Room to Believe

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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

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30 thoughts on “Room to Believe

  1. Adele & Rod

    Did you decide not to post this? If so, I hope you didn’t get bad reactions that influenced your decision.

    I think this is very brave. I was just going to comment that I hope you had found room to believe and grow in your Orthodox church.

    Adele

    On Wed, 16 Nov 2016 12:51:59 +0000

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  2. heather

    I understand wanting to believe. It IS a good story. It is comforting to think that there is a all knowing, compassionate God who is in total control and cares about what happens to you. Why would anyone want to give that up?
    I went through the same thing. Uncertainty is ok in the world even if it is frowned upon in Christianity. Not everything is so black and white.

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  3. ChrisW

    So… I get the need to break out of certainty. I get the need to be open to possibilities – both good and bad – for there is something mysterious about hope in that respect; hope grows in a place of surrender, not certainty. And I get the feeling of longing, and I think it is that ache that shows we were made for something else that cannot be fully lived here (CS Lewis wrote on that in “The Weight of Glory”).
    What I don’t get is this: the feeling that you don’t know if you know God. Surely he is someone who thrives in our delight when we know *he* said that, or did that. It seems utterly bizarre that he’d want to be aloof and seem absent; even if he’s hidden, that’s not the same. I dunno, with all the things I’ve been through I don’t know that I could bear up under the absence you seem to be feeling. I don’t know if that helps, certainly I don’t wish it to weigh on you.
    I just… I suppose I want to say that I know God *does* talk to me, and steer me, and provide for me — but he doesn’t do it because I’m special. And it’s not that I found him easily or anything like that quote suggests… he was just there. And he keeps surprising me in wonderful ways, I couldn’t make it up.

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  4. Abigail

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I read it in the email version after you deleted it and was considering sending you an email to tell you how encouraging it was. Although I don’t identify with all the details of your story, I have had a hard time relating commonly held spiritual ideas to my lived experience with health issues and their mental side effects. I have never gone through a significant period of doubting the existence or goodness of God, and I credit this to God’s grace working through C.S. Lewis. His fictional and nonfiction writing so perfectly suited my needs that I had resources and answers against doubt when it threatened to take hold.

    Despite that blessing, I am often distressed when I feel like life doesn’t make sense and doesn’t correspond to commonly held Christian ideas. I create internal conflict as I try to understand whether a concept is misunderstood and misapplied, or if my perception is just skewed. So often, I just have to go back to what I am absolutely convinced is true: I have seen changes in my life that I am not powerful enough to create myself. I may not hear God’s voice, and my prayer life may stink because I felt completely alone and not helped in the midst of mental difficulties I felt God was morally obligated to save me from, but I have been transformed in so many ways, and I have seen things that point to a creator. I cannot understand God or why other people have such different spiritual experiences than mine, but of all the things that I am sure of, one of them is that God is real and that He won’t let go of me.

    Have you ever listened to the band Kings Kaleidoscope? Their music is aesthetically wonderful, and I appreciate their balance between singing hymns and worship songs and singing honestly about life’s difficulties and how genuinely hard it can be to feel God. “Felix Culpa,” “Gone,” and “A Prayer” have been especially significant to me.

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  5. Rebekah

    I admire you so much for being open and honest even when it’s hard and it hurts. I pray that God will reveal himself to you. He’s done so for me and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And I want that for you. I don’t care if you agree with me or believe what I do, I just want you to know the truth, and I know that’s what you want. Keep on with your “hope-against-hope, this-is-how-it-ought-to-be longing”, Bailey!!

    (I feel like there ought to be a closing of some sorts to this (like “hugs”, which I don’t like, or the cold “sincerely”), but I can’t think of a good one, so… :) )

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  6. Elizabeth Erazo

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve felt similar, although I’m not sure I would have been able to put it in words like you do. In the end, I had to embrace this mantra:

    “I would have despaired unless I had
    believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord
    In the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

    Notice it is not “I would have despaired unless I had seen the goodness of the Lord” but simply “unless I had *believed* I would see”. That’s important and worth dwelling on, I think. And how do we live in the mean time? The psalm continues on,

    “Wait for the Lord;
    Be strong and let your heart take courage;
    Yes, wait for the Lord.”

    We are a waiting people with a faith that waits, and hopes. I think sometimes we forget this.

    And now, because I cannot leave this here without a practical suggestion, I would suggest the possibility that, if you don’t already practice it, meditation could help and maybe a gratitude journal. If you’re anything like me, these things seem kind of…woo-woo at worst and simply “for other people” at best. But these habits did help me feel more open to experiencing the presence of God, and allowed me to really experience God’s working, hear his whisperings, in my day to day life. You may also try out the book “The Practice of the Presence of God”. It still doesn’t bring that same sort of faith that you’ve escaped, but it does bring peace that makes me more confident in God’s character while still holding a wide space for an open heart towards me being wrong, other people being right, and a kind of “open” belief that you describe. So it doesn’t feel so damn exhausting all the time, I guess is what I mean to say.

