My first two posts in this series addressed some of the unanswered questions I have; and my last post focused on what it takes to embark on the quest for truth. Here I want to suggest that doubt can have a positive value in the life of faith.
When I think of my own life, a prime example of unanswered questions concerns God’s guidance (or seeming lack of guidance) at crucial junctures in my faith journey.
A Faith Crisis
My most significant faith crisis came when I was around thirty, during a time of great difficulty in my life. Many external supports had failed (it’s a long, complicated story) and I was in the throes of a personal and vocational crisis. I wondered what I was living for, and why God had (seemingly) placed me in such an intractable situation—or, at least, why God had allowed me to get into such a situation. It was as if my life had hit a dead end.
I didn’t doubt God’s existence, but God’s rather goodness. I found that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to pray when you don’t, in your bones, believe that God really has your best interests at heart. So over a period of time I found that I simply stopped praying.
The Lament Psalms
What started me praying again was my discovery of the Psalms, particularly those psalms known as the psalms of lament, or complaint, or protest. These psalms make up about one-third of all the Psalter; they’re the largest single group of psalms in the Bible. These psalms honestly challenge God with the suffering the psalmist is going through, often even accusing God of doing terrible things (like Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). And they forthrightly ask God to intervene and change the situation of suffering.
It was only when I was able to pray that darkest of all lament psalms, Psalm 88, and then preach a sermon on that psalm at the memorial service of a young woman who had just died of cancer, that I found I was able to pray again.
A New Understanding of God
And now, I have a very different view of God, as one who is willing to hear us out fully when we’re honest about our difficulties—including our doubt—and who accompanies us in our sufferings (even in our doubt).
Through the psalms of lament I was brought back to the core truth of the Christian faith that God—through the cross—has suffered with us and for us, more than we can ever imagine. This is not a God above the fray, but one who knows the depth of human evil and suffering—from the inside. And this God is willing to graciously host our honest questions.
Loving the Questions
Beginning in those dark times, when no clear answer was in sight, I learned to “love the questions themselves,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke pleaded with the young man to whom he was writing (back in 1903) “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”
Been there; done that.
Rilke goes on to suggest to the young poet that he not even try to search for answers yet.
I’m not sure I would (or even could) follow that particular advice.
But Rilke is surely wise when he continues: “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
I’m not sure I’ll ever get all my questions answered. But the asking of them has been significant for the person I’ve become and am still becoming.