A close friend recently asked me why I’m going through a faith crisis now, of all times. I mean, it would be expected for me to have had a faith crisis 15 years ago when my brother died, or 12 years ago when my parents split up, or maybe when I was younger and still “finding myself.” So why would a 37 year old woman who’s always been in church suddenly have a faith crisis? I’ve thought a lot about this, and I can’t say that I really know for sure why now. But I’ll take a go at in for the sake of possibly helping another doubter out there.
1. In some ways, I’ve been having one long faith crisis ever since my brother died. Before that day, I believed that God controlled every moment of our lives and had a reason for everything that happened. But when suddenly it was my loved one, my tragedy, and my grief, I began to wonder why God would let my brother die. Especially when my mother had prayed for Will’s safety that very day. Now, why would God ignore the motherly pleas of a woman who had given up her family, her home, her culture, and her language to spread the gospel to the nations? Why would he say no to his faithful servant?
The God I know wouldn’t say no. The God I hope exists and I try to believe in is a God of love, grace, and goodness. So for 15 years, I’ve lived in the darkness of this tension. Why did God let us down? Does God know everything that will happen? Does God have power to control circumstances? Is God at work in the world? Does he even exist?
These existential questions still plague me, 15 years later. The only semblance of an answer I’ve come to personally is that God has the potential to be all powerful and all knowing, but he chose to limit his own power and foreknowledge when he gave us free will. This, in turn, means that maybe God is not at work in the world to the minute detail that we think he is. People have the freedom to make choices, and our choices have effects. In addition, sometimes things just happen, and we can’t find a reason why. Our world is full of good and bad, and that’s just the way it is. The human experience will contain both intense joy and intense sorrow. The only other answer I have is that God is not real. Which is possible. But I’m not ready to step out on that yet.
(Side note: For me, I tend to think of God’s work in the world as the work of God’s people. We say we believe that Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit, right? So when Christians bring casseroles to new moms and sit and cry with grieving families and feed homeless people, God is at work in the world.)
2. My teenage journals. For a while I was writing a spiritual memoir, and I cracked open my old teenage diaries and prayer journals to see if I could find any good tidbits for the book. What I found in my journals was a girl who felt guilt and shame. It didn’t matter that I was a dedicated Christian who had devotions every day, carried Bible verses written out on index cards in her backpack, led a prayer group at school, and prayed for her friends. I still felt an immense burden of guilt. If I had skipped devotions for a day or two, I was apologizing over and over to God. If I didn’t witness when I thought I should have, I was asking God for forgiveness.
As I read through page after page, I was suddenly hit with the thought: The church can be harmful. Of course, many individuals have already experienced that idea, but for whatever reason, this was the first time it really hit me that maybe my experience with church had damaged my self-esteem.
I have continued to dig through my perfection issues and my lack of worthiness, and I still think that Christian culture had a part in that. I remember a lot of “We do nots” from my teen years. Also, as a PK and MK, I know I tended to think that people were watching me and I needed to be good. I don’t remember my parents specifically saying that to me, but I still felt the need to be a good example. I have puzzled through my perfection and good girl issues with a good dose of cynicism and anger toward the church. However, I do think there are other things that contributed to those feelings, like cultural expectations on women, being the firstborn child, and maybe even my personality type.
3. Influence. This is a broad word, but I will try to explain. I believe we are all influenced by our circumstances – by where we live, where we were raised, how we were raised, our culture, what our parents’ world views were, what we read, what we listen to, what we watch, etc. A couple of years ago as I was working on my book, I tried to get a feel for the Christian writing world and began following a lot of Christian bloggers. What I found was people who were questioning, searching, and living in the tension. People who had faith but still asked hard questions. People who were willing to be vulnerable. People who were willing to be honest about the inconsistencies of the Christian faith.
I found Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey. I found a ton of bloggers on A Deeper Story. I found Addie Zierman, Alissa B.C., D.L. Mayfield, and Elizabeth Esther. I found Christians who had stripped away all the must-dos and were raw and real. And I related to them. I craved that ability to be brutally honest about faith struggles, disappointments, and deep doubts.
Did these Christian writers influence me into a faith crisis? I don’t think so. But I think they helped me began to think outside the box, and they gave me the courage to ask tough questions about my own beliefs.
4. Personal discussions with friends. I have ongoing conversations with a friend of mine from college who is now an atheist. To be honest, a lot of the things she’s shared with me make sense. I have another friend who doesn’t say he’s an atheist, but he and his family have been out of church for a while, and yet they have a community of friends that mirror a “church family” – they take care of each other, enjoy each others’ company, and learn together. Yet this community of friends is not Christian. Another good friend and I have regular conversations about theology and theodicy. Like me, she wonders why people we love have to suffer if God is truly loving and good like we say he is.
