Courageous Confessions: When You Doubt Your Faith (And You're the Pastor's Wife)

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Learning to ask big questions

…even those that seem too big for God

Dear Disillusioned and Doubting Pastors Wife, 

I showed up to everything. You know how it goes. The multiple weekly services and events. I hosted the meetings in my home, I prayed for people and I led the congregation in worship. I graduated from Bible School, I organized small groups. I gave wise, godly counsel—and I meant every word. 

I kept the subtle doubts lurking in the back of my mind at bay; I ignored them for a while. 

Then people began confessing to me their unbelief in droves. “I just don’t know that I believe in God anymore” was a statement I heard almost weekly. I listened patiently to these confessions, inwardly warring with questions of my own. The subtle doubts were turning into serious ones.

If this whole God-thing actually worked, why wasn’t it “sticking” for people? We preached discipleship and the healing, transformative power of God—but people were dropping like flies around me: either leaving Christianity or massively struggling with sin and destructive choices. It didn’t make sense. 

My string of questions lined up like an endless, heart-wrenching, run-on sentence: 

Why am I promising people their lives will change by following Jesus, when the ones inside the church seem worse off than the ones outside of it? 

Why are Christians still struggling, hurting and unhealthy, even by the worlds standards?

Why are so many Christians, supposedly transformed by Jesus, cruel and cold-hearted towards marginalized people? 

What does pursuing Jesus actually change in a persons life?

Does any of Christianity hold any power, any weight, any truth? 

My heart ached. Because of my questions, and because I was starting to grow leery of the place that had been home and safety to me: the Church. 

It felt like coming to terms with severe disfunction in your family. Like discovering horrible news about your parents and having to grapple with what that says about your upbringing, what it will mean for your future as an emotionally orphaned individual. 

I hated the thought of ending my relationship with the Church, but showing up was becoming unbearable. 

And my marriage. What would that mean for my marriage? How was I supposed to stand by his side and fulfill peoples expectations, when I wasn’t sure if I believed any of it? I knew my doubts could cause problems for us, which is what worried me most of all. I couldn’t lose my spiritual and my actual family. 

So I continued to show up. Sort of. I was at the church services, but almost never sat through an entire sermon. I used my child as an excuse to take a break from leadership. For the first time in my life I felt uncomfortable with praying out loud in front of people. I had no idea what to say to, or about, this God I was unsure of.

I knew how church-folk viewed doubters: we just didn’t read scripture the right way, we had secret sin, we were lacking community, we were too close to “the world”, we must not have truly experienced God—because if we had, there would surely be no doubt in our minds. 

The thing was, I had experienced God. I couldn’t get Him out of my head. I had heard God’s voice through prophesy and scripture and to my own heart since I was a child. In all my doubt and frustration, somehow Jesus still made sense to me. Only Jesus.

I spent months hiding my doubt, trying to keep my confusion with the church and restless spirit under wraps while still serving the people I was finding less and less in common with.

And then I stumbled upon some blogs. I had heard of some of them before, the reputations of scandalous women with their books, sermons, and crazy beliefs preceding them. 

I decided to throw caution to the wind and actually read one of their blog posts. I read one, and then another, and another… through the internet I found hundreds of people who had similar questions, who were working to see God’s Kingdom and peace come to our world. I saw a religion that made sense to me for the first time in a long, long time. 

I read the words of Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber, Audrey Assad. I read the blog of Sarah Bessey, who questioned the norms of the church but still found herself desperately in love with it, committed to it. She wrote books that pastored me, discipled me and reintroduced me to Jesus as I had first met Him. 

None of these women claimed to have a firm grasp on faith, only Jesus. Because for them, the mystery of God is part of what made Him real. Knowing nothing for sure but Jesus? Now that I could stand on. 

I realized that another way to do this whole God thing was possible—through the Only Way. Not the convoluted methods of evangelical culture; not the over-explained and starved “love” of christians more concerned with optics and rules than with the over-the-top mercy of Jesus. I came to realize what I found more exhausting and faith-killing than my questions, were the barriers, walls, and rules put up by christians. Rules that these christians themselves were not willing to follow. 

So I found my church in that season in blogs and on twitter feeds; the words of these women turned me back to Jesus and gave me courage to press on.

I let every question come to the surface: Is the earth actually young? What about the Big Bang theory or Evolution? Life on other planets? Did God command and sanction genocide? I read, I thought, I journaled, I stared blankly, I sat with the discomfort of the unknown. I nervously shared some of these questions with my husband, letting him in on the whirlwind in my head. 

And you know what I found? I found that the reason my husband loves me is not because of my ministry skills, ability to lead a small group, or unshakeable beliefs—but because of who I am. 

I found that the idea of an old earth lined up with what I know about God’s commitment to the long and slow work of creation, that God is logical and works in reality through science and matter and not in our imaginations—that an explosion in response to the sound of His voice that spurned creation is just as, or more, miraculous than what I learned about 7 Days in Sunday School. 

I learned that humanity has an awful habit of mishearing God, making him in our own image, claiming to speak for him, acting out of line with his heart and character, and recording it for posterity. 

I learned to ask myself what my doubts said about the character of God. Many times this led me to see His character in a broader, more wonder-filled light. I found that even if my doubts were trueI still believed. I made peace with questions, and held my answers loosely. 

Every question led me to understand God as being wilder, wiser, beyond every level of my comprehension. He was big enough to not depend on my belief for His existence, and yet not distant and intangible like I had thought; He was right in the middle of my life—in the wildness of nature and the order of science, in the madness of a mothers love. 

Through the dismantling of everything I had grown up believing, I found a foundation for belief in Jesus more honest, more steadfast, more difficult and more beautiful than anything I had tried to build before. 

As radical as this has been for my relationship with Jesus, it has not in the slightest simplified my relationship with the Church. That relationship status definitely still reads “complicated”. But I am at peace with it.

I love the church. I love existing within its walls, feet firmly planted, stretching my arms outside it as far as I can reach. That all who are far may be brought near. 

I love the reminders I find there: that I am imperfect, that I don’t have it all figured out. I love being challenged by people who think and believe so differently from me (Ok, maybe “love” is a generous term for that one), and I love the opportunity to encourage the church to look like the Jesus they preach. 

So within the church walls, I dig my feet in, not surrendering my place simply because I believe differently now. In the thick of my doubt, I needed to know it was possible to have these questions and still belong. I know for some, the only option is to leave. But I stay, because I know someone else might need me too. Here I am, sister. I stay here for you. 

Keep walking. Don’t be afraid to ask your questions. Left alone, they will burn a hole right through your heart, your whole life. Find your people, your safe places—I promise you are not as alone as you may feel. Misunderstood? Maybe. But never alone. 

This road is uncomfortable, humbling. You may lose your status in the eyes of other christians. It’s ok. Your dignity and approval were never theirs to give anyway. There will be the temptation to swing to the extremes of false surety or utter despair. Hang in there. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t give up. Exist in the uncomfortable middle and watch strength, humility, and grace of Jesus explode like wildflowers around you, within you.  

And through the doubt and the dismantling of your neat ideas of perfection and safety, you just might meet a man who dared to defy systems and powers. Who looked women right in the eye and spoke dignity and purpose, who invited his friends to walk with him on a wild adventure, who leaned in close to the hurting and needy and rejected. Who found community with those unrecognized and hated by the spiritually elite, who was misunderstood, who offended us all yet loved us recklessly. 

You just might find yourself meeting Jesus. 

Whitney ParnellComment