“Just as well your identity is in Christ.” – A Well Intentioned Friend
I’ve spoken previously on this blog about the intense degree of doubt that I have experienced at many points across the last four-ish years. The most distressing periods for me have regularly occurred over the summer period. Because I was working with Uni students up until recently, this was the time of year that things would dramatically slow down for me as students buried themselves in the exam mindset. Between mid-October and late-February I would have way too much time alone with my thoughts.
I would get completely tied up in knots as all the intellectual and spiritual things that I had chosen not to address across the year rose to the surface. Questions like: “is there a spiritual dimension to things, or is it just objective and material?”, “am I really a Christian, or am I just brainwashing myself?”, “is it really possible to live in celibacy?”, “what is my trust in the Bible actually founded on?”, “how, mechanically speaking, does Jesus’ death and resurrection have any impact on me?”
Michael Spencer once wrote…
“Bugs have always… well… bugged me. They bite me. Wasps hate me. Mosquitoes swarm around me. Gnats head for my ears and eyes like some bad remake of The Birds. […]
Is this right? I mean, even if there is a curse on creation, didn’t mosquitoes always drink blood? Aren’t they designed that way? So why would God make the little bloodsuckers? Why make wasps that sting? Why make me in such a way that bugs want to appropriate my body for their own purposes? […
It’s one of those thoughts that hit me a few dozen times a day. One of those thoughts that make me wonder if God is real, or if I am a fool to believe that God created and runs this universe of mosquitoes and gnats.”
I feel you Michael. Flies are annoying enough without having to swat away ponderings on their ontology. It’s this mindset that can make doubt so very tiring.
An atheist friend (he would probably prefer a different label though…) recently posed to me the question, “what if we all have the same things in our heads but we just organise them differently? I wonder if people ever truly change. I wonder if we’re all just shuffling and reshuffling the furniture.”
I think a lot of my scepticism traces along this line of questioning. What if we are building our own pillow forts of self-conception?
Then I wonder why is the furniture there? Who put it there? Is asking the question “why” just one item in the lounge room?
Without fail, over the last three years, I’ve entered the festive season enduring a depressive episode because I was totally unsure as to whether or not I would be a Christian in the new year.
Start to think about the implications that that could have. I would have to leave my ministry job. It would be a hard blow to all the people I had impacted as a ministry worker. The relationships I valued enormously in my Church, in my work, in my family, in my social circles would have to be reconfigured. I would have to build from the ground up what a meaningful life would look like. I would have to accept the disappointment of others, and my own sense of disappointment as everything I worked for came to nothing. I would have to grieve all the things I had left behind to live in line with my undone convictions.
What made this all so difficult was my frigid lack of motivation to talk to people about my inner life. I didn’t want to disclose my doubt to others because I didn’t want external influence. When you are worried that you only believe what you believe because of what has been instilled in you, the last thing you want is for others to advise you in your scepticism. Correct answers and well conducted pastoral care are no comfort to a mind that is unravelling.
I was isolated. I was stuck in debate with myself.
Here’s a short poem I wrote to describe episodes of depressed doubt…
I find myself weighed down by unknowing.
I feel my thoughts tumbling into cacophonous and inscrutable space.
I look up to see that the burden
under which I bend
it is the burden of absence.
It is a pain too blank to put ink to.
Audrey Assad sings about her own spiritual aridity…
How do I grieve what I can’t let go?
It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me
How do I mourn what I cannot know?
It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me
How do I keep what I cannot find?
I’m letting go, I’m letting go of You
How do I love what I left behind?
I’m letting go…
Jesus Christ, I don’t know what I am
Am I a lost little lamb or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Oh, my God, I don’t know what this was
Am I the child of Your love or just chaos unfolding?
“Just as well your identity is in Christ”
Except when salvific assurance feels restrictive – like the forced end to a conversation that needs to be had. Except when you no longer have a sense of identity to hang your beliefs on. Except when the celebration of Jesus’ birth reminds you that you’re not one of the faithful, joyful and triumphant gathering to adore Him. Except when you are the faithless, joyless and defeated coming in the hope that you missed some crucial piece of information. Except when prayer is a trigger for all the unresolved and complicated problems you can’t begin to solve.
I originally had a neat, upbeat ending written for this post. But I deleted that.
The reality is that neither faith nor doubt is neat. Faith and doubt tangle together and create complicated minds. I think we Christians can do a disservice to people’s felt experience when we jump in with our rehearsed advice and biblical facts. Let’s not pretend these fundamental features of being human are simple or easy to address.
Remember that Job’s friends were of no comfort to the man whose world was stripped back to sackcloth and ashes for no discernible reason. It took reckoning with the terrifying questions God shot down on a destitute soul to demonstrate the blessedness of an impoverished spirit.
I’m still an orthodox, Bible believing, Jesus dependant Christian. I will approach the incarnate Lord of All to worship and adore this Christmas. But doubt has become an indelible part of me, so I will also raise my hands in exasperation and confusion.
Questioning and praise, grief and joy, anger and love will inflect, colour and break my voice as I sing with everything my heart carries.