I sat on the back porch on a Sunday morning, an hour before church. All the strength was drained from my body and spirit. It was even hard to hold the phone to my lips as I whispered to my friend the secret I had been harboring from myself for years.
“I'm not sure I believe in Jesus.”
He didn't panic. There were no frantic arguments or pep talks. “You've been running from this for quite some time,” he observed. I agreed.
I see now that all the emphasis of the convictions I shared from the pulpit stemmed from the fear I had of my own doubts. If I spoke loud enough and exhausted myself with good works, maybe I could run from my questions.
I'm not sure why this moment caught me so unaware. I had been wrestling for a long time over the issue of unanswered prayers and unfulfilled promises from the Bible. I realized that I had been facing a thundering silence from God throughout most of a life I had spent working for him. So it should have been no surprise I would come to this conclusion.
But it was traumatic. What if none of this religious stuff was true?
Who was I if there was no Jesus?
More practically, since all I've ever done is work with churches how would I earn a living?
When I mentioned my doubts to those close to me, they were frightened. My wife couldn't talk about it. Friends tried to help. “I just don't allow myself to be tempted by even asking such questions,” one said with the same emphasis I always had when I was running from my doubts.
But this particular friend, like I said before, didn't panic. He prayed for me over the phone that morning. Then he drove for two hours to spend the afternoon with me. Our conversation helped me put things together enough to help me function in the days to come.
That was ten years ago. Did I get my faith back? No. Not like it was.
I admit that I sometimes miss the certainty of my old faith. In some ways I was a better speaker—more dynamic with clever phrases. Nowadays, I have a lot more ambivalence in my messages. More questions, fewer answers. But the gaps in understanding don't scare me anymore.
It bothers some people. Where are the answers they need? Why don't I give them more reassurance? Why can't I shore up that supposedly solid rock upon which they stand?
Recently, an older gentleman, a longtime teacher in his church came to me and told me how troubled he was about his questions. Some things in the Bible just didn't seem to be so. How do we reconcile God's severity in the Old Testament with the gentleness of Jesus? And what about those promises that don't seem to be true?
I loved him for sharing with me like this. And I told him I had the same kinds of questions. “I'm sorry that I have no clear answers for you.”
He relaxed and said even hearing that made him feel better. Then we continued a long and interesting discussion.
Here is where I've become the better pastor. I can let people face their doubts in safety. And perhaps I can show them that life won't fall apart if they have to adjust what they believe and live with unanswered questions.