For the past three years, I’ve struggled to put the experience of my “faith crisis” into words. I wrote a little about it HERE and HERE, and HERE, but haven’t quite been able to explain how months of struggle culminated in an event—a heart-felt, gutwrenching prayer—and how I left my Christianity, but did not leave my God.
Recently a friend, struggling through a similar shift, asked me: “What if everything I used to believe is true?” I knew exactly what she meant, because I had struggled with the same question. 17 years of Christianity had taught me to do everything within my power to interpret the passages of the bible correctly. It had taught me to fear experiences central to other religions as “portals” to the demonic, and that salvation could be lost. At one time, those beliefs lived in me just as surely my belief in gravity. But then one day I sat under a tree with God and poured my heart out to Him. This is my best attempt to recapture that moment…
I sit beneath a tree and begin to close my eyes against the brightness of the sun, but stop myself. I want to see the light. I want to feel the pain of it burning my eyes. I want my senses to anchor me, somehow. Desperate for some feeling of security, I want to wrap myself with the sound of birds singing, the sight of ants weaving their way through blades of grass, the musky-sweet smell of fall’s decaying leaves. Tears trace a path down my cheeks and my breath catches as I attempt a deep inhale, preparing myself to meet God the way I’ve always tried to: In truth. I have denied it for so long, fought against it, struggled with it, and now I have to face it. I have to tell Him:
I am not who He thinks I am.
It was a ridiculous thought, I know. Of course God knew exactly who I was. But in that moment, I felt hidden. For months I’d been sneaking, cowering, pretending to be the person I used to be, praying the prayers I used to pray. It wasn’t that I wanted to hide. It was just that I thought if I waited long enough, fought hard enough, tried hard enough, things would go back to normal. But they hadn’t, and now I had to face the fact that they never would again. I had changed.
I was no longer a Christian.*
I knew it, but hadn’t yet admitted it. Not even to myself. I’d spent months trying to hold my Christianity, struggling to maintain my grip as it slid between my fingers, capturing it with one hand as it slipped from the other, watching it become less substantive and more unstable with every new catch. In that moment, under that tree, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I laid down my Christianity.
I laid it down, even though Christianity had been my identity for almost two decades.
I laid it down, even though I had raised my children to be “good Christians.”
I laid it down, even though I had believed for almost half my life that I could only please God by doing what the bible told me to do.
I laid it down, even though I had made unimaginable sacrifices in my search for what was “right” and my commitment to doing what I was “supposed to.”
I laid it down, even knowing I might go to hell.
I say “knowing” and not “believing,” because at that time, I did not believe, but knew, I stood at the edge of hellfire. One wrong move would send me tumbling, and this—this acceptance, this refusal to fight any longer, this laying aside of everything I’d ever been taught—was exactly the wrong move.
From the deepest, truest part of me I knew I must make that move. A fire in my soul screamed that in order to trust the voice inside, the voice I had come to believe—with everything in me—belonged to God, I must be willing to truly embrace relationship over religion and step outside the confines of my theology and take a different path. Just one thing held my terror at bay enough to do what I must: the belief that if God truly knew my heart the way I believed He did, He would understand that this decision came from my fervent, all-encompassing desire to follow Him.
To follow Him, though everything I’d been taught told me this was not the way.
To follow Him, though I’d been told not to trust my heart.
To follow Him, though I could quote entire passages of scripture which proved me wrong.
To follow Him in a brand new way.
My body trembled in fear as I tried to find a way to talk to God, to face Him as a believer but not a Christian. Yet I felt hope, too, spinning its threads around and through the fear, shining in a way that made me certain of something beautiful taking place. If nothing else, I was approaching God in honesty, and I have heard it said that while truth isn’t always hopeful, the telling of it is. And so, with an aching, bruised, terrified but soaring heart I spoke to the one I had called my Lord for nearly two decades:
“Lord, everything I’ve ever been taught and everything I’ve ever believed tells me this is wrong. But everything inside me tells me this is right, and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. But I do know if I go back to doctrine, if I go back to searching the bible for all the rules and all the answers and all the “right” ways to live, something inside me will die. Something important and vital—something I believe with all my heart connects me to you—will cease to exist.
God, there are many scripture verses that tell me not to trust my heart, but there are more that tell me to listen to the Holy Spirit, and might this voice be the Holy Spirit? Because I have never felt so alive, so at peace, so connected to you as I have these last few months as I’ve followed this voice. But now it has led me to a place where the bible (or at least my interpretations of the bible) tell me I’m not supposed to go. It has lead me to reading things I’m not supposed to read and believing things I’m not supposed to believe and doing things I’m not supposed to do, and I am terrified I’m heading in the wrong direction.
But I choose to trust you. I choose to believe that you judge the heart. I choose to trust that you know my intentions are pure, even if my actions are wrong. I choose to believe you see my heart clearly, that you see inside the deepest, truest part of me and know this decision I’m making— to follow this internal prompting, even if it leads me away from scripture, away from Christianity, away from all I’ve been taught—is made from my sincere belief that this voice I’m hearing is you.
And, Lord, even though I believe this wholeheartedly, all I’ve been taught keeps me locked in terror that it might not be. I’m terrified I’m being deceived and I’m going to be one of those who “fall away” from you. I’m terrified I’m going to lose my salvation. But I believe you when you say you judge the heart. And I know my heart is sincere in this. I choose to walk this path because I truly believe you have led me to it. And if I’m wrong—if all I’ve ever been taught is correct—then I find comfort in the fact that if all the bible says is true, I will be judged according to my motives. I ask that if I walk a thousand miles in the wrong direction, you come after me as the lost sheep you promise to search and find. I ask that your mercy truly cover me, even if I end up in a place where I no longer believe anything I was once taught, because it is my belief in you that led me here. And I ask that if this voice is you, as I believe it is, you continue to guide me and lead me where I ought to go.”
Emptied of all I’d been carrying in my heart, I sat in silence, breath even, eyes clear, body light as if something critical but corrupt had left and in it’s place the most overwhelming sense of peace I’d ever experienced. It felt similar to the emptiness I’d once experienced after a long fast, a muted hunger softened by tranquility.
Three years later, I continue to feel both that hunger and peace. A hunger to draw closer, dive deeper, go farther, and more peace than I ever had during my 17 years of Christianity. In a fascinating paradox, more of the bible has become clear to me over the past three years than ever before, and two verses, in particular, resonate in a way they never had:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” … “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Matthew 7:15-20 and Galatians 5:22-23)
According to this, I will know what is false by the fruit it produces, and I have experienced more “good fruit” in the past three years than in all my years of Christianity. I have followed God more honestly and sincerely during this time than I ever did in all my years of searching the pages of the bible to figure out what was “right,” and I have walked in more love and compassion and kindness than I ever have, before. I certainly have a lot of growing left to do, but this I know:
In laying down my Christianity, I have become more like Christ.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
* When I say I am no longer a Christian, I mean it in the sense that I no longer embrace many of the popular Christian doctrines and interpretations of the bible. Perhaps it would be better to say, as one of my favorite authors Anne Lamott says, “I am a Christian. I’m just a very bad one.”