Quiet Company and finding comfort in spiritual doubt

Editor's note: Our posts are almost always written by committed Christians. This is something different. On his blog, music critic Andre Salles recently wrote an album review that was also a personal recounting of his faith journey, including the state of doubt he's come to accept. We asked him to condense his review here in hopes of opening an honest conversation among readers regarding spiritual doubt and how they've grappled with it.

I was always a spiritual kid, but from about 11 to about 15, I went through a hardcore Jesus phase.

I was all about it, all the time, and I think at the core of my full-bore dive into faith was a desperate need to belong, to believe, to be part of something. Because I would question it all the time. Have I prayed the right prayer? Am I really going to heaven?

But I never once, not even at my most fervent, heard the voice of God talking to me. Others in my church would say they did. And I truly, truly wanted to hear that voice. So I prayed and waited and prayed some more and listened and held on for years. Nothing.

And eventually I grew so disillusioned with the church that I drifted away completely. Now, at 37, I feel like I’m more honestly spiritual than I’ve ever been, though I’m still unsure how to answer questions about my own faith.

But I’ve really come to an undeniable conclusion about that time in my life: everyone who told me they heard the voice of God was lying. No one actually hears it. We take signs and metaphors and feelings and find God in them. I didn’t realize that then - I thought there was something wrong with me, something deficient, something unworthy. And the moment I realized that wasn’t true still counts among the happiest of my life.

And that’s the moment, right there, that Taylor Muse so deftly and beautifully captures on Quiet Company’s third album, "We Are All Where We Belong." Whenever I listen to it, I relive that sense of relief. This album is angry and petulant in parts, but it is mostly joy through tears. It’s an album not simply about leaving something behind, but about finding something better to replace it.

This is not the work of a questioning soul still finding his peace. This is an album that comes to a conclusion. And that conclusion is this: everything you were taught about God is wrong, there is no heaven waiting for you when you die, we are all on our own, and all we have is each other. And it’s a triumphant, gloriously happy thing - not in spite of that conclusion, but because of it.

I suppose if you weren’t raised with religion, that may not be surprising to you. But it is to me. All those ideas that used to scare me to death - What if there is no God? What if there’s nothing after this? - all of those ideas are explored as unqualified good things here.

This is also an album of astonishingly good songs, a huge leap forward in craft for Muse, already one of the best songwriters around. This is also the album on which Quiet Company, the band, fully gels and makes its mark.

I’m particularly fond of the way the two parts of “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” - sequenced third and 12th, respectively - counterpoint one another. The first part is your first indication that this is not going to be like other QuietCo records. It’s elaborate, and makes the first cut: “Open up the pit, he swallows or spits, and I swallowed that *&@! for so long…”

The second part is darker, and takes sharper aim. “We filled a book with what Jesus said, so we can all disagree on what he really meant.” “I’ll make a deal with Jesus Christ, just speak one word I can hear, prove you’re alive, and I’ll believe you’re here.” Both songs end with the album’s title phrase, and while it almost comes too early in the album on Part One, it’s the perfect conclusion to Part Two.

Between those two poles, Muse picks at his past, and revels in his present. In “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd,” he addresses God directly: “Hey God, now I got a baby girl, what am I supposed to tell her about you? Because her life shouldn’t have to be like mine, she shouldn’t have to waste her time on waiting on you, because you never do come through…” This is undeniably the statement of someone who once believed with all his heart, and just can’t anymore.

“The Black Sheep and the Shepherd” is the song that delves into Muse’s past, in often chilling ways. It contains the record’s most harrowing passage: “The only times I ever thought of suicide, I was waiting on the Lord to direct my life, saying, ‘Give me one word and I’ll put down the knife and never pick it up again…’”

There is nothing wrong with us, Muse concludes. We’re not broken and defective because we don’t hear God’s voice. He’s not speaking. Nothing is waiting for us after death, and we shouldn’t fear it. We should take every day that’s given to us, and enjoy it, since it’s all we have. The lives we make are all that matter. We are all where we belong.

Whether or not you agree with his conclusions - and I don’t, not completely - this album is nearly flawless, and almost jaw-droppingly brave. In a lot of ways, this album gives a voice to that 15-year-old kid I was, questioning and drifting and finally breaking away.

It took me several listens to truly absorb this piece, but I think it’s 2011’s finest. It is certainly its most powerful. I’m awed by it, frightened of it, and in love with it. It is the best record of Quiet Company’s career, and the best thing I’ve heard this year.

Andre Salles has been a professional journalist since 1996, and has been writing his weekly music column, Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., online since 2000. He spends more money than he has on music, and more time than he should thinking about it. He lives and works in Montgomery, Ill.

