By guest author Don R
I grew up in the church. Well, actually, the first 5 years of my life were not so church like. My mother left when I was about 2 years old. She never bonded with my sister or me, and so she left us with our father. He also didn’t have the ability to bond with anyone, so we were pretty much on our own from a very early age. Sometimes we had babysitters, but more often my sister (a year older than me) and I would be left to fend for ourselves. When my father married his second wife, they put us in foster care for a year while they went to bible training.
When I was six, I “got saved”. I still remember the flannelgraph board with the story of Jesus. I remember really loving him, and I really needed someone to love and be loved by at that point in my life. Our parents came back and got us shortly after that, and we moved to California for them to start in ministry. They were very involved with Campus Crusade for a while, and we were brought up in a very strict fundamental Christian household.
Some years later, we moved to Big Bear where they started a church. I remember the good feelings of community, the friends and the feeling that we were part of a bigger family. I was as fully committed to religion as a young child could be and believed everything I was taught as fact. It was the only place that I felt safe. You see, our father was a pedophile and was molesting my sister and I for years. Our stepmother had very little use for us, but when everything our father was doing came to light, we stayed with her while the church imploded around us.
Our stepmother remained very religious (to this day she is fanatical in her beliefs) and continued to raise us in a highly Christian environment. She eventually came to love us, but in my early teen years I decided to go live in Vermont with our biological mother who had come back into our lives.
You would think that after all that we went through I would never be able to believe in religion again. I was fully indoctrinated even through all that. “God felt your pain, your fear. He was right there with you the whole time” I was told. I wondered why he didn’t do anything to stop it, but I was told that he was trying to save my father.
From early teens to mid-twenties, I still held a belief in god, but I just didn’t want to be around any of his people. I always felt guilty for not going to church and being fully committed but I thought that someday I would recommit and get back on track.
I married my amazing wife when I was 22. We tried for several years to have children but weren’t able to conceive. I came to the decision that it was because I was “backslidden”, so I started searching for a church. I believed that god knows one’s heart, and I needed to be sincere because he wouldn’t be manipulated so I gave it everything I had, hoping that he would give us children. I found that I really loved the feeling of community, the feeling that I was helping people and spreading good in the world.
I studied the bible constantly. For over 20 years, I spent at least an hour a day reading the Bible. Many evenings I would read Christian authors and study apologetics. I had 2 large bookcases filled with religious books and had read every page.
Eventually I started leading a small group at church. I joined the tech team. I started a men’s ministry at our church that grew to a few hundred guys. For several years, I was leading 2 different men’s groups, a college age small group and a mid-week small group, as well as running tech for the Saturday service and 3 Sunday services. I was at the church usually 5 days a week, and I loved it. It was so much work, but it was so rewarding and fulfilling.
Every once in a while, I would come across something that didn’t make sense. I would read about how god had a woman killed for collecting firewood on the sabbath or how he would strike a couple dead for lying about how much they made when they sold their house. In the old testament, god seemed angry and full of wrath. Sometimes I would find what seemed to be contradictions in the bible. But I had a strong conviction that the bible was the inerrant word of god and that he was all good, so it must be that I wasn’t seeing the situation from the right perspective.
I would have what I called “dark nights of the soul” that would sometimes last for weeks where I would struggle, pray and seek answers, unable to move on until the questions were resolved. Eventually, I would come to an understanding that would ease my confusion and allow me to move forward in my belief. Sometimes that boiled down to “I just need to have faith in him and understand that his ways are higher than our ways” but usually I would have some kind of reasoning that ease my conflict.
I think that even back then, a part of me felt like I was making unreasonable justifications, or that I was manipulating things to make them fit my version of reality. It was easy to do though, as many of the authors and speakers I was absorbing would do the same things.
When people would come to me with their hard questions, I would share my process with them and help them come to “correct” answers, always based on the infallibility of the bible and the pure goodness of god. And every time I did that, there was a little voice saying “that doesn’t make sense”, which I ignored… because it felt so good to know that I was helping people be stronger in their faith.
As I continued to invest everything I had into my beliefs and the people in the church, I began to notice that most of them had a kind of casual Christianity. They didn’t read their bibles or study much or even really do anything about their belief except for going to church and groups. They were drawn to the social aspects of church but didn’t want to invest much of themselves. So, I made it my goal to help people become fully devoted followers. I got religious tattoos as a reminder to myself that I would never turn away from god again. (I’m kicking myself now, as it’s really expensive to have them removed or redone into something else). I encouraged everyone around me to be more fully committed. I was a hard core evangelist, with a focus on the people inside the church.
I remember when I realized that even the people I believed were fully dedicated to god had their own doubts. The Purpose Driven Life had just come out, and I was asked to lead the 40-day church program that went along with the book. I put together a team of the most devout leaders and we began planning. We needed to set goals that we could shoot for and in our meeting, we came up with the goal to get as many of the ~1500 people as we could involved in a small group. I thought that we should come up with a goal that only god could reach, showing everyone how powerful he was, so I proposed that we shoot for 120% involvement, meaning that there would be more people in small groups than we had in the church. The rest of the team shot me down pretty hard, talking about setting realistic expectations and achievable goals. Where is their faith, I wondered? It was striking to me that with all the talk about believing in and expecting god to do amazing things, when the time came to put that to the test, no one wanted to. It was the first bump in my belief system, but I marked it off to their lack of faith.
