Doubting Faithfully

IMG_0623“Sometimes I wonder if people knew what I really thought and felt, if they would think I was a prodigal?... that I’m losing my faith.” The words fell out of my mouth quickly and awkwardly. I had waited many months to say them and felt an odd sensation at allowing their sudden presence in the room. I could not unsay them. They seemed fall with a thud in the heavy air and bring with them a shadow-- a shadow that had hung in my mind for quite some time. Across from me sat my professor, leaning in, head tilted, hands crossed. I searched his eyes for a response- did he think I was losing my faith?  

For a moment, the words hung in the silence, and he did not reply. I couldn’t read his expression, it seemed sad, intent, but not condemning. I looked down at the notebook I had brought with me. Inside it were neatly written questions, questions that had begun to haunt me several months before, and that had begun to quickly spill in the margins of my journal no matter how hard I tried to push them out. There were no more questions written out; I had asked (or perhaps ‘confessed’ is a better word) them all in that office hours appointment. I thought I had said all I needed to say, but then...

“I want to be a Christian. I want to have faith. I did not ask for these doubts, but they stay with me. I wish I could just put them to bed and move on with my life and faith.”

I suddenly felt an unwanted lump emerge in my throat.

The “cloud of unknowing” as Madelein L’Engle puts it came upon me one January day. I had a miserable and feverish cold and had just made myself tea. I had arrived back at school a bit early for a debate tournament. My cold was a nasty one accompanied by my childhood bane of asthma, which stole my voice. So, I stayed home from the tournament.

I remember sitting down, sniffing painfully, and suddenly feeling a cloud descend on me. The first feeling of doubt wasn’t really an articulated intellectual question, but rather a general feeling of estrangement from my beliefs. Recently in that year, I had encountered a situation that shook me up in what I believed about Christians. I saw Christians saying one thing, acting another way, which is not so uncommon, we are after all fallible humans. In this situation, however, what struck me was the profound dissonance between  what they said they believed, and how their actions seemed to deny that belief as a possibility. It raised an awareness in me; was I doing this too? Did what I believed-- and indeed who I believed in-- really mean something in my life? And further from that, did God care about the inconsistencies? Did He care about me? Who is God? Why didn't He speak to me?

It was like I had been swimming in a pool of what I had always believed, and I had gotten out for a moment, and observed the pool from the side.  It was cold there, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back in. I wondered if I had always assumed my swimming pool to be the Ocean when it really wasn’t.

That day began a journey of months of searching. Though I never stopped going, church became difficult. A new question would present itself at each reading of my Bible. My eyes were suddenly opened to a thousand unexamined presuppositions that I held. And always, there was the attending feeling of isolation, as though I had broken up with a best friend.

I had often heard people say to me “When people doubt, its because they’re being tempted to sin, and they don’t want to think there’s a God to hold them accountable.” This may be true for some, and certainly and easy out to seemingly constricting morals would be to deny the maker of the morals existed to begin with. But, for me, this was not true. I had no boyfriend I was tempted to compromise with. I didn’t have a secret addiction. In my truest heart of hearts, I did not want to give up on my faith. I simply wanted to know that it was big enough. I wanted to know it was not a faith made in my own image-- something that made me feel better but wasn’t really true.

One weekend, my mom came and visited me. We ate burgers on the pier, enjoyed the delightful ease of laughing with someone who really knows you, watched the sunset and then went for a walk on the beach. As we walked along the water, putting our toes in as the chilly waves licked the shore, I began to share with her some of my thoughts. She listened and held my arm. As we walked, the night snuck into the sky. In a rare occasion for the polluted skies of Los Angeles, stars began the freckle the darkness, and shine out optimistically. Our conversation paused for a moment, and we stood and watched and listened as the waves came steadily in.

“I once had many of those questions, too, Joy. And sometimes they come to me again. But in Jesus, I found some thing so big, so loving, and so true, that I hold onto him. He is big enough for your questions. He threw these stars into being, and He poured this ocean out on the earth like a cup of water. If you hold on, I know He’ll find you.” she said, with years of memories swimming in her eyes.

The waves crept over my cold feet. The Ocean beckoned me out. My doubt did not end there, but a new search began, the search for the Jesus of the Waves and Stars.

Something that truly helped me in that time, was reading the Gospels and the Psalms. In my time of doubt, I scoured my Bible for answers. Often, I did not find exact answers, but I found that my desires were echoed. In the Psalms I discovered that I was not alone. Before me, David and the psalmists had cried out to God, to know that He was there, that He cared about bringing justice, that He would speak and not be silent.

It was perhaps the Gospels that most profoundly effected me. In the Gospels, I encountered Jesus. As I read, there was a newness in the stories I had never experienced, and Jesus began to come to life from the page to me. He was strange, strong, and sometimes confusing. In His words, I found a deep down truth. I began to truly fall in love with Jesus... with his words, with his life, with his call to die.

It was somewhere in the midst of that process of that reaching, struggling, winning and losing battle to know the truth, that I found myself in the meeting with my professor, true words hanging in the air, silence unbroken. But finally, he broke it.

“They probably would think you were a prodigal.” he said, but his eyes told me that he did not think I was.

“Joy, doubt is never a good or happy thing. It is lonely and long. But doubt can be redeemed. In doubt, you go to the depths of yourself, but there you can find God. And if you find God there, your relationship with Him will be more deep and more strong than it could have been if you hadn't have doubted. You may never put your doubts completely to bed. But for me, I find that I cannot get past Jesus. He is my bedrock that I fall upon no matter how deeply I doubt. In Him, I find the reason that Paul said “I have counted it all loss to know Christ Jesus and to share in his sufferings.”

I swallowed and managed out a smile. He gave me a list of books that would help me explore some of my more intellectual doubts. We talked about life and church, and as I closed the door to his office. I breathed out, and felt that the cloud was beginning to lift. I think God found me again that day. And I found myself willing to dive back in, not to the small swimming pool of my neatly ordered faith, but to the vast and reaching ocean, the “reckless raging fury” of God and his Love.

Walking through that season, and continuing to walk through life, I learned that God and his truth are much more than the swimming pool I had made Him out to be. And in fact, I think my beliefs about him were constricting and wrong.  Through research and thought, I have come to be able to truly and strongly intellectually support my faith, but I find that is only a very small part of my faith. It is not that I have sealed the deal on doubts, but that I have found Christ worth holding on to.

I learned that Truth is not found in a neatly ordered set of propositions, but in the person of Christ. I have not resolved every question I’ve ever had, nor have given up on them. But what I did discover is that doubting can be an act of faith. A sacrifice we offer to God, humbly and with quietness of heart, waiting for him to speak. And He does speak. In my places of doubt, I discovered the God of the ocean and the stars, who is bigger than my doubts. I do not always understand Him, but I know that He is good.

"I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope.  My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning." Psalm 130