Should I be worried that my faith is full of contradictions? When I question what I’ve been taught, am I wrestling with God?
Sometimes I worry about myself because my faith is so full of contradictions. For example, I have found myself drifting further to the left over the last decade or so. Not that I was ever a fundamentalist, but I grew up in a conservative church that made sure I believed certain things. Now, as I regularly experiment with doctrinal issues, my Inner Fundie speaks up and tells me that I had better be careful.
The Inner Fundamentalist makes sure that I feel nice and guilty whenever I exercise freedom in Christ. Then, my Inner Liberal smacks the Fundie down, telling him to be quiet. So, the fundamentalist settles for a while, only to pop up again when I am on a path of spiritual growth. The Inner Liberal promotes growth in me, while the Inner Fundie always wants to hold me back.
Rational vs. Mystical Sides
Another area of conflict is the contradiction between my rational and mystical sides. The mystical side was born first. Nurtured in a Baptist church mixed with Pentecostal experiences, my mystical side tells me that I’m not a natural person having a supernatural experience, but a supernatural person having a natural experience.
My mystical side, for example, embraces speaking in tongues as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in my life. Yet, my rational side tells me I’m silly whenever I let that babble pass my lips. So, I debate myself over spiritual matters.
My mystical side is comfortable with the idea of dreams and visions from heaven. I recall a vision I had many years ago where I was like a baby, swaddled in the arms of an anthropomorphic God. Other times, hawks have come to me as spirit messengers. But then my rational side tells me that’s all hooey, and that I’m manufacturing spiritual experiences out of a deep well of emotion and feeling.
My mystical side reminds me of experiences I’ve had with angels and demons, but my rational side tells me that there’s quite a difference, for example, between an anxiety attack and a spiritual attack. As a retired pastor, I lean on that mystical side. Yet, as a behavioral health specialist, I treat my clients’ psychological diagnoses from a clinical perspective rather than a spiritual one.
Personal vs. Impersonal Views of God
Another aspect of my faith contradicting itself has to do with my view of God. Depending on which day you ask me, I may give you different opinions about God’s nature. Sometimes God feels intensely personal and immanent in my very being. But then, on other days God seems more remote, transcendent, and impersonal—like The Force from Star Wars. On those days when God is personal, I see a divine plan at work in the events that transpire throughout my day. On the days when God seems impersonal, I take comfort in the idea of randomness.
Intelligent Design vs. Evolution
This affects my view of the cosmos as well. Some days, I am a creationist. Don’t get me wrong, in no version of my faith do I believe in a literal six-day, young-earth creation. But there are times when I see more divine inspiration in the universe, with an intelligent hand designing everything from micro-organisms to galaxies. Other times, I have no problem with Darwin’s survival of the fittest. I feel this tension (probably motivated by my Inner Fundie) the most palpably when I visit a museum of natural history or read anything from National Geographic.
Judgment vs. Grace
My faith contradicts itself in my understanding of judgment versus grace. When the Inner Fundamentalist speaks, I feel condemnation for sins committed. But my Inner Liberal directs me towards grace. On the left side, I lean towards antinomianism. On the right side, I lean toward rule-following and scrupulosity.
Self-Defense vs. Pacifism
My faith contradicts itself in terms of my views of violence. On the one hand, I believe Jesus was a pacifist, and that to be the best Christian I can be, I should embrace the same. On the other hand, if push came to shove, I don’t think I could sit idly by and allow someone to harm, friends, family, myself, or even perfect strangers. So, I am divided in my own mind on the topic of Christians and self-defense.
Double-Minded vs. Human
I could go on and on in my list of inconsistencies. Do all these contradictions mean that I am a “double minded man,” unstable in all I do? Does it mean I am someone who believes and yet also doubts, and so is “like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind?” Does it mean that I am double-tongued, speaking out of both sides of my mouth?
No, I think what it means is that I am human. Everyone feels contradictions in their faith at one time or another. The difference is that I admit it, and here I am writing about it. This is something that my Inner Fundamentalist, of course, would never do. Those who believe they must always be right never admit when they are wrong. Those who believe they are always consistent never confess, like the faithful father who appealed to Jesus for his daughter’s healing, “I believe; help my unbelief!” We are all a mixture of belief and unbelief—and God respects both positions.
Embrace the Mystery
So, if, like me, you admit that sometimes there are contradictions in your own faith, what should you do about it? Embrace the mystery. No, I don’t mean that you should shrug it off and dismiss the ambiguity. These things are worth trying to figure out. However, they aren’t worth obsessing over or feeling guilty for entertaining a thought that might be heretical.
Embracing the mystery means practicing holy curiosity. It means seeing yourself from a bird’s-eye perspective. It means recognizing that you are a child trying to figure out the universe and that you’re not always going to get it right. Embracing the mystery means opening yourself to the joy of discovery.
Wrestling with God
When I was a child, my granddad showed me how much he loved me when he invited me to wrestle with him. I would test my strength against his and lose every time. Eventually, as I grew older and Granddad grew weaker, we quit wrestling. It wasn’t because he no longer loved me, but because he respected the man I was becoming.
There’s a benefit in wrestling with contradictory aspects of your faith. While you’re resisting, you’re still embracing the love that’s present in the wrestling match. Perhaps there will come a day when you have matured, and that struggle is no more. But just like I miss wrestling with Granddad, the days may come when you miss the struggle.
The blessing is that in the infinite universe, there are always more things to discover. When Jacob wrestled with God, God blessed him and renamed him, saying, “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” If God can bless these inconsistent qualities in Israel, then God can bless the contradictions in your faith as well.