Some Christians are taught that doubt is a tool of Satan. I suppose it can be a life-diminishing force if it leads us to be cynical, indifferent, isolated, and brings us to a place of despair. But doubt can also be a healing, life-giving and transforming power.
In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia, 10-year-old Jess Aarons has his sense of what is true and real questioned and turned upside down by a free-spirited 10-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. In the woods adjoining their homes, an old dilapidated tree house becomes an invitation into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.
One Friday, when they are rained out and cannot enter their magical world, Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate it, but he takes her along. On the ride home in the back of the truck with Jess and his little sister, May Belle, a conversation develops. Leslie, who had never been to church before says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? … It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”
Then Jess chimes in, “May Belle’s right. It’s because we’re all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that part of the story. She asks, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” responds Jess. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone, says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it.” Then she says, “I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”
Leslie is taken aback by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source. May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse, so she turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie says, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this.” With that Leslie raises her arms to include the sky and the trees and the wind and everything over the beautiful landscape all around them.
In that interchange Leslie questions and doubts three sacred beliefs that Jess and May Belle thought they had to believe and could not doubt – three things that made church something to be dreaded and God to be feared. One, Leslie doubted that just because something is in the Bible one has to believe it. Two, she doubted that God made Jesus die. And three, she doubted that God would punish people by sending them to hell. In doubting these things she was free to see “the whole Jesus thing” with different eyes, which she interpreted to be a “beautiful” story. Jess and May Belle didn’t see it as something “beautiful” at all.
I went from being like Jess and May Belle to being like Leslie when I gave myself permission to doubt and question. As I have reflected on my journey, I have come to the conclusion that God used three sets of experiences to get through to me, to open a crack for the light to get in. Please don’t misunderstand. In no way am I implying that God caused these experiences. God, however, was able to use these experiences to break open a crack in my ego.
One set of experiences revolved around the birth of our second child, Julie, who has Down Syndrome. Another group of experiences that occurred just after Julie’s birth involved an advanced level Greek class that dealt with New Testament textual criticism, which sparked all sorts of questions. The third bunch of experiences occurred during my first three years of ministry post seminary teaching High School Bible and being a mission pastor at a very conservative Baptist School and Church.
These experiences opened the door of my heart and mind, and compelled me to pursue truth beyond my group. And once the crack opened, light flooded in. So often it takes a crisis experience (or several) to pry open a crack that allows new light to shine in. Leonard Cohen says it well in his song, “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Thank God for the crack. Richard Rohr likes to say it usually takes great suffering or great love.
With the infusion of light I began to see how my ego and my group limited what I heard. I began to listen to Christian scholars, prophets and mystics like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr talk about “the whole Jesus thing” from a very different perspective than what I was taught. Instead of rejecting outright what they said, I began to see – to read and interpret – the Jesus story through a different lens.
The good news of Jesus actually began to look and sound and feel like good news. Rather than something I had to believe in order to go to heaven and escape hell, my new understanding of the gospel ignited within me a desire to become more like this beautiful Jesus, who, I discovered, was far more inclusive, gracious, welcoming, loving, compassionate and passionate about liberation and restorative justice than I had ever realized.
I hope more Christians will see that the boxes in which they have confined God are way too small to inspire an expansive and gracious vision that would motivate and empower them to love others the way God “so loves the world.” I pray that more Christians will become followers of a beautiful Jesus.