"One person's idea of a falling away is my idea of a revival in the making." ~ Jonathan Martin
I used to be really afraid of losing my faith, and then I lost it.
On September 9, 2020, I was stuck in my apartment, waiting for COVID test results to come back--one of those "just in case" times. I scrolled through the endless settings on Microsoft Word, fine-tuning some album art I was working on, clearly not a professional graphic designer. Half-working while half-listening to Daniel's Wesley talk about the American church's horrible track record with race. I wasn't blasé about the topic; I just didn't expect to hear anything I hadn't already learned from books and podcasts. Props to Daniel for not being afraid to confront things. While passively listening, one chunk of the message in particular stuck with me:
"The sad thing is that the church has often been complicit in this injustice. If you grew up Southern Baptist, do you know why the Southern Baptist Convention exists? It's because they split because of slavery, because Southern Baptists wanted to keep slaves. If you're a Methodist kid, this is a Methodist campus ministry, ... there was a split in the mid-1800s and that's where you get the AME church. The African Methodist Episcopal church split off from the Methodist kind of 'mother organization' because they wanted to speak out when it came to abolitionism, the ending of slavery. If you went to a Christian school, like a Christian high school, odds are it started in the 50s or 60s as a reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, because white parents didn't want their kids going to school with black kids. So, they said they were going to put them in Christian schools."
With the message long-over, I kept working for probably about an hour. I like creative work. Getting lost in a project feels inwardly unifying in a rare way. I'm not sure if I was finished, frustrated, or just overtired, but I decided I was done for the night. I shut my laptop, brushed my teeth, and laid down to sleep. I don't really have a 'winding down' ritual before bed, but I at least wanted to say goodnight to God.
"Hm," I exhaled, pausing for a sec, alternately staring at my ceiling and the blinds. I began talking to myself or maybe to God--probably doing a little bit of both. I certainly intended to have God be part of the conversation. "It's horrible that people who called themselves Christians, people who are supposedly filled with the Holy Spirit... I don't know, they don't seem to look any different from anyone else. Isn't there supposed to be something that sets Christians apart? Some advantage of having the Holy Spirit, either of morals or at least of endurance towards those morals?"
My faith hadn't really been shaken by a question like that before. I knew nonbelievers could be amazing, or they could suck, and likewise with Christians. Still though, I didn't think they should be equally balanced. Thinking about it in this moment, I was thinking... maybe that premise was wrong. I remembered one of my friends, a non-Christian who has shown me the love of Christ in ways that no Christian ever has. Maybe there really was no advantage to having the Holy Spirit. Or maybe...... maybe there was no Holy Spirit?
And just like that... it was like a light switch had been flipped off. Or like a panic alarm had been switched on.
"Hey.... uhh...... God? ... no. Help. I'm scared. Did I do something wrong? I didn't mean to... I'm sorry... ahh....."
It sent me into about a week-long panic attack.
I told one person the next day, who didn't really have much to say. I told my girlfriend, and she said something along the lines of "I don't know; I know your history with God. I'm sure this is just another step on the journey."
It felt like I couldn't communicate it. It was just gone, that thing, God's presence... it just seemed as entirely gone as it could be.
A few days later, I texted a friend/mentor of mine. I always found his thoughts helpful in forming my own.
"Wednesday night ... as I laid down to go to sleep, it just felt like, for some reason, the first time i've seriously doubted God's existence in multiple years. (I've even tried before, just to see if I could make myself doubt God's existence, and I literally couldn't. It seemed like hard floor that I couldn't get through; a solid foundation.)"
I further detailed my failing paradigm of those with versus those without the Holy Spirit, concluding:
"So then I have four ways of resolving that tension:
1) There are people who know God (and have the Holy Spirit) that don't know it
2) There is no advantage to being filled with Holy Spirit
3) We all have the Holy Spirit
4) The Holy Spirit/God doesn't exist"
2) There is no advantage to being filled with Holy Spirit
3) We all have the Holy Spirit
4) The Holy Spirit/God doesn't exist"
I had been taught that those first three solutions were heretical, and I really didn't want that fourth one to be true. (I mean, obviously that'd fall in the category of "heresy" too, but that was hardly the most distressing thing about it.)
The most helpful responses I got were kind of like non-responses. Just people who listened to where I was, said something along the lines of "Yeah, that sounds like a difficult, scary place to be." Those who just generally made me feel like I was safe in sharing my process; that it was real and valid, and that it didn't scare them.
That same mentor friend reminded me of some wisdom he had shared months earlier. He said that his "wall" (or "dark night of the soul") began with him feeling he had a choice: was he going to wrestle this out with God or on his own? He reasoned "If I went through this journey with God, I would end up with God."
I liked that. He said, of his friends who had gone through similar seasons, those who processed without God had about a 50/50 chance of winding up with God at the end, but those who stayed in discussion with God throughout ended their seasons with a deeper, truer faith.
So, my faith was dead. There was no "I believe, help my unbelief." It was more like "God, I don't even know if you're real... If you are... I don't know, help me... Somehow... And if you're not..." As I prayed, I prayed with this secret hope that if the God I was talking to wasn't real, then maybe the universe would let me know somehow. It was almost like I was praying to the God behind the God I was used to praying to.
I think what I was experiencing was the death of my idol of the Christian God.
Exodus 32 opens on the Israelites while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai. Seeing Moses' delay, they demand that Aaron make them an idol. He gathers their gold and jewelry, and makes a golden calf for the people to worship. This may not be the most salient image in our minds when we think of the Old Testament, but according to Tim Mackie, cofounder of the BibleProject, "Jewish scholars view the golden calf story as Israel's Genesis 3 kind of fall narrative." (I cannot recommend this episode of their podcast highly enough.)
