I’ve been reading Sarah Bessey’s work since before her first book, Jesus Feminist, made it’s way into the world. She’s always been a strongly pastoral voice in my life (an impression that has only grown stronger as I’ve spent time with her in person). When I picked up Out of Sorts, I knew immediately that it was a love letter many in the church (and licking wounds outside of it) desperately needed. If you’re feeling a bit out of sorts with your faith, or if you know anyone who is, this book is a must-read. Recently, I had a chance to chat with Sarah about the book. I hope you enjoy the results.
Is there a story of how the title Out of Sorts came to be?
It’s not so much a story as it is an articulation of how I would always describe myself during that season of my life. I wasn’t agnostic anymore and I wasn’t an atheist. I was just grappling so much with my faith and with my spirituality and what that meant in my life that I would often just say, “Oh, I feel a bit out of sorts on all of it.”
I had all my stuff kind of in files in my mind. Here’s what I think about this and here’s how this works and here’s what this needs. Then all of a sudden it’s like something—honestly, I believe it’s the wind of the Spirit—just blew in and scattered all of that certainty and all of that shorthand and all of those systematic theology color-coded whatevers and just made me say, “All right, now where is Jesus in the midst of all this?”
So the title really was more of an expression of how I felt at the time, and in some ways something that I feel incredibly positive about now. I start to get nervous when I feel like I’ve got everything sorted out because, to me, that means that I am probably not leaving enough room for the Holy Spirit and I’m not being pressured, or I’ve gotten too comfortable and I’m not being challenged.
If I’m not encountering people or ideas or things that are challenging me and making me think more deeply and more strongly about the things I believe, or think, or even hope about God, then I probably have walked away a little bit from the wildness and the wonder of Jesus.
I don’t think that you walk with Jesus and aren’t ever going, “This is a bit different than I expected.” I think that’s part of following Jesus. It’s such a verb, it implies movement, the very thing of it implies that you are going somewhere. So at some point if I find that I’ve set up camp and I’m just, you know, having a lovely time all by myself and all the sudden I look up and I’m like, “Oh, nobody’s here but me,” I know something’s wrong.
If you could speak to your wilderness self now, what would you say?
Honestly, I feel like the whole book was what I wish I had known at that time. The point of the book for me was never to say. “Well, I know you feel like you don’t have any answers and you feel really out of sorts, so here’s a nice new set of shiny answers for you to just consume and now it’s all fixed for you,” which was how I often felt in that season of my life. That was never my thing. People would say, “Oh, you’re doubting God? You’re doubting whether or not Scripture is reliable? Great. Here is a color-coded cheat sheet of three-line answers. Memorize that and carry on.”
I never really felt like that captured what the issue was or what I was grappling with. So when I wrote the book I wrote it thinking of where I was ten years ago and a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with people since, who are often in that same stage of life.
Really, what my heart was in writing the book and what I would’ve wanted to say to myself and what I want to say to everyone who is in this season of life is it’s okay to be afraid. That oftentimes the Spirit is breathing in the very questions and discomforts that you’re experiencing, that there’s new life waiting on the other side of that, that this will become a place for you to meet with God and be challenged and changed. That it’s completely normal and healthy, and if you were not doing this we should all be worried.
If I could distill every single word I’ve ever written in my entire life and probably will ever write, I feel like everything, whether it was Jesus Feminist or Out of Sorts or a blog, or an article, or even a stupid Facebook post, the essence of anything that I would ever want to say to someone is that you are so incredibly loved and that that is a place of rest for you. That there is not a need for the striving and the earning, but instead that there is this sense of being held and the sensibility of belovedness. That changes the ways that I engage with those struggles and those questions from that place of saying, “I’m in cooperation with the Spirit here. This is what I’m needing to do and this is a place of safety for me. There’s no place I can go where God will not meet me.”
What, if anything, do you miss about the person you were before?
I know that when I really started to meet with God and really wrestle, that became a real season of honesty in my life, and I loved that. I had a real sense of not giving a crap.
I wouldn’t say that I miss much about the person I used to be but I feel really tender towards her.
I remember at the time being really hard on myself and really hard on people. One of the things I talked about in the book was this study by James Fowler where he talks about spiritual formation, and he talks about it in terms of these six stages, the last stage being universalization. But most of us kind of come of age in that stage two, that sort of mythic, literal, very childlike stage where everything is black-and-white and “If I do this then I get that,” “Here’s what’s right, here’s what’s wrong.” Anything that threatens my authority really makes me angry and nervous, and I don’t want anything that’s going to disrupt the security that I’ve created for myself. And the truth is that most of our churches are structured to keep us at that stage and they work best if we stay there. It’s when you start progressing into stage three and stage four, that kind of struggle and angst, then you’re almost like a teenager or an adolescent, which is wonderful and sometimes is horrible.
I remember feeling, in a stage of my life in particular, almost like that snotty know-it-all teenager. I was like, “I’m enlightened past all of you people.” When there’s that much pride in how enlightened you are, you are obviously not really enlightened. And so I look back on that and I think, I was so hard on people, and I was hard on myself, and hard on the church, and full of all of the ways that other people were doing it wrong. And yet it was very sincere. That is part of the actualization of self, this idea that you define yourself by what you’re not. You kick against what you’re against. You’re like, “Well, I don’t know who I am yet, but I know I’m not like these crazy people.” It’s a necessary stage of our life, and it is hard on the people who love us. It is just as hard on them as it is on us. That’s a hard grappling, and that’s why oftentimes people want to pull the plug on that season of life and go back. “It was easier then so I’ll just stick my fingers in my ears and I’ll be even intellectually and spiritually dishonest if I can stay in the fold. This is enough for me,” even though it really often isn’t.
So I look back on the person that I was in that season, and I love her like you would love a 14-year-old.
Not to say that it’s inherently juvenile. There’s often times that I go through those stages even now about certain things where I’ve just learned of this new and exciting and crazy thing about God, or come into this new understanding of something, and then I’m like, “All of you fools!” So, obviously, I still haven’t progressed enough to actually be able to hold complexity. I don’t think it’s anything you really ever stop. I think it’s just part of the progression. I think now I’m learning, though, to watch for that when it happens and try to tone down the know-it-all-ness. I think when you’ve been wrong so many times it does give you an inherent sense of your own fallibility.
I’m interested to look ten years from now at everything I’ve written in this book and see ways maybe I’ve changed my opinions or changed my thought processes. I feel like I’m just going to go bigger and wider and I don’t see anything getting narrower, but at the same time, who knows? You never know really where you’re going to end up. But I feel like it would be a real failure if in ten years someone checked in with me again on that book and I said, “I completely cosign it, every single word.”