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I don’t do this often, but today I’m just going to post (with permission) a letter I received from a reader who has asked to remain anonymous. He got in touch after I called for conversion stories. That series begins on Friday, but this story isn’t about coming to faith…instead, it’s about falling away from it.
“I don’t feel like I can say anything about it to anyone I know,” he told me. “Nearly
my entire social network is built on church connections of one sort or
another. I know there are others out there in the same situation. Perhaps they’d be interested in reading my story.”
I think so.
Growing up, my family always went to church because that was the thing to do on Sunday mornings. My parents rarely discussed anything about God or Jesus with me aside from a few stories out of the children’s Bible. I sang solos in the children’s choir, played handbells, the whole shebang. I was baptized and later confirmed in the Methodist tradition. After my parents divorced, neither felt comfortable staying at the same church. My dad ended up at a large Baptist church in town where he met his second wife (the daughter of an old-school Baptist preacher from the midwest). At her insistence, we were soon going to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I was never that excited about that church, and at some point my folks agreed that I could go to a different church with a good friend of mine. It wasn’t long before I was very involved there, leading the youth group worship times and becoming part of the “core group.”
Through high school I was involved in Christian student groups at school, often leading worship times at lunch or after school. We had a regular weekly “religious discussion and debate” lunch with the Muslim group on campus. I would actively engage my non-Christian friends in discussions and try to win them over to the faith. In college, I fell away for a bit but soon continued the same pattern. I helped organize a Christian conference for students on my college campus, attended several other conferences locally and around the state, led worship at church and married a godly woman in a very Christian wedding. My goal in life, at one point, was to become a full-time worship leader.
Fast forward a few years, my wife and I are now at a different church where she’s heavily involved in leadership within the women’s ministry and I play every week with the worship band. I’ve organized and directed the music for some Christmas and Easter services, she’s led a small group for women, together we organize a regular church-wide fellowship night. In all appearances we’re a very devout couple. In reality that’s only half true — she’s kept her faith.
If I had to point to one event in my life as the turning point in my faith, it would be a little baby born to some friends of ours. Our friends were both active in their church, very dedicated to Christ. He and I played in a worship band together for years. Our wives were college roommates. Not long into her pregnancy the doctors determined that the baby would have some serious medical problems. Believing in the power of prayer, we gathered together with several members of our church and prayed over that baby, time and again. We declared the healing of God over mother and child. I left each prayer meeting feeling energized and fully believing that the baby would be born healthy.
When the baby was born via emergency C-section, she was immediately rushed into intensive care. There were problems with her heart, lungs, digestive tract — I don’t even know what else. Again, we gathered to pray. Again, we declared a mighty miracle from God himself to heal the child.
Over a period of almost two years, our friends stayed at the hospital more than their home to be with their baby. He eventually had to go back to work to pay the bills, but she literally lived at the hospital for months at a stretch, sleeping on the fold-out bed and eating in the cafeteria. Through countless surgeries and procedures we prayed. We declared healing. We laid-on hands. We asked for grace.
Unfortunately none of that worked. One morning the baby started choking and had difficulty breathing. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The funeral was beautiful, with testimonies from countless lives that had been touched, but still left me questioning why.
At some point during that stretch I started looking for answers. I read the Bible. I read books about the Bible trying to understand why God — a loving, caring, grace-giving God — would allow such an innocent, precious child to suffer so much. To be honest, I still can’t reconcile that. I’ve heard folks say that God could use such a struggle to touch others’ lives so that they might know Him better — which happened — but at what expense?
I’ve heard that it was an attack from the Enemy, that we needed to pray, have faith, rebuke the attack. We did, and it didn’t do any good. I’ve heard countless other reasons that are so far off-base of biblical teaching that they aren’t worth mentioning. And yes, I’ve read The Problem of Pain. I don’t think CS Lewis properly answered the question. I don’t think the question can be answered.
Ever since I realized that God didn’t personally write the New International Version I’ve been a word geek. As I read the Bible, I want to go back to the original language, understand the meaning of the original words, grasp the cultural idioms and understandings of the time in which they were written. I’ve been amazed sometimes at how much more meaning there is in Scripture are when you understand the historical context and grasp the metaphors being used. Rob Bell’s work has had a huge effect on my reading of the Gospels — anyone who reads the Bible should read his book Velvet Elvis. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he makes me think.