My main takeaway came from the other cofounder of the BibleProject, Jon Collins. "One thing I never noticed before--I can't believe I didn't notice this. I thought they were building a golden calf to replace Yahweh. But they're here saying, 'No, this is Yahweh.' ... the template in my mind [was always that] they're creating a new God. But what they're saying is ... 'Let's create this idol that is Yahweh ... Let's do it our own way.'"
I've generally operated from a similar starting template to Jon. But this new understanding of the story's context forces me to consider that my ideas about God might be an idol, might be a wall that blocks or distorts my experience of God. (Is that what was Jesus spoke to the Pharisees about in John 5:39-40?)
What if our ideas about God are wrong? What if what we perceive as our faith failing is actually an idol dying? And, what if, on the other side of that death, there is a resurrection of something truer?
I've heard many pastors say "faith" could essentially be translated as "trust" in the New Testament. This, I believe, could be a wonderful time to "practice what we preach." I hesitate to make any universal claims, but I see so many people (myself included) going after something more like certainty and less like trust. They spend much of their walk with God trying to understand who God is, as if He might be condensed into a lab report. And then, if they could just have the manual, they'd have no need to trust a wild, unpredictable God. But right understanding is truly not the goal of knowing God. As an analogy, in Spanish, there are two verbs meaning "to know": "saber" and "conocer." "Saber" is about understanding information, while "conocer" is about relational knowing or familiarity. My study has led me to believe that God desires us to relationally know Him--similar to how we might know our father or brother--far more than God desires or expects us to understand Him intellectually. He desires us to know him experientially rather than theoretically.
If you ever read some of Genesis, just starting from the beginning, you'll notice that God introduces Himself to most of the people without giving a ton of information (He doesn't even introduce Himself by name (Yahweh) until Exodus). Jesus actually seems to echo the same strange, succinct call: "follow me."
I believe God gives us that same invitation, equally cryptic and equally simple, today. There is no intellectual barrier for entry. God just says "follow me," and you get to say "okay." Maybe one could say "That sounds pretty and all, but, like... how do I practically follow Him? Isn't that where the intellect comes in?" Sure. Maybe. I don't know. Probably even. Who's to say?
Here's some barebones basic ideas/practicals to get you started:
1) Let God be a part of your process
Talk to God about what's going on in your mind. Do you think God hates you? Tell Him that. Do you think He doesn't exist, or, if He does, He's uncaring? Scream it or cry. Or silently raise those thoughts in His direction. Circling back to my friend's advice: if you let God be part of your process... well, I might disagree with his conclusion--I don't want to make a prediction where you'll land. But I do think that all things are better with God than without God. Going through hell on earth? It's better if God's there with you. Celebrating your successes? Great! Letting God celebrate with you is better than celebrating without Him.
2) Let people be a part of your process
I've always struggled to know who my people are exactly. In certain times of my life, it has gotten down to just my immediate family, or maybe just a counselor. Whatever it looks like for you, find the couple of people you can share with and trust your heart with. When I truly doubted, if not fully disbelieved in God, I didn't announce it loudly to all of my coworkers and supervisors. I talked to a mentor I trusted. I talked to my girlfriend. I told a supervisor I wasn't planning on telling because she felt safe in the moment. It was probably only like seven people total that I told—and, hey, I don't want to define what that number has to be for you. All I can say is what God said in Genesis 2:18: "it is not good that man should be alone." When I'm trapped inside just my own head, even if I'm processing with God, it is nearly impossible to avoid going down an isolation-induced rabbit hole. I believe loneliness can kill you either quickly or slowly, spiritually or physically. Please, please, please share your process with someone. And make sure you trust them enough to take the risk of trusting your heart with them. Make sure they are safe. Your heart is precious, and it could be very damaging to share with people who end up not being safe. Now, obviously, you can't predict the person's reactions. I mean, I had mixed reactions, in terms of people understanding or even believing my process. That's why there's safety in having more than one person to share with. But there's also danger in sharing the most vulnerable parts of your process with too many people too quickly. It is a risk. I won't sugarcoat that. But it's a risk worth taking.
3) Be open to God and teachable by Him
I think our ideas keep us from God largely because they box God in. Rather than being a PhD "understander" of God, it can be better to think of yourself as a student at the feet of the only Good Teacher that there is. There is no High Priest between you and God (I could probably write 10 more pages just about that). So. Be teachable by God with the understanding that nobody understands God. We are all learners of God; there are no masters.
Through all of this, the biggest thing I learned about my faith is that it's not my own. What I mean by that is I'm sharing in the faith of Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our collective faith. If my relationship with God has to do with me holding onto God, then it's always in jeopardy. But if my relationship with God has to do with God holding onto me--well, then what is there to fear, really? At the end of the day, I hold onto the image of Psalm 23: God is my Shepherd; Jesus, the Good Shepherd. If I follow well, awesome. If I wander, I trust the Good Shepherd to find me and save me from whatever deceptions I've fallen into. I expect that, in my life, I'll follow God and I'll occasionally get sidetracked. I'm actually learning that that's another small part of being human. Instead of shooting for perfection, I shoot for good. And my relationship with God is a daily thing, not a goal I'm heading towards. God is my Shepherd, and, so... at my best, I'm a really smart sheep. Either way, it's on God to lead me; it's just on me to try to follow. The expectation of falling short is built in. To quote another one of my friends, I'm learning to trust God's ability to lead me more than my own ability to screw things up.
Author | Andrew Elder
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