John Backman is a guest writer who’s voice we’re honored to share. You can read more about John in his bio at the end of the piece.
If, standing somewhere in the maelstrom of faith, sexuality, and gender, you’ve listened deeply to your own heart, you may have heard a question like one of these:
- Could I possibly be gay?
- My daughter just told me she’s a boy. What if she’s right?
- If my beliefs on homosexuality are wrong, what else might I be wrong about?
- Can I ever come back to faith while still being fully myself?
- Can I even be a Christian and have these thoughts?
- How am I going to deal with this?
The unsettling questions have ambushed us all, whatever our beliefs, whatever our truth. They may start as vague, whispered doubts. But we know they have the power to turn our lives upside down. That makes them fearsome—even more so if we dare to consider that maybe, just maybe, those whispered doubts are the “still small voice” Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:11-12, KJV).
Many people try to ignore the unsettling questions. Others write them off as Satan’s work. But what if you’re not convinced? What if you decide they deserve a hearing?
It’s a risky business, to be sure. And taking risks is easier when you can find and inhabit a safe space: a place where your soul relaxes, your heart opens, and you just know that God is holding you.…taking risks is easier when you can find and inhabit a safe space: a place where your soul relaxes, your heart opens, and you just know that God is holding you. The safety gives you the freedom to simply sit with the Spirit—and, in the presence of the Spirit, to try on ideas, speak the questions out loud, look them in the eye until they either lose their power or reveal truth. Here you can be honest with God because, after all, nothing surprises God.
For some people, this safe space could be a physical space, visited in solitude. When I sit in our sunroom, with my journal open on my laptop and a light breeze blowing through, my whole self relaxes. When my whole self relaxes, ideas and questions rise to the surface, but they seem less threatening—or I’m able to look at them with less fear. It’s why people take walks on their favorite beach or sit in outdoor cafés on sunny days.
Some people find safe space in the form of another person—sometimes a friend, sometimes a professional, like a pastor or counselor or spiritual director. In fact, one of the fundamental tasks of a spiritual director is to create a safe space, where directees feel the freedom to follow wherever the unsettling questions take them. (What is spiritual direction, anyway? Learn more here.) What they explore may be difficult, but they know they’re safe to explore because God is there, because God and the director have their back.
But what exactly makes a space safe?
Start with the guarantee of privacy. My journal lives in an obscure, password-protected corner of my laptop, giving me the sense that it will always be for my eyes only. In spiritual direction, as in counseling, confidentiality is an absolute. What happens in that safe space stays in that safe space.
Then there’s the total absence of judgment. This one isn’t easy for us Christians to grasp, because judgment has been intertwined with our faith tradition for many centuries (Jesus’ admonition to “judge not” in Matthew 7:1 notwithstanding). Shouldn’t we call out sin where we see it? Shouldn’t we gently guide people into “the way that is right”?
Not here we shouldn’t. During their time with directees, spiritual directors focus on deep listening, paying full attention, and asking open-ended, open-hearted questions. They do not attempt to advise, correct, or fix. Instead, they simply set the stage for directees to hear their own deepest thoughts, as well as the Spirit speaking in the depths of their hearts.
Setting that stage is important for another reason too: it’s so easy for us to judge our own thoughts as soon as they arise. A companion on the way, whether friend or professional, can help us note the places where we’re censoring ourselves—and possibly the Spirit—allowing us to relax and ponder the unsettling questions.
One other thing makes a space safe: unconditional love. Ever notice how much you relax and your heart swells when you’re with someone who truly loves you? The world feels so much better. You start to think you can do anything. And those fearsome questions become much less fearsome. Love is part of the job description for spiritual directors, pastors, and similar people.
Whatever form your safe space may take—alone in a place you love, talking with a friend or pastor or counselor or spiritual director—in the end it’s a place where you meet God in your deepest self, where you talk with and listen to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). Love and growth cannot help but happen there. When it goes well, the place you end up is more godly, and more authentically you, than where you started.
That doesn’t make the process easy. There are continual bouts of resistance, road blocks, speed bumps, things you wish you hadn’t learned. But it does make the process blessed: another way to draw ever closer to God—and let God lead us gently through the unsettling questions, toward the joy that awaits us on the other side.
About the Author
As a spiritual director, an associate of an Episcopal monastery and a genderfluid Jesus lover, John Backman writes and speaks about ancient Christian wisdom and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and contributes regularly to Huffington Post Religion. He can be reached through his website at www.dialogueventure.com, or via Twitter at @backwrite.