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.