I’ve stepped away from Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular, and very often, I’ve wanted to step away from Christianity altogether.
At first, I thought it was because I needed room to doubt. Protestantism’s emphasis on a definite born again experience on a distinct date in history with an unflinching commitment to the Bible and the Christian worldview didn’t leave me with much space to question. Hearing my historical, theological, and spiritual questions answered with something as simple as, “I know God exists! I talked with him this morning” was not helpful.
What was left to say to that, except, “Well, I talked to him this morning, and the mornings before that for my whole life, and that’s never given me certainty”? And what’s left to say to that, except the obvious: “Well, you must not be born-again, then”? Which only a few people actually said outright to me, but still, I’d walked the walk and talked the talk long enough to know that, frankly, there wasn’t any other answer but that.
With a bigger cushion between me and the fear of hellfire, I’ve realized that I didn’t need room to doubt as much as I needed room to believe.
I don’t have the kind of relationship with God most Christians claim they do. He doesn’t speak to me, and/or I don’t hear him. I don’t feel his peace or his presence. He doesn’t show up for me right when I need him. He doesn’t give me the words to say. He hasn’t revealed himself to me, or given any certainty to my beliefs, or quieted my doubts.
My relationship with him is a source of great trial, labor, and unrest, not a source of peace, life, comfort, healing, or happiness. I’ve got a post-exilic Israel sort of relationship with God — lots of lament, exile, frustration, and picking up the pieces again and again.
You know when you text someone something angsty, and it takes them forever to respond? That dot-dot-dot bumping along again and again, and eventually stopping altogether, leaving nothing but Read 11:57 PM as a response to your existential crisis? And you hope they’re typing a really, really long response that’ll pop onto your screen and solve all your problems, but they might actually have just given up entirely and gone to bed?
That’s my relationship with God right now.
I cannot get it out of my head or my heart that there’s not something to this beautiful story of a triune God creating the world out of love and coming down himself to crush death and sin and lead us on to life. I love who Jesus is, too. Man, oh, man, what a man. I would love to have a relationship with Jesus, a real one, one that feels like more than talking to the blue wall of my dorm room while I psychoanalyze my emotions.
I don’t, honestly, have any reason to believe this story is true or this relationship is possible except that deep, crazy, hope-against-hope, this-is-how-it-ought-to-be longing of mine.
And I don’t have any reason to keep believing it’s true — certainly not with how church people are and how horrible this world is and how ineffective God’s will be done on earth seems to be — except that deep, crazy, hope-against-hope, this-is-how-it-ought-to-be longing of mine.
There’s not a lot of space for me to believe that way in Christianity of any stripe. There’s so much pressure to give a defense, make a decision, do it now before you die in a car crash and go to hell. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Today’s the day of salvation. Now walk down the aisle and rededicate your life to Christ for the third time this month.
I can’t believe like that. I can’t believe with certainty. I can’t believe quickly. I can’t believe today and be certain I’ll believe tomorrow. I just can’t. I struggle minute by minute with the choice to listen to that deep, crazy, hope-against-hope, this-is-how-it-ought-to-be longing, even though it brings me so much pain, makes little difference in my life, and doesn’t seem to make much sense. I can’t fully commit to it in a Protestant way, not enough to go knocking on my next door neighbor’s door with a tract or a spiel, not enough to feel scared when my friends says they’re gay or agnostic or Jewish now, not enough to say “you’re wrong and I’m right” when it comes to religious disagreements.
But I can, and I do, doggedly cling to that longing, watching it, waiting for it to grow, hoping this is the mustard seed, this is the little bit of faith, this is the blessed poor spirit Jesus talked about.
This is such an unorthodox hope, but it’s all I’ve got.
If you find God with great ease, perhaps it’s not God you have found. — Thomas Merton