Personal Stories, Shattered Faith — March 9, 2011 at 7:23 am

When “Just Believe” Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

by

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to have a relationship with God. What it means to have faith in something…someone. What that would tangibly look like. I think as a recovering evangelical I have often been caught in a tension between what I was raised to believe and what life experiences have caused me to believe.

I knew what it looked like to “experience” God when I was growing up in the church, going to summer camp and youth group and on mission trips. I was supposed to read my Bible and pray, and do my devotions and attend worship services and witness to my heathen friends and read books by inspirational authors that taught me how to experience my spirituality in greater ways. Bonus that I had the “Four Spiritual Laws” memorized, went on spiritual retreats and was a part of four zillion Christian organizations. I was the quintessential spiritual girl in my high school. It even got so bad that some kids nicknamed me “Julia Christ Superstar” – but I considered that a compliment. Being self-righteous was my duty and I felt in my heart that I was supposed to judge people in the name of the Lord.

But all of that looks different now. I can’t just experience God this way. I can’t blindly have the kind of faith that trusts God “just because”. I don’t believe in God because my parents told me to or because I grew up attending church and it was what I was supposed to do. I need further reason.

I have traveled the world and seen some pretty horrific things. And now I have to wrestle with a God that can be loving and trustworthy but also allow little girls to be trafficked and sold for sex in South Asia. A God that knows about my own back yard when I’m walking the streets of LA late at night having conversations with women who are prostituted that have either become numb to any hope that exists or lost it completely. What answers do I have to offer them? What evidence of a promising and saving relationship with God can I articulate or show them?

I have interacted with persons of so many different religions, sexual orientations, ethnicities, theologies, ethics, politics and outlooks on life since those first days of relationship with God. God could not possibly look the same to me now. My perception and knowledge of God has been shaped and changed by those encounters and experiences. But what does it look like to commune with God now? I really have no idea. For some reason God does not seem as accessible and relational. The more you learn about God, the more you develop your theology, the more questions you have. The questions are good – I love the uncertainty, but I don’t know how to love and question someone at the same time. I don’t know how to completely trust and doubt someone in the same moment.

It has been a long time since God looked as simple as he did in my “just believe” days. I know I can’t just believe – but I don’t know how to have a relationship when we have so many questions. I don’t know what it means to listen and to speak when God is so intangible. But I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out until the Christian community learns to dialogue rather than fight with one another. If we continue to bash one another’s ideas and hold so tightly to how we think God looks – I think God will remain very inaccessible and far away.

22 Comments

  • That was so wonderfully written…and I wish it wasnt exactly what I feel but can’t articulate….because its so difficult to be struggling with all these questions and feelings. Please keep writing, because I need you to….I’m so encouraged to know that I’m not on this path alone. You words express my unspoken confusion. So please keep these articles coming. Xoxo

  • I don’t have all the answers either, but that’s ok because the burden of proof isn’t on my shoulders – it’s on God’s. It’s not about our ability to ascend up into heaven and grab God by our great faith, trust, knowledge, and understanding – it’s all about God’s ability and willingness to condescend to us, to come to us, speak to us. If God is anything above a liar, anything above impotent, anything above incompetent, then we can rely on what he said: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” If a child asks her father for some food, he won’t give her rocks, will he? All we have to do is ask, ask, ask – he’s the one who delivers! God bless you.

    • You make a good point, Thomas. It’s a lot easier said than done though, yeah? Thanks for the comment.

  • I went through a similar crisis – I was in a Baptist seminary and my wife divorced me, right as I was being introduced to biblical criticism. It got really messy really fast. I crashed and burned, blamed God, blamed myself, then realized both were useless – faith ultimately involves acceptance. Today most “evangelical” Christians would disagree with my theology (I hate the term “evangelical” – aren’t ALL Christians supposed to be sharing the Good News?), which brings me to social justice, the one issue more and more Christians of all persuasions are seeing as a huge part of the core of Jesus’ message.

    Karl Barth, the famous theologian now being discovered by some “evangelical” seminaries, said many Christians worshiped the Bible, which to him was a form of idolatry. To Barth, the Bible merely points to Jesus – it is not the same as Jesus. (Barth, for all his love of scripture, did not feel it necessary to take the Bible literally, nor did he do so himself.)

    Karl Rahner, a famous Catholic theologian, said that Christianity must become more mystical if it is to continue. Protestants have long ignored the voices of Christian saints such as Francis of Assisi because they did not reject their Catholic roots. Yet as we go back closer to the early Christian church, we find even then the Church was quite divided – we have quarreled amongst ourselves even while Jesus was with us. How then do we think we will ever find God?

