Our Biggest Mistake: We Did As We Were Told

schoolgirlThose of us who broke up with Jesus (he wouldn’t return our calls) are accustomed to having our motives and our sincerity questioned by those still happy with their faith. We get it all the time.

We hear that we weren’t authentic enough, or we weren’t fully surrendered to the will of God, or we had some unconfessed sin in our lives, or whatever. Maybe we just didn’t go to the right kind of church, or we read from the wrong version of the Bible (Didn’t you know the King James was the version God always wanted?). Or maybe we just “fell away” because our faith was weak, or our love of worldly things was just too strong. I’ve been dismissed in so many different ways, I’ve lost count.

But the fact of the matter is that, just like me, most of my post-Christian friends left, not because their hearts weren’t really in it, but because they were too into it to settle for anything less than following all the way through with their faith commitments. We weren’t the complacent ones, the ones neither hot nor cold, whom God was going to “spit out of his mouth” like the Laodiceans of Asia Minor mentioned in the book of Revelation.

No, we were the ones most committed to following our faith to the limits of our capacities and beyond, past the point of our own breaking, following Jesus wherever he led, even to the ends of the earth. We were totally “souled out.”

We didn’t leave because we didn’t care enough. We left because we cared too much. We took our faith too seriously. We were far too committed to seeing things through to pull back when the harsh realities of our religion came crashing down around us. Like Truman reaching the end of his township-sized television studio in The Truman Show, we kept going right up until we finally found ourselves on the outside looking in.

I’ve surveyed a number of my friends whose histories resemble my own, and together we’ve compiled a list of ways we ended up leaving our faith (or having it leave us) precisely because we did what everybody was telling us to do. That was our biggest mistake.

Seven Things We Did Correctly, Whoops

Do these things, they said. It’ll be great, they said. So we did.

1. We took the Bible seriously. We read the Bible. We studied it both informally and formally. Many of us achieved graduate degrees in theology, biblical studies, missiology, you name it. From conservative seminaries, even. We read it devotionally and we read it prayerfully. Some of us even prayed our way through extended portions of the text (lectio divina, baby). We studied passages and their historical contexts for months on end and even learned the biblical languages so that we could go right to the original sources themselves.

This was a big mistake.

Now, I know lots of people did these things and it only strengthened their faith. I’m not contesting that. But speaking for myself and so many of my post-Christian friends who were as passionate about their faith as I was, I can attest that it was our reading of the Bible that put many of us on our journey out of the faith entirely.

In retrospect, I think the Catholics have the best strategy: Don’t ever make too big a deal about being biblical, because people might actually start reading it for themselves. The smartest thing the church ever did was to keep both the scriptures and worship in a language nobody but the priests could even understand, much less critique.

For some, it’s the violence, either commanded by Yahweh or else carried out directly by his own hand (you have read the story of the flood, right?). For others, it’s the blind eye the Bible turns toward systemic injustices like slavery or treating women as property to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. These were all cultural norms at the time, to be sure, but you would think that divine revelation could overcome such limitations. Evidently, it seems God is only able to reveal to us whatever our cultural context has already predisposed us to know and understand. If that’s the case, though, I’m not sure what’s so revelatory about it.

2. We prayed for the things the Bible told us to pray for. We didn’t pray for a pony. We didn’t pray to get rich or drive better cars. No, we prayed for our loved ones to overcome illness just like Jesus and James told us to do. But nothing out of the ordinary happened. The people we prayed for either didn’t get better or they did, but at exactly the same rates as people who weren’t being prayed for at all.

As my friend April Blue put it: “Believing actually led to the demise of my faith because it caused me to actually expect God to do things.”

It turns out the Bible writes a lot of checks that reality simply cannot cash. The Christian faith overplays its hand, making promises of provision, health, and security which no one with their eyes open could possibly say get met. And it’s not just about healing (although unambiguous assurances about that abound). It’s also about prayers for things like spiritual fruit, personal character, peace and harmony between people, and guidance or protection in just about any endeavor we undertake. Seeing that even the prayers of Jesus didn’t come true, you’d think we would finally learn our lesson.

Related: “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History

As another friend, John Kluttz, quipped: “There’s a reason one needs faith the size of a mustard seed: any larger and it will destroy itself.”

The only prayers that reliably get answered are the ones we can answer ourselves. We learned this through repeated experience over decades. When others then try to invalidate our collective lifetimes of empirical observation on this matter, we can’t help but ignore them because we know good and well they don’t know what they’re talking about. Their eyes are closed as tight as possible, I suppose to keep their faith from leaking out.

