by Kelli Ra Anderson
My phone pinged and I looked down to the text message from my prayer group. My friend was in a tailspin. Her college age son had just come out of the agnostic closet. Too many questions with insufficient answers. He believed he could no longer call himself a Christian. My sister-friend, a life-long career in college ministry, was devastated. The painful irony was not lost on her: a woman who had led so many college kids to Christ felt she had failed to help her own son.
The truth is, I was once like her son in college. And again in my 30s. And 40s. And now even in my 50s I have experienced the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt. Questions and doubts have always been a part of my life. Raised in a small, fundamentalist church as a child, the tradition I now worship in is quite different. From low-church fundamentalism to the historical rhythms of liturgy, every step of the way from one side of the Christian spectrum to the other, was paved with questions, tears, fears, frustration, prayers, loss and gain.
As a parent of an adult daughter who also walked away from the faith of her childhood, I remember the lead-weight day she told us her hard truth. Too many questions with insufficient answers. She believed she could no longer call herself a Christian.
But I know something now I didn’t know then. What many call deconstruction I would argue is often a prelude to reconstruction.
Doubt is often part of a growth process that needles us to push back on ideas and teachings sometimes built on fill-in-the-gap suppositions, cultural assumptions and pat answers manufactured by our human insistence on answering every “Why.” But God is so much bigger and more strange than we allow. It is ultimately a good thing–albeit painful–that the bubbles of wrong theologies and pat answers burst when they are tested, lest our answers to every question lead to a god of our own making. A false image whose name we use in vain to demand lock-step assent to every belief we decide is Truth.
Doubt is not the end. It is just part of our journey. Paul urges us to put away childish things. To move beyond the easy pablum of spoon-fed absolutes toward the harder-to-sift stuff of bones, sinew and meat. The stuff of forgiveness. Unconditional love. Loving our enemies. Humility. These are some of the difficult-to-evaluate-and-tabulate characteristics of Christian life that are so challenging to discern, cultivate and swallow.
Scripture, I do believe, is God-breathed. (What might call “inerrant” in an effort to bolster theological distinctives.) God, to be sure, is inerrant. However, our ability to rightly discern and interpret scripture has never been without error. Christian history is littered with the deadly debris of theological distinctives-turned-dogma.
From crusades and inquisitions to the justification of slavery Christians have used theology to support harmful beliefs that, when questioned and dispelled (often at great personal cost), ultimately ushered in change for the good of all. People who doubt are often people who think. And people who think are people who help bring about change. When we get it wrong, of course, it is painful. (History is littered with plenty of those stories as well.) But when we get it right, we grow, and that growth often blesses many more than just ourselves. Change in the right direction–as God called Abraham to do–blesses the world.
God is not afraid of our questions or our doubts. I would argue that he even honors them.
For years I struggled to understand the book of Job. He suffers, and laments, yet without answers. Likewise, confronted with daily headlines of atrocity and suffering, personal and global, I have lamented. And doubted. And questioned. But Job, like Jacob after him, didn’t let go of God. He chose to cling to the God he did not understand and to contend with Him.
He is rewarded, as a result, not with simplistic answers but with a cosmic-sized Reality. Instead of giving Job correct doctrines, cosmic platitudes or divine understanding God, the I AM, gives Job Himself.
“I had only heard about you before,” Job marvels, “But now I have seen you with my own eyes and I take back everything I said.” For the first time, Job saw God. Job experienced and interacted with the Reality of God, and that was enough.
That, too, has become true for me. I have questioned and doubted many things ranging from God’s very existence to the problem of evil and suffering. At times, wading through doubt has felt like a series of deaths as, one by one, I loosen my grip on what feels comfortable, familiar and safe. Uncertainty is scary. But admitting “I don’t know,” can also free us from the tyranny of defending that which we were never meant to answer.
In the end, I am more persuaded than not by the arguments and “evidence” for God’s existence, Jesus’ historical reality, the likelihood of the resurrection, and the historical continuity and reliability of scriptures, to the degree that I choose to hope in Christ.
Many of my theological positions have shifted and changed from the most ridiculous (my childhood denomination was not the only church, as I was taught to believe), to the more controversial (Gehenna is not the same thing as the Greek, platonic idea of hell). I have begun to be less dismayed by what I do not understand, and more awed by how little I do.
Like Job who did not receive answers from God, but an encounter with the God who made Himself known, this is the one and ultimate hope I cling to: Jesus is the fullest expression of God. And in summing up the law and the prophets as loving God with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves, I believe a life lived with Him and love toward others is a life worth living. That, for me, has become enough.
Kelli is a long time journalist whose articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman and Focus on the Family. The author of two devotionals, Divine Duct Tape and Life on the Spectrum, and a regular contributor to several magazines, she enjoys veggie gardening, long prairie walks and tasting the world through travels in her kitchen. Kelli is married to her best friend, Adrian, of 32 years, and lives with her two young adult sons, John and David, an 80 lb. golden-doodle, 2 cats and 4 laying hens in the far western suburbs of Chicagoland. You can learn more about Kelli by visiting her website, Kellira.com.