    The Gospels point to a more mystical way of knowing God, through the Spirit; as John’s gospel says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him worship in Spirit and in truth…” In my opinion, it is from our own spirit to the Spirit of God that we form a relationship with God. It is not through doctrinal treatises and creeds, for these all reflect our limited, man-made understandings of an infinite God. How absurd we should feel our finite minds can comprehend the Creator of the universe.

    If we looked deeply, we would find that we often blame God for problems we ourselves either create or could solve. World hunger? Not God’s fault – our own. War? Disease? What if we spent the billions we spend on war for the purpose of fighting cancer, AIDS, and the hundreds of treatable diseases which still kill millions, like malaria? We often make God a scapegoat for our own lack of loving action and our own inhumanity to one another.

    For me, I am driven to believe in God, for I believe in truth, beauty and goodness. While I find these in human beings, I cannot believe we are their source – these have to exist outside of us. And they are best revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. However, as science shows us more and more how the world works, it is a bit ridiculous to feel we must subscribe to a literal view of the Bible. Even John Calvin knew better than that.

    Welcome to the world of “rational” Christianity! There are lots of us out here, stumbling along, trying to follow Jesus by loving God’s creation in communion with one another, working to bring the Kingdom a little bit closer to reality, deriving comfort from the fact that God himself knows our suffering, for he participated in it, and is even now affected by it, for he loves us.

    Keep the faith, sister – God isn’t done with us yet, and while it may appear otherwise, God actually does reveal God’s self to us – when we act in love, we find God, one another, and our truest selves.

  • I think God will remain very inaccessible and far away if we do not affirm his revelation through his Son, Jesus Christ. For in Jesus God restores us back to himself and reveals the apex of his nature.

    • You make a good point: I hear a lot about the idea that God will remain far away until we change ourselves and then go out there and change the world. If that’s the case, then we’re all doomed! I’m fairly sure, however, that the message of the gospel is that God came to us while we were helpless, sinners, even enemies! And He came in the man Jesus. That’s good news!!

  • So the horrific things you see do not lend you to believe in a world that is broken by sin that is in need of redeeming?

    All the parallel situations I’ve encountered have only encouraged my belief that people are in dire need of the gospel– a gospel that tells them they are loved, they are worthy, they are forgiven, they can be healed, and they were created with a purpose for God’s glory.

    The gospel is the only answer I know to believe in when I encounter the awful things in the world. I don’t have to just believe… I can look back at the long lineage of faithful followers and see the story that has been written since the beginning of time. The God of the Bible has always been working for the world’s redemption even though all around is brokenness and fallenness…

    I’ve seen God work in those situations and grace that Jesus brought about always wins… that’s what happens when the “world” interacts with the power of the gospel… you become a part of the larger narrative of how God will redeem his people…

  • Sarah, I actually read this post a bit differently than you. I agree, I think we can definitely look back and see the hand of God at work in the world and by some form of undeniable grace, our own lives. I think the author would agree with you on that point. However, it seems that she is making a point that mere belief does not seem to get to the heart of practical theology. This is because there are so many perspectives and questions that arise when we try to understand who God is. Then when we want to somehow share about this God in a situation that quite honestly could be a person’s realized manifestation of Hell, (ie. sex slavery) how do we do that?

    I think there is an answer in the Gospel to this, but it is far beyond simply saying that the Gospel is the answer. There is a huge amount of work, love and justice that goes into answering this. I believe this is the tear that the author is speaking into: how do we know, trust and understand God in light of all that has to be done and has not been. Quite honestly, if it were as simple as just believing (in which the author is advocating against) the world would probably be fixed by now.

  • Julia,

    Thanks for this. It resonates. I just had almost verbatim the exact same conversation with some friends a few weeks ago about my current (and somewhat longstanding) inability to pray…at least using words. To whom am I praying? This God of ours seems to become more mysterious with every passing moment. In some ways it feels as if seminary has shattered my faith…but maybe that simple evangelical God was not God but my concocted, superstitious version of God. In this way, I feel as it my doubt-ridden, confused faith is actually a stronger faith. I would rather have simplicity on the other side of complexity than before complexity…though I may not reach the other side of complexity until we no longer see through a glass darkly.

    • Thanks so much, Sara. I could not agree more. Although the discovery is difficult at times, I do not regret the challenge that comes with it. Because while I do think that the more I learn about God the more questions I have and the more I tend to struggle….at the same time – I think I NEED to keep learning more. Because the “Julia Christ Superstar” that had such a superficial knowledge of God that allowed her to judge others based on a “gut” feeling or a select passage of scripture that she had no idea how it fit in context, is not a better way to live in relationship to God. I think the knowledge is important, but I don’t know that a lot of us have figured out what to do with the knowledge. I know how to SAY what faith and a relationship with God is (logically)….I just don’t quite know how to LIVE what faith and relationship is.

