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Growing Down

When I was younger, I was sure adults knew everything. Not only did they know what to expect from life, but when it happened, they were also prepared to deal with it quickly and efficiently. Bam, it’s done. Raising children. Killing spiders. Dealing with neighborhood feuds over a six-foot fence. Witnessing to Mormon door-to-door evangelists.

As a youngster, I reasoned that somewhere between “now” and “then,” I would get smart and figure everything out. Wasn’t that why people went to college? I envisioned my adult self so foreign to my childish persona that I would scarcely remember the days when I didn’t dispense knowledge like Pez.

Sorry, guys. Instead of figuring everything out as our bodies simultaneously develop into mature adults, we become increasingly aware of how much we don’t know and are incapable of knowing fully in this life. We’re old enough to start a pension plan, but our minds are still finite and our emotions fragile. Even if it was possible to know all the answers, we lack the ability to bring them to fruition on this earth. I am a fumbling adolescent recast in an adult role, certainly not the person I dreamed of when I was playing with my Barbies. And I still catch myself quoting the old faithful “When I grow up….” even though it seems more like I am growing down.

This struggle with adulthood has a spiritual side as well. I thought it worked like this: God gave us a set of answers, like keys, color-coded to each of life’s deadbolts. These answers would fit neatly into grown-up stuff like cancer and careers. I pictured mature Christianity as an impenetrable fortress shielding me from life’s storms, God calmly guiding me through a series of refining exercises. Unfortunately, I was a little off. Christianity, no matter how formulaic the construal, does not make life predictable. It doesn’t keep problems or bad feelings away from us. It doesn’t patch up our rag doll humanity or whisper the secrets of the universe in our ears.

When I turned 24, I realized that I didn’t get my life, not at all. I was stuck, paralyzed by my inability to sufficiently reason things out, to explain away doubt and suffering and abnormality in the name of God. Life could not possibly be this amorphous mass. I incurred a deep dissatisfaction with the answers I had accepted all my life, because experience had shown me the widespread discrepancies between faith and reality, God and His image-bearers. Indeed, I became obsessed with the flaws of the religion I held dear and rejecting the mistakes made by centuries of Christendom. Then, at last, I found a little bit of grace for my overly analytical mind. I discovered “living the question.”

Living the question is an angle of faith, a cranny that I never knew existed. Growing up, I was taught that I had all of life’s answers tucked in my fanny pack. All Christians are Republican neoconservative straight ticket voters—it’s just that simple, right? We were separate, and that’s how we knew who we were—we were different from them, superior, saved. Christianity and the Bible had answers that could be applied like Band-Aids to every question ever invented by mankind. My mind refused to accept anything but absolutes in every regard.

With the onset of adulthood, these clearly marked lines faded to watery brushstrokes. I missed the days of surety that belonged to a bygone preteen era. I felt false and traitorous when I didn’t get it and didn’t understand why God allowed my life, and the lives of others, to disintegrate. If I was a good Christian, wouldn’t I be offered such spiritual niceties? It was as if someone had seen right through me, through all my layers of spirituality to the same painful unanswered questions that rattled my friends and neighbors. But I was finally ready to stop sugarcoating my questions with religion and cope with life in a way that was honest. I decided to ‘fess up and live the question.

What does it mean to live the question, to walk around inside it and probe its limits? I think of it as dancing with the unknown. Literally, this means graceful living in the face of unanswered questions, not being afraid to admit what we don’t know and focusing on what we do. As Christians, we know God but we don’t know everything about life. The answers may be revealed in time, such as “What am I going to do as a career?” “Who am I going to marry?” The others, tough predicaments such as, “Why did God allow the devastation of the tsunami?” might have to wait until we arrive in heaven. We must in all instances trust the knowable character of God when circumstances seem to conflict with His goodness. Living the question leaves the answers in the hands of God, while walking forward to engage the full spectrum of human experience: joy, pain, grief, exhilaration, confusion, doubt and faith.

Sometimes, I tell myself the Gospel over and over and utter a small cry: “Help me.” Help me to live gracefully in this unfamiliar place called adulthood. When I do not base my self-worth on the benevolence of unpredictable circumstances, I learn to live with the secrets of the great unknown. I remember that Christ died to save us disappointed people from an endless search for meaning in life. As a believer, I focus on the singular hope that undergirds my earthly frustrations. We are always going to have one constant: the saving presence of Jesus Christ. We put our hope in Him, not in the hope of someday growing up and figuring it all out.

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This weekend my roommate and I were talking about getting older. “You know,” she said, “the day I turned 25 I cried all day. The hardest part about getting older is that I’m not who I thought I’d be. I thought at this stage I’d be married or at least I’d know what I want to do with my life.” I agreed. We talked about how these misconceptions can make us get really down on ourselves, but thanks to the redemptive nature of our faith, reality is sometimes better than the fairytale.

Disappointment is real enough. But we must put our hope in a knowable God, not in ourselves or in our own street smarts to carry us through. Let’s not be afraid to be real, to live the question, to do a fierce tango with the unknown, to relinquish hope to the One who made it.

And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5).

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