when i am carving a space for doubt.

cave light

Several months ago I was sitting in a counseling session, my arms wrapped around a pillow, which I assume was strategically placed in the chair so that nervous, rambling people like me would have something to hold. There was a little end table next to me with a clock, the time on which never failed to surprise me. Didn’t I just get here, and now it’s time to go?

I was sharing a deep joy with my counselor, which is not exactly the norm of what I disclose in that setting. I had come across an author, Julia Cameron, whom I was loving, whose work was meeting me right in the place where I was, which was saying something, because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was or how I got there. I certainly couldn’t have told someone else how to get there. But all the same, there we were.

My counselor smiled. “Julia is just one of those authors who shows up when you need her,” she said. “Julia’s books find you.”

I loved this. It was a little silly and a little esoteric and a little just right. It was a word aptly spoken.

A few weeks ago, this happened again, this books finding me phenomenon. Through a series of podcasts and social media posts, I was reminded of an author about whom I knew three things: his name, his father’s name, and the names of his two books. His name is Barnabas Piper, his father’s name is John Piper (heard of him?), and the names of his books are The Pastor’s Kid and Help My Unbelief.

Okay, so there’s one more thing I knew, at least subconsciously. I knew these books, in title alone, were (unnervingly, perhaps) in sync with my own life. I knew that I should read them. For some reason, about ten days ago, I finally decided to buy them. And, in keeping with my overzealous, nerdy ways, I read them each in one sitting, one on Saturday and one on Sunday.

There are about 1000 directions I could now take this post. I could take you nearly page by page through the books and show you how I felt like the words were reading me. I could take a few main points and talk about how I’ve seen them in my life and still do, whether as a ministry/pastor’s kid, a pathological doubter, or the inseparable intertwine of both. I could do my best to describe the immeasurable relief of the reminder and truth that doubt is not, necessarily, equivalent with unbelieving.

I may explore many of those thoughts further in later posts, but today, there’s one thing I’m (to employ an overused Christian phrase) “wrestling with” pretty fiercely, and it’s this:

I think the main reason these books connected with me so viscerally is that they carved out space within the conservative branch of evangelicalism in which I live for doubt, criticism, unlearning, relearning, and belief in the hope for a better way.

Is it just me or is that not something we do very well in some of our more buttoned up departments of this weird and wild faith? I applaud our progressive friends in this area. They are unafraid to ask questions and let them linger a while. But even as I clap, respect, read, and learn from these brothers and sisters, I can’t necessarily make a home for myself in their midst. There are parts of me, whether by upbringing or conviction or personality, that lead me toward a more conservative theological framework.

But there are days when I find myself bumping up against the sides of this house we’ve built in our corner of the world. There are times when I’m wondering why its ceiling isn’t a bit taller. There are times when I’m clawing at the walls. There are times when I think about some of the expectations my Southern-bred, nondenominational, homeschooled peers and I grew up under and I wonder what they actually have to do with Christianity.

(This is not a parental call out, by the way. My folks are well aware of my perpetual questioning and sorting. This is, rather, the confession of an evangelical who is still in her twenties and is still becoming herself and has her fingers crossed that she will learn how to be okay with that before she turns 30. We’ll see.)

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’ve been in the evangelical world for a long time, if not your entire life. There’s a good chance that you schlep suitcase upon suitcase of baggage associated with church around with you, that you could unpack layer upon layer of what you were told was right or wrong or pure or lovely or acceptable or distasteful. In all likelihood, so much of what you were taught is right on, in line with Scripture and the person of Jesus. In the same breath, it’s highly likely that some of what you carry around in the bag labeled “Christian” really should not be associated as such. It’s likely that some of it was culture, some of it was preference, and that some of it was downright toxic.

I imagine that there are several different reactions occurring as this piece is read. Some of you are, I hope, nodding. You get this. Some of you are nodding internally, not sure you’re bought in enough to give a physical sign of assent. Some of you are head-shaking or rolling your eyes, because this sounds at minimum not worth discussing, perhaps like whining, or at worst, like stirring up dissent.

