Headlines should be straightforward. When they are not, there is work to do. Take these headlines, for example. See if you can untangle their intended meanings.

  • March planned for Next August
  • Farmer Bill Dies in House
  • Stolen Painting Found by Tree
  • Complaints about NBA Referees Growing Ugly
  • 2 Sisters Reunited After 18 Years at Check-Out Counter
  • Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing
  • Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One
  • Lingerie Shipment Hijacked—Thief Gives Police the Slip
  • Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
  • Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Faith should be straightforward. When it is not, there is work to be done. That is what happens in Stage 5. Now, I would guess that most people, if they reach stage 4, remain there. After all, it is quite an accomplishment. They have defined their faith, left the comforts of their own community and set out on a course of unknown waters that they believe God has called them to pursue. Stage 4 is what we all hope to achieve. But as comfortable as Stage 4 is, Stage 5 is equally uncomfortable. Stage 5 we’ve labelled, “Self-Questioning Faith.” It is a faith of doubt and deconstruction and skepticism, but it is a faith. It is often a faith forged in hurt and betrayal. It is a faith where the old answers and the standard lines no longer work. And it is a faith where we see ourselves as severely broken. Here’s the byline for Stage 5: “Because of my fallenness, I doubt my ability to know God; but I still trust that God is there.” Some of you will know exactly what this feels like. Others of you will have no idea. But that is going to be true of these last two stages of faith.

Here’s the quick description: Stage 5 says:

  • I believe in God, but I doubt myself.
  • I believe more now than ever in self-deception, in the abuse of power and the abuse of knowledge; and I am more self-critical than ever. I believe God is bigger than my ability to comprehend him. I am open to listening to other perspectives and to infusing them into my faith. But I also know there are few cut-and-dried answers. Everything is more complicated than I thought.
  • I live in disequilibrium and self-doubt. I realize what I don’t know and don’t understand, and it is equally exciting and frustrating and unsettling. But I trust God more than ever.
  • I have a new passion for loving people. I doubt myself, but know God is faithful and good.

Again, this may sound strange to you unless you are in it. Stage 4 seems so cut and dried: I choose my faith. But Stage 5 muddies the water. Frederick Buechner explains why: “You can never be sure whether you are discovering the truth or inventing it.” That self-doubt pushes people out of Stage 4 and into Stage 5. It forces us to examine our own faith. Do we truly believe or are we deceiving ourselves? If we do believe, how much of that is our doing and how much of that is the result of outside forces unconsciously charting our course for us? And how do we explain to ourselves why we are so given, not to growth, but to sin? See, I talk a good story, but way too often I fail to live up to my beliefs; and if that is so, which one is real, the talking or the doing? Stage 5 asks a lot of questions that are almost impossible to answer, and it shoots a huge dose of reality into our faith system.

Let me share two quick stories to help clarify this stage. Why am I a presbyterian? Stage 4 answer: I left the congregationalism of my childhood and chose to become a Calvinist in response to the clear teaching of Scripture, a move that charted my own course away from my growing-up family and friends. Stage 5 answer (in other words, the true answer): Almost everyone in my Christian college were going to Baptist churches, and I didn’t want to be associated with them. And so, in an act of rebellion and rugged individualism, me and three other rebels went to a presbyterian church to show we were a cut above.  Why do I believe that the story of Jonah is an allegory? Stage 4 answer: Through a detailed exegesis of the book, I saw that there were clear indications and numerous hints that the book is addressing the people during the days of the Babylonian exile and had little to do with a historical missionary endeavor to Nineveh. Stage 5 answer: My son and his wife believe Jonah is an allegory, and they influenced me greatly to change my view (and they have no idea they did this – after all, it wasn’t through conversations or detailed study or on-going talks, it just kind of happened. And then once I knew I wanted to believe Jonah was an allegory, I went back to the text and suddenly those hints in the book jumped off the page, enabling me to support my belief from the text). By the way, if presbytery asks for a story from my life to support a Stage 5 belief, please use the first story and kind of gloss over the second.

Bottom line: Stage 5 is characterized by questioning everything. And this self-doubt is fueled by several truths. It recognizes that our faith is often shaped by the people around us and those who are important to us far more than we often realize. It understands that self-deception clouds our perspectives and always tries to see ourselves in the best light possible. It admits that fear is a powerful driving force in our lives (and that prompts us to ask if our faith is real or simply a means to quiet the existential dread of death and judgment in our hearts). And it acknowledges that the doubts about our faith more aptly define our spiritual journey, more than our faith. In short, Stage 5 faith people feel like they are a mess; and as a result, if they have a real faith, it can’t be a result of their own doing, but strictly a gift of grace. Like the father in the story who came to Jesus to heal his son, all we can say for certain is, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24).

If it helps, I am having self-doubt even now. I am questioning if I can describe Stage 5 faith to you in a meaningful way! So, when in doubt, let someone else do the explaining. These quotes describe Stage 5 faith well because these two individuals (Frederick Buechner and Brennan Manning) have been there and understand the ins and outs of Stage 5 really well. Let me (them) make 3 final points.

Stage 5 faith is always open about its struggles and doubts and sin and inconsistencies. Brennan Manning is very open about his weaknesses. He writes:

“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

Later, he adds: “The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that, though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us.” One of the defining marks of Stage 5 faith is that we know we don’t know anything, and we know that we don’t deserve anything. We are a mess, and we gladly confess it.

Second, Stage 5 faith is all about grace. When you aren’t sure of your own heart, everything depends on God’s grace.  Frederick Buechner writes: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.” We also see this emphasis all over Brennan Manning’s writings.  Two quick quotes: “To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, ‘A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.’” And one more: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” A second defining mark of Stage 5 faith is that we emphasize grace above everything else. While we do not trust ourselves, our faith rests in God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

Last, Stage 5 faith often turns away from an emphasis on what we know and what we believe to loving people. It is a faith rooted in action. Manning writes: “The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” And Frederick Buechner says: “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”

Stage 5 is not straightforward. It is tangled up in our sin and doubt and confusion, and so it places all of its hope on God’s grace. Left on our own, we may doubt the veracity of our faith, but we believe in a God who is bigger than our sin and doubt, a God who saves us even when all the foundations of our faith have been shaken, even when we are empty and overcome by questions. The old saying is particularly true here: “You can never learn that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have.” Here is Stage 5 in a nutshell. It’s from Buechner: “‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well.” In a world of self-doubt and sin and confusion, that is as straightforward as it is going to get.