A Life of Questioning, Uncertainty, and Faith

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The story wasn’t true. But the truth was in the story.

During my years of active psychology practice, other professionals often referred me “difficult” young persons, especially teenagers, whom they felt might be too disturbed in character to respond to traditional counseling methods. Most of the time, I found these purportedly difficult persons to be quite delightful to work with. And for the most part, I found them most generally to be rather lost souls, born into a conflicted and unhealthy environment and struggling desperately to find meaning in their lives.

Many times, these young persons verbalized deep concerns about their core beliefs and in particular their faith. Most were raised within a specific religious discipline and were having some significant misgivings about the things they officially professed to believe. Some even questioned the validity of religion in the first place. One young man was particularly in turmoil about what he was supposed to believe about the Bible. Was he supposed to really believe that every word in it was accurate and true? Was he supposed to simply ignore the apparent contradictions and mixed messages contained in its various passages? Being a psychologist and not a spiritual advisor, I never directly addressed religious or spiritual issues. But I was always careful to establish an atmosphere in which my clients felt free to bare their souls.

I like to think I learned a lot and became wiser each time I was afforded the opportunity to share the intimate internal struggles these young persons shared with me. Watching them grow spiritually as well as psychologically impacted my own spirituality more than they probably will ever know. One particularly sensitive and insightful young man from a fundamentalist background told me that he had come to his own determination about what he could actually believe was the unquestionable truth. He also told me that he had reconciled within himself that a story didn’t have to be historically or factually true in order to have profound truths embedded within it. He gave an example of the popular fable about the boy who cried wolf. He had no doubts that there probably never really was such a boy in a village who did such a thing but that the message of the story was as timeless and as sublimely true as a message could possibly be. The story wasn’t true. But the truth was in the story. Smart kid.

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My youngest son is now an adolescent going through his own questioning. It’s actually been inspiring to me to observe him winding his way through this necessary process. Watching him find his purpose, bring meaning into his life, and define his core beliefs is both humbling and edifying. He’s a good kid. And his soul-searching is genuine and sincere. He’s an old soul, just as certain to find his own path as he is to inspire others along theirs.

I have always been more than a little skeptical of those who claim to have all the answers. It’s not so much because such individuals must of necessity be fooling themselves but because in my experience, doctrinaire rigidity and inflexibility are the surest signs of impoverished faith. Faithless people need to be right. And their rigidity seems not only to quiet their own internal doubts, but also to help them feel superior to the common, lost, and questioning crowd. Problem is, there’s not really very much room for a God when you’re the one with all the answers yourself (regardless of what you claim is the source or the justification for your self-assuredness).

Most of the saints I know have been those who openly acknowledged their questioning and uncertainty. Yet these folks have also been individuals of impressive and unwavering faith. Recently, the wife of a deacon in our church confided to me that she and her husband had been reading one of the works of a theologian who had been officially condemned by the hierarchy for his beliefs. She indicated to me that neither she nor her husband had found anything in his writings that went against any crucial beliefs, but that he was fairly critical of the institutional policies and practices that seemed to violate the spirit of the faith. “Hmmm,” I replied. “Sounds a lot like Jesus.” Then we shared a smile.

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