There was a time in my life when I was terrified to open my mouth in the presence of Christians. I felt like everything I said was evaluated and judged, and people were constantly weighing my worth in the balances. If I said something that referred to a time in my life when I got in trouble or did something inappropriate I got dirty looks. If I asked questions about doctrine or God’s nature my questions would be dismissed with platitudes and condescension. Church became a place I felt rejected and insecure instead of loved and safe.
I recently came across this quote and it reminds me how important it is for church leaders to create a culture where openness and questioning is acceptable–a place where people can be honest about what they think about God and what questions they have.
Earlier, Willard talks about how this flows out of our desire to appear good in the eyes of others–we don’t want to reveal our doubts or be thought of as strange so we keep quiet and participate in a ‘conspiracy of silence’ that stifles honesty and vulnerability. We live not for God, but for the eyes of others, which he calls ‘eyeservice’.
I believe this is what I experienced in the past. People felt like certainty and unwavering faith were the mark of spiritual maturity. Conversely doubt and questions were the sign of immaturity, which was naturally remedied through some bible study groups and a consistent devotional life. I haven’t found that to be the case. In fact, with Soren Kierkegaard, I would argue that doubt isn’t a sign of no faith but the sign of the presence of faith. You can’t doubt if you don’t believe.
I also believe church is supposed to be a place where we can be honest. One of the core Christian disciplines is confession. We confess our failures so that we can receive healing. If a church culture stifles honesty and vulnerability, we won’t feel safe enough to confess our sins to one another. Consequently we won’t experience the liberation that comes from being totally honest in the presence of another person, and then hearing that person repeat the phrase back to you, “As a representative of Christ, you are forgiven.”
If you are in a place of leadership in the church, I encourage you to do all you can to contribute to creating a culture like this. Share vulnerably yourself. Accept others when they are honest. Welcome honest questioning and don’t shun doubt. Often times this sort of culture-creating work can be hard. We have to be the first to open up and share, but I’ve found that people welcome the honesty and respond in kind.