Worse than that, it can make you silent.
The first time I questioned my theology (I mean really questioned it), I was flat-out terrified. Not terrified of God, per se (because I figured God being God and all, was more than big enough to handle my assorted queries), I was terrified of the people of God.
Like many Christians, I found myself within a spiritual community, that while extremely loving, seemed at the end of the day highly conditional. I received acceptance and inclusion, but it always felt as if these things were most predicated on me believing what I was supposed to believe. I was made a beloved insider primarily by virtue of my traditional religious convictions.
In other words, my orthodoxy was my membership card in the Club, affording me the perks and privileges that came along with it. As long as my theology didn’t waver greatly from the party line, I remained securely cradled in the bosom of the communuity. Stray too far from the narrow path though, and things could get really ugly, really quickly.
Sometimes this was made clear to me in the insults and shunning and condescending remarks I watched other believers receive as they openly processed their struggles, in how quickly church folk were to disown their own—whether congregation members or high-profile pastors.
Other times it came in the parochial, territorial, incendiary Us vs. Them language of the pulpit preaching rhetoric; the kind that vilified the uncertain with lazy labels of Heretic and Backslider and Prodigal.
Sometimes it was evidenced in the passive aggressive (or actively aggressive) responses I found waiting for me in those moments when I did muster up the nerve to give voice to my vacillation and doubt in Christian company.
As a result of these discoveries, I tended to remain silent with the deepest of my internal wrestling, choosing to search for hope alone in the dark places rather than risk ostracism and damnation out in the light of full disclosure.
As my internal spiritual tensions grew, so did my quiet, gradual estrangement from my Christian peers. I steadily moved into a practical religious duplicity; living one reality within my heart, another within the pews. Especially as a pastor, the more questions I suppressed, the more faith became an ever-more solitary journey that reeked of growing hypocrisy.
Now I need to be clear, that although my brothers and sisters in faith and the church dynamic itself were contributing factors in me keeping quiet, I am still mostly to blame. For as much pressure as I felt not to speak, I was fully complicit in the conspiracy by succumbing to that pressure. Though it came with great regret and sadness—ultimately I chose my silence.
That’s how this all works. That’s how the system turns toxic and nurtures the masquerade.
The very same beautiful sense of belonging and shared purpose that binds people together in the Church and makes them feel incredible affinity for one another, is often what perpetuates the charade of immoveable faith that so many are burdened with.
It wasn’t until I stepped fully outside of the Church for a while that I realized how little there was to fear, how much to gain with complete revelation, and how I’d punished myself unfairly for so long.
Christian, that’s why I feel compelled to tell you this, should you find ever your faith on similarly shifting ground: it’s okay to change your mind.
It’s okay to question things you used to be sure of, to come to different theological conclusions than those you had previously, or to find yourself in small or large ways challenging orthodoxy. These things are not sins.
We do a really good job in the Church of lifting up steadfastness as a virtue worth coveting, and while there certainly is great merit to a belief that perseveres through trial and difficult season, steadfastness for steadfastness sake isn’t necessarily all that admirable. Often it’s more about self-preservation than anything else.
Paralyzed by the fear of being separated from the community, faith appearing not to waiver, may simply be faith that will not openly acknowledge its profound questions.
It may be faith that refuses to respond to what is being revealed by time and experience, because of the adversity it will bring from fellow believers.
It may be faith that is too frightened to move because of the storm such movement will likely generate.
Doubts and questions, and changes of both heart and mind on issues of faith (even fundamental ones) are not character defects or moral flaws. On the contrary, often they are the bravest and most God-honoring places to reside because they are the most authentic. The bottom line is, that’s really the only thing you’re responsible for.
You don’t owe the world anything but full authenticity delivered as clearly and respectfully as you can manage it. That is the very truth that sets you free.
Whenever I write or speak on matters of faith personally or professionally, I try to do it from a place of absolute honesty. That means I willingly expose myself to disagreeing with my younger self (even myself from yesterday), but I have great peace with that. That guy hasn’t seen what I’ve seen or experienced what I’ve experienced to day. He was earnest and spoke his truth then, just as I do now. We don’t need to compare notes or keep our stories straight. Chances are, both of us will find ourselves facing similar disconnects with the me I will one day be as that version of me learns and matures—at least I hope so.
Life should alter us. It should renovate our souls and adjust our lenses. Time and experience, and the things we read and see and discover should change us or we’re probably more committed to the appearance of consistency than to real growth. I don’t have the understanding of myself and of God and the world that I had twenty years ago, I am not too proud to suspect the same won’t be true two decades from today.
So you can use my words from years ago to try and undermine my current position, just as you are free to use these words some day in the future in a similar fashion. This no longer concerns me. My responsibility on these most important of questions, is not to provide an expected answer to placate a crowd or keep up appearances or to retain good standing in a club, but simply to seek and to be as honest as I can at any given moment.
That’s all you are required to do as well, my friends.
God isn’t as insecure or easily angered as those we share space with or worship beside. God is pleased with the depth of our personal search and the integrity of our road, and understands our conclusions better than anyone.
Imagine if we created church communities where theological deviation and spiritual doubt weren’t red flags or prayer concerns or deal breakers; where everyone could speak the truest true without fear of being pushed to the margins or excluded outright. How different might our journeys be? How much richer might our communities become? What say we find out.
Friend, wherever you are today on your path, rest in that.
And regardless of what you feel and think and believe and profess today, if some day in the future you find yourself in a different place, remember: it’s okay to change your mind—and to speak it.