3. We shared our faith with others. Boy was that a mistake. More often than not, it’s a fool’s errand to share your ideology with people who don’t already accept all the same fundamental beliefs that you do. They ask really good questions for which you won’t find good answers. And I don’t mean because you don’t look hard enough. I mean because the answers are just. not. there. The only way to make those questions go away is to bury them. Just learn to live with the slow dull ache of pervasive cognitive dissonance.

Now, evangelism does work…as long as you restrict it to those people and places where everyone already thinks the same way you do theologically. They call this preaching to the converted, and as pointless as that sounds, that’s the only kind of preaching that reliably works. If you branch out and try to introduce the Christian faith in a context in which it’s not already culturally privileged, you’re gonna have a bad time.

I wouldn’t recommend spending a great deal of time telling people that you are offering them “life more abundant” or whatever else it is you were promised if you follow Jesus. In time you come to see that these claims aren’t backed up by real life experience. Granted, some are better than others at living inside a mental world of their own making (blessed are the dreamers). This is certainly an ideal environment for people with rich imaginations.

But I wouldn’t recommend sharing this world with too many other people unless you’re prepared to watch them poke holes in it, shining a light on all the places you’ve been squinting in order to keep your vision blurry enough not to see what’s right in front of you. Even the most vibrant faith begins to falter under the weight of closer scrutiny. That’s why most avoid it, and resent it whenever it’s foisted upon them by skeptics like us.

4. We believed God was a person who wants to be known through an intimate, personal relationship. This, for me personally, was the fatal error of my religious upbringing. I realize there are many different ways of viewing God, even the Christian God in particular, and not all traditions stress this idea of an intimately personal God, much less a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But mine did, and that to me was the biggest mistake of all.

As a young Christian with a heart full of passion and idealism, I cut my spiritual teeth on the Wesleyan pietism of A.W. Tozer, who instructs us in The Pursuit of God:

We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can. It is inherent in personality to be able to know other personalities…Religion, so far as it is genuine, is in essence the response of created personalities to the Creating Personality, God. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

God is a Person, and in the deep of His mighty nature He thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves,desires and suffers as any other person may. In making Himself known to us He stays by the familiar pattern of personality. He communicates with us through the avenues of our minds, our wills and our emotions. The continuous and unembarrassed interchange of love and thought between God and the soul of the redeemed man is the throbbing heart of New Testament religion.

They should have gone with the Absent God, the God of Deism who set the universe on its course and then promptly disappeared into the Upside Down or wherever, never to be reached again because he’s God and can do as he pleases. Or maybe Spinoza’s God, who isn’t really a “who” at all, but more like a metaphor for Nature, or physics.

What this miscalculation did for me was it set up an expectation that I should be able to sense, perceive, hear, and know this Person through direct, immediate contact, spirit to spirit. I operated within that paradigm for two decades, and I must confess that for a long, long time, the narrative held together. I felt God. I heard God. I knew God, in personal experience.

There’s just one problem. If you take this relationship too seriously, if you come to it with too much expectation that reality will match what you were told to expect, you will one day fall hard upon the cold ground of self-honesty whereupon you realize you have been conjuring this relationship through your own imagination your entire life.

Talk about a disorienting realization. In the end, what made us see through the illusion was our sincere expectation that it wasn’t an illusion at all. We trusted it. We leaned into it. No, we dove headlong into it, and we found in the end that there was nothing there. Just our own thoughts, feelings, and imaginations, adept though they were at creating our own Creator.

Related: “God Does Exist

5. We believed them when they said the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. I realize this sounds like a repeat of the first item in this list, but even if so I’d still like to reiterate it again since it probably factored more centrally into my own skepticism than I ever realized at the time.

In college, I became obsessed with Pauline chronology, retracing the steps he took traversing the ancient Roman empire in order to spread the gospel around the known world. In particular, I wanted to rebuild the backstory for the letters he wrote since they form the theological core of the New Testament. But a funny thing happens once you start comparing notes between Paul and the author of Luke/Acts: You start to notice they are working off of vastly differing chronologies and can NOT be reconciled with each other without closing one eye and squinting the other.

I pulled more all-nighters than I care to admit trying to line up Luke’s chronology with Paul’s. It just doesn’t work. Paul talks like he hardly ever visited Jerusalem, while Luke makes it sounds like it was his home base for his ongoing missions. At first I decided the differences could be explained by their differing redactional purposes: Luke wanted to make Christianity appear legit, as if it were merely a subdivision of an established religion already approved by the Roman Empire, while Paul was ready to be done with Judaism for good and just start an entirely new thing.

But these differences still meant that what I had been told about the Bible could not possibly be correct—at some level even the most conservative Bible student has no choice but to accept that some of the biblical writers twisted the facts to fit their own narratives. For me, taking the evangelical Christian “high view” of the Bible became a self-defeating mentality because I came to it expecting it to bear a direct relationship to reality. Again, that was a mistake.