Andre Salles has been a professional journalist since 1996, and has been writing his weekly music column, Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., online since 2000. He spends more money than he has on music, and more time than he should thinking about it. He lives and works in Montgomery, Ill.

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I don't know Andre, but I like him.  Andre, you seem to be an sincere man and I appreciate that.  There are many who are in that place where you were in your 11-15 phase of life for the entirety of their lives. There is a need to prove ourselves to Jesus, to say the right prayer, to serve enough, they are driven by the greatest law. But the truth is that we are saved from all that.  We no longer have to work to prove ourselves good enough.  If you are in Christ all that is left to do is rest in the fact that Jesus has finished it.  He has done all the work.  He is the perfecter and finisher of our faith.  Paul says things like 'You who were saved by believing are also perfected by believing as well'.  You don't have to work at getting all of the law conquered anymore- you are saved (yes even from the greatest commandment). Because Jesus satisfied all the law and we are in Him.  We are clothed in Him, we don't have to try and "find" ourselves or "prove" ourselves because all of humanity's true identity is found in that of Christ.  We have been brain washed to think that we as individuals have something to offer.  The only one who has anything to offer anything is the High Priest who has sat down. But thankfully we have been placed IN Him, and He IN us.  We are totally intertwined. 

If you are in the same boat as Andre then I am so happy for you because this is the moment where you get to say "I give up." I know that it seems silly, but the all inclusiveness of that statement  ushers in rest and joy. This cup will never leave you thirsty, this portion will always fill your belly.
"Everything you were taught about God is wrong, there is no heaven waiting for you when you die, we are all on our own, and all we have is each other. And it’s a triumphant, gloriously happy thing – not in spite of that conclusion, but because of it."

I have read similar things from various atheists, agnostics, skeptics, etc., so it clearly means something significant to them. But to me it seems like there's a missing premise in the syllogism or something. There is something I am not grasping which explains why these folks find the statement "No meaning in fact exists, but you can manufacture whatever meaning suits you" to be good news, as opposed to an invitation to despair. Is it that this concept removes any pressure to "get it right"?

I can't shake the suspicion that the hidden premise is illegitimate (meaning that it is grounded on or derived from the exact worldview being denied).
I have found that doubt often happens for me when I expect God to behave in ways I've defined myself or some theologian or church leader has defined for me. Even in the Bible God responds to different people in different ways. Then when God's interactions don't match my expectations I might doubt His presence or His intentions. As CS Lewis said, "God isn't a tame lion, but He is good." Sometimes He responds in unexpected and unorthodox ways...like extended periods of silence. BTW I've heard the some of the album and like it. I like the review too. Maybe these guys are like David somewhere in the cave of Adullam. Someone in the middle of Psalm 13 isn't going to think like someone at the end of it. The story on Muse or Salles isn't over yet.
I've never heard the voice of God.  I have certainly felt His presence move in my life.  Stepping out on faith and do the things that God calls you to do - that you can't do - and then do them, then you'll realize that God is real and sovereign over all creation.
Andre, people become Christians for many reasons. Some for relief from guilt. Others for apologetic reasons, whether historical, scientific or philosophical. Many were born into the faith of their fathers. But being a Christ follower is more than a mental assent, adherence to a biblical set of ethics, or even fan appeal with it’s power of affiliation. Some follow a football team fanatically, painting their faces, painting slogans on their cars on game day. Fortunately, being a Christian is more than all that, it holds the possibility of entering into a supernatural relationship. It is easy to abandon a set of beliefs, a book, or the youthful passions for a sports team. I was raised in the church and rejected it once I left home. I was determined that I would be honest and reject anything that was less than real or authentic. Today, I have a beautiful, intellectually satisfying apologetic for my faith, but more than that, I know the Lord. We were designed to walk in the garden with Him and talk with each other as friends. This is still the plan. American Christianity is in rapid decline in part because we have lacked an experiential dimension to our belief system. 

