At some point or another, most Christians go through at time of intense doubting or spiritual turmoil. This causes some people to walk away from the church or from faith altogether.
In her new book, Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey tells her story of wrestling with faith, walking away and coming back. She writes about her journey of evolving faith, and offers hope to those walking through those times.
We talked to Bessey about the book, doubt and how to navigate changing faith.
In the book, you say spiritual shifts are an ongoing process. It’s not like you wrestle with big doubts just once and then you’ve figured everything out.
I really wish I could tell people that was the case. Unfortunately, I have found that my catalog of right answers continues to diminish by the year, it seems. Sometimes, we think we will somehow arrive and everything will be settled and we will have this neat three-ring binder with all these carefully thought-out answers.
Instead, I have found that, as the years go by, we are always transforming, we are always evolving, we are always changing. Jesus is the one who never changes, but we are always changing in response to that—always being transformed.
I feel like everyone goes through that. They have this time where they’re in this middle space between where they once thought and where they think they might end up. But even when you get on the other side, there’s likely still some change and some shifting and transformation that still awaits, hopefully in every stage of our life. Stagnation is never the goal.
It seems like there’s a tendency to either try to ignore those doubts, or to turn completely away from faith. How do you think we navigate the tension of having questions and not necessarily having complete answers?
I think all those things are stages in that journey. I look back on my own life and there are times when I thought I was walking away entirely—from the Church or from calling myself a Christian or whatever it was.
And then on the flip side there’s a real temptation at times just to kind of stick your fingers in your ears and say, “Everything’s fine.” I think those all have their place. Sometimes you need to do one of those things, but the issue is stagnating or remaining there.
God meets you in all of those places—all of those shifts and changes—and you might be surprised. No one was more surprised than me to find that my journey ended up taking me far from where I had started, and yet I ended up corkscrewing around and returning back to where I was, but with fresh eyes and a new way to see it.
It’s definitely not an “either or” proposition. We will probably do a bit staying and a bit of leaving, but that’s just part of the story.
When you’re going through changes in how you think about faith, how do you have grace for people who aren’t changing or may be changing in the opposite direction than you are?
My husband and I ended up experiencing that. We came out of a season of almost burnout and exhaustion in church—just feeling like we were kind of like at a breaking point with how things had always been. I tacked really hard in one direction: not wanting to go to church at all. And he went the other way: feeling like we needed more structure, more accountability.
And yet we still managed to maintain and had a very vibrant and healthy marriage in that time. I think because at the core of it, we wanted to give each other room to change. In any good, healthy relationship, there needs to be that welcome for the shifting that is going to happen.
We ended up moving back toward each other and landing in a place in the middle for the both of us, but there are still places where we disagree. There always will be, whether it’s with people in your church or in your family or whatever else. That can be difficult to navigate, but it’s not impossible either, if you’re committed to loving one another more than you’re committed to being proven right all the time.
There’s a way to do it as a life of invitation as opposed to seeing your changes as a need to slam doors in people’s faces and shut down conversations. Part of that maturation process is being transformed more into being like Jesus and being someone who walks by the Spirit. It’s being someone who has an ability to have gentleness and faithfulness and grace for people who you believe are profoundly wrong.
That’s kind of one of the cool things about the Gospel, isn’t it? We can change and become like Jesus, but that might look different for different people.
It would be nice if it was cookie cutter, but I’m afraid that is simply not the case.
I look at the fruit of people’s lives way more now than I do at their signed doctrinal statements. Maybe we think differently on this issue, but I can see by the fruit in your life that you are someone who walks closely with Jesus. We have way more in common than it would look like on paper, even though we have landed on very different opinions.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
I’d love for people to feel permission to actually go there—to lean into their doubts, lean into their questions, lean into the places of pain and grief or shifting—instead of leading a life of spiritual or intellectual dishonesty and pretending it’s all fine.
I would love for people to know they don’t need to be afraid and they are really, deeply loved. That, to me, is the foundation of the book: You don’t need to be afraid. Jesus is just as present in the liminal spaces and in the wandering and in the questions and in your doubts. The Spirit will meet you there just as much as the Spirit met you in your days of certainty and know-it-all-ness. You are so incredibly and deeply and profoundly loved by God, and there is safety in that. You cannot outrun the grace of God, and there is space in there for you.