The Moment You Stop Believing
Here’s a story.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. My dad has been a mostly-vocational minister since before I was born, and still is. Our lives, and my childhood in particular, revolved around church. We were there on Sunday mornings for Sunday School and morning worship. We came back on Sunday evenings for evening worship. We were there on Wednesday nights for prayer meeting / youth group / choir practice. We went on any and all retreats / mission trips, etc. I didn’t have to wonder what I was doing on any given weekday or weekend. It just depended on what was going on at the church.
As any good Southern Baptist knows, being saved is paramount. This meant walking the aisle (figuratively / literally), saying the Sinner’s Prayer (making extra sure to mean it wholeheartedly), and getting baptized a week or two later. If you did this, you were guaranteed to not go to Hell, which was really the ultimate objective behind everything that we did. I was saved for the first time when I was between the ages of 7 and 10, I would guess. It didn’t seem to take, so I was saved again when I was 14 or 15. I was baptized both times. Thus began a period of my life when I would fall in and out of caring deeply about my faith, or lack of.
Every time that we would go on a mission trip or a retreat, I would, of course, become very passionate about my faith for a short time. I can remember the first modern worship service that I was a part of. We sang Shout To The Lord (back when it was brand new), and I can remember being so emotionally affected by the entire atmosphere of the worship service that I wanted nothing more in this life than to make God happy. It was all I cared about. I cried, and I hugged all of my friends, and we made personal pacts that we were going to do this thing the right way. Together.
I can remember coming home and breaking / trashing all of my secular music. I wasn’t a big movie buff, and I didn’t read very many books at that time, so I didn’t have to trash too many of those. You know how these things go, though. After a few weeks, my life would be back to normal, except for a newly-wrought, slight twinge of guilt that accompanied me throughout my day. I went through this process many times as I grew up, and by the time I started college, my guilty conscience had blossomed from a slight twinge into a full-blown mental disorder. My identity had been completely swallowed up by guilt and shame, and I spent years in constant conflict between what I felt in my heart was true, and what I had been taught. I now know this pseudo-mental disorder as cognitive dissonance.
I didn’t intend for this post to be autobiographical in nature, so I’ll rush through the rest. Throughout my 20’s, I became friends with a few guys who decided to take their faith seriously. We did all of the things that fundamentalist, evangelical people who decide to take their faith seriously do. We held each other accountable. We read the Bible literally. We embraced a more modern, charismatic approach to corporate worship. We decided that the church, as a whole, was getting a lot of things wrong. We started our own church, so that we could make all of those wrong things right. Unfortunately, we ended up doing most of the same things wrong that we had felt that the church, as a whole, had been doing wrong, because, as it turns out, church is church, and is always going to be church. I was a leader at this church for the better part of five years, and I made many good friends, and probably affected a handful of people in a positive way. However, I finally came to a point where I couldn’t do the church thing anymore, and I stepped down, and today I haven’t been to church in just about a year.
For a while, I felt like my issues were with the church itself, but over time I came to discover that my issues were actually with the entire belief system of Christianity that I had been taught since I was a child. When I discovered this, I set out to find a more progressive version of Christianity that could keep up with the ever-expanding ideological eruption that was taking place in my heart, and in my mind.
You see, what I wanted more than anything was to still be a Christian. I longed for the nostalgic comfort of the faith of my youth, yet I kept running into roadblocks on my path back into the fold. After researching a few of the more progressive arms of Christianity, and immersing myself into the progressive Christian culture (the one that I found on the internet; my hometown doesn’t have much of one), I eventually came to the conclusion (and this seems so obvious in hindsight) that it didn’t make any more sense than the faith of my Southern Baptist upbringing.
It made even less sense, to be honest.
I came out of this season believing that to be a Christian, one must AT LEAST believe a few basic Christian things. Things like:
- God is real, and is divinely in control of everything, past, present, and future.
- Jesus is real, and is the divine son of God, who lived a perfect life, died on a cross for my sins, conquered death, and was resurrected three days later.
- The Holy Spirit is real, and is guiding us into a deeper state of holiness even now.
Like I said, I feel like you need to AT LEAST believe these three things if you’re going to call yourself a Christian. I mean, I honestly came across person after person who would call themselves a progressive Christian, yet refused to believe in things like sin, and the divinity of Christ. I don’t discount these people’s spiritual journeys, I promise. I just don’t understand Christianity in a context that denies these things.
This isn’t really important though, other than to tell you that I was unable to find a more progressive version of Christianity that made sense for me.
I guess it seems like the more life I live, the less reasonable Christianity becomes.
All of that to tell you that I can remember the moment when I accepted the fact that I no longer believed many, or any of the things that I had always believed.
It wasn’t a sad moment, and it wasn’t a moment drenched in anxiety or fear.
It was actually a moment of wonder and awe.
I felt like a brand new world had been opened up to me.
Because I no longer had to view the world through a certain set of lens, everything came to life, and everything had meaning, and nothing was forbidden.
For the first time that I can remember, I felt free.
Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long, and I’ve recently found myself back at square one, WANTING desperately to once again find merit in Christianity. Wanting to once again believe the things that I believed as a child. The great prophet Carl Sagan once said:
You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep-seated need to believe. — Carl Sagan
I found myself needing to believe that these things were true. Mainly because a life rooted in the pseudo-reality of Christianity is the only life that I had ever known.
But I realized something this morning. I realized that no matter how much I desperately WANT to believe in, and reattach myself to the faith of my youth, I just can’t. I promise you that I’ve tried.
It was never my intention to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, but there comes a time when you have to closely examine where you stand, and what you believe, and own it.
There comes a moment when you have to declare, at least for the sake of your own heart and mind, not where you wish you were, or where you want to go, but instead where you actually are.
I just want to encourage those of you who no longer find comfort in the faith of their youth, or in a faith of any kind.
I want to encourage those of you who have walked away from your faith, and are experiencing such profound loneliness that you’re considering walking back into a church, although you are no longer able to believe any of the stories and theories that make faith work.
Most of all, I want to encourage those of you who are wondering if there really is life on the other side of belief.
I am only catching glimpses of this life, but I can promise you that it’s there.
Even if it’s hard to imagine right now, I want you to know that you’re going to be okay.
Carry on, my friends.