Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.
I’ve had some folks walk out on my sermons before, but I don’t know elicited the same response. Of course, I don’t know that I didn’t! Fluff that isn’t true to the bible or to reality often will lead folks with similar feelings; they just may have enough self control to wait for the next wave and ride that one on in.
More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?
I would imagine all of these questions have been entertained by all of us at some point or another. If not, we’re probably not being honest with a.) ourselves b.) our churches c.) our God. But these questions are more than doubts; I think they are questions of healthy discontentment.
Why does the church seem so culturally insulated?
I know I like to insulate myself from suffering. Then I don’t have to suffer and deal with the hard questions of “why does this stuff happen when I’m praying against it?” That’s not easy. And so we often choose the more comfortable route of fellowship. Instead of fellowshipping with the broken, we huddle together for the potluck supper. It’s more fun that way. One of the reasons there isn’t more doubt, or at the very least a healthy discontent, is that we insulate ourselves from suffering. Our lack of doubts isn’t necessarily an indication of a healthy faith, but an indication of the people we spend time with: the healthy and wealthy. That’s probably why suburbanites like myself don’t doubt as much. We’re insulated.
I found her challenge to me as a pastor and Christian very spot on. Instead of entering the mess, we run from it. And those who don’t run, those who are faithful to follow Jesus into suffering are sometimes left with this discontentment that leads to doubt. In other words, the doubt often comes to those who are faithful.
She goes on to intimate why she left and why she returned.
In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.
And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.
Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.
First: My doubt belonged in church.
People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.
With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.
Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.
In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.
I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.
Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.
I love how she recognizes that doubt belongs inside the church, not outside of it. We all have varying levels of doubt. Fellowship and worship are two ways to counter that doubt, and in doing so, doubters may bring a healthy discontent to the non-doubter’s complacency. It’s a win-win.