How I Came to Faith: Questioning Days

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Gentle Reader,

It was either Christianity or atheism.

I studied the other major religions of the world while in college. Polytheism (the belief in multiple gods, as in Hinduism, Shintoism and Mormonism) made no sense. How can one ever know which god to appease? What if appeasing that god angers another god? I was already an anxious person. I didn’t need that kind of pressure. Plus, these gods seemed far too human in their whims and warring. If I was going to believe, then I needed to believe in something wholly Other, something that transcended all flaws.

Islam was out, too. The extreme predestinationism of the religion made me wonder how Allah could hold anyone responsible for anything. I also hated how women were treated.  Judaism had some appealing aspects, but I couldn’t ignore Old Testament passages that quite explicitly pointed to Jesus fulfillment of the Messiah role.

I either had to fully embrace what I had been taught in my youth or reject it altogether.

After that logic and critical thinking class, I began to examine some of the statements my non-believing friends made. I wanted to know if their worldviews were internally consistent. Immediately I was confronted with a kind of moral relativism; you do what’s right for you, I’ll do what’s right for me and we’ll all get along.

What if, I asked my friends, it was right for someone to walk into the student union building where we all sat and start shooting people?

The quick consensus was that such an action would be wrong.

How could it be wrong?, I asked.

Because it hurts other people, and that’s wrong.

But why is it wrong?

My friends made a shift toward appealing to a higher, outside authority. It is wrong because the majority says it is wrong. But why is the majority right?, I pressed. What if the majority is wrong and this person who wants to kill people is right? Furthermore, who defines “right” and “wrong” in the first place? How do you have morality or ethics without using some religious code, usually a Judeo-Christian one? I really wanted to understand their position. I really wanted to see if this worked.

It didn’t. This moral relativism was just a thin cover for self-centeredness. I watched as one ran through a string of boyfriends and multiple abortions. She justified her cheating and the refusal to take responsibility for her actions – and then railed when she, in turn, was cheated on. My friends wanted to do what they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it, but they did not actually want others to have that same kind of freedom. This drew me back to the definitions of sin and selfishness.

In my science classes, I learned that we humans are, in a nutshell, nothing but a random collection of atoms. We are the result of chance mutations that happened to work. (Yet, in those same classes, we looked at case after case where mutations didn’t work. There wasn’t one positive example). There was nothing noble or unique about our existence. If this were true, I wondered, why then did humanity persist in trying to make our existence noble and unique? Why were we pressed to create art, to understand creation, to express our thoughts and feelings? Were we not at war with our own evolutionary makeup?

If we humans were nothing special, then why did school shootings matter? Why did anyone grieve at another’s passing? Moreover, if life really were about the survival of the fittest, why did we put forth so much effort in saving premature babies, to getting children with learning disabilities into special classes or providing care for the aging? Shouldn’t we let the process take its course?

Most interesting to me was the anger I saw in the atheists and agnostics I knew. I loved these people. We had great times together. Mention Jesus or God, however, and the fur flew. I wondered how they could be so mad at someone they didn’t believe existed.

Christianity is a force for evil, they said. Look at all the wars it has caused.

This got an incredulous look from me. I had been an avid lover of history for as long as I could remember and I could think of no war that was mandated by Christianity. Was God used as an excuse or as a rallying point in some wars? Yes. Did that mean that faith in God led directly to war? No.

There was a deeper consideration. If one does not believe that God exists, then faith is a moot point. Faith means nothing, for the Deity in which the faith has been placed is nothing. Therefore, the cause of war lay directly within humanity itself. Somehow, my friends did not agree with me. They wanted to blame some external “force,” mostly religion, sometimes politics. But was there anything actually external to humanity? Weren’t humans the ones behind, the ones making up, religion and politics?

I asked my friends if they thought that all the world’s problems would cease if nobody had faith in God. Many answered in the affirmative. Some were strangely quiet. You really think that nobody would ever be selfish, that no government would declare war on another, that everyone would be loving?, I asked.

Yes, the loud ones said. The others stayed quiet.

This was far too simplistic a view for me. Everything I knew of history, politics and psychology bore out the fundamentally flawed nature of man. Over and over again, I saw stories, myths, legends, even comic book themes of redemption. I saw humanity repeatedly crying out for something greater than itself to set the world to rights. The idea that we were progressing to some golden era where all evil would be eradicated seemed incredibly naive.

I noticed a fundamental arrogance in these interactions. Those who believed in God, particularly the God of Christianity, were stupid. If they would just open their eyes to reality, they would recant. They would stop being so weak. I wondered if my friends understood that they saw people they claimed to love as stupid. As idiots. As any number of insults.

I could not get past the lack of consistency. I began to interact with people online to see if, perhaps, I could find someone more “mature” in their atheism. The same level of anger and illogical circling became quickly apparent. One, however, surprised me in his honesty.

Politically, he was an anarchist, because his atheism led him to conclude that extreme individualism was correct. Nobody could define “right” and “wrong,” because “right” and “wrong” did not exist.

Philosophically, he was a nihilist, because his atheism had no room for giving life meaning. Meaning, he said, had to come from an outside source.