Taking the Bible seriously is what taught me to distrust it.

Related: “The Absurdity of Inerrancy.”

6. We landed in leadership positions and got to see how the sausage was made, so to speak. Be careful how far you advance in matters of faith. If you do things too well, they put you in charge and before you know it, you become a part of the machinery that produces the experiences everyone else takes for granted as manifestations of divine presence, when in reality they are a performance put on by gifted people who know how to “make Jesus real” for everyone else.

If you’re not careful, like Dorothy in Oz you’ll push your way through all the usual roadblocks to meet the Wizard, but then discover it’s just an old guy pulling levers and pushing buttons. Or worse, one day you look in the mirror and discover that you’ve become that person yourself. Then you have to decide if you can keep doing it now that you realize what you’ve become.

Related: “How the Wizard of Oz Illustrates Leaving Your Faith

Deciding what to do next can be gut-wrenching and life-destroying, so I have mixed feelings about wishing that on anyone. And incidentally, it’s not only the people who make their living from ministry who find themselves in the midst of this existential crisis on a stage in full view of everyone else. Evangelicals are taught that “every member is a minister” in the spirit of the the priesthood of all believers evident in the populist thinking of the writers of the New Testament.

But as Upton Sinclair famously noted:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

So if you happen to be one of those, I would highly recommend contacting The Clergy Project, of which I am a member. There you will encounter a growing community of skeptics who inadvertently ministered their way out of their own faith, some of whom for financial reasons cannot tell a single person in their IRL communities, and are therefore still in the pulpit, so to speak.

7. We loved people the way our faith told us to, but soon found ourselves “on the outside,” kicked off the reservation for doing so. Throughout the Bible there is a prophetic tradition of imploring the people of God to become advocates for social justice, looking out for the poor and the infirm, and taking care of those less fortunate. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” we are told in a phrase Jesus loved to quote around the most religious of leaders in his time.

But that didn’t go over any better in his day than it does in our own. And a funny thing happens when you try to emulate his example: You become an outcast yourself, even from among the people who are supposed to represent the person of Jesus to the rest of the world. If you really want to be like Jesus, you’re going to have to get used to being unpopular with religious folks because the church isn’t at all what it appears to be on paper.

Related: “Five Times When Jesus Sounded Like a Humanist

Anyone who’s been around long enough knows this, only they’ve probably become experts at making excuses for it so that they can leave their social lives intact. Some of us can’t do that. Like another friend said:

I tried to live my life according to the “god is love” philosophy and it turned out that the closer I got to completely loving others and myself, the further I had to go from the teachings of the Bible until all that was left was the love part and not the god part.

It’s one of the great ironies of the Christian faith that if you really try to live the way Jesus taught us to live, you may very well find yourself put “outside the camp” just like he was, hung metaphorically on a cross of your own just as he said you’d be.*

And So Many More…

I could go on and on with this list, but I’ve hit the points I heard most often repeated among the post-Christian friends I surveyed about this matter. I’m sure you could add an item or two to the list yourself (and feel free to do so in the comments below, please).

Some of the honorable mentions I could have included:

  • We studied apologetics and defended our faith against its natural enemies until we realized we were on the losing side.
  • We tried to be “New Testament” in the way we did church and then discovered that doesn’t work.
  • We attended creation science conventions. That should pretty much do it.
  • We were told to follow the evidence wherever it led, and it led us right out the front door.

One friend who writes over at A Pasta Sea explains how even the “doctrines of grace” so popular among Calvinists can ironically give one a false sense of security wherein we feel safe throwing ourselves into our own questioning process only to find it wasn’t so “safe” after all:

Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing.” In other words, it’s solely God’s grace. Even the vehicle of faith is “not of yourselves,” but rather a “gift of God.” It’s the foundation of the Reformer’s cry of Sola Gratia.

Given this understanding, I came to believe I really had nothing to fear in doubt or the intellectual investigation of it. I could seriously consider alternative viewpoints. If God’s grace was what was to sustain me, it would be there all the time. I needn’t worry about the strength of my faith. It was, after all, like shifting sand, changed by every wave. I would stand on grace and trust that God would always ensure his elect would persevere no matter what. I could push as far as I wanted. There was nothing to fear. So I pushed and…

…well, sonofab****. Here I am.”

So what do you have to add to this list? Did we touch on the one(s) that ushered you out of your faith? Which one was it?

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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* The adamant contention shared by so many atheists that Jesus never existed doesn’t really negate the illustrative nature of the story of Jesus insofar as it shows exactly what happens when communities cast all their transgressions onto a scapegoat. Whether it happened like that in reality or not, the story still holds its place in literary history as a cautionary tale for those who choose to live by principle no matter what the cost to themselves.

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