Big Enough for Hate Mail: Is There Room For An “Anthem of Doubt?”

Twenty-one years ago, on the verge of walking away from everything I had ever been taught about faith, God and forgiveness, I came across a song entitled “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Now many of you have probably heard this song, and some of you may even know it as one of U2’s signature “Christian songs.”  But I want you to take a moment to read through the lyrics with me, for it was these lyrics that brought me back from the brink of finally walking away for good.  And it is these lyrics that continue to push me as I consider the role of doubt in the life of the Church.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
I have climbed the highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Up until this point, the song remains fairly ambiguous.  Set to the sound of a bell-like guitar, it could have been about any number of things, up to an including the pursuit of a woman whom the author had scorned.  But watch how all of this ambiguity comes into sharp relief over the next two verses.

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well, yes, I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
And my shame
All my shame
You know I believe it

Do you see what I am seeing?  What was uncertain over the first few verses has now become crystal clear.  The mountains that have been scaled, all the running, all the crawling — all of this has been done in the search of a Savior.  And not some nebulous, generic “savior” or some earthly, man-made construct mind you, but the Savior of the Christian Story — the Savior on a mission to build a Kingdom that truly has broken the bonds and loosed the chains.  And that is why, once you understand the subject of the song, the chorus is all the more shocking.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Back in 1987, when this song first exploded onto the scene, many mistook the jubilant sounds of Edge’s guitar and the choral sound of the New Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir as the music of faith.  But Bono himself has gone on record as saying ”[this song is an] anthem of doubt more than faith.”  And for me, that “anthem of doubt” was as vital and as important as it was shocking.  For you see, I had been raised in a context where the internal doubts I experienced every Sunday weren’t allowed to be raised in a serious fashion.  When I tried to ask these questions in my confirmation class, I was told to keep quiet, lest I disturb the faith of the other students who were clearly more godly and pious.  So when I heard a self-professed believer in Christ openly admit that he had doubts, it was as if I finally had found a conversation partner – someone who I could “talk to” about the things that I was told shouldn’t be brought up in good company.

Years later, I find that I still wrestle with doubt from time to time, but never in the same way that I once did.  Gone are the sleepless nights spent worrying about whether I was “in” or “out” or whether there even was an “in” or an “out.”  Now, my doubts have become grounded, tethered to the mooring of the Psalms which give voice to all sorts of doubts and fears.  Now I know that my doubts are just one more sign of my own frailty and dependence upon God.   Looking back, it’s kind of ironic how it took an “anthem of doubt” to restore my sense of faith.

This post is the first in a longer series of posts on the subject of doubt in the church.  If this has struck a chord with you, be sure to come back for more.  Next up: “Big Enough for Hate Mail.”

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10 Responses to Big Enough for Hate Mail: Is There Room For An “Anthem of Doubt?”

  1. Mary DeVries Yager says:

    Mark 9:24
    “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

  2. Absolutely, Mary. Now the question is: how do we create the space in churches (and in society as a whole) for people to give voice to that passage. This past week, at my son’s school, one of his peers apparently asked the question: “How do we even know that God exists? Why should we believe?” On one level, I was thrilled with the kid’s inquiry because the church should be the place for questions of this nature to be asked. On the other hand, I had the protective parent instinct, and I’m thinking to myself: “Oh I hope they didn’t give space for this kid to raise doubts in the minds of other children.” I have to think that my response was probably not all that unique amongst the parents: excited and yet nervous at the same time.

  3. Rich Bennema says:

    Full disclosure: I never liked U2. I find their music boring and Bono reminds me of the showboating wide receiver who is best known for his end zone dances, when he should be acting like he’s been there before.

    With that, I’ve always had a particular distaste for this song. I got so sick of hearing, “it’s a Christian song, see, he says kingdom come and cross.” Thank you for interpreting the song as a whole rather than cherry picking phrases. To me, this was not just an anthem of doubt, but rather an anthem of apostasy. Perhaps that is too strong an interpretation, but it is why I was so against this being held up as the ultimate Christian pop song.

    And while rebellion should be opposed (Titus 1:11, for example), I can understand a teacher wanting to shush the questions of doubt as well. I’ve heard “God is big enough for your questions.” True. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether the one asking the question, like Job and Habakkuk, are big enough to wait for and then withstand his answer.

  4. I hear you Rich; and I can certainly respect your “distaste for this song,” for I too have often wondered whether Christians were honestly listening to what he was saying. It seems like we live in a world where Christians often seem somewhat desperate to identify other Christians or potential-Christians in the world of pop culture. It’s almost as if we feel a bit “cooler” or a bit more “normal” because other famous people believe the things we believe. And that, of course, gets to the heart of our cultural obsession with celebrity, but that is a subject for another post on another day.

