Rob Bell (Love Wins), Brian McLaren (Naked Spirituality) and I (Stumbling Toward Heaven) all released new books in March. All have drawn fire for questioning aspects of the faith, mine in sparks compared to Bell’s inferno.
It is one thing for non-believers to point out Christianity’s paradoxes and problems but quite another for insiders to do so. Especially those who are, or have been, trusted pastors and teachers. What right do we have to betray those looking for spiritual guidance?
The Apostle Paul scrupulously avoided causing others to stumble:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)
And there is Christ’s stern warning in Luke 17:1-3:
Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.
So why raise thorny issues and harmful doubts that can trip people up? I hesitated to do so for years and mostly kept my aberrant thoughts to myself. But over time my life-experience broke down my reserve, and when I decided to write about my cancer I resolved to be completely candid. Autobiographies that leave out the messy stuff strike me as disingenuous. I don’t mean to be controversial by sharing personal struggles; I just don’t sweep them under the rug.
Turns out I’m not alone.
The scriptural warnings about stumbling people are balanced by other texts. The book of Psalms is full of complaints, doubts, frustration and whining. Ecclesiastes is so steeped in empirical arguments and skepticism that some think it shouldn’t be in the Bible at all—but it is.
Many Bible luminaries had periods of questioning God or his ways, e.g., Job, Moses, Gideon, Elijah, Jonah, the list goes on. These men all received some sort of resolution in this life—but not everyone does.
Painful circumstances or unfulfilled expectations can breed doubts. Second thoughts about Jesus plagued John the Baptist after he was thrown in prison. The disciples were undone by the crucifixion until the risen Lord consoled them. It took Thomas a little longer to come around because his experience lagged behind theirs.
Many saints have agonized through the “dark night of the soul” and we draw encouragement from their transparent writings. Not all waited to voice their confusion and concerns until they could do so in the past tense. Neither must we.
Some of us who chronicle our faith-journeys in real time believe that sharing our painful struggles and honest questions will be more helpful than harmful in the end.
Only God knows if we’re right.