The second bump for me was from a college pastor at the church. We answered the call of the church to have a young man who was being hired to lead the college ministry live with us. We were told that it would only be for a month or two at the most. He lived with us for 16 months, and we became very close friends. It turned out later that he was told that his “rent” was being paid by the church and was part of his pay. We were never given a dime.
Eddie (not his real name) was every bit as passionate about god as I was, and we had many nights of great discussions. I knew that he was fully committed and sought god with all his heart. So, when I found out that he believed in theistic evolution (the theory that god used evolution to create the earth), I was stunned. You see, I believed in a literal interpretation of the bible, and to hear that someone who was as fully devoted as I was could believe in evolution was really difficult. I had just assumed that god made everything clear to those who diligently sought him, so how could we believe two very different things about the creation of the world?
This was the first of several times that my beliefs were shaken by things like this. There would be two writers that I deeply respected who held opposite beliefs on the role of women in the church. There were very different views on the “once saved always saved” or can you lose your salvation issue. I had often seen disagreements in the church, but I always chalked that up to people being at different points in their walks. And most of the disagreements were about things that didn’t seem to be that important. But I couldn’t understand why the deeply faithful would come to opposite decisions about the biggies. Is god a god of confusion? I would study scriptures and eventually come to my own belief on those issues, but I just couldn’t ever fathom why there would be such discord among the “true believers”.
Over the years, I also saw the dirty underbelly of church leadership. The senior pastor felt threatened by the new youth pastor when the college group grew from 18 to over 300 in a few months. Bickering among the leaders about the direction this or that ministry should go. Personality conflicts that led to people leaving with hurt and sadness. Jealousy when the homeless ministry made the local news channels. But I had grown up with that, so it never struck me as anything other than normal. Eventually, these conflicts came close to me and my family and we decided that it was time to seek another church.
That was a very rough time for me. It felt like how I imagine a divorce must feel. We bounced from church to church, feeling very disconnected and trying to find a place to fit in. It was at one of those churches that a huge blow that would lead to the collapse of my beliefs happened.
We found a pastor that we really liked. His messages were deep, meaningful, entertaining and convicting. The church was more conservative than we preferred, but we loved the teaching of this pastor. One week, he began a 4 part series on the story of Noah and the flood. He came at it from a totally different perspective than I had ever heard or thought of before, and I was enthralled. On the 4th Sunday, he mentioned that there were different interpretations of the story within the church, and he brought up the fact that the flood story actually appeared in earlier writings that were not biblical at all. I was stunned. Could it be true that the bible borrowed the flood story from earlier secular writings (hint: Epic of Gilgamesh)? It was just a fable?
I was deeply shaken to realize that the bible was not the historically accurate document I was always told and completely believed it was. How much was allegory? How much was literal? How much was parable? How could you tell which was which?
All my questions that I had been stuffing down started to come bubbling back up to the surface. Why does god allow so much bad to happen? If god is incapable of evil, but he created everything, didn’t he create evil? Why are there so many denominations who all think that the others are going to hell? How can so many people feel like god is calling them to be pastors, yet so many of them be complete failures when they try? Why do we pray when god supposedly has a plan? Hundreds more just like it.
And what about Noah? So, god wiped out every living thing on the earth (except for aquatics and the ark inhabitants) because there was so much evil in the world, and the very next story is about Noah and one of his sons having sex. Killing every man, woman, child, puppy and butterfly didn’t even work in the least. Epic fail, god.
Is god a god of confusion?At this point, I was struggling more than I had ever struggled. I felt my faith falling apart and it scared the hell out of me. Over the next several months, I read more, prayed constantly, sought with everything I had. I decided that I needed to find the supernatural things that my faith rested on to help solidify it. I began to look for what set Christianity apart from all the other false religions in the world. I knew that they all had holy books, and the bible was very suspect at this point, so that wasn’t it. I researched prayer and found that it had failed every objective test ever thrown at it. So that was out. But I knew that one thing I had was my own personal experience, my testimony. There were several times in my life where I KNEW that god had spoken to me. Times of deep struggle and fear that he had comforted me. Surely that must be unique to the Christian religion. Nope. People all over the world had their own profound experiences that proved their god to them. I begged god for some kind of sign that he was real, and I really expected him to answer, because he would know that my very faith was at stake. Nothing…
I had always been a little jealous of people when they had their conversion experience. They talked about the feeling of great joy and relief they had. I was too young when I was saved to have that, and I felt like I had missed out on a great experience. But the day that I finally admitted to myself that I no longer believed, I had that experience. I was flooded with relief, peace and a sense of calm that words can hardly explain. It really did feel like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
In the months to follow however, I sometimes felt like I was walking the high wire without a net. I had days of almost terror about being alone with no supernatural support. I had to learn I was not the complete piece of trash that my religion had taught me I was, and that I was actually a pretty good person (not close to perfect by a long shot) and that I had been making both good and bad decisions all along, yet still survived and even thrived. I had done all this thinking that an imaginary deity was helping me, but in fact I was living life on my own. Based on the fact that I had done fairly well in life, married to a wonderful and supportive wife for over 27 years, I have come to the belief that we are going to be just fine.
In fact, now that I believe that this life is all there is, I am motivated to enjoy and experience every moment of it, making the best of the time I have with my bride, family and friends. I am learning to live in the moment, while trying to make a positive impact on the world around me.