    Here’s my question to you: Is it possible to fully believe in the work of Christ and still not have found what you’re looking for? I say this in all seriousness. You and I live in an era where the Kingdom has come and has not yet come at the same time. And that already/not-yet experience leads to certain tension in which we know the truth but haven’t fully experienced the end of sin (either in our own lives, the lives of others, or in the systems and powers of this world). Consider for a moment Revelation 6:9-11. Here, you have martyrs that have died, are in the presence of the Savior and are still crying out for justice because things haven’t been fully put to right.

    Of course, I say all of this while at the same time completely agreeing with your comments regarding Job and Habakkuk.

    P.S. Kuddos for you inclusion of Habakkuk. You win the prize for being the first person I’ve ever known to reference this book outside of grad school!

    • Rich Bennema says:

      Absolutely. Sure, there is living as aliens and strangers and the desire to depart, but anticipating the destination does not necessarily mean I haven’t found it. The goal is known and I’m on my way, even if I don’t know the detours and stops on the way. But I believe that eternal life begins at salvation, not death. The pearl of great price is reconciliation to God through salvation, not the reward of Heaven or the escape of Hell. To put a heavenized spin on the cliche question, “are you in love with God or just his stuff?” I found that salvation at an age when I didn’t even know what I was looking for, but despite groanings, thorns, and doubts, it turned out to what I needed (and more).

      Regarding Habakkuk, Insight for Living covered Habakkuk two weeks ago, which reminded me of my church’s series from a year or two ago. I’m not sure I’d be able to pull out that reference next month, but I’ll take the kuddos!

  5. Bob Bryant says:

    I have been reflecting on this very nature of the tension of living in the era of, already here, but not yet fully revealed. I believe that this is where doubt finds its place in the mind of the believer. Perhaps this is why Jesus rebuked the teachers of the law who accused the disciples of not fasting with Christ because John’s disciples were. His response, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” Even after walking with the Savior for 3 years and seeing miracle after miracle, Thomas had doubt as soon the bridegroom was taken from them declaring, “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Jesus’ response to Thomas meets him in that tension of doubt and simply declares, “stop doubting and believe!”

    • Hey Bob. If you read my next post in this series, I think you’ll see that you and I are tracking on this issue. When I want to hear Jesus say to me: “Stop doubting and believe,” I read Psalm 88. That is his statement to me, because nobody includes Psalm 88 in their personal autobiography if they’re aren’t invested in meeting people in “the tension.”

  6. Doug says:

    “Now I know that my doubts are just one more sign of my own frailty and dependence upon God.” That’s a great way of putting it, Scott. I’ve wrestled with my own “demons” of doubt and found them actually to be more of a holy thing when I’ve allowed God to “be strong in my weakness”. I know I’m purchased and pardoned by the Blood of Jesus, but the “know” part of that has only come through the toil of doubt and searching. I am thankful beyond measure that my salvation rests in the gifts of His mercy and forgiveness, and not my effort. Great blog post, my friend.

    • You know, it’s funny Doug, I lived with you for a whole year at Wheaton, and I would never have known that you struggled with doubt. I had you on this pedestal – the nearly-perfect picture (couldn’t be perfect so long as you were a Giants/Yankees fan!) of a guy who was completely sold out for Christ. But now, the 38-year-old me reads this, and I find myself respecting you even more. I truly believe that Christians who are strong enough to admit their doubts are actually far more authentic and honest than those that fear the dreaded repercussions of such an admission. And I am truly saddened that we have fostered a culture that leads people to believe that they must always “get it right” and that there is no room for failure. Thanks for living life the way you do, Doug! Thanks for never letting doubt be an excuse for not fully participating in the work of the Kingdom!

  7. Josh The Younger says:

    Hey Mr. Bryant, I’m glad I’ve finally found your blog. I’m looking forward to getting caught up!

    As I was scrolling down your recent posts, trying to find a place to begin, the album art for The Joshua Tree caught my eye. When I found out the post was about I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, I was completely engrossed. U2 has never been my favorite band, but that being said, I really admire Bono’s incredibly poetic, complex and deep lyrics, and this song is probably my favorite song of his.

    But every time I listened to it before, I felt a little conflicted. Honestly, I think I will continue to. The song is indeed an “anthem of doubt”, and, at the same time, an anthem of yearning. I think the context of the song makes it fairly obvious that the subject of that yearning is God, but the repeated refrain “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” reinforces the doubt at every turn.
    That doubt is both frightening and fascinating. Frightening because it recalls personal doubts (which everyone has, whether or not they make them public). Fascinating because it resonates with the soul in a hauntingly beautiful way. Like you said, it’s like having a conversation partner.

    It’s all very hard to put into words, and I did pretty badly at doing my feelings on the issue justice. Aside from the analysis of the song, though, I really enjoyed your post. Our goal as the Church shouldn’t be to eradicate or suppress all doubts. Quite simply, that’s impossible in this fallen world. Job questioned God. So did Elijah in 1 Kings 19:9-10. What we should be doing is living in mutual support with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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