The Place in the Soul for Doubt (Josh Graves)

The Place in the Soul for Doubt (Josh Graves) April 30, 2014

“The church doesn’t need to provide nineteenth century answers to sixteenth century questions. The church should offer twenty-first century answers to first-century questions.”–N.T. Wright

More and more, I find myself in a similar conversation. By more and more, I don’t mean weekly, I mean daily. The conversation I’m describing starts a hundred different ways but usually funnels to the same place: “Josh,” someone in my church community confesses or a friend will confide with a whisper, “…I just don’t know what I think about Jesus, all this resurrection business, heaven, Son of God. It’s a lot. It’s pretty crazy. I don’t know.”

It would be hard to overestimate how many times I’ve found myself in this situation since becoming a minister/pastor several years ago. I do not think this is a gender specific struggle, however, I tend to have this conversation with men ages 25-45 much more often than any other demographic group. By more I mean ten times more.

In these moments, I am frequently tempted to, like a physician treating a patient with the flu, write a prescription in the form of instruction (“Oh, you have to read John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man?“) and send them on their way with the proverbial reminder that if this prescription doesn’t work, “Call me in the morning. We’ll try something else.” Yeah, right. Like ministers get a second chance on this conversation. We’re lucky to get one shot at all.I want to tell them about all that Jesus has done to impact the world. All that we take for granted like education, humility, orphanages, treatment of women, hospitals, care for the sick, racial equality, and on and on. I want to jump out of my skin . . . but I have to remember that this is their journey, not mine. I can’t cram into 30 minutes what has taken me years and years to know in my bones.

I am not–at this segment in the blog post–going to a) describe how I think other pastors/leaders should respond to such tender and important questions about doubt and Jesus’ place in theology, though I have many, many ideas on how to do this. Nor is the point of this blog is offer my own answers to this very important subject (answers of which I have many!). My point is to simply say that when you, the preacher or bishop or small group leader, find yourself in that moment in which someone bares their doubtful soul, recognize the sacredness of what’s happening in your very midst. You’ve been invited into one of the most important parts of a person’s soul. A place in the soul that is deeper than education, family bonds, 401k trends, and exclusive summer travel plans. You are wading  in the deepest mystery of what gifts a person to choose or not choose the path of faith. You don’t know who else is in the room; you don’t know who or what is driving this person at this moment to approach you (of all people) to have this important conversation in this particular way. Moreover, you don’t know how said person is going to hear any of the pastoral wisdom you pride yourself having ready at the word, “doubt.” There’s so much more going on in those moments than you could possibly know. It’s sacred ground. Shoe-removal might be in order.

This is why we have words like sacred, and nurture in our pastoral lexicon. “Everyone who saw Jesus saw him after (the resurrection). If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness. New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark,” writes the author-word-surgeon Barbara Brown Taylor. The place of darkness and doubt just might the exact place they are to be if God is going to move them to a better, healthier place.

Why do we feel like we have to rush in someones life (faith and doubt) what God spent hundreds of years working up to? Why does doubt terrify us like a monster under the bed of a 5 year old?

After all . . . Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is, by its inherent meaning through the centuries, belief and action in the midst doubt. Otherwise, it’s not faith.I end, like you do, with a rabbinic story.

This story is about two people taking a long way from what they hoped to be the most important religious and spiritual experience of their lives. They’d been following a compelling teacher who not only taught with remarkable power, he also lived his life with rare compassion, remarkable creativity, and unheard of inclusion. This couple became convinced that this one rabbi was the one who could lead them to God, and provide peace and sanity for their entire Nation. They could not get enough of him. They were simply intoxicated with his work and mission.

Imagine their excitement when it was announced the rabbi was coming to Jerusalem during Passover. They wouldn’t miss this for anything.

As happens often in life, their expectations turned to sorrow;  their hopes to despair. This guru of the spiritual life turned out to be compelling but impotent. His revolution came to a screeching halt in the face of the powers that ran things. The powers crushed the rabbi. The road to freedom he was leading the masses down turned out to be a dead-end road. Now what? Who cares. It’s all meaningless. They came to the end of words, the edges of belief.

As this couple is returning home, trying to make sense of the distance between the mountain top of hope and the valley of defeat, they encounter a man who attempts to converse with them about their anger, theological jousting, and despair. He’s just a stranger looking to fill the time of the long walk with a conversation about Jesus of Nazareth, politics, and the meaning of human history. Just your normal subway-commute-home conversation.

It isn’t until the most ordinary of elements enters their encounter–bread and wine–that their eyes are opened; their hearts catch fire. It’s in that precise moment, as Jesus is vanishing (again) from their midst that they realize it is much more important in life to know that God is in search of you than your self-certainty of how you are (or are not) pursuing God.

They had spiritual conversation about Scripture’s meaning. They had Jesus, the presumed stranger, on the road. They had bread and wine. And that was enough. And, that’s still enough.

Josh Graves is the teaching minister for Otter Creek Church in Nashville. He’s author of The Feast (2009), Heaven on Earth (2012), and How Not to Kill a Muslim (2015 Cascade). You can follow him on twitter HERE.


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