What happens when a Christian woman questions one area of her faith, or doubts one aspect of what she has always been taught to believe?
It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? One question leads to another, one doubt brings to mind others, and she is suddenly in danger of her whole belief system coming unraveled.
Rachel Held Evans recently posed this scenario—drawn from her own Christian walk—at a talk given to students at Eastern University entitled, “Living the Questions.” How we understand our faith and how we explain it to other people changes with the seasons of our lives, Rachel told us.
|Rachel Held Evans, speaking at Eastern University in October 2015|
But for a long time, she didn’t know those kinds of changes were allowed.
For Rachel, the questions began in her years at a Christian middle school. She was always taught that anyone not coming to God through a belief in salvation through Jesus Christ was going to hell.
And then for English class, she read The Diary of Anne Frank.
She was so moved by this young girl’s story, and could not imagine that the God of her faith was going to treat Anne even more horrifically than the way she was treated during the Holocaust.
The questions resurfaced in her years at a Christian university, where she was told that all Muslims were going to hell.
At one point on the news, however, she saw footage of the stadium execution of a Muslim woman charged with adultery. And again, moved by her story, Rachel could not imagine God subjecting this woman to an even greater punishment than she faced under the horrors of the Taliban, simply because she was born into and raised in the Muslim faith.
Rachel could no longer shove down the questions, could no longer hold so tightly to the faith she had been delivered as a child. In spite of the “Best Christian Attitude Award” she won for three years in a row as a young girl, Rachel came to see doubt as better than its alternative—a Zombie-faith, as she calls it, a checked-out faith, an ongoing fear that her faith wasn’t strong enough to handle tough questions.
In Rachel’s mind, it’s 100% worth it to risk that slippery slope, in order to live with a tried and tested faith. She proudly calls herself a “doubt-filled believer.” As she told us in her message, “If there was a guarantee, then it wouldn’t be faith. That’s part of the deal.”
For Rachel, she indeed found herself on that dreaded slippery slope, but for her, it led right to Jesus. She vows to keep her head and heart fully engaged in her faith, and to do that, she told us that she made friends with her doubt; her doubt has actually become a part of her faith.
She characterized a dangerous doubt as being the kind of doubt that would lead us to stop obeying—to stop doing the things that Jesus teaches us to do, such as caring for others and praying for our enemies.
|Rachel, far right, listening to the introduction to her talk|
Faith isn’t about getting everything right and having perfect doctrine, Rachel says. Faith is about following Jesus in spite of our doubts. She spoke of the importance of routine for preserving her faith. She prays, she goes to church, she continues in these practices of her faith, even when she is going through a particularly intense period of questioning or doubting.
Hearing Rachel's talk made me consider the role of doubt and questioning in my own faith journey.
We can easily move through life in a state of doubt if that is our personal disposition. We can doubt that the actions of the people around us are done with positive intentions. We can doubt that our efforts to serve in our communities will make any real difference. We can doubt that our efforts to be good role models to the young people around us will influence them in any way.
For me, doubt is a negative state of mind that would leave me pretty miserable day-to-day if that was the way I chose to live my life.
If I choose to go through life doubting that God exists, doubting that God really cares about me, doubting that God hears my prayers or that my prayers make any real difference, then I can pretty well guarantee that my faith will not just unravel, but that my whole spirit will shrivel away in exhaustion and distress.
I have a very different view of questioning, however.
For me, questions are the driving force behind learning, behind increasing my knowledge and deepening my understanding of any topic or person. If I re-frame my doubts as questions, then I am on a life-giving, faith-strengthening path: Where do I see God at work in my life and my world today, helping to support my faith in His existence and His concern for me? How can I strengthen my prayer life and engage in daily communication with God? How can I listen for God’s “voice” in my life, perceiving the ways He communicates right back to me?
If I choose to go through life asking questions about my faith journey and my religious traditions, then I can pretty well guarantee that my faith will not just hold together, but that my whole spirit will strengthen and flourish.
God tell us in the Book of Jeremiah, “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (33:3). And Jesus Himself tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7). James writes to Jewish believers living in Gentile communities outside of Palestine: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). God’s Word supports a questioning Christian, one who calls out to God, one who asks for wisdom, and one who remains open to the “great and unsearchable things” that God would then reveal.
The Psalms are filled with tough questions for God: Why do You hide in times of trouble (10:1)? How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever (13:1)? How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land (137: 4)? David is always described as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he felt free to cry out to God with whatever deep and honest emotion he was experiencing, even the hard questions that we continue to ask so many thousands of years later.
I have not read Rachel Held Evan’s books yet, so I don’t know the specific nature of the doubts she has faced over the years. While she calls herself a “doubt-filled believer,” she speaks of never knowing when she’ll head to church on a Sunday and not believe a word of what she hears. She talks of conversations with her husband about whether they will raise their son (due early next year) as a Christian. She speaks of faith crises that have cost her friendships, until her friends came around to their own faith crises and could finally understand where she was coming from.
Rachel ended her talk with the admonition to respect each others’ journeys, and I agree wholeheartedly that we all relate to God in beautifully individual ways. And she seems to have grown in her understanding that she shouldn’t “evangelize the doubts,” trying to spread her faith crises around to her friends. And finally, even though she has doubts related to the Gospel, she told us that “the story of Jesus is a story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”
Faith, she says, is about taking the risk of obedience in spite of the doubts, taking the risk of being wrong about what we are putting our faith in.
The caution that I would offer is to beware of doubting for the sake of doubting. Turn your doubts into questions, and bring them to God. Seek His answers in His word, through the teachings of trusted Christian leaders, in conversation with other seeking believers, and in other resources that God will almost surely place in your path once you bring your questions to Him with an honest and authentic desire for the answers.
What role has doubt and questioning played in your journey of faith? Did you experience the "slippery slope" phenomenon that Rachel describes, and did it bring you right back to Jesus? Do you see a difference between doubting and questioning, in the way that I do? Please join the conversation in the Comments section!