“You know something?” I was speaking on the phone to my mother with the hushed sort of voice I use to avoid waking my husband from a nap. This wasn’t the sort of confession I liked to make. “Sometimes, even when I abide by the Scriptural command in Philippians 4 to not be anxious and to, with thanksgiving, present my requests to God…I still don’t receive the ‘peace that surpasses all understanding’. I just…don’t have it. And doesn’t God say I’m supposed to?”
I don’t know what I thought she’d say, exactly. I felt like a bad Christian even thinking it, so bringing it up took a little bit of courage on my end. But her response surprised me. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t, either.”
I was so startled by the admission that I simply fell silent. I was, first of all, deeply relieved that I was not the only person to feel this way. I was also intrigued: why did she sound so calm about what, to me, felt like challenging God’s word to His face?
To my delight, our conversation from that point on meandered into precisely what she meant by her response, an interpretation of the verse, and an eventual mutual discussion about how God’s “peace” does not always necessarily mean “a state free from conflict, discomfort, or pain.” By the end of our chat, my sense that I’d never received “the peace that surpasses all understanding” had quieted, and I was better for having asked.
It’s good for Christians to be honest about the challenging, confusing, and sometimes ugly stuff. It’s good to ask the hard questions we think no one else is wondering about. We ought to give ourselves permission to do it more.
Over the years, I’ve run into all sorts of questions in my Christian life, from the absurd to the mundane. I’ve been bewildered by that one story about Elisha and the bear (2 Kings 2:23-25, if you’re wondering). I’ve been bothered by the mistranslation of certain Biblical concepts and erroneous doctrine. And at times, I’ve asked deeper, more personal questions that strike at the core of my heart and my faith: why is God doing this? How can I cope with something difficult God asks of me? What if I don’t always feel peaceful/grateful/joyous when I’m supposed to?
Left alone and locked inside our hearts, these questions fester and rot. But when we share them with others, we encounter two important things: solace, and answers.
A man who used to attend my home church was persistently fearful that he wasn’t actually a Christian – that, although he’d come to Christ, Christ had somehow never really redeemed him. It took him a long time to confess the fear because he thought he was alone, but when he did, he was astonished by the amount of Christians at the church – many of them much older and settled in the faith! – who had experienced something similar at one point or another.
In the campus Christian groups and small groups that I led, I was always delighted when one bold attendee would ask a question about something in the Scripture we’d studied that made no sense to them, or didn’t seem clear. As they voiced their concerns, I’d see little nods all around the room, the agreement of those who felt the same, but were too shy to speak. We were able to discuss the confusing parts, and bring clarity and understanding to the group.
For my part, it is only over the rough first half of this year that I gained the courage to express some of the questions – about joy, about God’s presence, about God’s silence, about hard times – I was afraid to ask out loud. I was astonished, and deeply heartened, by the amount of comments here and conversations elsewhere that I had with other believers who had been through minor and major dark nights of the soul. In the commonality of those experiences, I was comforted, and that darkness eventually passed.
We don’t like to ask these questions out loud. We don’t like to ask them because we’re shy. Because we don’t want to look stupid. Because we’re afraid of being perceived as heretical, or immature, or lacking faith. Because we don’t want to know the answers. But in our not-asking, we lock ourselves away from discovery, from healing, from growth. We trap ourselves in our ignorance.
Whatever is locked up in your heart, ask it! Confess it! Even if you have to start anonymously, take a step forward. You will be heartened by the responses, by how much you find you have in common with believers around you, by the fact that you’re not alone and that there are very likely answers or at least information for your dilemma.
I often tell my students that the only foolish question is the question you don’t ask. I like to think that’s true for believers, too.