O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Letters: When Faith Seems Impossible

posted by Jason Boyett

Since O Me of Little Faith released in April, I’ve been getting emails and Facebook messages from readers along the whole continuum of the doubt spectrum, from new believers doubting God’s love for them to long-time believers doubting God’s existence. Occasionally I’ll get one that’s really heartbreaking.

I try to answer each of these to the best of my ability, but there are times when my own meager advice hardly seems sufficient. Here’s an email I received a few days ago. I’m publishing it with any identifying details removed and with the permission of the sender.

Hello Mr. Boyett,

My name is __________, and I’m currently working on a
degree at [a well-known conservative seminary]. The problem
is that my belief in God no longer seems to function in any harmonious
way with my experience of reality. I don’t see history being guided
adeptly to some glorious end, but rather a reality that is splintered,
fragmented, messy, etc. I don’t feel as if I ever encounter or
experience or hear from God in any way. My constant prayers of
desperation and need are met only with external silence and the voice in
my own head. It’s become virtually impossible for me to read the Bible
devotionally. I’m well aware of its “humanness”…however it’s the
divine part that seems so elusive. It’s becoming harder and harder to
believe in the miraculous when nothing in my experience tells me that
the miraculous is possible (i.e., people just don’t rise from the dead).

Long story short, intense doubt and questioning have been constant
companions for me since high school. Further
still, that doubt only seems to be becoming more and more incendiary and
corrosive. Please keep in mind that I am by no means a fundamentalist
and have been accused of being quite liberal (at least in comparison to
many believers found in this part of the country…to which i will not
deny). However, I feel as if through years of theological study and
serious critical engagement, I’ve somehow opened Pandora’s Box and now
am forever unable to shut it in lieu of feigned ignorance. I’m
suspended between two worlds almost. On one hand the world of faith
in God and the actions that belief should enact…and on the other
disbelief in God and the apparent “puposeless-ness” and randomness and
cruelty of life.

How do I move forward as a Christian when the foundation of that
Christian belief is quite literally not foundational for me at all right
now? How do I have faith in a God that large chunks of me (and for
longer and longer periods of time) don’t seem to quite believe in
anymore? Any insight you can offer would be welcomed.

In a subsequent email, the seminary student shared this:

Essentially though, it boils down to one of two options: pretend that I
have faith in God (since I am most comfortable in this context and my
upbringing/worldview are inextricably linked to the Christian worldview
and subsequent expected lifestyle), or reject Christianity and belief in
God (and in the process risk a severe identity/existential crisis).
The seemingly most impossible option for me is genuine faith and belief
in God.

How would you answer a doubter like this? What do you do when you seem to have only two options: lying, or abandoning a perspective and context you’ve spent three decades in pursuit of…something deeply ingrained into your life, your family, and your future?



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James F. McGrath

posted September 15, 2010 at 9:36 am


For me personally, a decisive moment was when I realized that there are not only two options (keep doubts to yourself or leave Christianity). There are forms of Christianity which leave room for doubt and even regard it as healthy.
A book that helped me enormously was Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches. Reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith might also be helpful. It also might be useful for them to read some works that explore other ways of thinking about God – such as John A. T. Robinson’s Honest To God, or anything by those who explore concepts of God that take modern science into account, such as panentheism.
Bob Cargill’s recent guest post might also be helpful to this individual, if they haven’t read it yet.
Ultimately, this individual may find that they can only choose one of the options mentioned in the follow-up e-mail. In that case, I think that being honest about not currently believing in the doctrines of Christianity would be preferable to pretending to do so. The latter course of action is harmful to a person’s mind and soul (whatever that is understood to be!). But here too I’d emphasize that rejecting doctrines doesn’t need to represent a rejection of anything that might appropriately be called God, depth, significance, or meaning, and that a choice made at this juncture in life doesn’t need to represent a committment to always remain with the stance that is adopted next. Life is a journey, and it is quite common to take a period of exploring many new ideas, before finding a new spiritual and intellectual “home”.



