When my friend voiced his opinion that Christian faith was not an entrance requirement to heaven, his college Bible study gasped at his nerve, and I’m sure you could almost hear the silent thought: How could he question the Word of God?
“You’re telling me that you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven,” my friend said. “Does that mean when innocent babies die, they go to hell? I don’t believe in a God who throws babies into eternal hellfire.”
There was an awkward silence. Then the Bible study leader said something about God working in mysterious ways and said they would be moving on.
My friend walked out. Today, he no longer considers himself a Christian.
He is far from the only young believer to leave the Christian faith after believers failed to address or even acknowledge their questions. Drew Dyck’s article “The Leavers” in the November 2010 issue of Christianity Today found that believers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly walking away from the Christian religion they were raised in. When Christians played a role in a leaver’s departure, it was most often because of the way they responded to doubts.
“The leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts,” Dyck writes. “Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking ‘insolent questions.’ Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them. One was slapped across the face, literally.”
Talk about failing to turn the other cheek. Dyck argues Christians must see “skepticism for what it often is: the tortured language of spiritual longing” and strengthen our relationships with leavers, but how can we repair the damage that’s already been done, and why did it happen in the first place?
When my friend told me the story of the Bible study he left (I was not present), it angered and pained me. I couldn’t understand why Christians would leave my friend feeling like an outsider for daring to consider the implications of his beliefs, rather than a human being wired to wrestle with faith.
If we truly believe in our faith, why do we flinch at questions as if they could undermine the truth? Since God is almighty, isn’t He big enough to listen to and handle our most painful questions? Why do we shy away from questions when Jesus boldly responded to them with yet more questions?
At a loss for how Christians could treat my friend this way, I brought my thoughts to a couple friends, and my friend Glyn gave me an answer I think makes sense: Some Christians feel uncomfortable or threatened when approached with a question about faith they have not considered themselves.
Think about it: It’s easy to get defensive when someone challenges the core of who you are. That defensiveness can lead Christians to brush off the question so it has no power over us, and to chastise the questioner instead, thus taking out our personal frustrations on someone who is just trying to figure out God. Or it can lead us to offer what might be the only thing that comes to mind: Christian clichés we picked up to guard us against what we don’t understand.
Meanwhile, questioners will either leave the Church because they can’t relate or will continue going through the motions, as their unspoken questions gnaw at them from the inside and scare them into burying away all their struggles.
Our defensive reactions reveal that we sometimes struggle to believe God can handle our most painful questions. It’s hard to trust him to respond to such questions, so we don’t ask them in the first place, and when someone is daring enough to cross the line, we freak out because we realize we don’t have it all figured out. We justify our defensiveness, thinking or saying: Why do you have to make things so difficult? Why can’t you just accept Jesus and have faith that everything is going to be OK once you do?
We must question because the answers matter. It matters if babies’ souls are sent to hell, because that’s not the God we know. It matters because we believe our faith is real, so if something doesn’t make sense, we must reexamine it. It matters if we’re driving people away from the church to save our egos in place of loving them. We must change.
Redeeming the Damage, Healing the Wounds
When we shun and silence questioners in place of loving them, we only end up multiplying the damage to our community. We must consider: what does it mean to live out a faith that loves instead of a faith that strikes out when threatened?
I think it means listening, acknowledging when we don’t know the answer and embracing someone for being honest enough to share their struggles. I don’t think it means slapping someone for wrestling with doubt, or ignoring someone’s question in a Bible study just because he shook up what we thought we knew.
I think of the student-led Tough Questions Group my campus ministry sponsors, where I know I can voice my thoughts without getting shot down, no matter how challenging or controversial my ideas are. I wonder if groups that purposefully invite questioning can change the stigma attached to doubt and create an atmosphere where people feel safe questioning. Shouldn’t we share our questions with other believers, so they may know they are not alone in their struggles and so they may lovingly support us in our darkest hours?
Christians must live out this faith that loves, and questioners must realize it’s not God who can’t handle their doubts, but humans who can’t trust God enough to fathom questioning Him. For faith without questions is stagnant, and a Christian community that drives out questioners is weak without their profound insights. If we mindlessly accept everything we’re told, we cannot grow through the journey of passionately seeking truth and discovering in Whom we can find it.
Catherine Newhouse is a magazine journalism and international studies major at the University of Missouri, where she spends time questioning in The Rock Tough Questions Group and peace studies classes.