Yesterday I posted a letter from a young adult who is struggling to regain some lost ground in faith. Your responses were wonderful, and today I’d like to sketch the answers that I outlined last week when I got the letter.
You asked me, brother, for advice, so I will give you some suggestions. Please don’t understand them as imperatives but as suggestions from someone who has walked some paths of doubt.
First, brother, thanks for breaching your silence, and I hope you can find someone with whom you can walk with you through this struggle. Faith can sometimes be lonely, but doubting all alone is utter loneliness. You need not be alone. Talking to God, even when you wonder if God is there or listening, is vital as much for the faithful as it is for the doubter.
But I have to begin with this observation: you will never go back to where you were and you will never be the same again and you will never get back to where things were. Instead, this season of doubt, which for some lasts months and for others years and even in some ways lingers for a lifetime, is with you and it changes you and your faith. There is a temptation to seek to go back and find your first feelings or your former way of doing things. That approach to encountering doubt teaches most us one one thing: that’s not the approach that “works.”
Instead, it is my advice for you to see that faith and doubt are not opposites but instead companions, with doubt a direct challenge or at times an assault on what you believe. Your faith will mature and develop because of encountering doubt, but it will be a new and more flexible form of faith itself.
You have now experienced what many today call “deconstruction.” Deconstruction bewilders, but provides an opportunity for reconstruction. That is, once the building has been dismantled, the new reconstruction will not be the same — but dismantling will give you the opportunity to begin all over again with an existential yearning for it all to make sense. This opportunity may be the most significant season in your life. I know when I was in seminary I struggled mightily with the nature of the faith but I came out chastened but stronger in that everything considered important had to be important in order to be included in the new construction.
How we conceive of what the Bible is strikes a chord with me. Some of us are nurtured into the faith through folks who are well-meaning but woefully mistaken about ancient history and the ancient world and about what the Bible really is saying and what it meant. If you keep your ear to the ground you will find many with a robust faith (accompanied by doubt at times) who find discovering what Genesis 1-2 or chps 1-11, or the exodus and entry into the Land, or Judges, or the prophet’s role in writing or even in the redactional slant of the Evangelists to be welcome relief to their doubts instead of an assault on the faith. Sure, these issues can disturb faith, but it can never wrong to pursue truth — regardless of where it might be found. If you can prove something that shifts our view of a text — as John Walton has done with Genesis 1 for instance — well, all to the good for all of us. You might be on that journey at times. You will find plenty of companions.
There will be a temptation for you to surround yourself with doubters, and I can surely understanding “like being with like,” but the only way we can really grow is to be around folks who disagree with us. So, find friends and companions who are themselves strong (right now) in their faith and “breathe in their faith.” A friend of mine, a former professor who went through some serious doubts at your age, told me he went to church and trusted in the faith of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ when his faith seemed non-existent.
One more point, and I hope this is not too much: I urge you to focus on Jesus. Sometimes our faith gets so spread out that we begin to think the date of the exodus is as important as Jesus’ teachings and his life and his death and his resurrection. Begin with Jesus and spread out from him. Listen to his teachings and watch him interact with others; observe his behaviors and drink in his death and his resurrection. Watch him send the Spirit to his followers on Pentecost. Those were not “fateful” days but “fate-filled” days: days, once experienced and given permission to shape us, can shape our fates as well.
Blessings and prayers from me and all of us at the Jesus Creed blog,