There used to be an unspoken disturbance in the air surrounding American Christianity. Now, with the recent attitude that an unbelievable number of Christians carry finding its way to the surface, I can’t help but wonder where we went wrong. It seems that as Christians, we either stick our head in the sand and ignore the doubt that we encounter, or we are skeptical of the institution all together. I will be the first to admit that I am one of the latter…
I battle doubt every Sunday morning. My body feels physically weighed down by the thought of attending a service. I’m infuriated and saddened by the condemning comments made “for the gospel” on social media. My inner-rebel challenges any music, art, or film that carries a Christian label. And while I could view these responses as an act of righteous anger, I know that I’m not blameless in my approach. While I fight tooth and nail to not engage in an exclusive, mean-spirited faith, I know that I may consequently be turning my back on the body that I claim to be a part of.
Why are we so angry at the church? I suspect that maybe it’s because as we grew up, we weren’t allowed to doubt.
As believers, we often think the worst tragedy in life is someone who loses their faith. But I want to ask: Is that a greater tragedy than having a faith that is safe, empty, and lifeless? So many people walk around carrying crosses that are too big of a burden to bear alone, and when the task of belief overwhelms them, they are abandoned. So instead, we all walk around with these weights around our necks – experiences, thoughts, questions – and we pray that someday they’ll just go away and we can thrive in our faith again.
What happens when the weight doesn’t leave? Because more often than not…it doesn’t.
Is it wrong to grow up in a home built on unwavering faith in God? Absolutely not. I wonder, though, what would happen if we would engage with doubt the same way that we engage with faith. I wonder what would happen if we stop trying to snuff it out and “pray it away,” and instead, if we welcomed it into our faith as a valid factor that should be cared for and heard. I wonder, then, if it would not be a threat to belief, but a bridge between divine truth and human brokenness.
“And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrased, perhaps also protesting. But don't give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers--perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Often, faith is stronger in the context of doubt. At least, I know mine is. I grew up in a home where conversation was encouraged. Honesty was always the path to find our way back home, whether it was dressed with questions or with confidence. It was not the affirmation of my faith that encouraged me to dig deeper and find the truth that would lay the foundation of my life. Instead, it was doubt that ignited my faith and brought me back to truth.
We all have a different journey, so I cannot say for certain that everyone should structure their life in the same way. I do believe, however, that we should not be afraid of doubt or challenging our faith if that is where our journey takes us. Experiencing the human condition is such an integral part of belief. Wrestling with truth means we are engaging with it. We are conversing with it, learning about it, just as we converse and learn about another person.
What a lot of people don’t hear enough is that you don’t have to say the Christian answer. We’re so consumed with the fear of losing our way that we miss the opportunity to grow in the journey. Ignoring a condition does not ensure that we live without it.
Why are we angry with the church? Because often times, the expectations that are set up by the service program, the outreach projects, and the sermons we hear do not leave room for the human condition to work itself out. We’re skipping steps by cutting off the conversation and asking doubt to leave our holy place of worship, when in reality, no one escapes it. We’re angry because we need it, and yet we feel like we can’t have it in our inevitable state.
But doubt and faith are not only allowed to coexist, they should in many cases. If I paint a masterpiece in white on a white backdrop, it’s hard to define what I’m really seeing, just as it’s hard to define your faith when the experiences you have are required to be the same color. If, instead, I used a myriad of colors on a white backdrop, I could see the boundaries of each brush stroke. I could see the points at which shapes and lines intersect with the backdrop. In the same way, by allowing our multi-colored experiences on our faith-colored backdrop, we can begin to learn how they intersect, how the colors blend, and how belief functions as a living entity in the human story.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about faith, and honestly, it’s because I have a lot of anger and inner-conflict. I’ve watched Christians turn their backs on people because they are uncomfortable with anyone that has doubt, or doesn’t care to believe. I’ve lost all desire to participate in a congregational worship setting, which makes me question my own motives for attending in the first place. Regardless, I know that I don’t want this weight. I don’t want to carry it, and I don’t have to. I am constantly learning to respect my doubt, understand how it changes, and learn from it. Truth is, it’s more sustainable to live in the context than it is to live in the condemnation.
I am free, and even my doubt is a critical part of my freedom.