  • I really resonated with what your article described. I had much the same kind of approach to faith and God throughout my younger years. It was everything and it defined my world. Once I reached adulthood, and began to try to live out my faith in what some call the ‘real world’ I was terrified to find that I had great difficulty finding my God to be ‘real’ out there. My understanding of him, seemed too simple – almost cartoonish. Over the years, to be honest, I have tried very hard to NOT believe, and I can’t quite manage that either. I recently recorded an album on which the songs explore this conflict of faith/belief, and how I am learning more all the time about how to life with this conflict in myself – the fact that I do believe, but that I’m not sure how that matters in the greater context of the realities around me in the world.

  • Julia – Thanks for a wonderful post. Your journey is my journey. Here’s a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke:

    Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart.
    Love the questions themselves
    Live the questions now

    SHALOM!

  • So I am not alone in my thoughts, questions, doubts, and failings!
    To find a community of faith in which dialogue could occur without judgment as we search, stumble, doubt and questions would be divine.
    I just cannot keep “doing church” the way I have. I cannot remain content with the easy answers. Yet, at the same time I cannot NOT believe that God is real, working, and listening.
    As a parent, ugh – now it is making me question things all the more as they ask me questions that are really a mystery. How can I lead them?
    Anyway, I am glad there are people out there brave enough to doubt and question.

  • I love you, I am proud of you and I believe in YOU!!! Dad

  • With respect, the issue isn’t “just believe,” it’s what or who you believe in. Rather than put this post under the heading “Shattered Faith” it ought to be seen as a transition from faith in conventional religious wisdom—which, as you’ve discovered, is horribly inadequate—to a greater faith in the living God. It’s also important not to fall into the semantic trap of equating being intellectually satisfied with the separate concept of knowing God.

    After 35 years in the faith, I’ve seen that God sometimes supplies answers to hard questions (or additional wisdom) and sometimes he doesn’t, but he always graces us with his presence, which provides us with “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Phil 4:7)

  • What a glorious journey to be on! Just want to say it is absolutely possible to live with doubt and questions AND have a deep, personal, intimate relationship with God.

    Keep journeying!

    For me, the doubts and questions mean that God is bigger than all my doubts and questions. Letting go of my fixed opinions has meant that I can’t contain God inside those boxes anymore.

    My prayer has much more silence than it ever did before. More creativity. More wonder.

  • “What answers do I have to offer them? What evidence of a promising and saving relationship with God can I articulate or show them?”

    There is always the Humanist answer: there is no God, so it’s up to us to fix the world! I hope one day you’ll join us, Julia.

  • Hello Julia,

    That was a brilliant piece.

    Your story moved me so much that I thought I should share my story after reading yours: I was born into a Hindu family in India and spent most of my teenage life criticising the backwardness and feudal mentality of Hindus. This view, I feel, was deepened as I went to a Catholic school and then to an Anglican college and had many Christian friends. I admired spirituality but loathed dogma.
    I moved to the U.K. a few years back and had been basking in the glory of a ‘culturally Christian but otherwise benevolent and secular’ world of British society till I met my boyfriend. He is an evangelical Christian (quite rare in Britain) and I knew that some friends from his church warned him about dating a ‘non-Christian’. So I went to church with him because I was used to praying in my school chapel and my college chapel. I did not need to feel close to God in a temple. He started talking about Christianity and its tenets. I thought I would say yes to baptism within a few weeks. I loved him a lot and since I always thought Christianity was superior to Hinduism or any other religion, it seemed like the next logical step.

    I wasn’t prepared for what happened. The more he spoke about the gospels, the more I understood the Hindu theology. The more he spoke about the Reincarnation of Christ, the more I understood the concept of Reincarnations in Hinduism. The more he spoke about the Trinity as Unity, the more I understood about ‘brahman – atman’.

    Since then, I have been relentlessly pursuing the history of religion. It seems I have known this all along but rejected it because it was all too familar. Surely God is not about being exotic and being subversive? I cannot speak to my parents because I wouldn’t know where to start. I cannot speak to my boyfriend because he gets very confused if I tell him that his gentle persuasion to see the truth about Jesus has made me turn back to eastern religions. To be honest, I don’t know whether my relationship will work if I don’t become a Christian like him.

    But I am not stopping my journey out of fear. I agree that the questions I have are very hard and uncomfortable but I would rather have doubts than smug complacency. As you say, ‘the more you learn about God, the more you develop your theology, the more questions you have.’ Like you, I will keep searching with faith in the One God.

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