I have a confession: I am a Christian who doubts. My faith holds hands with big, challenging, often unanswerable questions.
I am a Christian who isn’t sure that everything happens for a reason or why God allows suffering.
I am a Christian who doesn’t think she believes in hell anymore.
I am a Christian who grew up in the evangelical Church, a pastor’s kid, an alumni of more living room Bible Studies than she can count- a christian who knew all the right answers from an early age.
I am a Christian who doesn’t see scripture as black and white as she used to.
I am a Christian who doesn’t know how to reconcile the hypocrisy and politics of the American Church with the teachings of Jesus.
I am a Christian who can’t always smile in quiet agreement with everything the pastor says- who sometimes wishes she could raise her hand during Church service.
I am a Christian who is hungry to occasionally hear from someone other than a middle aged white man speaking from the pulpit.
I am a Christian who is finally listening to LGBT voices instead of assuming I already know what they are going to say and that they’re wrong.
I am a Christian who has been comforted to discover a vast diversity of perspectives within her Christian faith, but disheartened by how so many of them claim, without an ounce of humility, that theirs is the denomination which hold a monopoly on truth.
I am a Christian who woke up to the concept that God might care about things like feminism, global warming, and the lives of animals. That he might value this world, this life, this creation- not just the one after death.
I am a Christian whose God seems to be growing into something more mysterious and less containable than before.
On most days, I feel really positive about the changes happening in my heart and mind which are reshaping my faith. But I am not immune to an old, ingrained sense of guilt that always seems to accompany doubt. It’s an effect, I think, of growing up in an American evangelical world, where its not always particularly safe to ask questions.
I rolled over in bed the other night and asked my husband, “Do you think its a bad thing, to have all of these questions?” After all, I had been taught most of the “right” answers- the ones I was suppose to automatically trust.
He said, “Answers don’t mean very much if you’ve never really asked the question. Keep wrestling.”
In College, the Bible Study I attended was pretty heavily influenced by John Piper. The girls watched his video sermons regularly and took a lot of cues from Desiring God.
Around my Junior year, Rob Bell published a book called Love Wins. In it, he challenged the current mainstream view of hell, which is that of eternal conscious torture after death for all who don’t believe in the Christian God.
Before Love Wins even hit bookstores, John Piper reacted to it by sending out a short tweet to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers.
“Farewell Rob Bell.” That was all it said.
That tweet was a clear message to all of us who followed Piper. Not only was Rob Bell wrong, he was asking dangerously wrong questions. The implication was clear: Do not doubt this doctrine. Do not believe the wrong thing. If you do, you’re out of the club. Period. Ironically, according to Piper, not believing in hell made you in danger of it.
We listened to Piper. We ditched the Nooma videos mocked Bell for trying to make the gospel more palatable, more fluffy, more mainstream. Not everyone could handle the bloody truth as well as we could, we figured.
Secretly, part of me wondered about the book. Part of me hoped, deep down, that he might be right- that there were room for mercy and uncertainty about this terrible fate everyone was so certain of.
But I kept that part of me silent, because I thought that to doubt what I had been taught would be “unchristian.”
Looking back, it seems obvious why my attempts at critical thinking, doubt, and questions were always met with discomfort by my fellow churchgoers. It makes sense why I was often handed a quick solution or explanation or apologetics book instead of being met with genuine consideration. Asking the wrong questions is dangerous because arriving at the wrong answer is heresy.
I’ve heard it said that there is no meaner person than a Christian who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong. Ain’t that the truth.
When the most important part of our faith becomes having the correct answers, war ensues over what those answers are. The comments section gets nasty. People call other people heretics. Hell-fire is threatened.
I have known a lot of people who, when someone disagrees with them, become agitated, nervous, and angry. Such reactions are usually just an imitation of confident strength, thinly veiling fundamental insecurity. It’s as if the wrong line of questioning might send the flimsy infrastructure of their worldview crashing down.
What does that kind of defensiveness say about our view of God? Is he not big enough to be questioned? Is he threatened by our doubts? Is he as offended and angered by people’s multiple perspectives as many of his followers seem to be?
Every once in a while, you get really lucky, and you find a book that speaks directly to what you’re going through. It walks you through the things you were feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. It is a gentle, steady voice that says: you are not crazy to feel this way. You are not alone in this. That’s what David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything recently did for me. (Plus, he quotes South Park, so I was obviously hooked.)
In it, he describes how his mental image of God evolved from a foreboding, pitiless, “Uncle Ben” character into a God who was big enough to welcome his questions.
“Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalog of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God- a collection of close encounters with the God who is present, somehow, in those very cries….and Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said.”
I’m starting to realize that God never intended us accept doctrinal truths like a suppository. When reasonable doubt arises in us, God does not ask us to dull our critical thinking or bury our rationality. He doesn’t want forced allegiance, he doesn’t want us to fake it.
Instead, we are invited to wrestle with God. After all, that’s the meaning of Israel- the meaning of the name of God’s chosen people. He who struggles with God.
We’re invited to think critically, because critical thinking reinforces truth and clears away untruths (which you should want cleared away.) If you refuse to think critically, you end up believing nonsense. You might even end up with a Creation Museum in Kentucky.
We’re allowed to ask big questions. We’re even allowed to arrive at different conclusions.
Because maybe having the right answers is not the point. Maybe being right is not as important as being kind. Maybe treating others the way you’d like to be treated is more important than correcting their theology.
The way to combat all of this hostility between people, I think, is simple humility.
When human beings talk about God, we are grappling with mysteries bigger than any of us can really comprehend. The Milky Way Galaxy alone is 100,000 light years wide. Your brain is only the space between your ears. It is a wise idea to have a little grace on one another as we navigate enormous concepts like meaning, truth, life, and God.
We all have something to say, we all have something to learn, and none of us has all the answers. Each of us is most certainly wrong about a great many things we think we know. It is a wise idea to remember that before we speak. Do not crush an opportunity to empathize with someone because you are unwilling to dignify their point of view.
David Dark says, “For the love of whatever peaceable kingdom you proclaim, come out of your isolated subculture and learn. Watch. Wait. At least every once in a while, practice your right to remain silent. Know when you don’t know. Have the wit and the human kindness to say so. Practice tact.”
As Christians, we are all called to the renewing of our minds. This “renewal” is not a one time event. There is no bold red line we cross at conversion, no moment where we once and for all change the way we think and act and live. Instead, we have to participate in a daily lifelong process of turning our hearts and minds over to Christ, in order that we may become more humble, more merciful, more just, less judgmental, less violent, less prideful.
Be sure of this: You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you firmly believe that you’ve already got it all figured out.
You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you are unwilling to listen to and learn from people who are different than you- people of other creeds and colors and communities.
You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind without the self awareness to admit when you are wrong; without the humility realize that you most certainly are wrong about a great many things you think you know.
So doubt. Struggle. Be honest, be open, and willing to learn. Be humble, no matter who you are or how much you think you know. Be patient with yourself and with others.
Wrestle with God. You are not called to anything less.
You can order The Sacredness of Questioning Everything here.