Black Sheep, Doubt, and Unburdening

The Problem is Not So Much the Experience of Doubt but the Denial of its Existence in the Life of the Believer

Guest Contributor / 7.13.20

This thoughtful post comes from Trevor Almy:

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been at least mildly eccentric; that is to say, I don’t conform to the cookie-cutter, southern Christian stereotype. Growing up, my idiosyncrasies accentuated my feelings of weirdness in a church where the “standard” Christian youth was a high-performing student athlete. Because I was told that cultural expectations, such as being good at sports and school, were part of the Christian faith, I became troubled in my adolescence when I discovered that my personality was different. I began to question whether or not I belonged in the church. After all, my hobbies centered around comics, R. P. G.’s (role-playing games), books, video games, and writing. I was a veritable nerd. Thus, I forged friendships with others in the world of geekdom. At home, at church, and at play, I was a black sheep. The thing about my story, about being a strange kid, is that it is not uncommon. Many grow up in Southern churches feeling like the black sheep.

The black sheep, though, is still a sheep. The tendency among those who are offbeat in the church is for them to withdraw and find a sense of belonging somewhere else. That’s probably one reason why droves of millennials have left the church. Although I have now decoupled the expectations of cultural Christianity from the gospel and realized how the narrow confines of Southern church-ianity have little to nothing to do with Biblical faith, this discovery did not come without much existential suffering and walking through valleys. I now see that the Christian life draws in those Flannery O’Connor would call the “freaks.” Intrinsic to the notion of the freak or black sheep is the experience of doubting or questioning the norms around oneself, as well as feeling a number of negative emotions, like rage, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and grief–things the church, either directly or indirectly, teaches us to keep hidden.

Pastor Rankin Wilbourne calls the ebb and flow of Christian belief and emotions “the law of undulation.” Undulation means to go up and down. Faith rises and falls, he says. He juxtaposes the Israelites’ different responses in Exodus 15 and in Exodus 16, when they quickly shift from rejoicing in their deliverance at the Red Sea to grumbling about their hunger in the wilderness. Wilbourne says that, for Israelites and for us, faith’s wavering is not abnormal but normal: “Undulation is not a crisis of faith. It is part of the life of faith.”

The problem is not so much the experience of doubt but the denial of its existence in the life of the believer. We suppress our doubts and do not express them in the context of a community of grace and understanding. Rankin goes on to describe what this does:

Because we rarely talk about it [the undulation of faith], it creates a crisis. We don’t like to admit this about ourselves. Up. Down. [Doubt] makes us look wobbly. We don’t want to look unstable. We don’t want to look weak. So we often don’t give others the space or the room to express what they are really feeling or going through, to the point where it doesn’t feel safe, especially among the pretty and clean, to admit what is going on in your life. … if you don’t talk about it, it either leads to superficiality or withdrawal. You will think I don’t belong here, among these happy people.

Furthermore, Wilbourne says that if we don’t talk about doubt (or by extension any negative emotions), we become used to expecting little of God. And if we do not acknowledge our own fickleness, we will place our confidence in ourselves instead of in God’s grace.

When the church is afraid to address negative emotions, when we suppress our doubts, it actually causes us to be unprepared to deal with suffering. By stuffing our feelings or trying to medicate them with social media, Netflix, or the Internet, we are not addressing reality. So when tragedy manifests itself (as it inevitably does), we will be unfit to confront it. When you get fired and can’t pay the bills, there isn’t much to turn to. You can binge-watch Tiger King on Netflix. You can go drinking with friends. You can view pornography. You can read a book. But sometimes the bravest thing to do is to sit in your loneliness. Sometimes the most courageous act is to inhabit your anxiety.

But sitting with your negative feelings isn’t the same as being alone. God does not intend for you to continue on your journey solo. God is with you and calls you into a confessional community, where we can be transparent about our problems and find an oasis of authenticity for the nomadic soul wandering in a desert of superficiality.

A friend of mine, Branden Henry, has written about how the church’s crusade against emotions in this century is ironically driven by our fear to process unpleasant feelings. We are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) and allow for others to unburden themselves. Let’s read or even sing the psalms of lament (Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 90) and share each other’s losses in a way that social media does not allow.

So to all my fellow black sheep: You don’t have to deny your doubts to reside in the kingdom of faith. What if doubt is the handmaiden of faith? What if God works through our doubts to enhance our faith? What if your valley really is a valley of vision? Doubt may be a faith-in-questioning, which God not only invites but honors with greater faith.

It is through the dialogue of doubt, when we are vulnerable before God, that he augments our faith. We learn to rest not in neat theological answers but in the God who is there and lifts us into a place of greater trust.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.