In God we doubt
Can we have a little chat about doubt? It’s something that tends to sit more readily in the world of youth ministry, not children’s, partly because the early stages of faith and cognitive development make children happier to just think stuff is true, especially if an adult tells them it. And partly, I guess, because we are often too happy to stick with a formula that feels like it’s working, as the kids aren’t asking many tough questions.
Certainly, from my experience, the only questions reflecting doubts about the Christian story being real tend to be from the top age of my group. And yet for most of us, doubt is something which is part of the usualness of Christian life and, overtime, can become a facet of faith rather than something that opposes it.
I once read a book by Glenn Gray called The Warriors (Bison Books). It’s about the psychological effects of war on soldiers. He was awarded a doctorate in psychology the day he was drafted into the US army in the Second World War and he delivers a wonderful summary of fear in combat, saying that essentially there are three perspectives for soldiers: there were very few who came alive in that moment and felt no fear (they were the heroes who got the medals), there were those who were afraid, and those who would have been afraid if they had understood the seriousness of the mess they were in. There were divides within the large group of the afraid: those who hid and hoped no one noticed, those who found ways of looking busy but didn’t actually fight (carrying ammunition or helping the wounded), those who fired their weapon but didn’t aim as just firing it was all they could manage. Then there were those who were able to find a way of moving forward despite the fear, often through a sense of not wanting to let anyone down.
As I read, I found my mind wandering. Clearly, I’ve never experienced anything like soldiers do in combat, but I did feel like I knew those people. I can be like any of them, but caused by doubt, not fear, with the possible exception of the hero who gets the medals! There were definitely times when I was younger when I thought I was certain of what I believed, but looking back I wonder if that was more an example of being unaware of the situation! Mostly, I feel more like those soldiers who are afraid and have to find a way to keep going as best they can. I think that’s OK and I’m comforted that while Jesus didn’t have much time for the sneering cynic, he had plenty of grace for those who wanted to believe but struggled.
Faith is not about the absence of doubt, it’s about wrestling with the story
I’m always deeply moved by the man whose son we are told was possessed by evil spirits that caused him to be unable to speak and have seizures. You can hear the desperation in the man’s voice when he comes to Jesus; he’s already asked the disciples but they were unable to help. His plea to Jesus ends with the heartbreaking line “if you can do anything, take pity onus and help us” as if he dare not ask for healing, just some help will do. Jesus’ reply seems harsh: “‘If you can’?...Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:22-23). It’s a moment pregnant with hope but also despair; healing is possible for the man’s son, but can he find the faith?
The son by this stage has had a seizure and is on the ground, as if to raise the stakes higher. In the end the father gives Jesus as much as he could: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”, but is that enough? Might Jesus turn him away expecting more? It is enough; Jesus commands the spirit to leave and the boy is healed. The man took all the faith he had, brought it to Jesus, and his love and grace did the rest.
This is such an important thing for children to see. We will struggle at times, we will doubt, and that’s OK. I wonder if we could be more honest with children about the fact that almost all of us are working with doubt almost all of the time, and chances are they will too in our increasingly secular age. I wonder if we could be a little braver and explain that not everything in faith is straightforward, and the grey areas seem to be much larger than the black and white ones. Perhaps we could help them to see that there is a deeper truth in the Bible that doesn’t always rely on every last detail being historical fact.
I read such a useful reflection from Rachel Held Evans in her book that engages so helpfully with doubt, Searching for Sunday (Thomas Nelson). In it she tells the story of a friend who, the night before her confirmation as a teenager, said to her father that she wasn’t sure she should do it as she didn’t think she could promise to believe that everything about God was true for the rest of her life. Her dad replied that she wasn’t promising to always believe, she was promising to wrestle with the story for the rest of her life. This has been my experience. Faith is not about the absence of doubt, it’s about wrestling with the story, keeping going and trusting that what faith we have to offer God is enough in his grace.
How this fits in Sunday school, I don’t really know, but I think it starts with being honest with the kids we’re working with. We are allowed to say that we are still finding our way and sometimes find it hard, that we don’t have all the answers and we can’t be certain about our faith; we are still wrestling with the story. This way we can help children to wrestle too, and at times when their faith is struggling, they will be equipped to keep going and know that church is a safe place for those who doubt, where we can be honest and not feel like we need to have everything sorted to belong.