BACK TO SCHOOL WEEK: High School and Doubts

Here’s an honest and important email from a student. I’ll insert my responses in the text.

Dear Brian McLaren,

Hi – just “Brian” is fine –

I am a high schooler, and I have been doubting my faith alot lately. I think I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that makes it hard to control my thoughts and doubts. I don’t know why but my doubts have been really directed at Jesus and the Bible. I really want to believe more than anything, but everytime I try to find my faith it leaves me. I’m so ashamed of myself. I won’t go to Hell for doubting will I?

Thanks so much for writing and sharing this. First, it’s quite natural – and even important – for people your age to question things. When we’re children, just about all of us believe just about everything we were taught, but when we reach young adulthood, we go through a tough but necessary process of asking questions and sorting things through and making our faith our own. Imagine what God would be like if God refused to let people ask questions, or if God were to send people to hell for having doubts. If that’s the case, most of the folks in the Bible are hopeless, because they had doubts – from Abraham to Moses to David to Jeremiah to Job to John the Baptist to Paul. So no, please remember that God loves you, and is with you as you grow and think for yourself and make your faith your own by testing it.
You mentioned OCD. I know a lot about OCD because some close family members struggle with it. All of us have a little OCD sometimes, but if you do feel your thoughts are obsessive – and especially if those thoughts are causing you pain or making you think of causing pain to yourself – I hope you’ll go see your doctor. Problems like OCD and depression are biochemical – they aren’t your fault, but are diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. I know if you had a friend who was suffering from OCD, you’d want her or him to get the best help possible, and I hope you will be a friend to yourself and do the same.

I read a webpage on blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and that’s when you believe Jesus was in league with the devil. Ever since that idea was presented before me, these little voices in my head are trying to convince me of that! I feel like the lowest Christian ever! I keep telling Jesus, I’m sorry and I’m not trying to do this to Him, but I’m afraid that He’s mad at me. I keep asking Jesus, “Will I ever believe again?”

When I read this part of your email, it brought back memories of something in my teenage years too. I went through something very similar. Let me assure you – anybody who is concerned about blaspheming the Holy Spirit isn’t doing it! If you were doing it, you wouldn’t even care! But please remember – Jesus defended people whom others wanted to condemn. He said he came to save and not condemn. So please remember that unlike some religious people, Jesus is on your side and he doesn’t want to drag you down. He understands, is not mad at you, and feels nothing but love and grace for you.

Is it a great lack of faith to try and lean on other Christians for help? I feel like I’m betraying God, by my questions are so probing, I can’t help it. What do I do?

— You’re already doing exactly the right thing. You’ve reached out to another Christian for help. The important thing now is to reach out to someone close to you whom you trust. I hope you could trust your parents, or a youth pastor, or a pastor, or maybe a teacher or counselor at school. But the important thing is to reach out for some help. If someone responds badly, realize it’s probably about them, not you – and keep searching until you find the right person.
Someday, I hope that all (or at least most!) churches will talk openly about doubt and questioning. It’s important for younger people to hear older people share their faith experiences – of great faith and of great doubt, because both are part of life. The Bible is very honest about both (for example, check out Psalm 77 and 88 for doubt), and we need to be as well.

P.S. You said on your doubt page that some of your “beliefs” were either wrong or right. Some were “keepers” and others had to be dismissed. This kind of added to my doubt because isn’t Christianity just one belief? The Scripture itself says, “You should not take from, or add to the Word of God.” I was just wondering what you were talking about there?

This is a really good question. First, when you say “Christianity is just one belief,” I think you mean that it’s one package, kind of like a wall, and you can’t take out one brick without the whole thing collapsing. Some versions of Christianity are like this, but I think those kinds of Christianity aren’t real helpful for thoughtful people like you. (And they’re positively destructive for people with OCD!) This is what a lot of people mean by “fundamentalism” – faith where every little piece is cemented in to one big structure and you can’t question any piece without threatening everything.
There’s another way to think about faith. It’s not a bunch of beliefs cemented together like a wall. It’s like a friendship with God. I’ve been in a deep friendship with God for most of my life, but at every point, some of my ideas or opinions about God were either incomplete or wrong. It’s the same (in a small way) with every human friendship. Nobody knows everything about you; even your best friend can misunderstand you at times. And that’s what I meant with God. If we can have a friendship with a human being without being 100% “right” in our thoughts about that person, of course with God we can have a friendship that doesn’t require us to be 100% correct. When it comes to God, nobody could possible be 100% right about everything, since there is so much about God that goes beyond our understanding. At least that’s how I see it.
So, I’m not talking about taking from or adding to the Bible. I’m talking about taking from and adding to your opinions, ideas, thoughts, and understandings about the Bible. That’s what growth and development and maturity are all about – learning more (which is adding to our understandings), leaving misconceptions or less mature perceptions behind (which is taking away), and so on. Maybe you can see that there’s a big difference between God’s Word and anyone’s understanding of it … right?
Maybe you could print off this conversation and bring it with you to someone you trust and it could help you start a conversation about these things in person. As much as I want to help, there’s only so much I can do from a distance, you know? But I want you to know that I have a lot of respect for you for writing, and for being a thoughtful and honest person – and you’re in my prayers today. And I think a lot of other people who read this blog will feel exactly the same way. Our love and respect for you is a tiny mirror reflecting God’s greater love for you. God understands and you’re safe with God.