It All Started When I Owned my Doubt

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” ~Brene Brown

The questions started out small. They bugged me, but they weren’t scary. Nothing that couldn’t be solved by switching churches or rethinking the way I voted.

My undoing began when the deep questions erupted. Once those escaped, relentless and faith-shattering, there was no going back. There is no way to undo or unthink them. What kind of Baptist cries for hours after hearing her pastor say: “All you have to do is believe in Jesus”? How could I not know what that meant or how to do it? Why did the “good news” of the gospel story I had learned in Sunday School actually sound like terrible news for most of the world? Was I missing something?

Those questions terrified me; I asked them in a whisper. They supposedly put my soul in eternal danger. For years, I buried them and tried to carry on like they weren’t really important. I hoped that they would go away.

I was afraid of what my friends and family would think of them. Maybe I was afraid that I might be going to hell with the rest of the world. Besides, I didn’t have time for questioning after starting a law career and having three children in a five-year span. And so I hid.

I mouthed words to songs my heart couldn’t sing anymore. I brought a dish to share with our church small group but never dared to share my heart.

I hid. Mired in fear, cynicism, and a doubt I didn’t know how to escape.

I hid. Until I just couldn’t hide any more. Pretending at faith was making me sick—like panic-attack-on-the-way-to-church sick.

When the doubts first started, I asked friends oblique questions. “What do you think about Rob Bell’s new book?” helped test who might be safe.

But I was still hiding my doubt from my parents and people at church. I was still pretending at faith. One evening, (before the panic attack at church) I sat down with a church friend who needed a break from her role as our outreach team leader. I had no idea what she thought about Rob Bell, but I knew that I needed to tell her that my faith was in shambles. “I will try to lead,” I told her. “But there is something I think you should know . . .”

Instead of looking at me with pity or terror, instead of nodding “yes, I’ve got those questions too,” she leaned in and replied, “Oh, you need to talk to my college roommate. She has been through these questions too. She would love to talk to you.”

Those are magical words. “Oh, you need to talk to . . .” Words you can’t hear if you stay hidden.

Oh, you need to talk to . . .” began an amazing connect-the-dot adventure.

It led to those who would say with a gleam in their eyes: “Oh! Those are good questions. Those questions are good.” They gave my skeptical heart hope when I did not know how to get to the good.

You need to talk to . . .” led to dinner with that college roommate and a woman in my small group. That dinner led to a recommendation that we read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. His book was a relief. It also led me to authors like Barbara Brown Taylor and Marcus Borg—authors who demonstrated ways to think differently about faith and belief and church.

The book recommendation led to a book group: a collection of six women with big questions who would never have come together otherwise. This group led to beautiful, deep friendships.

One of these friends discovered The Critical Journey by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich. The Critical Journey describes the stages in the life of faith. The description of Stage 4 stopped me in my tracks:

“It’s a mode of questioning, exploring, falling apart, doubting, dancing around the real issues, sinking in uncertainty, and indulging in self-centeredness. We often look hopeless to those around us . . . 

“For the first time, our faith does not seem to work. We feel remote, immobilized, unsuccessful, hurt, ashamed, or reprehensible . . . Many simply want to give up. Their life of faith may even seem to have been a fraud at worst, a mirage at best.”

Did you catch that?

When it feels like you’ve fallen off the map, like your faith is over and it was all pretend, you are not “backsliding” to stage 0. You are at Stage 4. They call this the journey inward, and it is a necessary part of the journey to stage 5 and maybe even stage 6. It happens before things get good and deep. You have to go through it on your way to deep healing.

But we need help getting through it. And you won’t find help if you hide.

This friend had the audacity to ask Janet Hagberg if she would be willing to meet with a group of questioning women from her city. Janet said yes.

I thought she would give us answers. Instead Janet gave us questions to ask God: Who are you God? What is my next step? What have you made me for?

Maybe our faith needs to fall apart if we are going to ask these questions honestly. Asking and living into these questions has been transformational. Janet has become a mentor and dear friend. She introduced me to the books of John O’Donohue, Frederick Buechner, Parker Palmer, and Jan L. Richardson. Authors who speak to my soul with words I keep coming back to, with words that help me to move forward.

Janet connected me with the woman who has been my spiritual director for almost 2 years now. My spiritual director helps me to listen. She helps me to notice the way God is moving in my life. God is moving.

This small trail is just one of many on this holy connect-the-dots adventure leading me toward wholeness and healing and a life of paying attention and listening. It all started with “Oh, you need to talk to . . .

Oh you need to talk to . . .” changed my life.

Those deep questions that got me started? I’ve still got them, but they no longer scare me. I think they were an invitation. An invitation to come out of hiding and discover a God that transcends both the faith I had grown into and the questions that were my undoing, a God that is waking up my soul and making me new.

Jessica L. Sanborn

Jessica L. Sanborn

Writer at J. L. Sanborn
Jessica Sanborn is mom to three little-ish people and wife to a great guy. She grew up believing that she was supposed to be Anne of Green Gables' next-door-neighbor, but is now learning what it means to belong in her own feet, right where she is at. She writes about faith and becoming on her blog.
Jessica L. Sanborn

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  • I love this post! It’s so true that we can think of ourselves at stage 0 when we question, but it’s often a sign of maturity, and having traveled long in the Christian faith. And I’ve been the roommate that people have said about, ‘oh, you must talk to…’ – so this made me happy. It reminded me that my experiences are useful to share. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Tanya! Those experiences can be lifelines. 🙂 I’m so glad that you get to share them too.

  • Carrie Webb

    Such wisdoms, Jess. I’m so glad that you began the journey, and that we found each other in it!

    • Me too, Carrie! I’m so thankful for you. 🙂 Thanks for being part of my story.

  • Tammy Perlmutter

    Jess, I loved this: “When it feels like you’ve fallen off the map, like your faith is over and it was all pretend, you are not “backsliding” to stage 0. You are at Stage 4. They call this the journey inward, and it is a necessary part of the journey to stage 5 and maybe even stage 6. It happens before things get good and deep. You have to go through it on your way to deep healing.” I feel like I’m there right now, not doubting who God is, but rather how much healing he gives. It is a treacherous road, and I fear I spend a lot of time in the ditches:) This was so encouraging. Thank you for sharing your doubt with us and giving us permission to not only experience it, but confess it!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Tammy. I’m so glad that this encouraged you. I feel like I have been in a continual state of undoing and mending for the last few years, but God works at it so gently.

  • Jessica, I love this: “Maybe our faith needs to fall apart if we are going to ask these questions honestly.” I feel like I’m so there, so very much of the time. Yet Jesus is sweet and present even in the dark places. Thanks for opening up space for all of us to ask *good* questions.

    • Thanks, Ashley. And you are welcome. 🙂 I love the questions. They keep me seeking. And finding.