A Time to Question
by Melissa Howell
This morning I read the story of Jesus calming the storm, to my boys and husband from the My Bible Friends series, as we all snuggled in bed for family worship. We marveled at the picture of the calm, starry night sky the disciples sailed under when Jesus first fell asleep (it’s not very often that we see the stars here in Seattle). Next, we pointed out the size of the waves in comparison to the small boat, and my sons found Jesus sleeping in the stern. Then at the end of the story, we talked about how Jesus still keeps us safe from storms and troubles in our lives today. But when the story finished, a marked quiet came over my oldest son – the sort of quiet which signals he is deep in thought. We waited. Finally, very softly, he whispered to me, “I think the boat sank, Mommy.”
Shocked, I asked, “You mean you don’t think Jesus calmed the storm?”
“No. Well, yes, maybe He did later, I guess. But the boat still sank. It did Mommy. It sank.”
Today wasn’t the first time he has heard this particular story. In fact, we’ve been reading it for years. He literally has dozens of books with differing colorful depictions of this very same event. And in the past, he has always believed wholeheartedly in the miracle of Jesus that night – His sovereign control over the winds and the waves. But today, for the very first time ever that I know of, my son doubted his Bible.
I expected this day to come…eventually. But not this soon. Not today.
Without even thinking, my immediate response was to reassure him. “No sweety, look! It says right here, see? The boat didn’t really sink at all, Jesus calmed the storm and the disciples all made it to the other side! They were safe honey, the boat didn’t sink.” And then I realized what just happened: I was so uncomfortable with his questions and with his little doubt that I wanted to squash it immediately. His doubt troubled me, and I instantly wanted to redirect him to faith. I did not like to see him in a place of skepticism, and I wasn’t willing to risk leaving him there.
The Adventist Church is no stranger to this same reaction. I know we strive to be a safe environment in which questions and doubts can be asked, raised, and answered in faith-building ways. I strive for that very thing in my classroom, honestly, and so does most every colleague I work with. But I also know that we are a group of people who tend to prefer solid, hard and fast answers. We really aren’t in our comfort zones when doubts are afoot. If a doubter does expose himself, often he is judged for having a weak faith. Sometimes, we even go so far as to outright discourage any doubts from being raised. Is this healthy?
I suppose it’s understandable to prefer our safe answers because, well , many of us have built our lives around these answers – around the Sabbath, the health message, the beginning of the investigative judgment marking the last days on earth, and more. And I think it is because we have built so much upon them that we become uncomfortable or uneasy when these answers of ours are challenged. They threaten us, and all that we have built. So instead of allowing the doubts to exist for a time, instead of allowing people the risk of their own journey, our knee jerk reaction is sometimes to just put them down – squash the doubts!
But if I’ve learned anything at all from the teenagers I’m so blessed to work with, it is that detours of questioning DO serve an important purpose along the journey of our spiritual lives. In fact, I think they are necessary stops. It is within these dark hours of doubt, in these earnest times of wrestling, that we come to personally own our faith. And once we own it, we also begin to learn how to truly live it, and share it.
But we would be fools to forget the dark cave of doubt can sometimes morph into a black hole, which too many do not ever emerge from. For some, the deeper they question and the more they embrace doubt, the shakier their faith becomes until, one sad day, they abandon it altogether. Sure – this is the extreme, but let’s be honest. It’s what we are ultimately afraid of, isn’t it? That if we let our children doubt, they will doubt themselves right straight out of our back doors.
I believe our church is still seeking that fine balance between allowing doubts and building faith. If we never allow our kids (or anyone else) to question, it’s going to result in them ending up with a shallow, unexamined faith. However, if we indulge our doubts too far, we may arrive at the dangerous destination of cherishing them and preferring them over the sometimes more difficult task of choosing faith.
When I discover one of my students loitering in doubts, one wise pastor taught me to ask them a simple question: “Are you trying to get in, or are you trying to get out?” Meaning – are you asking these questions to grow further into a relationship with God (and this church), or are you asking these questions to find a way out of the relationship, and out of your calling and duties as a Christian. It’s this examining of our motives that will help us keep regular tabs on the state of our hearts, and allow doubting to remain useful instead of dangerous.
In this church, when we find ourselves becoming uncomfortable or disturbed by the questions and doubts of other Adventists around us, I think we need to remember that “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.” (Os Guiness, God in the Dark, 14) Restated: we should not be afraid when someone seeks to examine, question, or doubt our cherished beliefs – for if they are in fact the truth, they will be able to stand up to questioning and still emerge as truth.
As for me, honestly, I’m not ready yet to simply stand by and allow my little boy to freely doubt the stories of scripture. But I may have no choice in the matter, either. What I can purpose to do – and what our church must endeavor to do also – is to combat doubt with faith and prayer, and to work towards being people who are confident enough in the strength of our truths that we are not afraid for them to be examined. Even by a 4 year old.