I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life. Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse. And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time. Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.
But others in the same context will react in a totally different way. They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith. I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry. I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.
In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith. They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith. My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else. I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.
But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster. When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for. Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them. The rest of the church tends to respond: some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.
I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions. That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution. But I did learn to ask the questions differently. I present them as questions that I and others struggle with. I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people. I might present a milder version of the question. I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.
But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question. And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith. They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational. But someone will do it at some point.
It will hurt, I will be angry. But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation. I no longer feel the need to defend my faith. I believe. Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe. I have given myself to God through Jesus. That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.
Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place. I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.
May the peace of God be with you.