Today’s post is the last in a series of stories and reflections from my time spent studying abroad in Central America. These are excerpts from my memoir in progress; stories that have shaped me, shattered my pretenses and preset beliefs, and sculpted the way I live and love and encounter God today. I hope in some small way, you can relate and be challenged to reflect more deeply on the experiences that have influenced you and your faith.
In Debt to Doubt
“Most early ‘God talk’—without self-knowledge and inner journey—is largely a sincere pretense, even to the person who consciously believes the language. The miracle of grace and true prayer is that they invade the unconscious heart and mind (where our real truth lies)—and thus really change us!” ~Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality
When I came back from study abroad, I didn’t know how to be me anymore. I didn’t know how to be anything real, except real angry.
At first I told everyone I knew about the things I had learned: the poverty and desperation, the culpability of the United States and the ambivalence of the church, the overwhelming consumerist culture and apathy of Americans. Since I hadn’t been eased into these new ideas in my study abroad program, I didn’t know how to lace my discoveries with grace. The time I used to spend confessing and listening to others, turned into a time of full-fledged assaults on anyone who would listen. I discovered that no one wanted to hear about garbage dumps and international trade agreements. They wanted to hear that I had learned a lot Spanish, visited a lot of places, and, most importantly, had a lot of fun. At first I was angry that no one cared. Small talk conversations with people from church and school left my cheeks flushed and burning, and my heart empty.
I eventually stopped talking. Stopped sharing. Stopped trying.
I meticulously planned my insurrection. I would go to chapel and Bible study, so no one would catch on that I didn’t give a shit. I would share just enough to allow my friends to believe that they were getting the whole story. I lied. I lived selfishly. I imploded.
I used to view this time as a rebellion. As a conscious choice to screw the world and do whatever the hell I wanted. Since then, I’ve been heartbroken for the pain I caused and relationships I fractured with my biting words and calculated lies.
But despite the heartache, I still find myself grateful for this time. Recently a friend called my reaction to my study abroad program as not so much a rebellion, but a rational rejection of two faulty ideologies: that either God only cares about me living up to a certain set of rules so that he can bless me or God only cares about the poor and hates me if I don’t sell everything I have and live in poverty, too. Ideologically, I’ve found a middle ground, which has allowed me to keep more friends and lose less sleep. But the real value of my “rebellion,” of this rejection of all I had known and known myself to be, was that in this darkness, in this absence of pretense and preset rules, I experienced God.
My semester abroad abolished all pretenses for me in relationship with God, in my faith, in my identity and my role in the world. My rejection of the known started me on a journey of self-knowledge and brought me to grace and true prayer. I am grateful for the questions I was encouraged to ask. For the anger that sparked honesty. For the breakdown that allowed Love to build me back up.
I’m still shaky on my exact theology and Bible interpretations. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Love is something I’ve experienced. I have a hard time celebrating Jesus’ work on the cross. I don’t really get why we glorify something so gruesome, so awful. I don’t really understand the atonement or who’s supposed to be going to heaven or hell.
But I can celebrate Jesus’ work in my own life. I can celebrate the grace I’ve been given. The freedom I’ve found.
And for this experience of Love, I owe a debt to doubt and to the One who taught me He can more than handle my questions.
Have you ever gone through a period of extreme doubt or rebellion in your life? How did you handle it? What did you learn from it? Do you feel comfortable with your doubts now?