Once upon a time there was a boy who knew everything. I had all of the answers, and I legitimately thought I could answer any Bible question. And to be honest, I could answer basically any Bible question someone in my tradition asked because most people within it, including myself, weren’t at a place to ask the kinds of questions that would later stump me.
In other words, since we were all working from basically the same place, the questions we all asked were typically things I had already studied as someone who loved to talk about and think about the Bible, so they were never too difficult to answer. Even if I couldn’t answer the questions, there was probably a “brotherhood” book or website out there that had the answer (“brotherhood” is what we call other people in my tradition so we don’t have to use the more common word “denomination”).
As I grew in my faith and began to encounter questions that I didn’t feel like had been sufficiently answered, I saw that there was a whole biblical world to be discovered: a world of mystery, wisdom, and nuance.
The “easy” questions I had given “easy” and “obvious” answers to as a younger man were suddenly not so easy and not so obvious.
While these questions were exciting at first, as they continued to multiply so did my anxiety. The faith I inherited was one of certainty, easily won debates, and a kind of spiritual supremacy. While I had heard some ministers, including myself, say that they could always answer a question with “I don’t know,” the expectation was that those questions could be answered eventually.
But as I continued to frantically search for answers, my “I don’t know” seemed like it would never be satisfied as long as I functioned under the paradigm in which I was raised, so a paradigm shift was necessary to cope with the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty.
This is when my faith began to move from the simplicity with which I was raised and the complexity I had developed to help with the collapse of simplicity to the perplexity of being totally at a loss for words.
The book hadn’t been written yet, but Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt eventually provided me with the language to understand what I was going through at the time.
And so my first major season of perplexity was riddled with doubts, fears, anxiety, and spiritual turmoil as I tried to find my footing upon a ground that, for me, no longer existed.
As I prayed, read my Bible, read other books, and listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts, lectures, and audiobooks, I began to see that a movement into harmony was possible. Eventually, I emerged from perplexity, and my “I don’t knows” took on a new meaning: instead of just being another question to conquer, they inspired a sense of wonder and awe for the Creator of the universe and the great Mystery. I began to see that my expectations for 100% certainty were unrealistic and were a form of idolatry, as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 8.
But one thing I learned from my friend Brian is the these four stages are more like rings of a tree or annual seasons than steps up a ladder. In other words, we are constantly moving through and among these stages as we progress through life.
For example, a few weeks ago I looked at the stack of books on my desk and saw that I was mostly reading books on church growth, discipleship, and youth ministry. All of the sudden it hit me: I’m in complexity again! Complexity, for those of you who don’t know, is the season of your life marked with an emphasis on production, numbers, and success.
Following this realization, another thought came to mind: if I’m in complexity now, it must mean that perplexity is looming on the horizon.
And, sure enough, it hit. For about ten days or so, I felt that overwhelming sense of dread, pessimism, and general hopelessness. I found it almost impossible to answer e-mails, respond to texts of concern, and read, write, and record like I usually do. Of course, I was able to put together a sermon and fulfill my usual duties, but I didn’t feel like I was in a good place.
And so what did I find myself doing as I began to emerge from perplexity? I felt an urge to revisit podcasts I hadn’t considered in awhile, explore passages that are awe-inspiring, and come up with fresh ideas for classes, podcasts, and articles that are more rooted in harmony.
While it was difficult, I think this short season of perplexity was necessary to keep my expectations rooted in reality and to keep my focus on God. While I was in it, it wasn’t fun, but I knew that it was only temporary and that I would emerge eventually.
I still feel the lingering affects of this season, but me simply sitting down to write this article is a sign that we are on an upward trajectory yet again.
Or maybe that’s the wrong language.
Perhaps we are always on an upward trajectory and these seasons of depression and frustration are just part of that upwards journey that we incorrectly interpret as a setback while we are feeling the effects of it, but, in the end, it is a necessary stop in our ongoing walk with Christ.
For more information on my faith journey, I’ve written a book called “How a 25-Year-Old Learned He Wasn’t the Only One Going to Heaven.” Be looking for an important update on that book within the next few days!