Sometimes when I’m struggling with all these issues of belief, I get all confused and tired, and just occasionally thoughts cross my mind like this:
‘Why bother? Why not just give up, cut loose, walk free? Is your belief in God really worth all this mental and emotional effort and soul-searching? What if the atheists are right after all?’
Sometimes it all just seems such bloody hard work. Sometimes it all just seems so pointless, or so hard to believe, or so hard to understand, or so impossibly hard to live by.
Sometimes I get tired of trying to work out a viable theological or ethical position when the standard answers fail to satisfy. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m just kidding myself, trying to justify the unjustifiable or rationalise the ridiculous. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be more intellectually and emotionally honest to give up and walk out rather than go on trying to reconcile the Bible or Christianity with what reason and experience tell me about the world.
Sometimes I actually hate the Bible (or parts of it), and even the God I read in its pages.
Sometimes I can’t be doing with church, and sermons, and worship songs whose words I’m not sure I can mean.
Sometimes I hate theology (though usually I love it). Sometimes it just seems like pedantic nit-picking around abstruse ideas with little bearing on real life. Above all sometimes I hate doctrines and the attempt to codify the mysteries of faith and God into neat formulas and practices.
Perhaps most of all, sometimes I just don’t like Christians. I don’t mean all Christians; I’m not talking about any of you ;). But there are so many professing believers who just seem small-minded, bigoted, petty, unloving, tribal, doctrinaire, and arrogantly ignorant. There are so many who, in their dealings with others who view the world differently, are just plain obnoxious. I get tired of all the depressingly human and unedifying in-fighting, backbiting and name-calling between different factions in the wider church.
When the arguments are not enough
At times like this, it’s not logical arguments that keep me from walking away.
I know all the arguments for faith; I’ve read all the apologetics; I’ve got the t-shirt. In years past I devoured book after book on reasons for belief – ostensibly to help me evangelise, but secretly to bolster my own faith; to convince me that it had a reasonable basis. Some of the arguments are pretty good, some less so. But logical reasons for faith are not what keep me believing. The more I can rationally argue my faith, the less convincing I find it.
That’s not because I think that faith is irrational or anti-logical; just that it can’t be merely rational or logical. If there’s no more to it than I can understand with my finite brain then it’s not really up to all that much. And if it’s no more than can be derived by logic, then it’s little better than a neat maths puzzle. That’s not something that I can give my heart and life to.
(I have to say that I’ve also engaged with the many atheist arguments against belief and found them equally unsatisfying, for similar reasons.)
The only argument I find at all convincing at such times is that (it seems to me) there has to be a source, a reason, a meaning, for the glimpses of beauty, love, reason and goodness I see in this messed-up world. There has to be a source for the very imperfect goodness and love in my own heart, the limited reason in my own mind. I’ve argued this all out more fully elsewhere.
At times the sheer level of evil in the world (and in my own heart) feels overwhelming, and it seems inconceivable that there could be a good, loving God. Oddly though, this is one of the things which drives me to God. At some very basic level I need him to be there, to be real. Without an enduring external source of goodness and love, I’m left with hopelessness, meaninglessness. And although that may suit my depressive moods, it doesn’t actually fit with the whole of my experience.
And when I stop to think more rationally, I start to see that evil is a parasite; that it cannot exist without good. I don’t know why evil is currently allowed to have so much sway, but it does not mean there is no goodness or God. Indeed, in a strange and roundabout way it means there has to be a God.
Sometimes the doctrines of the church and the words of the Bible seem to make God into an inhuman monster who I could never worship, let alone love. Yet if there is a God – as I believe there must be – I know that God must be better and greater than me. If I can manage to do or create anything good, if I can love at all, God must be better than that. Those doctrines which would seem to make God less just, less loving or less righteous than even me must be false (or at best only very partially true).
Thoughts like these do help keep me from giving up, but on their own they’re not enough.
What keeps me – experience, Christ, and need
One thing which stops me from walking away is simply all that I’ve experienced over my last near-20 years as a Christian. It’s easy to doubt or discount these experiences; to attribute them to wishful thinking, coincidence, the placebo effect, or any number of other tricks the mind can play on you. Nonetheless, there are things I’ve seen and felt and known which I can’t lightly or honestly walk away from.
Another thing that keeps me is the person of Jesus, who I find compelling and fascinating, and who just won’t go away.
But perhaps what keeps me above all, if I’m honest, is my need; even my cowardice. I find I can’t live without God – even if he isn’t real. I can’t live without him – even if sometimes it’s bloody hard to live with him. I just can’t imagine any kind of worthwhile, meaningful universe – or life – without God right in the centre of it, though I find it hard to actually see him there much of the time. I need his love and his goodness, his light and life, even if there are long periods when they seem to be present only as a memory. But there is still that memory to cling to.
Whenever I feel like walking away I find myself echoing Peter’s words to Christ: ‘Where else can we go? Who else has the words of eternal life?’ I’m not talking about going to heaven; that doesn’t bother me hugely. I’m talking about life here and now. I’m talking about meaning, purpose, hope, love. I can’t live without these things, and it’s only in Christ that I’ve ever really glimpsed them or tasted them.
I can’t deny that Christianity – or rather Christ – has helped me and changed me in ways that nothing else has. It doesn’t always feel like that, but then I think back to how I used to be. I’m a bit of a mess now to be honest, but I was immeasurably more of a mess then.
Before giving up and turning to Jesus I’d had a fair shot at most of the obvious ‘godless’ ways (I don’t need to spell them out). I even tried alternative spiritualities and the occult. None of these things afforded me the slightest bit of hope or meaning. Life felt increasingly empty, pointless – and terrifying.
I can’t say that I’ve yet found total freedom in Christ, but I’ve at least found hope that freedom is possible. I have hope of freedom from the fearfulness that has long dominated my life – both superstitious fears and social anxiety. I have hope of freedom from self-hate, shame, and the need to please everyone all the time. I experience these freedoms now only in a very fragile and partial way, but I have grounds for hope. (NB secular counselling has also helped – it’s not either/or.)
And I’ve also found genuine hope for change – of gradually becoming more fully human and fully alive. Much of the time I don’t see any progress, or even feel like I’m going backwards. But looking back, I can see that the process has begun.
Giving up God to find God
So Christ offers real hope of freedom and transformation. Unfortunately his church (which includes me) often doesn’t. If you’ve been in Christian circles for a while, even good ones, you’re likely to have experienced teachings and practices that are sapping to your soul and burdensome to your spirit. There are things within Christianity – or within our understanding and practice of it – that we need to free ourselves from.
Turning our back on certain aspects of church and religion can therefore be a healthy and necessary step rather than mere apostasy. Sometimes we need to walk away for a time, to turn our back on a form of religion or church that’s become stultifying and life-draining. Sometimes we even have to (as it were) give up God in order to find God.
I’ve talked before about stages of faith. According to this idea, at some point most of us hit a stage of disappointment with God and frustration with the church; a time when we’re not sure if we can go on with the whole thing. Some people grit their teeth and wait for the dark night to end. Others walk away.
But even if we do walk away, we may just find that at some point we walk straight slap into the arms of God who was never confined to our church or religion anyway. It’s a big risk, but one we might sometimes have to take – or let others take.
For myself though, I’m not sure I actually could give up on faith now. I find it’s there with me, like my shadow or heartbeat, whether I like it or not. And however much I want to walk away, something (or someone) always draws me back.