God Bless the Skeptics

Officiating funerals is never an easy gig for us clergy types. And when the funeral is for someone we’ve never met? Well that certainly doesn’t make the job any easier.

I’ll never forget the memorial service I was leading a few years ago for a young woman who had died tragically and unexpectedly. I didn’t know her, nor did I know her family. Yet somehow I had found myself standing in front of her shocked and grieving loved ones, a total stranger trying to offer some words of comfort.

Not knowing what else to do, I opened my Bible and began with a reading of (what seemed to me) a perfectly benign verse. A safe verse. An innocent verse. A verse that wouldn’t cause immediate offense to the gathered souls whose spiritual sensibilities I was in complete ignorance of, while at the same time offering a hint of good news to people who had been forced to stare death right in its ugly face. Psalm 34:18 seemed perfect for the occasion: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

No sooner had these words filled the chapel than somewhere in the second row (I think) an unimpressed voice could be heard mumbling his matter-of-fact response: “Bullshit.”

Now I’m sure there are many who would find this sort of language unbecoming of a funeral service, who would believe that those words disrespect the solemnity of the moment. And I can see why they would think that. But the more I’ve reflected on that startlingly candid response, the more I’ve come to believe it was exactly what needed to be said.

See, us Christians (and if you’re not a Christian, please excuse the rest of us for a moment while we chat), we tend to get pretty caught up in our own little sanitized world sometimes. Surrounded by those who believe and act like we do, it’s easy to fall into an endless feedback loop of deep-sounding spiritual truisms that often go completely unchallenged. Whether it’s in our churches or Bible studies or Spotify worship playlists or devotional books, we grow accustomed to hearing certain things and nodding our heads in mindless agreement.

Like when a preacher stands up at a funeral and reads a verse about God being near to the brokenhearted. Taking for granted that these familiar words must be true in the same simple ways we’ve always imaged them to be true, we close our eyes and let out an approving “mmhmm”—real quiet-like, of course, for those of us who aren’t charismatic.

But then some guy in the second row interrupts our pious trance and says, “Wait a minute. If God is so near, then why wasn’t he near when that drunk driver swerved into oncoming traffic? Why wasn’t he near when those cancer cells started multiplying? Why wasn’t he near when the airplane full of people dropped out of the sky? Doesn’t God’s nearness seem awfully selective to you? Doesn’t it seem suspiciously convenient for him to show up now, with all these clean suits and pretty flower arrangements and quiet piano tracks wafting through the funeral home speakers? Couldn’t he have been bothered to show up—oh, I don’t know—four days ago? Then maybe we could all be going about our lives right now instead of sitting here in front of a casket with some fresh-faced preacher boy telling us how comforted we should be by God’s presence. Yeah, I’m saying it. Bullshit.”

Unfortunately, we Christians do a masterful job of distancing ourselves from the guy in the second row and all his kin. We write them off as cynics, as unbelievers. We critique their lack of faith.

Maybe that’s because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that if we get too close, their skepticism will corrode our convictions and burden us with doubts. And so we suppress their voices. We overlook their questions. We put our heads down and charge awkwardly through the rest of the words that we’ve written down to read at the funeral before anyone else in the room starts to wonder if maybe this whole “God” solution is just a big sham.

But maybe all of this isn’t such a great idea. If we want to cultivate a hardy life of spirituality, we need to hear from the skeptics. We need them to interrupt us and call us out. We need them to raise an eyebrow and say, “Seriously?” as we’re pontificating elegantly about God’s goodness in the middle of a world writhing and wailing in agony. (We need them to raise their eyebrows when we’re pontificating about all sorts of things, actually. But since we’re talking about funerals, we might as well stay on topic.)

Far too many of our answers are far too easy. And when we only rub shoulders with people whose answers are the same as ours, we’ll never have any incentive to go back to the drawing board. We’ll never be prompted to rethink—and revamp—our otherwise fragile belief systems.

Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware writes, “Faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it.” If he’s right (and I’m prone to think he is), then true faith doesn’t leave us shaking our head at the unbelief of the guy in the second row as we slowly scoot a little further away from him. (You never know when that lightning will strike, right?) Instead, true faith leads us to go sit next to him, learn from his pain, and entertain his objections. True faith steps into the uncertainty of his skepticism rather than running away from it.

If you’re a believer (in anything—Jesus, vaccines, love at first sight), you’ll eventually meet a skeptic. And when you do, you’ll be tempted to see that person as an enemy. A threat to whatever faith you hold dear.

But if your faith is really worth holding, then can any skeptic take it away from you? They may press on it, and chisel at it, and scrape away the fluff. But in the end, they’re only doing you a favor. They’re simply giving you a faith more resilient and more beautiful than it was before.

All of us Christians can hopefully agree with Sarah Bessey when she says, “God isn’t threatened by our questions or our anger, our grief or our perplexed wonderings. I believe that the Spirit welcomes them—in fact, leads among them and in them.”

So I don’t know. But if God’s not threatened by the skeptics, then maybe we don’t need to be either.

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