A guest post from Jessica Williams.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
– Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
Let me just begin with this: Every time I sit down to write – I am afraid.
Nevertheless, I write.
I usually write because the thought or topic being engaged matters so much to my own heart that I must. It is my heart that lets me know it’s time to speak. I write for myself. I write to discover what it is I think, or feel, or know or believe.
But I have also experienced that, as Carl R. Rogers put it, “what is most personal, is most universal.”
In a recent online conversation about faith and fear I found my heart speaking up, as it does, letting me know I had something to say. While I was writing my comment, that familiar voice of doubt was in my ear. Why are you spending any time on this at all? Who is it for? How will it count? Who cares?
I pressed on. I pressed post. I’m not exactly sure why. But I noted that voice of doubt and fear. I really heard it. It was not quiet. It was not small.
Within minutes of posting my comment the moderator of the conversation sent me a message asking if I’d like to write a longer reflection on the topic for this blog. I smiled – I even laughed a little. In that small space of openness that vulnerability created, authentic joy and gratitude filled my heart. It happened quickly and took me by surprise. (There hasn’t been much joy these days.)
My faith was met with welcome and love. That’s how it felt to me.
But I’m not sure I would have noticed that welcome without the voice of fear in my ear. I might not have noticed the faith that was activated in that small offering if it had been easy for me to do. The comfort and relief of being heard and received may not have registered in the same way if I hadn’t paid attention to the fear and doubt within myself.
Throughout my “faith journey” I have found that fear and doubt have been given a bad rap, particularly in evangelical church culture. We like the refrain “do not fear” and we say it a lot. I am not opposed to this message, but I also haven’t found the command to be all that helpful in terms of quieting my own anxieties. When I hear a preacher say “do not be afraid” my heart responds with “but I am.” (Cue shame here.)
Human beings are biologically programmed to feel fear for very important reasons. Our survival depends on it. Temperament and life history have large influence over our fear responses, too. But set that aside and we are still creatures who are meant to feel fear in real and helpful ways.
The truth is, the reality of fear and doubt in my own life has often made me feel like a weak believer, inferior to triumphalist Christians who speak of conquering fear and doubt with their faith. I end up wondering what is wrong with me. Why am I not like them? But if I am honest, there has always been something in the mystery around my own fear and doubt that has felt important to me.
Lately, I’ve begun to change the narrative I tell myself about faith and fear with a practice that was shared with me by a mentor and friend called self-compassion. Rather than shaming my doubt and fear, I honour it. I honour it by coming close. I trust that my fear is an integral part of myself and has something important to say – so I join her there. I sit beside her. I listen. I show her compassion – the act of co-suffering love. Together, we acknowledge the fear and learn from what that fear is trying to say. When I do this, something transformative happens. I honour myself. It is my ‘self’ who is afraid and I don’t want to silence myself with overzealous performance based spirituality any longer.
When I ignore my fear, I ignore a part of myself. This does not lead to whole, healthy spirituality. It leaves me fragmented and the self who is still afraid is also abandoned and left alone.
In my own experience, I am not sure I can know faith without fear. I think our fear is precisely the place that faith becomes real. This is the intersection where spirit meets flesh. There is a gift within our most vulnerable places. Perhaps this is what Paul means when He writes, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 2:10) Our weakness creates the womb for deeper dependence and trust to grow.
These days, I’ve added some new mantras to my life that counter the voice of inferiority but also integrate my experience of doubt and fear. They are simple. You can use them too.
“All that fear is what makes you so brave.”
“All that doubt is what strengthens your faith.”
Blessings to you,
from my fearful heart to yours
More about Jessica:
Home is Winnipeg, Manitoba where I live with my husband and our three kids. These days, I fill most of my time reading and writing my way through a Master’s degree from St. Stephen’s University. I study theology and stuff. It’s pretty great. I’ve always been a questioner. For a long time I suppressed the deepest questions in my heart in order to fit into the mold of Christianity I’d been given. But that kind of forced belief doesn’t work over time. Paying attention to my questions has led me deeper into myself and my beliefs. Everything is expanding. It’s such a relief. My hope is for the church to be a place of love, belonging, acceptance and celebration for everyone. I believe that God grieves the ways we’ve excluded and continue to exclude. My love and allyship for the LGBTQ+ community comes from the deepest place I know. I’m incredibly grateful for Generous Space and the work this ministry does. Thank you for teaching me and being a source of light in dark times.
Jessica also writes for Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice. You can read more of her work here: https://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/author-jessica-williams/