It’s a common story that I’ve heard among my Christian friends - grown up in the Church and currently an active member of the faith. But somewhere in the middle, there is the story of the Exclusionary Years. That is, those years of questioned faith. The Exclusionary Years are those times where doubt of God is so deeply imbedded in our lives that we are “lost” or “fallen;” we are excluded from God and the Church, both by choice and church-imposed classification. For some, it’s associated with adolescent rebellion at 14 or 15. For others, it’s college-age questioning or adulthood apathy. Regardless, it’s doubt.
The Excluding Language of Doubt
Doubt does not necessarily correlate with exclusion, but our language strongly hints that the Church has taught us to believe it does. Phrases like: “Back when I was an atheist,” or “I remember as an agnostic…” or even “I struggled with doubt back then,” riddle our conversations and testimonies. Even my personal story reflects this. I was a passionate, Spirit-filled, Bible-reading, baptized pre-teen who transformed into a young adult church planter. But if you talked to me between the ages of 14 and 20, I would have told you I was agnostic. In those days, my observed hypocrisies of the Church, frustration with a sinner’s-prayer-free-pass-to-heaven theology, and lack of vehicle for worshipful expression led me to a string of doubts that God was anything but good. I put my faith in philosophies that actually made logical sense to me. Those like objectivism - where if we would all simply embrace our selfishness and individualism we could escape the hypocritical selflessness I saw all around me. Ayn Rand’s Anthem was my bible and Ron Paul was the incarnation.
A man named Jesus changed these philosophies by showing me hope that contradicted objectivist teachings. However, following that moment I looked back at my years of doubt with disdain. They had become Exclusionary Years for me - years where I was without Jesus, without Church, and without faith. Years that I would look back on and decisively state that Jesus saved me from that life… or so I forced myself to believe. Was that really true, though? Did I read scripture any less? Study less often? Contemplate the divine with less imagination? Probably the opposite. Sure, there was not much service or love for my neighbor in these years, but that was not a part of my prior Christian experience anyways. In contrast, it was my exposure to Jesus subsequent to the years of doubt that taught me love and embrace of neighbor, poor, and oppressed - possibly such that I would not have comprehended it without those years of objectivist philosophy. Perhaps these were not years of exclusion from God but instead those of struggle with him.
The Inclusivity of Doubt
In Genesis 32:22-32, we are told the tale of a man named Jacob, who wrestles with an unknown foe whom he cannot overcome but will not let go. Jacob demands the foe bless him, and the foe renames him “Israel,” which means something like “struggles with God.” (A side note that Jacob’s father was named Isaac (meaning “Laughter”) because his parents laughed at God.) The man who struggles with God, grandson of those who laugh at God, became a foundation for Judeo-Christian faith, yet in the modern church, we label doubt as exclusion from God rather as struggle with God. In doing so, after the wrestling match we forget that during the struggle we were in such an embrace of God that we could neither overcome him nor let him escape. We speak to those in the midst of doubts as if they are light years away from God, when in reality they have God in a headlock, demanding, “Bless me!”
In order to move forward, we must be willing to embrace our doubts and the doubts of others. Let’s do away with the Exclusionary Years by asking more questions, thinking more critically, and experimenting with our story. Our struggles and laughter at God may lead us in new directions - those that we can only comprehend by being a part of the struggle. Not everyone’s story ends like mine. Many friends find refuge away from the narrative of Jesus or continue to wrestle. But wherever we find ourselves, let’s embrace doubt together and keep telling the stories.
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