After Rob Bell, I went even deeper into the “story behind the story” and found Bart Ehrman. His books on how the Bible came to be the Bible are incredibly interesting — and incredibly disrupting — to anyone who believes in the Bible as the inspired, inerrant word of God (as I once did). For years I had known about minor contradictions in the Bible, minor detail stuff. I had found satisfactory explanations for all of them — the genealogy of Jesus in Mark and Luke, differing accounts of the scene at the empty tomb in Matthew, Mark and John, how long Jesus was in the tomb to begin with. Ehrman’s books pointed out even more irreconcilable differences in the details, but also dove deeper into questions of what the Bible really says about who Jesus is/was, how to be saved, the concept of the Trinity, good God vs. vindictive God. Ehrman points out several different and contradictory answers to those questions in different parts of the Bible.
I was always taught that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the books that bear their names — Ehrman questions that (and rightfully so). Reading the history of how the church fathers reconciled the various differing manuscripts for each book (without having the originals) and how they determined which writings to include and leave out made me painfully aware of the role that human beings played in forming our currently accepted canon — much more than I was ever told in church.
The more I read with a critical eye, the more I wonder how much of the Bible was written by man for man’s benefit. How much of our Bible is the Word of God, and how much is simply the “opiate of the masses”?
Should we have “faith like a child” because God wants that, or because the religious leaders didn’t want anyone questioning them?
Is the tithe necessary to God, or because the religious leaders of the day wanted money (or stuff)?
How much of the recorded life of Jesus really happened, and how much of it is mythology built up around Him to support the religious machinery that His followers wanted to create? ( I can’t help but notice similarities and parallels to the Roman and Greek mythology that I studied in school, especially in the Old Testament creation story.)
How much of Biblical history is literal, accurate fact, and how much was written by more primitive people with limited scientific understanding as a plausible explanation for what they saw in the world around them?
In another 2000 years, will high school literature classes write papers comparing and contrasting Yahweh with Zeus, Jesus with Hercules, seeing them all as fictional characters in ancient religions? Will they read excerpts of the Bible and King Arthur myths and discuss their influence on literature through the ages?
All of this makes me question the God that I once worshiped with my whole heart. On stage on Sunday mornings I listen to the lyrics of the songs and rarely can I actually sing them and mean it. I can’t sing about the God who answers prayers when I’ve seen so many prayers go unanswered. I can’t sing about the God who heals when I’ve seen that He hasn’t. I can’t sing about the God who saves without asking why He made us in such a way that we NEEDED saving — why He didn’t make us to His exacting standards in the first place.
It would be incomplete to question God without questioning His church, ostensibly His Body and representatives on Earth. Why is it that we as a church do not follow the teachings of Jesus? Why do we shun those who are not like us? If homosexuality is a sin under our theology, it would be contradictory to welcome unrepentant homosexuals into our church — with that I can agree (and it applies to any sin). Why do we not love them and instead persecute them?
Why do we insist that governments and businesses accommodate our religious beliefs (Christmas holiday displays, prayer in schools, ten commandments in courtrooms) but raise hell when they accommodate other religions (footwashing stations, head coverings, time off for religious pilgrimages and non-Christian holidays)? Why hasn’t He smited (smitten? smote?) smarmy faith healers and the Westboro Baptist Church with a rain of fire, hell and brimstone?
The quick “Christian” answer to these questions is that we, as “fallen and sinful” humans, have corrupted the church. To that I have to ask again, why would an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God make humans “in his image” who are subject to such proclivities?
And why is it that I am afraid to bring these questions into the light within my church body, or even put my real name with this story on a public website, for fear that I myself will be rejected and shunned by some of my closest friends?
I still can’t believe that the human race and planet Earth are mere accidents of physics and chance. I believe that there’s value in prayer, though I sometimes wonder if it’s only because of time spent in focused meditation and not because of a supernatural being who hears me. There must be something more to this existence than a brief lifetime. Perhaps the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is indeed the one true God. If that’s the case, I’m afraid we’ve somehow gotten it terribly wrong.
Do you have any response, comment, advice, or answers to this reader’s questions?