Most impressively, he told me that he did not want to believe in God. He told me that he would not worship God even if He were to appear in his room.

In one of our conversations, he asked me to provide evidence for God’s existence. I asked him to define what he meant by evidence. He couldn’t. Tentatively, I offered my thoughts on humanity’s consistent longing for meaning and redemption as fingerprints of the Divine upon our lives; perhaps we had these longings built into us as a way for God to call us back to Himself? He rejected that.

Back and forth we went. I offered him something. He rejected it. I noticed this pattern in other conversations and had to conclude that no evidence, not even God Himself appearing, would be good enough for anyone who had already determined not to believe. This didn’t make atheism intellectually superior, as many pronounced. This made  it an emotionally based viewpoint.

Again, I loved these people. I had great relationships with them.

But I could not get on board.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

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How I Came to Faith: Changing Days

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Gentle Reader,

That first boyfriend of mine dumped me shortly after my 17th birthday. Looking back, I can laugh about how it all went down, but at the time it was devastating. I was naive enough to think that we’d get married one day. I believed him when he said we would.

I also believed him when he told me I was slutty and placed all the blame on me for our physical transgressions. Already an over-responsible person, I took that as truth.

Truth. It’s always been important to me. If only I had understood then that truth comes from God alone and anything that doesn’t square with what He says is to be rejected.

My friends were exceptionally supportive. I remember two or three of the guys (I had far more guy friends than girl friends) taking me out on the town frequently for the rest of that summer. We had no money, and so mostly drove around or ate incredibly cheap and disgusting food, but I appreciated them. I appreciated my family rallying around me. But the ache didn’t go away.

I made a crucial decision at that moment, though I wouldn’t have articulated it as such. I would be accepted. I would be loved. No matter what I had to endure or what it took.

Enter boyfriend two, the abuser. I wrote about him already, so won’t waste anymore space on an unworthy topic. I had to deal with the nastiness to get what I thought I wanted, and that was it. I wasn’t worth a good relationship, anyway. My school was disintegrating, I was down to 104 pounds on a 5’7″ frame, college loomed. As the stress mounted, I noticed handfuls of hair falling out each morning in the shower. I was cold all the time.

The worst part of it was the self-imposed silence. Having never been emotionally demonstrative, I had no tools in my belt to express what I was feeling. All I knew to do was soldier on. I grew increasingly cynical about people who called themselves Christians, never realizing that my own claimed beliefs clashed wildly with the life I was living. If you were to ask, I would have given you all the right answers about Christianity. If you were to watch, I would have shown you that I was, in fact, among the biggest of the hypocrites.

My family had moved away from church. I didn’t blame them. I embraced it. On rare Sundays I would feel compelled to go, only to be disappointed at what I regarded as intellectually shallow and emotionally manipulative. Occasionally that disappointment would be eclipsed by a growing unease. What did I really think, really believe? As my interest in social justice grew, this question became increasingly important. Why was justice important to me? Why was I fixated on truth and angered by those who would twist it?

Graduation came. I made my speech, threw my cap, gave lots of hugs. I couldn’t wait to be done with the academy. I wanted away from those people and their platitudes. I was eager to enter college, excited about academic challenges and meeting new people.

Securing a reporter’s slot on the college paper, I roamed the little campus in my baggy green pants, Converse All Stars and sweatshirts, waist-length hair billowing behind me. I loved covering stories that were important to the students; things like rising tuition and the parking situation were sure to raise my righteous indignation. I dove into art history, political science, journalism and literature.

Busy with classes, new friendships and work at the library, I was surprised when the nagging questions remained. They intensified during the required logic and critical thinking course, a few weeks into which I finally gathered up the courage to dump the abuser, thanks to the encouragement of a good friend. I wish that it hadn’t taken me over a year to realize that A+B did not equal C when it came to him and me. I also wish I could tell you that I emerged from the experience confident and able to make better relationship decisions, but I was still desperate to silence the “not good enough” reverberating in my soul.

It was those relationships, with friends and significant others, that would lead me to finally tackle the questions.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

How I Came to Faith: School Days

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Gentle Reader,

Kermit T. Frog famously sings that it ain’t easy bein’ green.

It ain’t easy bein’ a teen, either.

When I entered seventh grade, not only did I enter junior high but I left behind all the friends I’d made over six years. While the bulk of them moved up the rung of the public system, my parents decided to put me into a private school. Over the course of four years or so, the population in our town had exploded, but the schools hadn’t kept up. The one small junior high was forced to have double shifts that year, and my parents didn’t want me to have to deal with that.

The night before I entered the academy, I was a nervous wreck. Would anyone like me? Was the outfit I had picked out good enough? What about my crooked teeth; would people make fun of me? Would I make any friends? Would I be able to find my locker and work the combination? Would I get hungry before lunch?

I lay in my bed, tears pooling on the pillow. Entering this new school was going to take an act of supreme bravery. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

At what point the worries turned into a prayer, I don’t know. This was the first moment in which I can recall reaching out to God with any kind of intense longing. I’m certain that my prayer didn’t make any sense. I probably asked Him to make sure I didn’t have any zits the next morning. (What girl wouldn’t?)

