I’m getting better at saying “I don’t know,” which is kind of a big deal for a girl who has spent most of her life in a tradition that values Right Beliefs.
I was a happy girl. In high school, I had a lot of friends, I was the editor of my high school newspaper and the lead in several plays. Later, I got into a good university, had a variety of jobs I liked, traveled and did a lot of things I wanted to do. But in the midst of my happy life, I suffered crippling bouts of anxiety and depression. Sometimes, that would look like not being able to get out of bed to go to class or work. Other times, it played out in paranoia about being carjacked, or being convinced that every niggling pain in my body was a deadly disease, dormant for years, that was now going to kill me.
I used to beg God to take it away. And I believed that if I just knew God better – if I believed in Him better, if I was a Good Girl with the Right Behaviour and the Right Beliefs, then somehow everything would fix itself.
In 2012, on this very blog, I talked about what I jokingly called “Know-vember”, which was just a month of me praying and secretly hoping that at the end I would somehow be certain of God’s existence. I was 30.
When Simon and I were first married, before we had children, we lived near my hometown in rural North Carolina. Simon worked in my dad’s music store, and one day a guy who came in regularly to play the guitars told him his small country church was looking for a youth pastor, and asked Simon if he’d be interested. We agreed to come to a Sunday evening service to scope it out.
I don’t know how to explain to you how surreal it is for your English husband, who grew up on the last stop of the Metropolitan Line, whose band you have watched play at the Cafe de Paris in London’s West End, to sit with you through a dinner of chicken ‘n’ dumplins in a tiny fellowship hall in Harnett County, North Carolina.
After dinner, we moved into the sanctuary – a brick building with white walls, wooden pews, and pale green carpet – and sat down near the front, where the guy who’d invited us motioned for us to join him. I don’t remember a lot about that night’s sermon – there was a visiting “evangelist” who was actually a really nice young guy and, I’m fairly sure, is still my facebook friend (although I don’t do much facebooking these days.) (Also, in hindsight, I’m not sure why there was an evangelist at a Sunday meeting of regular church members, but I digress).
I do remember that before the service, a deacon stood up to welcome everyone and introduce the speaker. Before he sat down, he said this:
“If you’re only 99% sure you’re saved, I’m 100% sure you’re not.”
People who are certain make me itchy. Maybe most of all because I used to be one of them. My very strong opinions about those Right Beliefs were a mask I wore to hide the fact – even from myself – that I was actually scared to death of that one per cent of doubt.
At the beginning of 2018, when I finally started to be honest with myself about my questions, I wrote these words:
“What’s your worst fear? Mine is that I’ll ask God to speak to me and be met with silence. Mine is that I’ve built my entire life on a fable.”
For decades, I shoved all my doubts down, down, down where no one else could see them. We don’t talk about those things – not in the Baptist church I grew up in, not in the charismatic church where I spent much of my adulthood. Well, I think we gloss over them. We might mention them to make ourselves sound more like One of the People, but there are certain things we just don’t say, some questions we just don’t ask.
I went for a walk with a friend the other day who is one of the most delightful humans I know. He and his wife are radically generous with their home and their resources. I’m fairly sure that about 20% of the things we own were given to us by them. I asked him about it once – about how they can give so much so freely – and he told me that he almost feels selfish when he gives things away, because God always provides more for him.
We were walking through the fields near his house, and I told him about how, after our friend Zoe died, I started wondering if God was real. And he said, “I wonder that most days.”
Who told us certainty was a virtue?
I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about that deacon’s statement in the last decade; “99 percent sure”?
Try, like, three.
That thought would have terrified me years ago. I’m not sure I was ever more certain than I am now, but I was convinced I had to be.
That three percent usually shows up when I’m standing in the woods, watching the sunlight diffuse through the leaves of a silver birch. Or sometimes when I’m in child’s pose on my yoga mat, my palms facing the sky in surrender. Or at the kitchen table, with empty wine glasses and plates scraped clean, the twinkling eyes of my friends reflecting the candlelight. Or in the warm breath of one of my children on my shoulder on the nights they make their way into my bed.
I thought if I just tried really hard, if I read the right books and listened to the right sermons; if I just kept “pressing in” (a favourite phrase of my charismatic community), then eventually I would get to this place where I was really, really 100% sure (I’d settle for 99) that God was real, and, maybe more importantly, that I was Doing God Right, and all my fear and anxiety would dissolve in the light of my sureness.
But here is the twist in tale:
I let go of my need for certainty, and it healed me. I let go of my black-and-whites, of my idols of rightness, of blindly following the leader, of all the things I used to think were non-negotiables – opinions about Who Is Out and Who Is In, the Right Way to Experience God, and How to Be a Nice Girl…
I loosened my grip, and found myself in a place that’s spacious and expansive and true.
I have never been less certain; I have never been more at peace.