Like you, I was raised in the depths of a Midwestern Evangelical church and family. I was the perfect-score Awana memorizer in elementary, self-declared saver of the ¨lost¨ in Junior High, worship team and multiple Bible study leader in High School, and almost didn’t even go to college because I just wanted to get ¨on the mission field¨ as soon as possible…And then everything began to change.
Now, here I am, a 27-year-old who can confidently claim zero beliefs. It has been an agonizing process to attempt to separate myself from an entire identity that was all I knew. I have tried my hardest to be honest as I attempt to examine each belief that I held and ask myself if I truly do believe it or even understand what it means. More often than not, the answer has been…not at all.
I have moved abroad and realized that I know so little. There are so many people in this world brought up in so many ways, who am I to think that the narrow window through which I was raised to see the world has any validity in matters of ultimate truth?
The problem with attempting to distance myself from all of it is that it is not just religious label. It was ME. My identity. My home.
Most of my loved ones are still strong Christians, and I know what they’re thinking. I know they view me as lost. I know they think I just need to ¨surrender¨. I know that they pray for me daily. They encourage me to stop needing to know all the answers, and ¨just have faith.¨ I know what it is like to look at someone like me, because I used to be on their side.
But the problem is that I can’t. I would LOVE to, if it was just a matter of choosing. But the mind can not believe something that it does not believe. If it does, that is called foolishness. You could draw any world view or religion out of a hat and be determined to believe it. Belief is not a matter of just saying ¨I believe¨. It requires being authentically convinced of a truth or reality. That is not something that anyone can force themselves to do.
I wish I could make myself believe something, as I already know where I fit in that world. My family would be at peace, my friends would relate to me more, holidays would have more meaning, and I would have the same automatic approaches and responses to life that I used to.
What is one to do when they want to believe, but can’t? How do we help others understand that we have not walked away from faith by our own choice? Starting over, attempting to understand the world through a completely different lens is not easy and takes immense strength. It was so much easier when moral motivation was handed to me in the Bible, when the church provided automatic friends and support, when prayer brought comfort… I did not choose to leave. I had to, or I would be living dishonestly. And if I could believe that it was all true, if it made sense to me at all, I would go ¨home¨ in a heartbeat. But until that happens (if it ever does), I am having to create a new home from scratch. Contrary to how I know many Christians view my situation, this is a lonely and grief-filled process. It is not an act of rebellion, but rather one of desperation. Desperate to find an understand of history and a way of living that I can say I truly believe. I have not found much yet, except for more questions than I started with. Sigh.
Since I seem to resonate with your writing, I just thought you may have a thought or two to share pertaining to this experience. Thanks Addie.
When I signed up for my classes freshman year of high school, I chose Debate as an elective, even though it was an upper-level class, even though I was shy, even though I have never, ever been good with conflict. I had spent the last year and all of the summer reading books of apologetics – the arguments and reasoning for the faith that I held so dear.
That summer, I sat by the swimming pool and read Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict while taking copious notes in loopy cursive. I lapped it up at the city swimming pool alongside my strawberry Kool-Aid Squeeze-It, and then I went off to high school, stiff-upper-lipped, armed with reason, ready to convince everyone.
Needless to say, I did not, even though I got in a pretty heated debate with the class atheist one day. I had the “answers” to his arguments, but they came out of my mouth sounding false. They were someone else’s words. Someone else had wrestled through questions that I’d never thought to ask, and I’d applied his answers like a cheap Band-Aid to my classmate’s very real doubts.
It was several more years before I found myself actually at the yawning opening of the Very Big Questions, staring into a tunneling dark. And though I have to be honest and tell you that I never really doubted the existence of God or the Deity of Jesus Christ (I can’t say exactly why), I felt slammed up against the Problem of Pain, the realities of evil, the failures of a dozen churches to recognize my struggle, one after the next.
So jarring, isn’t it, when the Girl-With-All-The-Answers (and all the Awana Sparks jewels to prove it) finds herself face-to-face for the first time with the Questions?
Artist and activist James Baldwin has said that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers” – and that, dear Rachel, is what it sounds like you have been doing in these recent years.
You have had the courage to critically examine the stock answers that you have held all of your life, and you have found yourself stopped still in the magnitude of the questions hidden beneath.
This does not make you “lost.” This makes you brave.
One of the helpful tools for me as I have gone through my own faith upheaval is the work of James W. Fowler. Fowler was a pastor with a bent toward developmental psychology who wrote a book called Stages of Faith. In the book, he explores the six common stages that emerge as we search for God and for meaning.
It goes like this: in the first couple of stages, faith is extremely intuitive. We tend to believe what we are told and understand those things in very literal ways. [This explains why I was so confused about that song that went: Father Abraham had many sons/Many sons had father Abraham/I am one of them and so are you/So let’s all praise the Lord!]
Then Stage 3, called the “Synthetic-Conventional” stage, comes along, usually in the teenage years. During this stage, we’re extremely reliant on some sort of institution (usually a church or church group) to give stability to our faith. We have a hard time thinking outside of “our box” – whatever that box may be – and get really upset when our simple answers are called into question.
(This is the part, dear Rachel, where we were memorizing Creation statistics so that we could write a long essay about why evolution is a lie on our freshman biology exams. This is the part where I was singing DC Talk’s “I Don’t Want It [Your Sex for Now]” while silently shaming my classmates who did want sex for now – but I think you may be too young to know that song.
This is where we were preparing three-minute testimonies, memorizing answers to questions we’d not yet thought to ask. So sure, so sure, so sure. Many people remain in this stage for their whole lives, Fowler says.)
But now, here you, at the end of the easy answers, and the beginning of the sprawling questions.
You are now in Stage 4 – The “Individual-Reflective” stage – which, I’m sorry to tell you, is also known as the angsty stage.
Of Stage 4, this simplified chart of Fowler’s developmental theories says:
“This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward”
Did you get that last line, dear Rachel? “Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”
All this doubt and questioning, all this searching and discarding, all this angst – this is normal. This is important and good and part of it.
And there is no timeframe for this; in fact, Fowler says that few people reach the next stage of “Conjunctive Faith” (which sounds like pink-eye but is really actually a good stage about accepting paradox and seeing mystery) until mid-life.
Right now, your doubting voice, who has been good and quiet and submissive all these many years, is demanding to be heard and you are paying attention, and that is a good thing. A great thing. (I’m there too, only my dominant voice right now is my cynic voice. I wrote a little bit about that over here.)
But also what I hear in your letter is this other voice. This quieter, sadder voice that I can only describe as longing.
“What is one to do when they want to believe but can’t?” you wrote, and maybe this grief is partly nostalgia for the simple way you once saw the world. Maybe it’s as you say – a loss of identity, a loss of home.
But I think that it runs deeper than that. I think it actually may be the deepest part of us – this unnamable desire, rivering always toward a God who is wide and unfathomable and beautiful. An ocean. A mystery. An endless depth of love.
Here is my best advice: Listen to the longing.
I think that this voice might have even more important questions for you than even doubt does. I can’t say what they are; this will be part of your work – finding those questions.
But I think that it will be the voice of longing not the voice of doubt and logic that will lead you home. Not to the same faith home you had before, but to a truer version of it. Someplace deeper. Someplace truer. Someplace Good.
[One final note about your friends and family: tell them you’re on a journey. I mean, maybe don’t mention Stage 4 because that sounds cancer-y, but tell them you’re in transit. You are, after all. And definitive statements about what you do and don’t believe will only alienate them and frustrate you. Tell them you’re figuring some things out, smile, and change the subject to their kids. People love to talk about their kids.]
All the grace,
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