I understand why I have heard church teachings that warn against the dangers of doubting God.
It is the scariest place I’ve ever been in my faith. When I’ve faced doubts about God, it feels like I’ve reached a fork in the road where all possible paths are dense with a thick fog, rendering me blind. It’s impossible to see a way back to the light.
And yet, down one path, though I cannot see a difference, I can hear signs of life.
First, the chirp of a bird, followed by the pitter patter of a small creature scurrying along the path. I think I hear the sound of flapping, like tiny wings learning to fly. I suppose that things can survive down this road, so I decide to take it. I am just as blind as I was before, but I’m holding onto a hope that there is something beautiful and unseen to be grasped soon enough. I take a shaky step forward down the path that I can hear.
I’ve encountered this scenario many times over the years, but the first was the most terrifying. At the time, I was employed by a church and charged with teaching its youth. I had done the same job the previous summer, and the words and emotion had flowed like water. It was beautiful, joyous, and I was confident. I had seen the Lord move. I was fulfilling my purpose.
But exactly one year later, I was floundering. I was standing at that fork in the road, facing murky paths forward made even more indistinguishable by the tears welling up in my eyes.
“How the hell do I teach people when I don’t even know what to say to myself? Doubt is shameful! How could I be halfway through earning a degree in religion, with now years of ministry experience and current teaching responsibilities, and also be unable to answer questions about what I believe and why?”
You see, I believed in God, but I was starting to ask questions about how good that God actually is. Was he violent? Did he see me as a object of wrath or his child? Okay fine, but how could it be both?
I believed in Jesus as the Son of God who died for me, but why did he have to die? Why was God so adamant about killing someone as punishment for sin? How could Jesus’s excruciating death on the cross satisfy a good and loving God who is in the business of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation? Bloody, brutal deaths are not the way that I reconcile with people who have hurt me. What kind of example is God setting? And if God was violent, why wasn’t Jesus?
You know, the simple stuff. . .
While carrying these heavy questions in my mind and my heart, I was also dealing with the shame that came from having doubts at all. In much of the teaching I’d been given, this was the ultimate sign of a faith falling apart.
Desiring God, the website formed through pastor and theologian John Piper, recently tweeted, “Doubt is slander against the Almighty. Jesus died to save you from doubt, not to make space for it.” Not only were doubts shameful, but they were slander! With this teaching out there, it is no wonder that my confidence in ministry and even my understanding of my identity in Christ were crippled by simply having these questions.
But, standing in the fog with choices before me, I wanted desperately to believe. I had experienced God, of this I was sure. I loved what I saw in Jesus—the Son of God chose to hang out with a hodgepodge group of lowly ragamuffins and really saw them, loved them, and healed them. I was not going to give up on faith in Jesus because I encountered some hard questions. At least, not yet. I had a lot more fight in me. I was going to step into this challenge, even though it might change me. Hadn’t I asked to be transformed? Despite the shame around my questions and doubt, I had also been taught that God was merciful. Maybe he would have mercy on me, too. I heard the whisper of life down one of the paths before me, and I knew I had to wrestle through the darkness in order to see the beauty I hoped would be ahead.
Wrestling is the perfect word to describe the next steps I took in the journey. It was physical, mental, emotional, and exhausting. I was both aided and forced into uncomfortable places of questioning because of my religion classes. One step in the journey involved checking out approximately 30 books from my college library about atonement theories. At that point, I was certain I would be walking away from this wrestling match with a limp.
And yet, there was hope. It wasn’t the right time for me to be teaching or leading yet. I didn’t have the words to describe my experience or to articulate to a serious audience all of the things I was learning about God. But I tried out some ideas in small, trustworthy circles. I took book recommendations. I leaned into the uncertainty, determined to put some pieces together.
I learned from Anne Lamott that “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
How much faith is required when we have certainty? Probably not too much. And yet, so much faith is required when trying to grasp even a small piece of the magnitude, love, and nature of our God. The only thing I am certain about is that I can’t see the whole picture of God, even if I tried with all of my might! I can’t possibly know it all or get it all right. So I guess questions, concerns, and even doubts are probably a lot more reasonable to expect in the journey of faith than I once thought. This helped me shed some of the shame about having doubts at all, and instead lean into my doubts as a way of growing in faith, believing that God would show up and illuminate enough for just the next step forward.
I learned from Derek Flood and Brian McLaren that God might not be violent at all, but rather that the non-violence we see in Jesus is the true nature of God.
Through their writing, I learned that Jesus is God’s fullest revelation to us of who He truly is. That Jesus came to show us God’s true nature because we the people were not getting it. We kept missing the really important parts. Maybe God kept thinking, “If I was there, I would find those people that no one is noticing, and I would give them a hug. I would treat them with honor and dignity. The people nobody wants to eat with? I would set a place for them at my table. The ones who can’t afford a meal? I’ll bring one to them. The ones who are vulnerable among them? I’ll be their shield. If they’re sick and suffering, I’ll bring healing. If they know who I really am and want to follow my ways, they’d be doing these things. They would walk around as people who are loved by their Creator and who recognize that all of these other people are loved by that same Creator, too.” But we weren’t getting it or doing those things. And still, God loved us a whole lot—enough to put skin on and come show us.
And in response, we killed him.
But somehow even that wasn’t enough to prevent God from loving us. He still wanted to lead us away from hate and sin and corruption and into freedom, grace, and understanding of his love. He returned, resurrected, and he found his friends, even though they had betrayed him. They ate together and were reconciled.
The most powerful example of God’s love was indeed the cross and the resurrection. That he would bear the shame and pain and rejection that we heaped on him, and that he who ordered the universe ordered that hate will. not. win. He returned, raised to life, and he did so in love for us.
Everything I understand about who God really, truly is, I understand through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That was the way God chose to show himself to us. And in learning these things, shaped by my questions and doubts and desire to understand and persisting through the challenge of it all, I can say that I am utterly in love with who God is. I want more and more of Him. Someone who lives that life, said those words, did those unbelievable deeds, who spent time with those people, who died in that way, and who came back and immediately found them . . . just simply yes. I’m so in. That God is good, gooder than good. Can I just sit at his feet and try to soak it all in?
But back to the point of this post: what is doubt and what do we do with it?
Here is something that one of the middle school girls in my small group shared with me recently when we were talking about this subject:
“It actually takes great faith to question God. It’s the faithful people who care enough about getting to know God that they are willing to step into the unknown and the doubt and fight to learn the truth about him, even when it’s hard.”
In response, I quietly hand over my diploma reading “Bachelor of Arts in Religion”. She earned it. And we resume eating our chips and salsa.
That is it. Everything I hope to communicate about what doubt has done for me straight from the mouth of a teenager for whom this is old news.
Because I thought my doubts meant I had nothing to offer the world.
But working through the doubts, sure that God had to be in there somewhere, has changed my beliefs, my faith, and illuminated my offering to the world.
If doubts are meant to be understood as the deepest disgrace to us and to God, then I think the verse would read, his power is made perfect in my strength, rather than his power is made perfect in my weakness.
Of course I am weak in grasping the entirety of who God is. But His power and his truth are revealed through my weakness. I’ll say, “God, this thing I learned about you is confusing. It doesn’t make sense. I do not understand. Are you really like that? Who are you for real, God?”
And in that moment, I’m back in the fog, unable to see the road ahead. But now, this is familiar to me. I won’t panic. I’m not in the wrong place.
Some holy thing tells me, “Stop moving.
Do you hear the rustling?
Do you hear the life just beyond the fog?”