During this past year, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between questions, doubt, and hope. It has certainly been a year full of questions and uncertainty but I at the most unexpected times, I have also been surprised by hope. I think these three are partners in our growth process.
Sometimes we hear it taught and preached that we should not doubt, and we should not question; we should simply trust and believe. Honestly, I find many problems with that approach to faith. Usually when someone takes this approach, they are asking me to trust and believe, not in God, but in their understanding or concept of God. When I run into people who possess an absolute certainty about who God is and how God works, I find it wise to approach with a healthy skepticism. Claiming to have all the answers about faith seems to be the opposite of trusting in a God of Mystery. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God says to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways….As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts.” It is easy to create God in our own image, but in this verse humility is encouraged before the mystery of God.
The ability to wonder, to ask questions, and to be okay with not-knowing…that seems to be the stuff of faith to me. In a sermon St. Augustine said, “If you understand it, it is not God.” (Sermon 117 on John 1:1). God is Mystery and not a doctrine that can be explained in human words.
Author Sue Monk Kidd wonders: “What has happened to our ability to dwell in unknowing, to live inside a question and coexist with the tensions of uncertainty? Where is our willingness to incubate pain and let it birth something new? What has happened to patient unfolding, to endurance? These things are what form the ground of waiting. And if you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re also the seedbed of creativity and growth—what allows us to do the daring and to break through to newness. . . .Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling but in upheaval. Yet the seduction is always security rather than venturing, instant knowing rather than deliberate waiting.” She talks of creativity, unfolding, endurance, and growth all being the products of questions and doubt. And to this list I would add hope. It is in the midst of doubt and uncertainty that we are invited to place our hope in the Ground of All Being. It is in the time of not-knowing that we hope for light and direction, even if clarity doesn’t exist.
Brian McLaren shares how he realized this during a time of deep doubt and perplexity in his life. He says, ”A verse I had memorized in my childhood came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God. Would I be able to doubt my understanding of God while simultaneously trusting God beyond my understanding? In a strange way, that question for the first time in my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God.” How profound! I can trust and hope, not in the God of my own understanding, but in the God that is a Mystery and beyond anything I can imagine. When we speak of God, the best we can do is use metaphors—human descriptors for a divine spirit beyond our knowing. No language is adequate to describe the holy. So, it seems that it is our wondering and our questioning, and not our certainty, that leads to a creative and hope-filled faith. Without doubt; without questions—there can be no growth.
So, perhaps what I should be striving for is not absolute certainty, but to be okay with not-knowing. To trust not in my own knowledge, but in the One who is beyond my knowing. To believe not in what I believe about God, but to believe in the God beyond my understanding. In doing this my questions and doubts lead me to hope in the Divine Mystery. The foundation of my faith shouldn’t be ideas, doctrines, or opinions, but rather a Divine Spirit which can never be fully known. If the focus of faith is that Divine Spirit of Love, then the focus of my living can become a life centered on sharing that Spirit of Love with others rather than living up to and adhering to a set of doctrines (which may or may not have love at its core). For me, the doubt, the questions, the not-knowing leads to a dependence and a hope that rests in a Divine Mystery that can be trusted to sit with me in my doubt and walk with me through the valley.
Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions (Harper, San Francisco: 1990), 25.
Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 87, 88, 91.