When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.
As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.
How Do You Grow Spiritually?
In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.
If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.
As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.
If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.
The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.
Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.
I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.
The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.
We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.
As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy. I can’t blame others for my own faults as I continue to dig them or fall on my face over and over again.
I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.
When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.