I ran into an old friend at a local coffee shop. We were very active in our youth ministry before my dad was relocated and we had to move. Almost 20 years later, we were talking about where life’s journey had led us.
He spent his time looking for truth, compelled that it can’t be found in the church. I spent my time trying to compel people that the truth is found in Jesus Christ.
I asked him what led him to believe that the church was useless in his search for life, truth, love and wholeness.
When he was 16, he went to his pastor’s office and asked him if his father, who is a very good man, is destined for hell just because he doesn’t go to church.
“There’s not much I can say, because the Bible clearly states that your father will go to hell if he doesn’t believe,” he heard his pastor say. It was then he knew that he was done with the church.
“I mean, it’s not like my dad was evil. He was a very good man. He loved his family. He loved life. He loved his community. He was generous. He was kind. And my pastor told me that my dad was going to hell. I couldn’t deal with that. Definitely not at 16. And he was so sure of it. He was so confident in his answer. It was so black and white. And this black and white world did not include my dad, and I realized it didn’t include me. There had to be something else, something more, something deeper. I couldn’t wrap my emotional teenage mind around it, but I knew whatever I was yearning for, church was no longer the place. So I left.”
He paused to finish his coffee.
“I don’t know what I wanted to hear from the pastor. Maybe empathy? Sympathy? Maybe guidance? Maybe struggle with me? Maybe help me through my doubts? Maybe something like, ‘I don’t know. But I’d love to work this out with you.’ Just something to help me get a handle of this God of love I was learning about and where my dad fit into this plan of love. But all I got was, ‘He’s going to hell if he doesn’t follow our rules.’”
I’ve also had similar experiences where I was fed bumper sticker, cliché answers to deep and spiritual questions. Perhaps my journey was different because my dad was a pastor of immigrant Korean churches and I was imprisoned by my dad’s calling (until I realized I had my very own calling).
But I resented the spiritual leaders who tried to make the world black and white and who had answers to everything, most of them along the lines of, “It’s in the Bible.”
Just once, I wanted to hear someone say, “You know, that’s a good question. I don’t really know, but let’s find out together.”
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps during my early adolescence I needed black and white.
Maybe pastors are just uncomfortable with the unknown. Many of us are afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But it seems to me that “I don’t know” (accompanied by, “let’s discern this together”) is a much healthier and better answer than trying to make something up or offer a cliché.
Perhaps our insecurity keeps us from saying say “I don’t know.” After all, we’re the resident theologian. People expect us to have answers. That’s what they’re “paying us for,” right? Frederick Buechner wrote, “He has to give answers because everybody else is giving answers.”
We don’t want to be caught looking dumb. So, we have to have the answers. Sometimes, we’re handed a script of how to answer questions, as if we’re telemarketers trying to sell a two-week Alaskan cruise. I feel that’s often more damaging than not.
In our quest for answers, we make doubt the enemy. I remember expressing doubt and I was immediately shamed. “You’re not praying hard enough. You need to pray for more faith. No more silly questions. They won’t get you anywhere. Just pray and God will give you all the answers.”
I was in my late twenties when I learned that doubt wasn’t the enemy. Sometimes doubt leads to greater faith (Doubting Thomas, anyone?)
No, the true enemy of faith is fear. And it’s our fear that leads us to be obsessed with searching for and offering answers to every question people may have about faith. It’s like we believe that the more answers someone has, the more spiritually mature they probably are.
Somewhere in our quest for answers, we lost the art of asking questions — asking the right questions. The rabbis of Jesus’ day gauged how well someone knew the Scriptures not by the answers he gave, but by the questions he asked. I think that’s why Jesus often answered a question with a question.
Often, asking the right questions will help us deepen our faith. God is bigger than all our doubts and questions.
So ask questions. Wrestle with doubt. Know that God is with you. And be okay with admitting that you don’t have all the answers.
Sometimes, all a person needs is a companion for their journey.