Stories of Doubt is a Doubters Anonymous series featuring the reflections of members of the community. Stories are shared in a spirit of understanding and healing, and reflect the personal beliefs and experiences of the person sharing, not necessarily the group as a whole. We are always accepting new stories and would love to hear yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My spiritual experience seems too much to put into words. I attempt snippets and snapshots, but to encompass my life experience in the church and now out of it feels like painting every tree in a forest. Well, here goes nothing:
I grew up in a conservative Christian home. From a very young age, I was aware of myself spiritually and interested/concerned about my interactions with God. Being enrolled into a Christian school, supported by our almost-cult of a church, I learned how to measure myself against others and against a very high standard. I was graded on my report card for my ‘Christ-like-ness’. I’m not sure if I ever made A’s, although I definitely strived to keep with rules and in the good graces of the adults in charge.
When I was twelve, I had an existential crisis that threatened my previous Christian upbringing and then ended up embedding it further. The need for ultimate meaning has always run deep inside me. So I became ‘sold out’ and was often a leader among my peers in youth group and on a worship team throughout high school. Worship leading seemed to be my calling. I aspired to it. I learned guitar, began leading small campfire sessions and then congregations. I wrote worship songs and looked to my mother, also a worship leader, for tips and wisdom.
At eighteen, I had no desire for college, so I joined YWAM and the next six years were heavily permeated by YWAM culture: discipleship training school, school of worship, apologetics school, and being on staff for these same programs. Most of it was different from my hodgepodge experience of Baptist beliefs, some hyper-Pentecostal trauma, and my parents being burnt out on church after our earlier cult-church days. It was richer. Thicker. I was taught more about the Holy Spirit, the Father Heart of God, and impressed to reach the nations because ‘How can people have faith in the Lord and ask him to save them, if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear, unless someone tells them?’ (Rom. 10:14) You know the shtick. At the same time, this community and the encouragement towards personal vision and passion is rare to find so concentrated in the working world. I lived in a house with forty other girls at one point (hello, housing codes) and we ate, slept, worked, and prayed alongside each other. I continued my pursuit of worship leading and became worship director of the base. Six years of YWAM accumulated and I burnt out. I left YWAM, moved back to my home state of New York, and continued to ‘press in’ to my faith in a bleak spiritual landscape, without community. The struggle to regain the ‘glory days’ of my early twenties never fully ended. I moved back to Maui, Hawaii where I had spent most of my missionary days. I dated another worship leader and powered through a very unhealthy relationship until I had nothing left to give. Perhaps this relationship was one of the main catalysts for budding doubt. As much as I clung to God and my faith that He had everything in control, shockwaves began to happen a year after that relationship ended. I had felt so strongly that God was ‘in it’, through innumerable confirmations that weren’t just superstition or wishful thinking. As I was shipwrecked from all the goings-on in that dynamic, I knew I needed to leave Maui. Again, signs, strangers, airlines all pointed to Austin, Texas. So I took another leap of faith and went.
This is where a journey of faith catapulted into a journey of doubt. Slowly but surely, the threads began unraveling. Through hard and honest conversations with friends who had left the church, through hitting a wall of spiritual exhaustion and resentment, through gradually indulging curiosities in other belief systems and practices, I told God I needed a break. I wanted to wipe everything clean off my table of beliefs and see what found its way back to me. I told God that I had pursued Him my whole life. If He wanted me back, He could chase me down.
Even in the midst of that, I helped start a small church with other leaders that accepted me exactly where I was at spiritually. They trusted me as a person, not simply because they could count on my doctrine. I dated and fell in love with an atheist and at twenty-nine years old, gladly celebrated my first sexual relationship. I was vague with my family about the changes happening, but I got concerned letters and links in e-mails to Ravi Zacharias’ YouTube videos on apologetics. I had family friends tell me that my parents were concerned and then tried prying into my process. My sister broke down over the phone, confessing she didn’t feel like we could talk about deep things if I wasn’t in the same place spiritually. All these things I understood from my former position in Christendom, but from where I stood now, the pangs of others’ disappointment, pity, and assumptions hurt at every turn.
Over the past three years, my inner freedom and inner turmoil have taken turns. Sometimes they do a little dance. Sometimes they wrestle and pull hair and try to gouge each other’s eyes out. I no longer identify as a Christian but I am struggling to make sense of the deep connection I had/have with Someone/Something my whole life and honestly, can still connect to. Recently, I prayed – and I don’t really pray anymore. I had this old familiar peace fill my whole body. It’s difficult. Difficult to make sense of what it is and what it isn’t. I hesitate to engage or embrace parts of my past because I’m not sure how it might ‘rope’ me back into a mindset or worldview I can’t intellectually get behind.
I do miss the days of ‘knowing.’ I would like to know something spiritually again. I would like it to make sense. I believe in a few things like beauty, love, compassion, and justice – but I miss an overarching narrative along with it. Doubt is healthy, exciting, and it’s also disorienting. All of the time, I feel raw and cut open with little to sew me up. No clear remedy or answer has stepped forward to meet me. So I take comfort that others are also wrestling and questioning and maybe staying open to uncomfortable realities – be that atheism or spirituality or something in between. It’s a beautifully brave tension to hold.
Sue Fluger can be found at her blog, Pondering of a Pixie.