To my astonishment, He spoke to me. I didn’t hear an audible voice. I didn’t see a burning bush. There was no angel bearing a scroll of instruction. My mind simply rang with His precious whispers of assurance. My heart swelled with His love. I was comforted. I knew He was with me and that, somehow, He would provide me with the courage I needed to begin the awkward transition from child to adult. I slept peacefully that night, clutching the two stuffed dogs I’d had since babyhood. It would be all right.

And, it was, in many ways.

I did make friends, but, of course, those relationships were not without the attendant drama of the teen years. Braces were eventually slapped on my teeth. I played basketball and wrote outlandish stories. Slowly (very, very slowly) I developed a sense of style – if flannel shirts and baggy jeans can be called style. This was the “grunge” period, after all. In the beginning, I had excellent teachers and good, weekly chapel services. I was being challenged to learn and loved it.

That first year at the academy, two highly significant events took place, events that continue to impact me today. First, I was not invited to a party. I was the only one in the entire grade not invited to a party. Only my locker was empty of the invitation that had been taped to all the others. The knowledge of being publicly excluded instilled a deep sense of shame. I had not had any real issues with identity until then. Why was I not good enough?

Second, I got very sick with what seemed to be a bad flu and missed a week of school. One morning I even fainted – twice. This was the start of 15 years (and counting) of brain scans, heart monitors, blood tests and countless rounds of antibiotics. If not being invited to the party didn’t confirm that I was an outcast, being the “freak” who started to feel sick all the time did.

I wanted desperately to fit in. Jesus had been my lifeline during those first difficult months of adjustment, but I began to notice that most of the kids in my class weren’t particularly interested in the things of God. I didn’t want to walk away from what I knew to be true, but I also didn’t want to walk alone. It never occurred to me at that time that I never was alone. Never underestimate the power of peers.

The other thing I began to notice was the hypocrisy of those who ran the school. During my freshman year a revival swept through the student population. This truly was a move of the Spirit, as waves of people would come forward for prayer during chapel services. Kids in my class, kids I knew had wanted nothing to do with God, felt the pull on their hearts and cried out to Him. There was no dancing in the aisles, no swinging from chandeliers. Just simple, heartfelt repentance.

Since the academy was sponsored by the church, it was natural for the weekly evening youth group meeting to explode at this time. Everyone was hungry. I was hungry. One evening the youth pastor began to lead the worship team and we ended up singing song after song for close to three hours. It was beautiful.

Then, the school crushed the movement. Teachers demanded that chapel remain within a half-hour format. Anyone who showed up late to class, even if he or she had been praying with another teacher, was punished. The youth pastor who led the chapel services was asked to do his job for free. Since he obviously couldn’t with a family to take care of, he left. The music that had drawn us to give glory to God was replaced with tunes from the kids’ chapel service. We were told not to hold hands with the opposite sex in prayer or praise.

I don’t know what their motives were. I don’t know if someone had complained. What I do know is that I and many others were crushed. Our enthusiasm seemed to be offensive to the older generation. What if God didn’t like us, either?

It was all too easy to become cynical. I watched as the academy deteriorated, one principal after another unable to provide the kind of leadership needed. I also watched as the congregation we had at last settled in as a family forced the pastor out of the pulpit. My heart grew bitter. Adults seemed so stupid. So petty.

After I turned 14 I suddenly lost all the “baby fat” of childhood. Halfway through my freshman year almost all of my clothes were too big. I got compliments. People started to tell me that I was pretty. Oh, did I want to be pretty. I wanted SO MUCH to be pretty – and to have a boyfriend. I was at the top of my class. My family, though not perfect, loved me. I had lots of friends. I knew the truth about God. I should have felt fulfilled and excited about life. Instead, I began flirting with anorexia my sophomore year.

The more weight I lost, the more compliments I got. Talking on the phone discussing who liked who became far more important than reading that Bible I had loved for so long. I didn’t want to pray because I knew that, if I did, the uncomfortable feelings of conviction that surfaced from time to time would get stronger. I saw how so many people around me twisted those beautiful words to get what the wanted. I saw how they “loved” Jesus. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Still, I could not quite let go. On one occasion, I even wrote a letter to the principal, detailing verse by verse how a certain passage did not mean what he claimed it meant. That landed me in his office, threatened with suspension. The article I wrote for the school newspaper about how it wasn’t following Jesus’ example to expel pregnant girls but allow their boyfriends to remain landed me in his office, threatened with suspension.  Senior year I engaged in a nasty tangle with a woman over the way the student council was being run – and was nearly expelled.

Injustice and manipulation were all around me. I believed in God. I rejected His people.

Aching for the love of Christ but unable to express it, I plowed headlong into the first of bad dating relationships – with a pastor’s kid. Unfortunately, he was the stereotypical pastor’s kid. I wanted “romance.” I wanted to fit in. I was naive and walked right into a pit. He wasn’t nice to me; never seemed to have a compliment. Didn’t mind telling me about the pornography he was addicted to. Flirted with other girls incessantly. Pushed me physically. But I deserved this, didn’t I?

After all, I wasn’t good enough.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here