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Felicity

posted September 15, 2010 at 11:51 am


I wonder if it would be helpful to this person to change careers. Find a job that satisfies him naturally – a type of work that he enjoys – and rediscover the simple joys of living.
I also might suggest visiting and getting to know believers in other Christian communities. I am always inspired in my faith when I see others living out theirs, even if I differ with them theologically.
Most of all, I think any change might be the best option. Take a year off and join non-profit work in an under-served region or country. I find if I spend too much time intellectualizing faith it seems to disintegrate right before my eyes. If I want more faith, I need to use it, put it to work. (And I don’t mean that in any kind of televangelist style!)
I don’t suppose it would be wise to fabricate a health or relational crisis? Those have sure helped me! : )



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Kristian

posted September 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm


As an Evangelic Lutheran Atheist, I don’t find it awfully difficult to balance my cultural Christianity and moral views with my lack of belief in the supernatural part of it. I wouldn’t think faking faith is awfully healthy in the long run.
Who you are will remain the same even if you abandon faith. Your morals don’t come from God, whether you believe in one or not.



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Charlie's Church of Christ

posted September 15, 2010 at 12:03 pm


I’d say for people like the letter writer there is no closing of the pandora’s box, and so instead of trying to shut it come to accept it will always be there. Therefore faith will always be much harder, there will always be extra hurdles to jump.



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Josh

posted September 15, 2010 at 12:45 pm


My experience with academia, especially regarding faith is this:
When we sit in our white towers and think, we often find reality becomes myth and myth becomes reality. Sometimes we need to descend and walk outside to see that the world isn’t what we’ve come to believe it is.
It’s amazing how different my perspective on art is as an artist earning a living than it was as a student in a studio. I had come to believe many things about the art world that 1) no longer seem true or 2) no longer seem tasteful. The world of scholarship and criticism had me believe certain things about what art is or isn’t, it had me convinced that certain truisms were actually true (e.g. form follows function)
But all it really did was expose me to a few worldviews which are ultimately outdated and which I cannot (and will not) accept, among them that the material parts of the world amount to idols. I experienced the existential crisis the writer talks about, and in the process of coping and finding who I was outside of academia came to a position with a faith much stronger than before.



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Another doubter

posted September 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm


I definitely want to keep an eye on these comments to see what advice people have, since I found myself really resonating with this person. Still involved in a number of ways serving in the church, etc, but increasingly feeling like I’m just faking it, not sure what I believe anymore. At the same time, Christianity, or at the least, christian culture, has been a huge part of my life practically since I was born. So that same internal conflict is there for me too.
There’s almost nothing to move forward on or build on when you’re in this situation, so for now I’m left with just going through the motions, hoping that eventually I come to a definite realization of which way I’m going to go.



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MARTIN S.

posted September 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm


Faith is a relationship. What Jesus
came to show it is possible to have
a relationship with a personal,
living GOD, to know HIM!!
You must desire and seek after a
personal relationship with GOD.
HE will reward you with a sense
of HIS presence and purpose!!



