When Doubts Arise: Vulnerability, Transparency, and Correction

A commenter on one of Rachel Held Evan’s posts about her love for the Bible,  bemoaning the (apparent) legalism of a recent review of Ms. Evan’s new book, says, “it breaks my heart that the BiblioGod of ‘innerancy’ will not permit such transparent vulnerability as Rachel’s.” Going to the review, the author does not attack Ms. Evans personally: On the contrary, she remarks how she enjoyed her brief personal correspondence with Ms. Evans. What the author does is attempt to critique not only the book itself, but where the book and its message comes from;  the author then explains why she believes it is not only wrong, but harmful.  So the question is this: Does disagreement, even forceful disagreement, necessarily mean exploiting vulnerability?

Continuing down the comments, there are more attacks on the review itself, its author, and the entire organization, while others questioned the reviewer’s motives, going so far as to suggest she had written the review only to curry favor with the higher-ups at Desiring God.

This is apparently the well-deserved backlash when someone dares to publicly disagree with someone who is being so “transparent[ly] vulnerable.”

But where, exactly, is the offense? If someone is “vulnerable,” are we not allowed to disagree with them?

Let’s investigate this a little more. Being “vulnerable” is desirous because it reflects a fundamental honesty, right? When you’re being vulnerable, you’re being honest about doubts you have, uncertainty you feel. And I agree: It’s good to be honest about doubts and uncertainties you have concerning your faith.

But where I get a little fuzzy is when we start saying that doubting and uncertainty is a kind of virtue in and of itself. When we begin implying that being honest about doubts somehow “validates” them and makes them good, makes them off-limits to rebuke or correction, we have a problem. Let’s go to scripture: In fact, let’s go straight to Jesus.

John 6:60. The day after the famous feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has just finished explaining some absolutely crazy theology using incredibly vivid imagery: whoever eats of my flesh, Jesus says, will live forever. Hearing this, many of his disciples turn to each other, dismayed and puzzled. “This is a hard saying,” they say. “Who can listen to it?”

These people, these disciples of Christ, are being incredibly vulnerable here. They are being completely honest about their doubts and their uncertainty. If this isn’t the very epitome of vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

And what’s Jesus’ response to this honest, uncertain vulnerability? He shuts it down hard. “Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?'” There is no apology. There is no hedging, no supporting words for those who are struggling to take it all in. From the very incarnation of Love Himself, there comes a very straight, very hard line. He continues, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

And the result? “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” His words and teachings, spoken in direct opposition to honest, vulnerable disciples, actually caused them to turn away.

The original commenter uses the derisive term “BiblioGod of ‘innerancy,'” implying a stubborn unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This implication is, I think, extremely accurate of the God the reviewer believes in. We’ll just use shorthand and call that God, that stubborn God who proclaims hard truths and demand that we follow them even if we don’t understand them, by his name: We’ll call Him Jesus.

So then, back to the original question: What is the correct response to “vulnerability” and doubts? It seems that the “biblical” answer, the answer Jesus would give, is to set them aright, because there is nothing good in doubting in and of itself.

In those times where belief is paired with unbelief, where we allow our doubts to be rebuked, corrected, and set right, where we cry with sheer panic, “I believe: Help my unbelief!”,… there, Jesus is ready and willing to save us from our doubts, to take our unbelief and turn it into faith. But there we must realize that it is not our “vulnerability” or our doubts that are virtuous: How could doubting Jesus and his truth ever be virtuous? Jesus isn’t looking for doubt, although that is a nearly permanent facet of our faith: He’s looking for an eagerness to be put right.

But where we merely doubt because it is too hard, too strange, too foreign to us, where we doubt and are unwilling to be reconciled to faith, where we will only say, “This is a hard teaching: who can follow it?”…  That road leads away from Jesus, and He will not follow you down it. Our eagerness to proclaim our doubts mean nothing without a striving for security in faith.

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Mackenzie Mulligan

I am a graduate of Biola University and a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute, and I'm also married to the extremely beautiful Anna Mulligan. I make my living as a writer (like, for a job), and in my free time I write on literally anything that strikes my mind long enough to make it onto my computer, although it generally comes back to some aspect of theology, either on Evangelical Outpost or on my personal blog (http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/). And in my spare spare time, I wrote a book! It’s called "Simon, Who Is Called Peter", and if you’re interested in the life of Jesus’ most notorious disciple, you should definitely give it a read! You can buy it right here: http://www.amazon.com/Simon-Who-Is-Called-Peter/dp/162564535X/

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Unfortunately, this is the RHE style of public debate: State your position (usually attacking complementarians), then when someone disagrees with you, talk about how hurt you are and how mean the person is. I’m not surprised that her followers would show a similar attitude.

    Excellent post, though! Great thoughts, and very kindly written.

  • brad

    I just read the article and skimmed most of the comments. It seems to me that most people were upset with two things: 1) the “injustice” of complementarianism and 2) the approach that evangelicals take when reading the Bible. I’m not sure “vulnerability” was really the main point.

    Having attended a conservative seminary, I must say I do see some merit in RHE’s approach to the Bible. It seems like she is saying we should wrestle with ALL of the texts of Scripture and let it shape and mold and break us. That seems helpful to me.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I didn’t even want to touch on the article itself, or the book. The only reason I mention it at all is as context for the comments and the tone displayed there.

    Many of the commenters seem to believe that when someone is being open and honest about doubts, any attempt to argue with, rebuke, or correct that person is somehow inherently off-limits. That was the point of this post, because such a belief is utterly absurd when actually thought about rather than merely “felt”.

  • Brad

    Ok…got ya…I agree that vulnerability does not make you bulletproof.

    I guess I just didn’t pick up on that as a recurring theme in the comments.