O Me of Little Faith

I have two tattoos. Which isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be. Everyone has tattoos now. One of mine is only a couple years old. My wife and I got matching ones on our 13th anniversary, Celtic love knots with four loops (loops for the two of us + each kid).

But I also have another tattoo. At least, I used to. I got it a few months after we got married, in the spring of 1995. It’s an ichthusa Jesus fish — on my ankle. Yes, it’s a cliche and not very creative, but I was only 21 at the time. After deciding I wanted a tattoo, I remember thinking that one of the best things about getting a tattoo that proclaimed my faith was that it was permanent. It would always be there. I’d never be able to hide my Christianity. (At least not when wearing short socks.)

This was at the tail-end of a really passionate season in my spiritual life, and I was inking my faith onto my skin, knowing it would be there forever.

That tattoo is nearly gone now. For whatever reason, it’s almost completely faded. I can still see it if I look for it, but if you saw me in shorts and flip-flops, you’d need to get down on your hands and knees and put your nose about six inches away from my ankle in order to see it. And that would make us both feel really awkward, so just take my word for it: Somehow I got a tattoo with an expiration date.

Now, don’t go reading too far into the symbolism. My faith isn’t as gone as the tattoo, and I’m nowhere close to saying my faith has faded away. But I think of my tattoo a lot, and about how spiritually gung-ho I was when I got it, and about how I’ve spent so much time since then in this period of doubt, and every once in awhile I’ll remember the tattoo and think about the connection between my ink and my doubt.

Tattoos aren’t supposed to disappear. Sometimes we’re surprised when things fade away. We didn’t want it or expect it, but it happens. And it happens all on its own.

When I asked the question on Tuesday about whether or not you were becoming more or less religious/faithful as you aged, I wasn’t surprised to hear from a number of readers who freely admitted that their faith was starting to fade, or had been fading for awhile, or was completely gone. And the fascinating thing about it was that they weren’t at all happy about it. They didn’t want to lose faith. Becoming less religious meant dealing with a lot of regret.

Haley wrote, “As I have gotten older the questions have begun to seep in and cause me to doubt severely. It breaks my heart, and the sad thing is no matter how much I pray for strong faith it never seems to come.”

David wrote, Much less [religious] as well, and it depresses the hell out of me. I’m not sure why I want to be religious, but I do, and then deeply regret that I’m unable to be.”

Tyler wrote, “I’ve always been filled with doubt, but in recent years the sound has grown too loud to ignore. I wish this weren’t the case, and I’m trying to figure out what to do about it.”

Growing up, I tended to think that those who doubted or rejected God were doing so out of sin. Losing faith was convenient. It gave people a moral out, I thought, so they could go out drinking and hooking up and doing drugs and taking advantage of guilt-free living.

But that’s rarely the case, is it? From personal experience and by talking to others in the same place as the commenters above, religious people often find their faith fading away…and they don’t like it. It’s happening on its own and seems to be out of their personal control. They didn’t go asking questions because they were prideful or stubborn or sinful or looking for a way out. The questions were just there, and the answers that eventually came weren’t intellectually or spiritually satisfying, and then the doubt crept in. And they prayed and prayed and prayed against it — Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief! — but nothing ever changed.

In the face of doubt, I’ve prayed for my faith to increase. It hasn’t happened. Why not?

Yes, I still believe, but my belief isn’t always an intellectual belief, because my prayers for intellectual certainty or stronger faith haven’t been answered. So today my faith takes an active form rather than an intellectual one. My faith is what I do. And sometimes it’s all I know to do, because I haven’t figured out how to make myself believe. I can’t just flip a switch. There wasn’t a switch to turn my tattoo off, and there’s no switch to turn it back on either. I looked down one year and it just wasn’t as intense as it used to be.

“It depresses the hell out of me. I’m not sure why I want to be religious, but I do, and then deeply regret that I’m unable to be.”

I hear you, David. You’re not alone.

You guys are smart. Maybe you have answers to these questions:

Why does faith fade even when we don’t want it to?

When we pray for faith, “earnestly seeking him” in light of verses like Hebrews 11:6, then what does it mean when God doesn’t answer?

And what in the world happened to my tattoo?

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