Is this what following Jesus is meant to feel like?

Four years ago today, I was baptised. As well as taking the plunge, I “affirmed the faith as mine” by responding to questions and sharing a testimony of the work of God in my life to that point.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church with my family and migrated to St John’s Anglican (Sydney) during high school when I was part of the youth group there. From childhood, the Lord has blessed me with faithful guidance, encouragement and teaching.

Yet for as long as I can remember there was a sense of discord. The language and appearance of the faith were second nature to me, but the substance seemed to remain mysterious. Some intangible influence held me back from calling myself a Christian with the sort of certainty that seemed required.

Despite my outward profession of faith, my parents never pressured me to get baptised. When family members or friends were baptised or confirmed, the question of my own hesitation returned, along with a familiar heaviness: if the gospel was true, and I had been soaking it up my whole life, then why couldn’t I find the same confidence that others could?

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Naturally, once those moments of external pressure passed, the heaviness mostly lifted too. I continued to participate in church and Bible studies, along with (somewhat sporadic) personal Bible reading and prayer. I continued to find the Christian message compelling and powerful, both emotionally and intellectually.

I don’t often have experiences that feel spiritual.

Studying philosophy at university did very little to undermine that conviction, although I did find the sheer volume of questions and opinions challenging.

I’ll never forget when my lecturer in metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality – things like existence, identity, time and possibility) said that he regularly wonders whether consciousness is more than just physical brain states, but simply “slaps himself and carries on”. I finished a degree in philosophy as convinced as ever that the Christian worldview offered greater intellectual resources and explanatory potency than any other.

That was a revolutionary and reformative moment in my spiritual life.

Throughout that time, I attended Bible studies, talks and events as part of the University of Sydney’s Evangelical Union (EU). I was still wrestling with doubt and hesitation, but the period was punctuated by powerful experiences of clarity, with one standing out as particularly formative.

The worship sessions at the EU’s Annual Conference were always a highlight. Hundreds of young Christians (and a number of inquirers) united in worship, conversation, laughter and, perhaps most uniquely, song.

I don’t often have experiences that feel spiritual; but one night, as we sang, I remember starting to pray between and sometimes through each line, asking that God would make the truth of the words real in my heart and life. I don’t know if I’ve experienced anything quite the same since, but that was a revolutionary and reformative moment in my spiritual life, with a huge ripple effect on my discipleship and relationships.

Thinking back, it is hard not to doubt whether that moment was really supernatural. Was it the work of the Spirit in my heart, or just the product of emotional music and social pressure? The answer is probably that God worked in my heart by his Spirit and through “natural” gifts of grace like music, fellowship and guidance. But you get my point: powerful moments of conviction haven’t erased my doubt or hesitation completely.

I felt like he was telling me, “You’re not crazy.”

One of the hardest parts of persisting through doubt is how often it feels isolating (and even manipulative). So I’ve taken great comfort from brothers and sisters who make room for uncertainty, like John Dickson, who calls himself “a world-class doubter”, and Esther Meek, who showed me how our cultural obsession with “certainty” and dismissal of other kinds of knowledge creates unstable conditions for faith. We should be able to pray with the demoniac’s father, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:14-29)

Far from a linear progression, my journey has been one of seemingly constant re-evaluation and reminder, aided greatly by simple self-awareness or reassurance from a trusted friend.

When I heard Dickson describe periodically running thought experiments – taking on an atheistic position and trying to make sense of morality, emotions, consciousness, history and the life of Jesus – I felt like he was telling me, “You’re not crazy.”

Can I really put all my eggs in this one basket? Can I really stake everything on Jesus?

Like Dickson, I tend to find that, by going through the doubts and questions, I come out unscathed and even relieved. It is when they remain vague and ethereal that I start to feel untethered. Every question can’t be answered at once, but I’ve never asked a question that the message about Jesus couldn’t handle.

In fact, I rarely find that periods of doubt and hesitation are caused by “doubts” themselves. More often they are brought on by circumstances, which add pressure to question my convictions and to wonder, “Can I really put all my eggs in this one basket? Can I really stake everything on Jesus?” Often the real trouble is implicit, lurking behind the intellectual questions.

So my prayer right now is for honesty, imagination and resilience. I think it’s time to give up on an idealised version of faith, in which I finally work through every doubt and can walk with the Lord in unwavering certainty. I don’t think that’s necessarily how faith works, and I really don’t think that’s how I work. If we believe that God is who he says he is, then the best place to bring uncertainty is to him.

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