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By July 25, 2015 2 Comments

I am on vacation this week, so I would like to introduce you to another excellent writer from our sister blog, the Post Calvin. Will Montei graduated from Calvin College in 2013 and now lives in the Seattle area working as a writer for Healthgrades. I thought Twelve readers would appreciate this moving and honest reflection on doubt, originally posted July 14. For more fine writing from recent college grads, please visit the Post Calvin.

by Will Montei

For years, I have said that I’m an excellent doubter and an okay Christian, always half-jokingly. But that description leaves the startling pain of doubt unrealized. Doubt, too, comes like a thief in the night. Skepticism, despite what I have always been led to believe, is not a choice. It creeps through open windows, crawls through the shadows, and thrusts itself upon you where you sit shivering by the fire. The initial stab keeps bleeding, and all there is to do is cup your hands beneath the wound and watch it drip through your fingers and pool on the floor. You cannot pick up the Bible with those hands, not if you want to keep its pages unstained.

One by one, things began leaving. First was confidence, the attic that held my faith. Rafters fell from the ceiling, and sunlight fell thick through the splinters and onto the surfaces of all the other things, drenching them. Slowly, beneath the heavy light, they soaked up sun until their wood frames bleached and their images faded. The first to go was infinity, a reflective globe. Anyone looking at it would see their self, unnaturally stretched outwards — but it had bathed in light for too long and collapsed in on itself, a glittering pile of dust. Then went heaven, the hand-built dollhouse. It sat slumped against the wall. Then spirits. You could still find their delicate clothes ornamenting the tiny closets in the rooms of the dollhouse, but their bodies were gone. God, still present in the corner, the cradle that still swayed, but with each creak one wondered if the old wood might crack. There they were, suspended in light and fading. My own home collapsing, and nothing left but to watch in weary reserve.

For months after graduation when I lived in Wisconsin, I attended church alone. I liked sipping my coffee, not feeling pressured to sing along to the songs, and listening to the sermon with my own empty pew. It’s an introvert’s dream to be alone in worship. It was worship for me to wrestle with our young pastor’s challenges, which were always well thought out, and so much more biblically rooted than most nearby evangelical churches. I liked that. I like when pastors never stop zealously reading and learning from their primary text.

It wasn’t all solitude. I had my small group of elderly people, and I ate lunches with the twenty-somethings. I felt welcomed, and for the first time since Calvin, faithful.

Discomfort settled in anyways. The sermons became harder to stomach. Faith became a chore. The Bible was full of wretchedness that could only justify itself internally, paired with a beauty that can only glimmer briefly in its wake. Ask why God struck down the man who touched the Ark of the Covenant, and we are only allowed to say that God’s infinite wisdom knows more, and that is entirely insufficient. If I am to suggest that it’s an evil act, I’m a heretic. It’s an evil act.

The first rafter falls.

One service, I sit in my usual spot, the music starts, and for the first time I cannot even listen to it. The words grind. I’m thinking of the girl I still love, and my empty pew. I was standing, but the foreign lyrics and sorrow sink me into the seat. The sermon starts, where the pastor discusses Ecclesiastes and Job, about how God is greater than our pain. My gaze falls to my feet. For the first time in my life, I walk out of a church service, driving in silence back to my parent’s apartment. The next day, when I get home from work, I collapse wordlessly in my mom’s arms and sob into her shoulder. She doesn’t ask for an explanation. She’s crying too. She’s familiar with grief.

All I want is God’s touch, and maybe my mom’s arms were God’s, and her tears were his. But it was just me and my mom in her office. Touch is a fundamental love, and God’s arms are in my thoughts constantly. If they could, even in a dream, wrap around me. Relief, relief, relief.

The spirits hang their clothes and leave.

In high school, my grades came home. I was never a good student. My parents sent me to motivation camps and outdoor trips to inspire me. My mom opens the letter that holds the product of that work with a glimmer of hope. Inside it are Ds and Fs. She starts crying. I don’t know what to do, so I say sorry in the only way I know, and I hug her. She pushes me away and says, “no.” She just stares at the floor with my grades in her hand, her eyes bright with tears—the disappointment of a parent who just wants her child to try. The disappointment of years filled with my repeated failure. I cannot imagine. That’s how the evening ended, with her walking to her room, and me feeling stranded in the kitchen. That is something like what doubt feels like — the failure, the search for comfort, the rejection of touch, the confused loneliness.

There’s no home for the skeptic, not among the boldly faithful. When God doesn’t feel tangible, the Word feels hollow, and being told to love the invisible doesn’t make sense. Not among the callous atheists, who deny that there is any greater craving. But there is nothing childish about spirituality, and nothing inferior about thoughts that cannot rest without a Father. Not among the other soft doubters, whose only comfort is “me too.” I cannot rest on a restless shoulder.

Come, loving touch. The rafters have fallen, the light has flooded, the memories have faded. Skepticism is lying on the floor of the attic, looking up in hope at a sky ragged through the rafters, listening for the sway of the cradle.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Lynn Japinga says:

    powerful, beautiful reflections. Thank you.

    The best explanation I have ever read about the death of poor Uzzah who touched the ark, was that he slipped in ox dung and hit his head on a rock and died. The narrator didn’t think that was a good enough story and developed the alternative about Uzzah touching the ark and God striking him down. I like the ox dung explanation much better.

    Unfortunately, I have never been able to track down the source of this brilliant scholarly insight! If anybody else has read this, please post source!

  • M Norman says:

    Beautiful images. Doubt is so darn real

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