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Adam Ellis

posted September 15, 2010 at 5:40 pm


I guess I’d respond by offering a few thoughts and then a few resources.
Thoughts: I am a minister, a person of faith, and a confirmed doubter. I used to believe that faith and certainty were synonyms. I now believe they are opposites. The fact is that faith has no meaning in the absence of doubt. It has more to do with trust and hope than it has to do with certainty and knowledge. To have “faith” is more along the line of “actually living your life as if it is true” than it is “being able to win debates about whether it is true or not”. It’s essentially a bet, not an unquestionable conclusion.
There are two types of Theological education (I have a Masters Degree in Theological Studies, for what its worth). One approach seeks to make you more certain of a single approach. The other seeks to expose you to other approaches, leading you to less certainty and (hopefully) more humility. The first makes your God smaller and more manageable. The second leads to awe and wonder. The first leads to a condescending arrogance. The second leads (hopefully) to what Lesslie Newbigin called A “Proper” Confidence. The first leads to a set of answers. The second leads to a never ending supply of formative questions. The first tells you that you can get your mind around God. The second insists that you can’t. The first leads to a “faith” so fragile that it must be rabidly defended…and that often either falls apart or gets co-opted by other interests (civil religion, etc.). The second leads to a faith that is alive and that (while it is sometimes painful), is able to grow and change.
I’ve found that the more I pull into myself and attempt to dissect God, the more I lose God. I’ve also found that the more I engage in the lives of others…the more I hear their perspectives and share in their lives, the more I find God again. I’m finding that the more I engage with perspectives that are not my own (at least not to start with), the more life is breathed into my faith. I’m learning that when I try to reduce God to Math and Logic, God evaporates…but that God also becomes astoundingly tangible in nature, art, and beauty. When I attempt to break God down, God becomes inaccessible. When I look at the way things are connected, I see God everywhere.
I’ve found that I often get confused between my concept of God and…well,..God. Conceptual idols are always worth rejecting. However, I am learning that my beliefs about God are not actually God, and questioning them is not only permissible, it is a necessary disciple for vibrant faith.
Resources:
A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren: The whole book would be helpful, but the introduction is worth the price of the book, and speaks to exactly where you are.
Peter Rollins–Especially “How (not) to Speak of God” and the interview that is up on Mars Hill’s (Rob Bell) podcast.
(I’m assuming you’ve already read Jason Boyett’s wonderful book on the subject)
Evolving In Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans: This book is insightful, funny, poignant, and nothing short of brilliant.
Finding Faith by Brian McLaren: This has been split into 2 books. Both are worth reading. This helped me more than I can say.
Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron: I put it on the level with “A New Kind of Christian” in terms of how engaging it is, and its overall impact on me.
Jurgen Moltmann–His Theology of Hope has been revolutionary for me. It’s an extremely helpful re-frame. The actual “Theology of Hope” book may be a little much to bite off at first though, so I’d recommend either “Experiences of God” or his autobiography “A Broad Place”



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Andre Lauzon

posted September 15, 2010 at 8:03 pm


Challenge God to show-up. All I hear is that it’s our fault if our faith lives aren’t living up to expectations- ours or those of others. Take a page from the Psalms or Elijah; challenge God to show-up.
I do this by taking each of God’s promises from the Bible, exegeting the snot out of them, and then one by one saying to God, “OK God, here’s this promise in your Bible. Let’s see you show-up; let’s see you keep your promise.”
What have you got to lose?



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Catherine

posted September 16, 2010 at 2:02 am


A wise friend once told me that when we find ourselves stuck between two impossible options, we are never seeing the whole truth, and realising this can itself be a comfort. The truth is bigger than we can imagine.
Meanwhile I agree with Felicity’s suggestion to work in a different country – they do say travel broadens the mind. Good luck!



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Rob the Rev

posted September 16, 2010 at 9:21 am


There is life after association with the church. I was thirty years on the clergy roster of the fundamentalist Lutheran sect, Missouri (Misery) Synod and pastored three congregations during that time. I was also deeply in the ecclesiastical closet, as a gay man in denial until twelve years ago. I probably joined the Misery Synod as a 21 year old adult with the idea God would cure me if I dedicated my life to serving as a psstor in the “true church with the pure gospel.” Fortunately I was not so indoctrinated by Misery Synod seminary training that I stopped thinking for myself and finally escaped, with my pension intact fortunately, and left this behind. All I can say is I wished I’d never become a part of such a sect. Get out early and don’t waste your life in fundamentalism indoctrinating people in their predjudices and biases. I would like to write a book about my experience and hopefully help others, especially gays and lesbians, to not make the same mistake as I.



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Lnaea

posted September 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm


Breathe
Cry
Go to a place and scream at the sky
there may be no answers to why your soul is breaking nor why your self is no longer you; but sometimes it helps to scream the pain.



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Bob

posted September 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm


My first thought when I read the letter/email was that God is drawing them closer – on His terms. That perceived distance is real in feelings only. Trust God in this…in all situations. Never trust feelings by themselves.



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