The first time it hit me was completely unexpected like somebody just sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. It felt like a trapdoor opened underneath me, and before I knew it I was caught up in a free fall, powerless to the gravity that was pulling me away from the comfort of all I had known and into the mysterious darkness of unknowing. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have any answers, and it was terrifying.
I grew up in a relatively normal suburban life, and although my family was not without it’s fair share of dysfunction, I always felt loved and provided for. When I was 13, we started going to church, which although unprecedented, was not a shocking notion. We had always been raised to believe in God, we just never before felt a need for the “churchy” part.
Throughout high school I found myself fully immersed in my Evangelical subculture, and I was proud to wear my faith on my sleeve (sometimes literally, because I wore a lot of corny Christian tee shirts in those days). I was an outright apologist for the faith, often engaging in dialogue with my classmates and coworkers about Jesus. For me, Jesus was an ideal: an icon of what it is to have the right religion. I had never questioned anything because I was entirely convinced. And yet, somehow in my first semester of Bible college I found myself in the unfortunate position of watching it all unravel.
I started Bible college thinking it would complete my metamorphosis into a staunchly conservative Bible-thumping pastor. I rejected the idea of a non-religious liberal arts school because I didn’t want to have to learn things I didn’t agree with (God forbid). I believed the rhetoric that was shouting, “secular universities are trying to indoctrinate our children!”
With all of this in mind, the fact that it was at Bible college that I began to lose my faith was even more alarming. I can’t say for certain what it was that triggered the chain reaction of doubts in my mind, but somewhere in my first theology class while I was taking notes it hit me like a truck: I don’t believe that.
It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it, and it’s not that I refused to believe it. In fact, I genuinely wanted to believe it, but for some reason the more I thought about it, and the more I had it explained to me, the more it started to sound like a fairytale.
Throughout the semester I desperately tried to cling to whatever was left of my faith, and piece by piece I would pick up the fragments of whatever I had left to believe, examine them a little more closely, and when I couldn’t find a place for them to go I would just throw them away. It was like someone handed me a ten-thousand piece puzzle, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make my faith look like what came printed on the box.
By the time Christmas came around I was agnostic. I had a million questions and no answers, and while I was visiting with friends in the town I grew up in I let the words come out of my mouth for the first time in my life.
I don’t know if I believe in God.
Where I once had certainty, all that I had now was doubt. My faith had been built on what I knew, and I didn’t leave much room for mystery. Up to this point, I had always thought that faith had to be synonymous with certainty. I reasoned that if I could just find proof of God’s existence then everything would be okay. The more I doubted, the more apologetics I would read. But it didn’t work. The more “evidence based” arguments I read the crazier it all sounded, and more often than not it only served to push me further away.
But something I’ve realized about faith is that it doesn’t look very much like certainty at all. On the other side of my struggle for faith, I’ve found an anchor in hope.
It is through community with others that I have been able to find this hope. While sitting across the table from other Christians who also have doubts and questions, I can’t help feeling solidarity. When a non-judging ear is willing to listen to you and walk alongside you, without trying to fix anything or convince you, I believe that to be the Gospel in action. It is the divine act of meeting someone where they are. It is in these moments that I see the living Christ, and I find the hope that I need to continue in my faith.
In my younger faith, I didn’t really understand what hope was. After all, you can’t really hope for something that you’re certain will come. When I was a child, I had no doubt that my parents would feed me dinner every night. They had always provided for me, and there was no reason to question whether or not that would continue.
Honestly, I couldn’t have hope because I didn’t have doubt. I believe that through my experience with doubt, I was able to find a real hope: the kind of hope that anchors my very soul, and through which I have been able to reassemble my faith.
To be honest, I’m not all the way out of the woods yet. On my worst days, I wake up and I believe in nothing. But on the other side of my doubt now is a new kind of faith: an uncertain, and sometimes unstable faith, but one that is ultimately rooted in hope. Although sometimes I don’t know what I believe to be true, I still find myself hoping that all of it is. Faith can be elusive, but hope is steadfast, and in my hope I have found the very substance of faith itself—and it all started with doubt.