In his spiritual memoir, O Me of Little Faith, Jason Boyett writes about a forbidden topic: the doubt that so often accompanies faith. He recalls his upbringing in a Southern Baptist church in Texas where he learned Romans 3:23 and the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and attended all-night youth lock-ins and weeklong revivals.
Despite (or possibly on account of) this early Christian formation, Boyett confesses something few Christians are bold enough to admit: faith, at least for him, includes a real and persistent element of doubt. He says that while many Christians attest to the interactive presence of Christ in their lives, the “God-whispering-in-my-ear-thing doesn’t seem to happen for [him].” He adds, “It’s a drag to feel so spiritually weak when everyone else seems strong, to feel so full of doubt when everyone else oozes faith.”
Boyett’s confession reminds me of the Chris Rice song from 2000, “Smell the Color Nine.” The lyrics are worded differently from Boyett’s statement, but they convey the same message: “I’m wondering why I’ve never seen the signs they claim they see; a lotta special revelations, meant for everybody but me.”
To both of these theologians I say, “Amen!” I can go toe to toe with Boyett when it comes to a Southern Baptist childhood. Heck, I even remember the church classroom I was in when I learned that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”; a poster on the bulletin board illustrated the verses of the Roman Road and offered a basic outline of the Sinner’s Prayer. I too went to my share of youth all-nighters and never-ending revival services. Believe me: if the church doors were open, the Mitchells were there. (To be fair, Daddy was the pastor and he, you know, had the keys. Still ….)
Yet even as a teenager, I became aware of theological and biblical issues that led me down a rabbit hole of uncertainty and confusion. For example, I didn’t get how the ark could possibly be big enough for all the animals and I couldn’t get over the destruction that went along with saving Noah and his passengers. The Sacrifice of Isaac story? I absolutely refused to accept any explanation that okayed God sending Abraham to slaughter his beloved child. And when we studied Jacob and his boys, I tended to side more with the older brothers than with that know-at-all Joseph.
I can’t imagine the phone calls my dad received from angry parishioners shocked by my boldness. I haven’t any idea. I do know though, that when I started questioning the cross, saying things like, “Actually, I’m not really saved from my sins by the cross: I still sin and I still suffer the consequences of my sin,” my mother suddenly became the teacher for my Sunday school class. Coincidence? Or intervention? Hard to say.
Thankfully, I was raised in a home where questions were not only allowed, but encouraged. Many times, I’ve heard my father say, “That’s a good question. I’m going to need to think about that one awhile.” In our home, we learned (more by osmosis than by direct instruction) that God welcomed honest conversation. We also learned early on that we could live with unanswered questions, with doubt.
In “Smell the Color Nine,” Rice offers a profound profession of faith that suggests he too believes beyond the uncertainty:
Now I’ve never felt the presence, but I know You’re always near,
And I’ve never heard the calling, but somehow You’ve led me right here,
So I’m not lookin’ for burnin’ bushes, or some Divine graffiti to appear,
I’m just beggin You for Your wisdom, And I believe You’re puttin’ some here.
Boyett says he simply relies on the “revolutionary grace that Jesus showed to sinners and outcasts and doubters.” He says, “I now realize that God loves me despite my weak faith. … God loves me anyway, and my faith is balanced between [God’s] grace on one side and my doubt on the other.”
I find that freeing, don’t you? We don’t always have to have all the answers. We don’t always have to sense God’s presence. In fact, we can just lean into the love God has for us, relax into the mystery, and trust that God really does love us despite our weaknesses.