5. Teaching fifth and sixth grade Sunday School. I know. How could teaching Sunday School cause a faith crisis? I was going through the early parts of the OT with my students and I just kept reading this crazy stuff that didn’t make sense. Like while the Israelites were in the desert, lots of terrible stuff happened. Once the earth opened up and swallowed an entire evil family. There was some weird story about snakes and staffs and holiness. Then there was the battle of Jericho. So the Israelites slaughtered an entire city of people and said God told them to? That’s genocide! God doesn’t condone genocide!! This led me to a lot of tough questions about the Bible.
Today I believe that the Bible is the story of God’s people that was written by humans. And humans are imperfect, fallible, and have biases and varied worldviews. So is it possible that Jericho was a military tactic and when it finally got written down years later, the writers decided to say God told them so? Sure. Is it possible that there was an earthquake that swallowed the “evil” family but when it got written down, there was a didactic spin to the story? Sure.
As I was teaching, of course, I stuck to the script. I said what I was supposed to say and did my best to guide my students toward an understanding of God’s love and grace. But inwardly, I chafed. So much about the Bible is puzzling. Today I think the Bible is full of human fingerprints, and that’s okay.
This is the best I can do to explain right now. I suspect that in 10 years I’ll look back on this time in my life and see things more clearly. But for now, do any of these things sound familiar to you? Are you wrestling with your long-held beliefs? Know that you are not alone. If you aren’t a faith wrestler, I hope this post is a bit of a guide for understanding those who are.
I identify with your reasoning in the first section: “The only semblance of an answer I’ve come to personally is that God has the potential to be all powerful and all knowing, but he chose to limit his own power and foreknowledge when he gave us free will…. People have the freedom to make choices, and our choices have effects. In addition, sometimes things just happen, and we can’t find a reason why. Our world is full of good and bad, and that’s just the way it is. The human experience will contain both intense joy and intense sorrow.” You know from our previous conversations that I don’t take anything about the Christian faith for granted, and I’ve had plenty of dark nights (and weeks and years) of the soul. But I’m in a relatively “calm” place right now, which is why these words of yours resonated with me. I love your honesty, and your beautiful way with words. Keep writing.
Thanks for your support, Susan!
Perhaps the answer to “Why now?” is “Why not now?” Times of questioning are also often times of growth and what better time to be growing spirituality than as you are beginning to transition from early adulthood into middle-age? I have been reading quite a lot of Richard Rohr in recent years, so I am thinking in his terms of First and Second Half of Life, which, while not strictly chronological in conception, often mirror age in our lives. While the First Half is characterized by belonging to a group and following its precepts and playing by the rules and us as opposed to them, the Second Half breaks out of boundaries and allows for more integration of seemingly disparate elements and growth in God/Love/Creation – or whatever term works for us – than we had ever envisioned when we were bound into the old ego and social box of the First Half. Wow, it’s really hard to summarize two books, “Falling Upward” and “Immortal Diamond,” in a couple of sentences! I know all the questioning is hard and can feel like loss, but in the years ahead, I believe you will look back and see the spiritual fruits and growth of this time. Of course, you will probably then be working through new issues and growing even more. Thank you for sharing your past and your present with us. I look forward to hearing where all this will carry you in the future.
I love your way of looking at this, and I am a Richard Rohr fan.
I’m glad that you also read Richard Rohr as it is so difficult to do justice to the wisdom he writes in such a brief manner.
Karissa, thanks for writing this out so thoughtfully. I’m continually impressed by your ability to put into words things that many of us struggle with.
So sorry for the loss of your brother. The pain it caused is pulpable even 15 years later. I know it never goes away, but you have to go on and go through that pain.
It’s true that tragedies happen at the same statistical rate to Christians as to those of any other faith, or non theists. Similarly, “miracles” of healing or safety happen at the same rate. I think either of your conclusions are fine, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t change much how you live your life. Strive to be your best you, help others as much as you can and find joy. But do try to let go of the guilt. That emotion isn’t needed for either scenario. Love ya!
Thanks, Karen. I recently heard of a study where people with terminal illnesses were divided into 2 groups: 1 group had people specifically praying for them, and 1 group had no one praying for them. The people who had others praying for them did not improve at a higher rate than the others. I think unanswered prayer would be my biggest reason to not believe in God.
You make a good point: Just live a good life!
Karissa – thanks for being so honest. I’ve been there, too, both as a teenager and again more recently, shocked and hurt at the overwhelming message from my faith community that questioning is lack of faith, that anger is sin, that a broken heart is just feeling sorry for yourself. We need to love each other better through the hard times and trust the God we profess to believe in to make his presence real to those who are doubting. At least that seems like the only option I can live with. BTW, I came to the conclusion that I need to believe in God to make the hard times bearable, otherwise I’m not sure what the point in hanging around is.