While I doubt that I can give enough disclaimers to get everyone on my team for this conversation, I’ll offer a few. Much of what I’m pondering these days, what I’m seeking to shed and seeking to keep, is simply part of being human. We try things on to see how they fit. We grow up a certain way then realize there are other ways and maybe, to borrow an analogy fromThe Pastor’s Kid, we want to end up at the same destination as our parents or Christian culture of origin, but we’re going to drive in a different lane to get there (I’m talking in terms of style/preference/secondary issues here, not orthodoxy).

This post, or series of posts, is not going to end with me bailing on the faith or even shifting much from where I am, I imagine. My goal, really, is to be more honest about the fact that I am heavily in process, and that I think we, the community of faith, need more spaces to speak that truth. In my opinion, the meat of those conversations should happen face to face, friends on a couch. But I also think there’s a space for public process, for giving permission to others to doubt, to have questions and to adjust, not only by saying the permission exists but by modeling it ourselves.

Emily Freeman recently said, “Grief lives really close to passion & heart. When you access the grief, you can access that which makes you come alive.” As previous posts attest, I’ve “accessed” grief in deeper, more painful, more profound ways than ever before over the last two years. A switch flipped in my mind and heart that day in the doctor’s office, the day when the sonogram told us that Gabriel had a birth defect, that all was not well. And more switches have flipped so many days since then, ushering darkness into parts of heart and soul.

I am of the childlike belief that God is the only one whose light contains the power to dispel the shadows within, that His gift of calling and writing and desire inside me to create space for myself and others to breathe through shifting understandings of faith while remaining oriented to the truth is a manifestation of that light.

This is not, at all, the piece I sat down to write. I had something else on my mind, loosely related at best. But here we are. I hope this was for you, reader. If you’re a doubter or a questioner or a persevering yet pondering evangelical, know you’re not alone, and that you’re not doing it wrong just because you have screeching uncertainties. He is true, and He is near. That’s all I know, some days, and He says it’s enough.

Author: Abby Perry

Abby has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, Upwrite Magazine, and The Influence Network. She is the communications coordinator for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts—one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations and one supporting area foster and adoptive families. Abby graduated from Texas A&M University and currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her family live in College Station, Texas.

4 thoughts on “when i am carving a space for doubt.”

  1. Abby, I hope you will settle into being a questioner and a ponderer, and stay as one forever. Much as you’ve expressed, I had not grown up feeling like that was totally acceptable; although, my lawyer-father encouraged some questioning from us. But marrying my scientist, creationist, always thinking, questioning, pondering husband changed everything for me. And then around the dinner table, he taught our sons to question, and quite simply to Think things through. The conversations our family has even now on text or email about certain subjects would stun many people.
    So I hope that not only will you continue, but that you and Jared will raise the boys in an atmosphere that gives them the freedom to question, doubt, ponder, and choose how and why they believe what they do, but as you said, always within the secure knowledge of God being true and near.
    (Forgive the long comment?)

  2. I can’t remember how I stumbled across your blog, but I am so deeply grateful that I did. The way you wrote about Julia Cameron’s words reaching you is exactly how I feel about the way your words have reached me! I can’t thank you enough for writing honestly and vulnerably about doubt, especially doubt in a conservative theological framework. Much like you, I find myself endlessly wrestling with doubt but yet somehow unable to make a home in the progressive camp (which seems like the natural option for a serial doubter). Your words gave me hope that there are fellow-strugglers out there who are driving in another lane to get back home. Thank you again so much. I so look forward to continuing to follow your blog 🙂

  3. Great words. I’ve been read by books before. And I too struggle to be a doubter and skeptic in the midst of conservative evangelical circles where I otherwise fit best. I’m glad you chose to write about this today.

  4. Yes. Abby. So much head nodding going on here. I am mostly grateful for the conservative Baptist way in which I was brought up– but I have had much opportunity to question– not the clear truth of Scripture but the way in which we often misuse it to wound rather than to extend hope and healing to a world of broken ones. Including our own selves, most days.
    May you continue to see clearly and be encouraged that you aren’t alone.
    So glad to have found these words my fellow Hope*Writer!

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