Note to readers: I’ve been working on a new book this past week, a devotional about encounters between God and people, in the Bible, that occur in the wilderness. I’m convinced that wilderness isn’t just physical, it’s metaphor for anywhere we are in the state of our soul that’s unfamiliar, and maybe a bit frightening. I’m creating about 40 of these little devotional, and will offer a few here for your honest feedback. The working title of the book: Wild Faith: Meeting with God in the midst of the Unfamiliar
Exodus 4:13,14; Exodus 5:22,23
Out there in the desert there are no Sunday school teachers, no parents, no youth directors or pastors. There’s nobody, in other words, who’ll be threatened by answers that are wrong, or unholy, or rooted in doubt or fear. This must be refreshing to God, who knows the religious systems we’ve created are, at their worst, nothing more than recording studios where we train people to recite the right answers, both in song and word. “All good, all the time” we say and sing, to remarkably skillful accompaniment.
It’s just that we know when the service is over, we’ll need to go to the hospital and see our co-worker, or spouse, or child, who’s in stage 4 cancer. Or we’ll be going home to a house of ice, where unkind words have built layer upon layer of resentment and anger, just like so many storms building up the snowpack on a hillside. Now we must treat carefully, lest a single mis-step, a single word, releases it all and our family implodes in an avalanche of accumulated toxicity. We don’t know what’s worse, the implosion that we’re at risk of experiencing or that fact that, unlike so much in our carefully constructed world, avalanches are impossible to hide. What will happen when everyone knows that behind our praying, and worship, there’s been infidelity, or the suicide attempt of our son as he wrestles with his sexuality, or the porn addiction that led to an arrest that night he tried to pay for sex? No. We’ve got to hold it together, got to prevent the avalanche.
We have a religious world and a real world, all of us who claim faith. I sometimes think we care more about our religious world than our real world, and so train ourselves to recite platitudes, shallow answers that ring hollow because they’re exactly the opposite of what we’re feeling and experiencing. God, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to give a damn about our outer religious world. In fact, pretense was Jesus’ main enemy, the thing he railed against continually. Not dysfunctional sex stuff, which it seems is forgivable whenever there’s a real turning rooted in a hope for something better. Pretense was enemy number one.
The thing that makes pretense so hard is that when we put on a mask to make ourselves wiser, or stronger, or holier than we really are, over time we begin to believe it. We learn to put on a sort of halo that matches the expectations of our spiritual community - learning the songs, and the words, and answers to questions about why the Bible sanctions genocide and misogyny, and how the earth is of a certain age and anyone who thinks otherwise is, well, on the wrong team. Soon we have it, our fully developed Christian aura. We might have called it discipleship, but in too many cases it was simply cultural assimilation, being brought into a tribe and learning their language and priorities, even if we didn’t believe it, even if it was wrong.
The antidote to this plastic faith is doubt. Yes, you read that right: doubt! But if the antidote is doubt, the challenge is that there’s nowhere to go where we can safely doubt because all around us there’s a tribe that is, not maliciously usually, but nonetheless diligently, sifting the sheep from the goats. So ask a question about gay marriage in a conservative community, or the viability of life in the womb in a liberal one and you’re done - not always, but I’ve seen it often enough these days that its become a pattern.
So, instead of expressing doubt, we paint over it with louder answers, sung to better, newer tunes. We don’t think we’re being dishonest; we’re just trying to fit in with the tribe of the faithful. But deep down, our doubts remain, fester even, like a wound that needs to be sliced open so that the puss can pour out and healing begin. I for one need a place to doubt, and I’m a pastor. If I do, I’ll bet you do to. Who can show us the way to the safety of doubting?
Though I’ve never read it anywhere, I’d like to nominate Moses as the patron saint of doubting. Maybe we could give him a t-shirt with a big question mark on it. There are other worthy candidates, certainly: “Doubting” Thomas comes to mind, along with Job, and Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Elijah. They could all make their cases, but the beauty of Moses’ doubting, to a guy like me, is his continuity as a doubter.
He doubts at the burning bush incident, both that he’s worthy to be called by God, and that God called him and that he’ll take God up on the opportunity.
He doubts in the very next chapter, because his obedience to confront the powers of Egypt in his attempt to free Jews from slavery resulted in an increase in their workload, and beatings, and despair. Things got worse, not better, in response to Moses’ following his calling, and he doubts.
He doubts when the Jews, having been delivered from Egyptians slavery, are making their way north and find themselves hemmed in by the Red Sea and an angry Egyptian army who’d had a change of heart about their release. He plays the man of faith publicly, and then, behind a rock somewhere, we find him “crying out to God...”.
Faith and doubt. Confidence and insecurity. Ready obedience, and active resistance. I like this man - not because he’s a model of perfection, but because he’s accessible.
And where does he doubt? Alone in the wilderness, that’s where. The spiritual discipline of solitude has value for lots of reasons, but one of the rarely heralded benefits that comes because of it is the freedom we find in solitude to let the masks drop away, and pour our hearts out to God. We ask our questions. We express our anger. We wrestle with doubt, and perhaps the fears and questions that come with it. Finally, away from the show, we can be naked, and honest. God likes that! After all, God already sees us naked, so knows our real state of soul better than we know ourselves. He’s just waiting for us to name it, confess it, bring it into the light.
Once it’s there, poured out on the table, there’s no promise that we’ll get a quick fix, but what we will get, as the habit of honesty develops in the context of solitude, is we’ll get intimacy with our creator. And that’s a start toward the life for which we’re created.
O God of the doubting ones
I’m here before you, clothed in religion. But you know me naked.
I’m clothed in certitude, but you know my doubts
Clothed in answers, but you know the questions that I’ve hidden under layers Clothed in confidence, but you know that I’m a scared child
Give me the grace and courage to be honest.
Grant me space, apart from the show, where I can take the make up off And just be, in spite of my doubts, fears, and angers,
Held by you.
For that, more than answers, is what I need most