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  7. Eigna Burke

    Bailey: I’ve been reading your blog(s) for years and this is my first time commenting — except I’m not really commenting, I’m just pointing you to a place that may have some readings and ideas (from Richard Beck) that may have some relevance to your last few posts.

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/04/summer-and-winter-christians.html

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/12/learning-to-sing-songs.html

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-kingdom-of-god-november-9-2016.html

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-kingdom-comes-when-you-get-in-my.html

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  8. A.C. Caylor

    Dear Bailey, thank you for such courage. I feel for you, although I don’t have words to say so eloquently. And beyond that, I only have one more thing to say.

    God doesn’t”talk” to his children apart from the Bible. He doesn’t. Believing a dialogue with him is real intimacy with him is a heavy burden indeed. But his Spirit works through Scripture and prayer and preaching and the church to draw our hearts closer to him. I don’t know if that’s been a burden to you or not, I only guessed, so you can take it or leave it.

    You don’t have to haves confidence in your own faith. You just have to have confidence in Jesus. May he continue to guide and help you. <3

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    • Abigail

      This is a great addition to the dialogue. I’ve found great comfort in the concepts you mentioned. Because I can see myself growing through reading Scripture, hearing sermons, and living in community with other believers, I feel assured that Christianity is real and life-changing. If I was dependent on some supernatural voice or divine feeling, I’d give up.

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    • Elizabeth Erazo

      You believe he doesn’t speak at all apart from the Bible? That’s very big claim. I find many ways God speaks with me — music, art, creation, my children and family, and yes sometimes even in a quiet space in my heart I can hear a voice that puts something into words for me. What caused you to come to this belief?

      I love your parting point. If we carry the burden, we’ll always feel discouraged, but with faith in Jesus, He’ll never fail us!

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      • Allison Caylor

        Elizabeth,

        Sorry I’ve taken so long to reply! I forgot to check back into the conversation on this post. I completely agree that God uses many ways to teach our hearts and direct our paths. I would just specify that he doesn’t put new, specific words into our minds.

        The primary reason I believe this is because I simply don’t see Jesus or any of the apostles ever telling the church that they should seek or expect verbal dialogue with God. They certainly never emphasized it as modern evangelicalism does. Instead, again and again we’re told to preach and listen to the word, to devote ourselves to prayer, and to seek holiness in every facet of our lives, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. That’s the emphasis. That’s what I see in the Bible. I’ve been very much shaped and strengthened in this belief, though, by the experiences of many brothers and sisters, particularly my husband. In college, he firmly believed that God had told him to be a single, lifelong missionary. Shortly after, his dad died, leaving his mother alone. So while my husband was in China, he had to wrestle with the fact that what seemed to be God’s command for his life (according to everything he’d been taught about knowing God’s will) was actually in direct conflict with the written command to take care of the widows in one’s own family. He came to believe that our intimacy with God is through what he’s already revealed, not special revelations to each person throughout our lives, and has found so much peace and security in that. He can know that as long as he’s seeking to obey all the Bible’s commands for him, then wherever wisdom leads him is God’s will for him. I know many others who have had similar experiences.

        I do know that the Bible addresses prophesying, including in the New Testament, and that the apostles regularly received visions, messages, etc. directly from God. But the Reformed belief, which I hold to, is that these things were for that certain time, to place the mark of authenticity on the nation of Israel, Jesus’ identity, and the apostles’ teaching, and does not continue into the “normal” age of the church today.

        One more note: the holy Spirit is in most certainly our hearts, teaching, guiding, and helping us. How could anyone deny that who has felt that push to pray for a certain person, or had some question or problem suddenly and beautifully illuminated in his heart? But the measure of our closeness to God has to come from our love for his truth and our strength for obedience, not a conversation directly with him. We will have that someday, but not in this life.

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  9. lynorarose

    Thank you for posting this. Every time I stop in here it seems like we’re in the same stage of life, which sounds creepy and weird, but what I mean is that I’m glad I’m not alone.

    From my certain, homeschool days, to my dating life, to now. You echo the things that I’m experiencing. You help me believe it’s ok that I, as you, and as U2 “still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Your honesty is powerful, and it is making a difference, so again, thank you.

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  10. Courtney

    Bailey, I think it’s great that your being so transparent on this blog! I’ve actually dealt with some of the same things that you describe over the course of my (fairly young) life. I went through a period where I had a billion questions related to feminism, the LGBT issue, politics, and about a billion other things – which was hard at a staunchly conservative church where I didn’t feel free to ask these kinds of questions.

    It sounds like (based on some of your other posts) we had a pretty similar upbringing. I was also homeschooled and raised in heavily evangelical/conservative environments and have dealt with trying to make my faith my own, rather than a by-product of my environment, while still holding onto my faith. Thankfully, I’ve managed to reconcile most of my questions, but it’s definitely an process. I apologize for the lengthy comment – I just felt led to share my story and let you know there are more people who can identify with your voice and story.😊

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  11. ChrisW

    I just read something and thought of this post: Peter Boehler (a Moravian) said to John Wesley in 1738, at a time when John was about to give up all ministry and preaching because John thought he didn’t believe: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

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