The Devil’s Doorway by John Herron

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. James 1.6

I remember the first time doubt seriously assailed my soul. I was 26, a young assistant pastor, and my friend had just succumbed to stage four brain cancer. She was bright, beautiful and full of zeal for life and Jesus, singing in the church, teaching the children in the Good News club, always smiling and laughing and taking the mickey out of me every chance she got. She thought the recurrent headaches were down to tiredness and taking on too much to do; but then there came the devastating diagnosis, and with it 8 years to live. Although many were praying for her healing and prophesying that she would be fully recovered, she survived only 6 weeks. She was 22 years old.  I participated in the funeral service, outwardly spoke of our steadfast Christian hope, our confidence in the mysterious ways of God, so much higher than ours, and of our courage in the face of even death. Inwardly however, I was fracturing and couldn’t make sense of it at all. In the aftermath of her loss, I heard repeated over and over the same Christian platitudes, about how she was now in ‘a better place’, having ‘run her race’ and ‘obtained the prize’, being ‘absent from the body and present with the Lord’. I wanted to rejoice in those sentiments, but a quiet part of me struggled. She was only 22 for frig sake! It felt like an outrageous theft had just occurred, and we were doing our best to blanket it over with well-worn clichés and sentimental, spiritual piety. It was my first sustained season of troubling doubt, and I was frightened at the unruly questions my mind was raising and so I learned to resist and suppress them, remembering what my religious superiors often warned me, doubt is the devil’s doorway in.

Over the next years however, I would continue to struggle with questions and mostly in painful silence and solitude, because in my strong evangelical community, doubt was not something to be openly acknowledging, especially as someone whose role it was to lead the way and give the answers. I was expected to be the confident Christian stalwart, someone whose exemplary faith was bullet-proof, who could quench dissent and doubt with the sword and shield of faith, and whose life’s mantra was ‘the bible says it, that settles it, I believe it’. If salvation was anything, it was about believing the right things about God, saying the right things about him, and convincing others to embrace the right things about him too. I remember how fervently I gave myself to this great pursuit, because either salvation mattered supremely or it mattered not at all. I couldn’t be one of those tip-their-hat Christians, who showed up for an hour on Sundays to pay their dues and then go on about the rest of their week like a heathen. Evangelism, prayer meetings, conferences, tent missions, Bible study, filled my days and nights and more than anything else I wanted to be a ‘soul-winner’ for Jesus. I even wore a little badge on my lapel that read ‘Jesus Saves’ on it, in the hopes that some seeking soul would ask me about it (the only person who ever did was an auxiliary nurse I met once in Daisy Hill who asked me what bank or building society he was saving with).

I guess that’s what made the onslaught from doubt so agonising for me. My life as it was had been built on those certainties, and my security and self-worth and sense of purpose were all wrapped up there. I knew where the lines were, and I knew on which side of them I stood, and who was standing on the wrong side. I could quote chapter and verse by heart to prove my correctness and argue with my detractors and opponents. I was totally certain… that is, until doubt came in the doorway.

It came quietly at first – a nagging question here, a new idea there, a conversation with a stranger over there whose insight and experiences threw into challenge the tidiness of my clean-cut and carefully ordered worldview. It came when I listened to preachers glibly talking about the eternal damnation of the non-Christian in hell fire, sometimes as if they almost relished in it. It came whenever I read the real story of the history of the church through the centuries, involving a lot of upheaval, diversity and change, a far cry from the succinct and streamlined version I had been presented with in my youth. It came when I learned about source, textual and literary criticism while studying theology at master’s level. It came when I met strangers whose doctrine or background or lifestyle were ones I had been taught to be wrong and unbiblical, only to discover such goodness and kindness and compassion there, sometimes far more so than in the Christians I knew who professed them. It came when I thought about the suffering of the world, the natural disasters, the persistent injustice, the thousands of children who die every week for no other reason than where they happen to be born. It came as I reckoned with the truth of my own identity, and my frantic, pointless attempts to change it. It came in the small hours of the night, it came when I least expected it, it came in the middle of prayer… it came, it pestered me and it undid my certainty.

Here I was in pastoral ministry, leading the worship of the faithful, and years of unquestioned assumptions about my faith were being nipped at by persistent doubts. It’s not hard to see how the devil’s doorway that had now creaked open would soon open wider still. No longer satisfied with easy answers or empty clichés, I started asking harder questions, especially about some of those things I always heard were non-negotiables. The reality of hell, the total inerrancy of the bible, the ability to know absolute truth, the role of power and culture in evangelicalism. I wrestled honestly with passages of scripture that seemed to condone genocide, slavery, and the submission of women, and came to believe that much bible literalism is not only often mistaken and problematic but also the cause of much harm and injury. I struggled to make sense of the pride, showmanship and hypocrisy within the church, and the professionalism of full time Christian ministry. There were times when my questions and struggles were so overwhelming, I wondered if I had anything left at all.

I once read that the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said that God is like a person who while hiding himself in the dark occasionally coughs and gives himself away. I remember how as kids we used to play 1/2/3. in our estate, and when my sister was ‘It’, how she would always take the longest time to find me as I would be crunched up in a coal bunker or wedged in behind some garage wall. After a while I got fed up and would deliberately make a nose, a cough or a sneeze, so she could at least look my way and her turn would be over!   I suppose for me, the reason why I haven’t collapsed into total unbelief has been because however clogged up my ears have been, I still hear those occasional sacred ‘coughs’. When I stand transfixed before an ocean or the starry night, or watching the wonder of a summer sunset, and feeling that inexplicable tug of the transcendent.  Whenever I feel within myself the stirrings of my own deep humanity, being moved with ecstatic delight at another’s joy or weeping at another’s loss and pain, and sensing the common image of the divine reflected in each one of us. Those times when I perceive an overarching purpose to even the worst and hardest of things and feeling that no matter how thorny the road may be, I actually am not alone, but am being accompanied on the journey even when I don’t realise it. Whenever I stand in a welcoming church to sing, hear and take communion with others and feel the healing of the gospel touching and warming my heart in a way too deep for words. And perhaps most supremely, whenever I think and read about the life of Jesus, the way he lived and spoke, his sheer wisdom, his deep compassion for the marginalised and outcast, the way he reprimanded and castigated the powers that be for their hypocrisy and double standards, his uniqueness, his tenderness, his courage in the face of hatred and death. If he is God with a face, then I’m just not ready to walk away from him because his life and message still compels me.  Such things have become for me the muffled coughs of God that I hear betimes along this path of dismay and discovery.  

In short, as I have gone on the most surprising thing seems to have happened and I have discovered something I never anticipated, something I was never taught in Bible school. That instead of being the devil’s doorway in, my doubts have led me through the doorway of a surprising rebirth, one in which I lost my old certainty, and with it the comfort of security and rightness, and into something that looks more akin to faith. The kind of faith that doesn’t need to resolve the mystery anymore but which is content to hold it with humility, and is willing to say ‘I don’t know’ a lot more often. The kind that isn’t defined by bullet-points of beliefs or lists of essential doctrines, but rather that is like a happy, lively relationship of a child with its parent, learning to trust, unafraid of questions, growing, rebelling, stretching, rebelling again, growing again… okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished. And most wonderfully, this is a faith no longer driven by fear or anxious about threats of divine vengeance, but is one growing up into the confidence that blossoms when love – beautiful, trusting, unconditional love – has become its persuasion: ‘there is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.’ (1 John 4.18).

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