The airplane shuddered over the Atlantic Ocean and I clutched the arms of my chair. I squeezed my eyes, breathing deeply. I’m a terrible flyer, especially for someone who spends most of the year in the airport. Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified at the prospect of plummeting into the sea, thousands of miles out of reach of any coast guard. But there was also a small, yet persistent, part of me that was scared to die — because who knew what was next? Would I be in heaven? Was there a heaven?
All of the honest parts of me came rushing to the surface in the face of what I could only describe as certain death – my husband could only describe that experience as hitting a slight breeze on our way across the Atlantic. But then the plane stopped shaking and two hours later we were landing in Heathrow, leaving me with a lot of uncomfortable realisations about myself and the state of my faith.
It’s like Jesus reached down, shook all my real thoughts and feelings into my face, and was now sitting there next to me, like: “Well, when are we going to talk about this together?
That’s when I decided to write this, because I needed it.
To be honest I’ve always struggled with doubt in this area. When I was in college I was part of a Christian college ministry that encouraged us to evangelise to our fellow students. It was so awkward. I almost didn’t do it because of the voice screaming in my head saying: “THIS WILL NEVER WORK! DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME!” But always right before I decided to quit, I’d remember that my dad became a Christian because someone had walked up to him in a dorm room and talked about Jesus. So it does work, after all.
What specifically didn’t work for me though, was using one of the prompts we were given to encourage spiritual conversation. Looking back now it was just a scare tactic, no better than the street preachers screaming doom and hell, and Jesus doesn’t scare people into following him.
We were told to ask: “Don’t you want to know where you’re going to go when you die? Do you want assurance of your salvation?” The person across from me would roll their eyes and get up to leave, saying something about math class while I turned bright red, because the only person it managed to scare was me.
Did I know? There were times when I thought I for sure did, but then I’d sin, or have weeks that didn’t feel very “Christian” and I wouldn’t be sure.
We love being certain about things as Christians. In fact, when you look at the Bible it’s easy to see where we’ve gotten our culture of celebrating those who have unwavering belief.
Daniel had faith he’d be rescued from the lions’ den.
Joshua had faith Yahweh would give him the promised land.
The centurion had faith Jesus would heal his servant.
And yet sometimes I’m overcome with uncertainty because I can’t see. I can’t see Him when ISIS terrorises women and children, when racists threaten to take over the world, when Christians are selfish with their money, time, lives, when my friends and family experience deep, excruciating pain, when the weight of the world is paralysing.
When I was seven I remember sitting on the front step of our Minneapolis home with my dad talking. It was the year before we moved overseas. He was working full-time as well as attending seminary and pastoring a church for Hmong refugees. He was the strongest, most unwavering believer I knew. In a quiet voice I asked: “Daddy, how do you know God exists?”
He looked over at me with a gentle smile and asked: “How do you know God exists?”
I remember feeling a little shocked that my all-knowing daddy was asking me something so open-ended. “I don’t know… but I just know. I feel Him in my heart.”
He put his arm around me and said: “Me too, Ella, me too.” Somedays I’m still that little girl: full of questions and hardly any answers. Strangely, my uncertainty at the time didn’t scare me. I just accepted it. So why does it now?
I don’t think Jesus wants us to shove away all the complex questions and doubts we harbour in our hearts, but I do think he wants us to be able to live in the freedom of the ‘I don’t knows’.
I can hear some of you sighing with exasperation and frustration from here. But I think sometimes there’s a beauty in the freedom of the unknown that doesn’t come with absolute certainty. While the Bible isn’t clear about every question or doubt we have, it is absolutely clear about one thing, that we are loved, cherished and bought with a price.
When I think about all the questions that Jesus leaves unanswered, it makes my heart stop to think of how clear he makes his love, grace and compassion. I think it reveals what is the most important.
So maybe someday I’ll die in a plane crash, not entirely sure of what will happen after I hit the waves. But if there is a God, and some deep eternity in my heart tells me there is, I know that I am His and that’s enough for me.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Matthew 11:25)