Saul, wrote raw psalm after raw psalm. C. S. Lewis, after cancer took his wife, poured out his heart in A Grief Observed. Job, upon watching his family, health, and possessions evaporate, regretted his birth. We believe hope can be found in the darkness, but anticipation of our future resurrection doesn’t ease our current struggles.
In Daeus’s article, he explained how to make suffering meaningful instead of arbitrary. When developing a story with a trial of faith, the specific ordeal your character undergoes will alter the doubts he grapples with. Even a small tragedy can be powerful if it harms something important to him. Don’t just throw disaster after disaster in his path. A crisis of faith is an event that triggers difficult questions aimed at his foundational beliefs.
In Signs, the sudden and senseless death of Graham’s wife pushes him to abandon his vocation as a priest. As the movie unfolds, he becomes more and more plagued with questions: Why did this happen to him? Why would God allow it? Does his suffering hold any purpose or hope?
If you fully understand your character’s worldview, you can discover the appropriate catalyst for his crisis of faith. What drives him? What does he take for granted? What catastrophe could pull his world apart? When Graham’s wife is killed, he can’t reconcile it with his belief that everything has a purpose, so his faith collapses.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Now that your character’s faith is wavering, the next step of his journey should lead him into pitch blackness. But no matter what storm comes to defy the truth, it will prevail.
In Signs, Graham’s dark night arrives with the aliens who threaten the rest of his family. A particularly poignant scene is when Graham tries to save his asthmatic son and says, “Don’t do this to me again. Not again. I hate you.” He’s not only railing against the invading aliens but also God Himself. If suffering lacks a reason, then he has countless reasons to despise God.
Every character has a Gethsemane, a place where they must confront deeply ingrained beliefs and the terrible possibility that they’ve been living a lie. Walk your characters through these valleys containing trials of endurance, abandonment, loss, or even a combination of the three.
Trial of Endurance
All of us have waited and waited and waited for a promise to be kept, our faith flickering more with each day that passes. In fiction, the effect is the same: a delay is a test. Not only must a character have faith in the outcome but also the perseverance to pursue it. The longer the lapse between the promise and the fulfillment, the easier doubt creeps in.
In the book of Genesis, a righteous man named Noah receives a revelation that God has chosen him to save a remnant of humanity from a worldwide flood. But what happens next? Noah builds his ark—and not a drop of water falls from the sky for almost one hundred years.
Another man named Abraham obeys God’s call to leave his homeland. He’s told that he’ll beget a son whose descendants can’t be numbered, but considering his age, that seems impossible. As time stretches on, he makes the mistake of attempting to find a “solution” to his wife’s barrenness. Ultimately, because the prophecy extends beyond his life span, he sees only a partial fulfillment of it in his son Isaac.
Every person, every character is living or working for an ideal. Begin by identifying that goal, even if it’s small. Next, imagine what could cause your character to become skeptical that her effort and pain is worthwhile. Writing stubborn characters who soldier through is easy. Depicting inner conflict is harder but far more compelling.
The most crucial moment in a trial of endurance is when the character must either give up or go on. The former tends to be more moving, but whatever you decide, resist the temptation to erase all of your character’s problems and insecurities in one sweep. You’ll suck the power out of the struggle. Her goal might never be obtained, but her choice to quit or continue will transform her—and speak to the audience.
Trial of Abandonment
Like a trial of endurance, abandonment convinces a character that she’s forgotten. As communal beings, separation from others damages our mental health. When we’re shunned and betrayed, we question our value. In the novel Hatchet and the movie Castaway, a series of horrific accidents isolate the main characters from civilization, forcing them to survive in hostile, uninhabited territory. The conditions are so dire that they contemplate escaping through suicide.
While hanging on the cross, even Christ Himself moaned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Nothing rattles faith like being alone. Jesus knew He would die and rise again, yet that didn’t reduce the agony of His Father turning His face away.
If you include a trial of abandonment in your story, first evaluate who your character is in relationship to her community. What ugly thoughts will surface once she’s bereft of distractions? Does she possess a strong enough will to counter those lies? Abandonment is a kind of death that causes a character to grieve in stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, searching, and, finally, acceptance. An effective trial of abandonment provokes a fundamental shift in your character’s psychology. Afterward she will not and cannot be who she was before.
Trial of Loss
As Christian storytellers, we must strive to represent the reality of losses that don’t make sense. Suffering may not be connected to a person’s actions at all, and the flavor of injustice is pungent. Our hearts crave reparation. Sadly, however, sometimes those pleas go unanswered.
The story of Job is disturbing because, despite the man’s righteousness, God allows Satan to destroy his household and health. Such suffering is unthinkable to many of us. Job bears it admirably, even when his three closest friends urge him to repent of the grave sin he must be harboring. Knowing that he’s innocent, he clings to God, yet demands an explanation. When God finally appears, He doesn’t explain Himself. He only reveals Himself.
Remember that a trial of loss must have a meaning, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. As Christians, we believe that brokenness is temporal—one day all will be restored. Rather than needlessly afflicting your character’s loved ones, security, and health, concentrate on the message you want to convey. Simple solutions and neat happy endings will fall flat after heartbreak. Loss can’t and shouldn’t be eliminated by the end of the story. Your goal is to guide readers through the night and toward the dawn of hope.
Hope Comes in the Morning
Depicting trials requires a firm grasp of our faith and awareness of how suffering challenges it. We must proceed with caution, because the line between doubt and despair is thin. Truth is unchanging no matter how many questions bombard it, and readers need to see its light after they wade through doubt alongside a character.
Hope is found in the patience of Simeon, who spent his life awaiting the Messiah. Hope is found beside Christ in the garden and on the cross, when the world spewed hatred at God and was redeemed. Hope is found in the death of Lazarus, who rotted in a tomb for four days before Christ resurrected him. And in Signs, Graham finds hope in the random facts that weave together to save his family.
A person who wrestles with doubt and despair isn’t losing hope—he’s fighting to find it. Suffering inevitably touches us all, and we can comfort readers with stories of characters who sink into doubt but don’t drown. Without hope, the suffering in life would be unbearable. Through sacrifice and grace, hope is born into our stories, turning suffering into something beautiful.
Return on Thursday as Gabrielle explains how to approach bittersweet endings. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. What trials of faith would you like to see more Christian storytellers depicting in fiction?
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.