Thanks, Valerie. I agree that doubters need a safe, loving faith community!
Thanks so much for this post. I’m right here with you–I grew up in the church, and began to chafe at it in high school, but didn’t really take that questioning to a deeper level until recently, when my husband and I left our church. We struggle to figure out how to best raise our kids, how to instill in them spirituality without determining that spirituality for them. It’s tricky. We knew that we needed to leave, but at the same time, I find myself missing the community of faith and longing for something to fill that gap. I wish you luck and goodness in your journey.
I’m glad to know others have been through this!! Thanks for commenting!
Karissa, do you know the magazine and website “Mockingbird”? It’s a Christian forum filled with fascinating articles that bring questions of Christian ethos into the contemporary cultural landscape. I highly recommend it. And of course there’s always C.S. Lewis, the most intelligent, lucid apologist there could ever be, I’m fairly certain. He has several books that address the problem of suffering head on. I have my faith crisis at least once a day. But the alternative, when you strip away the Carl Saganesque “billions of stars” wonderment who-ha, is a universe that came out of nowhere for no reason, with a definitive expiration date, rendering our ideas of meaning, value, feelings, art, profundity, etc., absurd; “meaning” is just a delusion in such a cosmological view. Which I find utterly ridiculous, much harder to swallow than God, the designer, the benevolent creator. In any case: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Jeff, yes, Mockingbird does great stuff. I think what you said here was pretty brilliant. Science may tell us how the universe/the world began, but it doesn’t tell us why.
Exactly. And many people seem not to care about the why; for me, it’s the only question, really.
>Then there was the battle of Jericho. So the Israelites
>slaughtered an entire city of people and said God told
>them to? That’s genocide! God doesn’t condone genocide!!
Instead of questioning the accuracy of the Bible, you should be questioning your understanding of what actually was taking place there.
1. When and where did God command the Israelites to pick up the sword? Because they had no weapons on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, else they would surely have prepared for battle.
2. Going back to the beginning, who was the first man to kill with the sword? Why didn’t Isaac or Jacob use the sword to defend themselves? Why didn’t Moses lead the Israelites into battle with a sword?
3. In Genesis 15:16, God did not give the land of Canaan to the Israelites because “the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full.” What does this expression mean? (see Psalm 75:8, Rev. 14:10) Please explain! What happens when their iniquity is full?
If you come to some reasonable answers for these three questions, and remember that the God of the Old Testament who led the Israelites is none other than Jesus Christ, the unchanging One, this seemingly difficult incident should clear up and make sense.
In Jesus we see the character of God fully and clearly displayed. In the Old Testament, only a few came close to that revelation: Joseph, Moses, Job, and Daniel are some. With the others, God met them where they were at, and took them as far as their faith allowed Him to.
Although God is above us, and works through the powers of nature without our consent, when it comes to our individuality, He respects us and requires our consent to work in and through us.
1 Cor. 13 is preeminently a description of the character of God. Therefore, what God commanded, or what happened in the Old Testament, was not necessarily done in just the manner that He would have done it, if He were among us as a man.
I understand what you’re going through, and I think that the questioning is a good thing. It’s important to frequently re-evaluate what we believe and understand what drives us. Regardless of the conclusion you come to, it at least helps you understand that your thoughts are your own and not something you believe simply because you were told to. I see far too many people latch onto a false belief and refuse to let go even when the truth hits them in the face.
Your #2 point above particularly stuck with me because it was one of the major things that caused me to question my faith. I saw how Christianity was used for harm both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my case, I doubted the very foundations of my faith that I left Christianity completely. Ever since then, I have become even more convinced that leaving the faith was the best decision for me. I can’t say whether or not that is right for you, but questioning aspects of your faith can still set you on a better path regardless of the conclusions you come to.
Chad, Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement!
Thank you for many things – for beautiful writing, for vulnerabililty. I didn’ t know your brother died and my heart sort of stopped with that. Have you read Scott Cairns small book, The End of Suffering? He is Orthodox, a writer and poet. My son bought it for me for my birthday – which probably tells you something about my relationship with my youngest! It’s a small, pithy book – a gem really. I read it after I returned from Lebanon and Jordan in January. I had learned of some of the exploitation going on with refugees and I wanted to vomit. It doesn’t try and give pat answers…I think as a poet and writer yourself, you may like it. My priest says “Honor the struggle.” Thanks for sharing yours so we can honor it.
Marilyn, yes, I am familiar with Scott! I have not actually read that book. I’ve read Compass of Affection and Short Trip to the Edge. I will look into The End of Suffering. Thanks for your kind words!