Are you ever just going along, minding your own business, feeling happy and well-adjusted, and suddenly you're blindsided by a blow that knocks your feet out from under you before you even see it coming? That's what happened to me this evening.
To say I was feeling well-adjusted to start with could be a little inaccurate. Actually, I'd felt a bit unsettled all day. Allyson and I saw God's Not Dead last night, and (ironically) all those questions of science and creation and evolution and the Big Bang stirred up some doubts that I've struggled with for years. I agreed with the young protagonist that the only logical explanation for a Big Bang that created all matter in a flash of light would be that God spoke the universe into being, starting the work of creation with the command, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). Still, I was troubled with the idea of so many brilliant minds disagreeing, and of so many religions with other people just as ardently believing something different. What if, just what if, I could be wrong about God?
I'm used to it now, this tug-of-war between doubt and faith. I used to think, each time God did something incredibly wonderful and inexplicable and tender for me, that surely I would never doubt again. But the doubts always come back. And they always shake me at my core. My faith is not something I do on Sundays; it's the very center of my being. So doubting my faith makes me wonder who I am and what this life is all about. It makes me feel, in a word, crazy.
I knelt in my prayer closet last night and talked to God about it, but I was just too sleepy to have a meaningful conversation with anyone. So this morning, I prayed about it again. "Lord, I'm so tired of these doubts. Please, help my unbelief." But I was still sleepy despite a full night's rest, and there was no time to really talk it over. So I pushed those thoughts away and started my work day.
So, back to the unexpected blow....
At the kitchen table over the last few bites of dinner, Allyson and I were enjoying a chapter of our latest book before Bill came for her. Monday's usually his day, but he'd been at the Rangers' opening (baseball) game, and I'd been savoring those few extra hours with her after school. The faint sense of unease following me all day had receded, and I felt... perfectly well-adjusted and content.
In the middle of a chapter, Allyson left the table, muttering something about being right back. I nodded absently and finished off the last of my vegetarian shepherd's pie (which, remarkably, Allyson loves).
When she still hadn't returned a few minutes later, I hollered for her. "Come on! Let's finish this chapter before Daddy gets here." I carried my dishes to the sink before hollering again. Still no response.
I headed for her room. "Did you put your socks on like I asked?"
Her room was empty.
I checked both bathrooms, hollering for her all the while. Empty.
In a moment, I was back to that day in September when I tore up the house looking for a naughty cat. My voice shrill, I yelled, "Come OUT, Allyson. This isn't funny.... WHERE ARE YOU?"
I yanked open the linen closet door, ripped open the shower curtain, fell to my knees and looked under my bed.
I could hear the desperation in my voice as I cried, "Allyson, come out immediately!"
Reality sank in: This is a little house. Allyson is bigger than a kitten. She really isn't here. A scream rose in my throat and tears squeezed from the corners of my eyes. "ALLY-SUNNN! ALLY-SUNNN!"
Part of me was afraid that someone had somehow snatched my daughter from inside my house, but even in my panic, that didn't make sense. I hadn't heard any doors open, hadn't seen or heard a hint of an intruder. So where was she?
Now this next part is embarrassing, but I'm going to admit it....
My thoughts went where they used to go when I was a little girl and I couldn't find my sisters or my parents. What if Jesus had come back for his church, and I'd been left behind? I shook away that thought. No, if I'm still here when Jesus comes back, I know I'm going.
But where was she?
I ran into the garage and screamed, "Allyson!"
At last, I heard a faint response that I couldn't make out. It sounded like it was coming from the front yard.
I raced out the front door just as Bill pulled up in front of the house. And there was Allyson, sitting on the brick communal mailbox and waving at Daddy.
I swallowed my tears and started scolding. "Oh, Allyson! You scared me. You can never go outside without asking me."
"But I did tell you. I said I'd be right back."
"I had no idea you'd gone outside. I thought you were in the bathroom. Didn't you hear me screaming?"
Bill scolded her too. I kissed her, and then she was gone. And I was left alone with my swirling fears and my giddy relief.
Now that I think of it, I realize I felt the same way the time Allyson almost suffocated herself. And if I'd been able to pull my big girl onto my lap and snuggle her like I'd done that other time, I think I would have been okay. Instead, I plodded to the sink and started on the dishes with trembling hands and a throat raw from screaming.
What's wrong with me? I thought. Why did I panic like that? Why didn't I think to check outside? Why didn't I think to pray?
I looked out the window at Allyson's friend Ellie on her bike and remembered my bike ride in the park this morning. What I needed was a walk.
I stacked several more dishes in the dishwasher.
I need a walk with Jesus in the park.
I filled a bowl with water. Yes, after I finish the dishes.
No, now. I need to go now.
So I tore myself away from my dirty kitchen and pulled on my Five Finger shoes. Out on the street, I waved to Ellie and her mom and crossed the street to the park.
As soon as I was alone, I started whispering to God. "Something's not right with me. Why did I have that thought about being left behind?" Tears slipped down my cheeks as I smiled and nodded to a passing cyclist. "God, do I really believe that? That you would leave me?"
I will never leave you or forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)
"Why am I afraid?"
I whirled to look behind me as a car sped past. Heart thudding, I remembered how it had felt to be chased through the darkness by a strange man, and how I'd been afraid to walk alone after that for months. Part of me wanted to go back home, but it was too beautiful outside. Besides, I wasn't alone. I was surrounded by people walking dogs and jogging and riding bicycles and corralling children. "And You are with me," I whispered.
I walked slowly, taking in the budding trees and the green grass and the last golden rays peeking through the branches. I listened to the birds singing and the squirrels scrabbling in the underbrush. One of them ran right in front of my feet, and I shared smile with a man coming the other way down the wide path.
"Quiet me with your love," I whispered. "Hem me in, behind and before. Keep your hand upon me."
In my favorite section of the park, where the path loops around under heavy green branches, and you can hear only the wind and the trickling brook and occasional muted traffic sounds, I sighed deeply. "Look at all this beauty you made for us," I said. "The heavens and the earth declare your glory. So why, why do I doubt? I'm never going to be free of this, am I?"
I remembered the words of a visiting pastor yesterday about how to pray in temptation: "Jesus, help me or I'm going to do this."
"Jesus, help me or I'm going to doubt," I said. "Please, don't let the devil steal the joy of my salvation from me. Don't let him take my peace."
I didn't hear any Words from God, but He did quiet me. I saw all those happy people, heard the happier birds, felt the light breeze raise goose bumps on my arms. I drank in the green leaves and the long, swaying grass. And all was right with the world again.
I'm glad this happened tonight. I needed to know about these deep fears, that I will lose my children, that I will lose my faith, that I will be all alone. I'm glad I know God's perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).
I suspect that I will always grapple with doubts, and that's okay. God understands, and He loves me just as I am. I found something encouraging tonight when I was searching (unsuccessfully) for a C.S. Lewis quote on doubts:
Any faith system that gives a "neat" answer to such complex situations is going to be too simplistic for an intelligent hurting person to believe. In the midst of that kind of pain and complexity, faith is going to largely come down to trust in a Person. Those who hold to their faith in the midst of hardship most often do so out of relationship more than rationality.
This actually echoes my prayers in the park tonight, for the love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). When I'm tangled in doubt, I can't figure it all out. The reality of God surpasses my knowledge. I can only know Him and experience His love through the Holy Spirit in me, who causes Christ to dwell in my heart through faith and gives me power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
That love is what I can know, what I do know. He's proven it to me so many times. And He will continue proving His love even when I doubt. Because that's the kind of God I serve.