Hi, I’m a Christian—and I don’t know anything.
Well, I know a whole heck of a lot less than I used to, and the simple fact that I’m OK admitting that to you is growth.
I’ve been serving as a pastor in the local church for the past 19 years, and for much of that time my job was to be certain; to radiate an unwavering confidence in the things I believed, the teachings of the Church and whatever I was preaching at a given moment.
Not only that, but my ministry success was partly based on my ability to persuade other people to agree with me, whether I agreed with myself or not. I learned to defend my position convincingly and vehemently, even if there was unsteadiness within me.
I could doubt things privately, or I could publicly make reference to the questions I used to have. That is to say, I could share my faith crises with our community, but only framed as a past tense experience that I’d victoriously walked through. Any present vacillation was a career liability.
I learned over time, that the three dirtiest words I could ever utter from the platform or pulpit were: “I don’t know.”
It isn’t just pastors and other “professional Christians” who feel pressured to have an ironclad apologetic and to be doubt-free. People sitting in the seats on a typical Sunday morning church service, gathering for a Tuesday home Bible study or having debates online, all live with the same dangerous potential for duplicity.
We all learn to read the room when it comes to our theological questions, to carefully couch our uncertainty so as not to alienate ourselves from everyone else. We see the way certainty is worshiped in the Church and we adjust accordingly.
And as a result our faith communities—which should be the places where we feel free to be the most authentic version of ourselves—are often the places we do the most pretending. Rather than bringing the full contents of our hearts to the Church, we conceal them. Instead we work to craft and maintain a careful manicured persona: the passionate, steadfast, faithful Christian know-it-all.
I’ve been this person for a long time, but I’m glad to say that I’m currently in recovery.
Three years ago a pastor I worked for gave me the incredible gift of unceremoniously firing me. In the moment it was devastating and painful, but it began my slow journey out of Christian Know-it-Allism.
Untethered from the expectations others had of me as a leader and minister, I was free to ask anything and to say everything. I was able to be honest with everyone (even with myself) about just how much I was no longer sure of; what I believed and didn’t believe.
And the oddest thing about the path toward spiritual authenticity has been seeing how my admission of all that I don’t know or am not sure of pisses off more Christians than my bold, confident, unwavering preaching ever did.
I think that’s because when they hear another follower of Jesus share their doubts or deviations, whether about theological concepts or Church doctrine or even regarding the fundamental issues of God and faith, they’re forced to consider their own questions, if even for a moment. They have to confront the things they may passionately argue, yet may not be quite certain of—and that can be terrifying.
The road to recovery is decidedly turbulent. There’s all sorts of residual guilt and the lingering fear of Hell to contend with, along with the loss of many people who used to treat me like family—not to mention the profound disorientation that facing the world with a spiritually sober mind brings.
But so many wonderful things have happened since I knew everything:
My table has expanded.
I’m much more open to people of other faiths, and those with no religious belief system at all. Rather than spending my time trying to convince or convert them, I can simply listen to them.
I live with my guard down.
I don’t need to check my surroundings or censor myself, or worry about who I need to please or impress or dazzle. I get to be normal in all its inconsistent glory.
I have a faith that feels deeper, even if it comes with a lot less clarity.
I know that probably sounds counterintuitive but it’s been my experience that when I don’t have to be an expert on God I am able to experience God.
God has left the building. Spiritual community has become far more than an hour somewhere on Sunday. It’s the daily act of being present and looking for the sacred stuff disguised as ordinary life, which is everywhere.
I have more patience for other Christian Know-it-Alls. I know what it’s like to be in those shoes; to see doubt as some moral defect, to feel secretly fraudulent. I understand the tremendous fear of being less than certain, especially when it seems as though your livelihood or social standing depend on it.
I’m less of a judgmental jerk. (Well, that’s probably more aspirational.) Not that I was aiming for that back when I had to have all the answers, but when you live with the pressure to be right and sure, you tend to be fairly intolerable to the people who you’re trying to convince of the fact. I’m still repenting of this, daily.
Yes, I get called all sorts of nasty things by other Christian Know-it-Alls now: heretic, false prophet, fallen soul, devil, (wizard, which was pretty cool). I get threatened with a Hell I’m no longer sure exists. I get addressed with condescending air quotes, as “Pastor” and “Christian” (Bless their “hearts”).
But these things largely don’t bother me, because the flip side is being less than fully authentic and having to live two different spiritual journeys simultaneously. I’ve been down that road. I wore the mask. I sold it. Those days are over for me.
I now get the privilege of sharing other people’s questions as my life’s work, of giving them a safe place to be real without judgment. I’m part of an amazing global community and a loving local church family that both allow me to unearth the uncertainty and be OK with it all. And I believe I have a God who understands everything I know and don’t know.
If you’re reading this and you can no longer pretend you have it all together, be encouraged you’re in good company. You can begin recovering right where you are.
Today I still seek to know, while gladly embracing all that I do not know.
Maybe this is actually the truth that sets you free.
This piece was originally posted at johnpavlovitz.com and has been shared with permission.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.