I appreciate the honesty of the author’s statement, “everyone who told me they heard the voice of God was lying. No one actually hears it. We take signs and metaphors and feelings and find God in them.” Andre, you have been very honest and vulnerable and I will be just as honest. I have to say I hear God’s voice often. So do most of my friends who have experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit. He makes me laugh sometimes, He is a dear friend, providing comfort. At times He will tell me things that I would have no other way of knowing. He has warned me about various future events. There were the nudges, feelings and metaphorical communication I experienced after becoming a disciple in 1971. Of course one is most certainly saved after committing ones life to Christ and many live a Godly, life without ever experiencing His manifest presence. But after two others laid hands on me to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit and I began to pray in tongues, I began to hear His voice in a clearer fashion. I treasure the word of God more than ever and it is an objective standard to measure all experience by. I am not talking about extra-Biblical revelation, superior faith or holiness. Simply the conversation that two friends might have. That was 40 years ago. In the intervening years I graduated from college, raised a family, own a business, taught Sunday School and led scores to faith in Christ. Praying in the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Lord has been a daily occurrence. Experiencing the miraculous and hearing the Lord’s voice does not guarantee faithfulness either, as Adam and Eve, the Israelites in the wilderness, the apostates in Paul’s day (and our day) demonstrate. 

Here is what Jesus promises and what the first Christians experienced;

“And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”...“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” John 10:4-27

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me.” John 16:13

“And while Peter was earnestly revolving the vision in his mind and meditating on it, the Spirit said to him, Behold, three men are looking for you!” Acts 10:19

“Then the Spirit said to Philip, Go forward and join yourself to this chariot.” Acts 8:29

My advice Andre would be to say, don’t stop pursuing Him till He reveals Himself to you in a personal way. Be filled with the Holy Spirit, examine the word of God to see what gave those first century believers that dimension of personal experience.


I didn't find room for this in my introduction to Andre's piece, but wanted to be sure to bring John Suk's new book, "Not Sure" (http://bit.ly/w3m064), into the conversation. It's a similar exploration of doubt by the pastor and former editor of The Banner, albeit one that comes to a different sort of conclusion. Particularly pertinent to some of the issues Andre raises, in terms of hearing the voice of God, is the provocatively titled chapter "Faith Is Not a Personal Relationship with Jesus."

Josh Larsen
Think Christian editor
blessed is he who continues to struggle, to wrestle, for he just may find Him in his corner . . . .
born into sin... what a joke and manipulative lie. To demand love and fear from ones on creation... how shameful. I dare you to ask the same of your own children.
It's important to note, though, that boldly declaring God's non-existence and setting up a Vonneget-esque kind of happily nihilistic humanism is a bit different from simply saying "I'm not sure I feel today like God exists" or "the church I grew up in got a lot of things wrong".  The album "We Are All Where We Belong" is not an expression of momentary spiritual queasiness, it's a statement saying that "God is not here and never was but let's find meaning in loving each other".  Those are two entirely different ideas.
Great Josh, I just read a selection of Suks book online, I will order it.  

here's what I mean. God is a person. By that I mean He communicates with us personally, not simply through the general written word available to all or through the revelation of nature. He says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Or, “the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” or “Then the Spirit said to Philip, Go forward and join yourself to this chariot.” “Thus says the Holy Spirit: The Jews at Jerusalem shall bind like this the man who owns this belt, and they shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” or, “the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.” None of these statements could be found in the written word, they had to be spoken and arise from friendship with God. “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

When Pilate who held the power of life and death demanded an answer from Jesus, “What is truth?” the halls rang in silence. Jesus will not be forced to speak by our threats. When asked by John’s disciples whether he was the messiah, He refused to give a direct answer. Job demanded God speak to him yet He was met by silence day after day as he sat in his ash heap itching his boils. Emotional black mail, “give me an answer or I will stab myself with this knife” as Muse says, has never worked. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”. Had the singer followed through on his threat, as he clearly didn’t, he simply would have foolishly faced God directly. To hear God’s voice in this world, one must have their senses attuned. Hearing the voice of the Lord first demands repentance and submission. It is the servant that hears the voice of the master “Speak Lord, for your servant heareth”. It is the Sheep that hear his voice. Jesus puts it this way, “He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”

In Christ’s absence, He speaks to us by His Holy Spirit. Hence the emphasis on the in-filling or Baptism of the Spirit. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.” The author of Hebrews talks about those who “who because of practice have their senses trained”. As young Samuel discovered, hearing God requires a servant’s heart, activated senses and practice.

After the Resurrection and the day of Pentecost, you never read of a disciple grappling with doubt. They may grapple with sin, deception, human appetites, persecution, but rarely doubt. Pre-Christians and those not filled with the Spirit in the Gospels may have grappled with, “what if God doesn’t heal my child or is Jesus really the messiah?”, but you never read of the first century Christians questioning the existence of God. That is a 20th and 21st century phenonomenon, in part because we have reduced Christianity to a set of precepts, mental assent, a philosophy devoid of supernatural experience. Is it possible to be a Christian and doubt God exists? No wonder we don’t hear the voice of God.

 

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