“How Do You Keep Believing In All This Faith S—t?”

[A pastor’s confession.]

Often I’ll have a friend from childhood find out that I’m a pastor and they’re downright incredulous; they’re just as surprised as I am that I ever went from atheism to Christianity, much less ministry. “I thought you were too smart for that” or “You were always the wild guy, never thought you’d settle down.” Most of my friends went the other way and fell out of faith like it was a varsity jacket, or an old diaper.  They ask, “How do you keep believing in all this faith s–t?” – not because they’re trying to trap me, but because they’re genuinely curious for a coherent explanation. They do want something.

To be truthful: most times, I don’t have a good answer.

I often wonder myself, How do I keep believing in all this faith s–t?

Sometimes, I find the whole thing just crazy. When I reduce Christianity down to one or two sentences, it sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth. I believe that if I telepathically offer my cognitive affection to a Jewish zombie who tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, then I’ll have immortality and half a better chance to run for political office.

A fellow Christian will tell me, “Oh no, doubt is a good thing, it means you’re at the edge of solidifying a deeper faith by investigating your most foundational beliefs.” Which I guess could be true.

A fellow atheist will tell me, “Oh no, doubt is a good thing, it means you’re at the edge of coming back to reason and shedding a fear-based crutch that’s having less relevance and respect in the world.” Which I guess could also be true.

Both would say, “You’re finally being intellectually honest.” Both say, “You’ll come around.” Both say, “If they could just admit they don’t have everything right.” Both say, “They’re just so blind and have the same boring arguments and the ‘burden of proof‘ is on them.” Both are rude, unthoughtful, unmoving. And of course, they both love to yell ad hominem.

It all just sounds the same to me. I could quit believing. I could keep believing. I could walk away. I could walk harder.

I occasionally binge-read all the atheist classics again, like Hitchens and Russell and Hume (but not Dawkins anymore; like a good friend once said, he’s the Joel Osteen of atheists), and I spend long nights on atheist blogs trying to beat my faith into submission. I watch those debates with that plastic-smiley William Lane Craig who’s supposed to represent the “academic Christian,” and I cringe. I take notes in documentaries like Going Clear, wondering how the Christian church is any different than a two-bit cult. I’m fascinated by guys like Bill Burr, who makes all the sense in the world when he says of his faith, “It’s like that creepy moment in curling, I just let go it.”

There are days when I decide not to pray. It’s an experiment I don’t recommend. I just want to see what happens. If the sky falls. If my car stops. If lightning strikes. If I suddenly become a baby-eating serial killer. And you know: life goes on. Bills get paid and some things work out and some things don’t. I love to pray, but sometimes I wonder why I keep praying. I know I’m not supposed to say such things: but am I alone here? Am I allowed to dangle at this edge of faith and futility?

It doesn’t help that the last few months, I’ve been looking for a new church with my wife: and the dozen or so we’ve visited have been terribly shallow and fluffy. After each service, we’re completely silent in the car for miles, until one of us exhales a long sigh of disappointment. A few weeks ago, my wife says, “This is why American churches are so screwed up. They don’t preach anything. They just don’t preach.” My guts twist up like a rock; she’s right. My wife, by the way, is less cynical than me. She’s hopeful. I’m less and less so.

Why do you keep believing?

I’m not entirely sure all the time. I have long miserable episodes of doubt where I feel tricked, like I somehow had a greater psychological propensity to be duped by some smooth-talking preacher. I wonder if faith is merely sentimental scaffolding that tickles an emotional chord of nostalgia in my artsy inner-child. I wonder if I’ve bought into a cultural club of insider-acceptance where we all reluctantly agree on the Jesus-stuff because it allows us to have potlucks and socials. I wonder if I’m just a weak-minded wishful thinker and that it’s making me more bigoted, more exclusive, more withdrawn and arrogant and smug, than if I simply just left it all behind.

I wish I had a bow-tie to wrap this all up for you. I don’t. I wish I had a, “And then I realized –” but I don’t. It’s insanely difficult, this believing stuff. 

I stand between two cliffs of conflicted opposition, both sides looking for answers and seeking ever deeper, and I think maybe that neither side is so different than the other. I think maybe all of us doubt, and we doubt our doubts, and it will be this way to the end. When I’m asked, “Why do you keep believing?” – I can only say, “Believing is hard. For you, for me, for everyone. But this particular thing, even when I least believe it, I hope it would be true. I can tell you all the evidence, but what it does, it’s a whole universe inside here, man.”

Maybe that’s a cop-out. I don’t know. I just look at the long, twisted road behind me: and I don’t miss who I used to be. It could be psychological trickery. It could be cultural dressing. Or maybe there’s a whole universe in here, and eternity has made its way in. Maybe.

I do want to believe it though. I want to believe that at some point in human history, a perfect God really did break into the turbulent chaos of our world and reversed our inevitable condition, at one place in time, to bring about a healing from the sky to the grave to our hearts. I want to believe that such a boundary-breaking love can exist, that such a person would know the depth of my ugliness and want to draw closer still. It’s a wonderful, brilliant, heart-rending story. I hope, by God, that it really is true. I hope against myself. I hope for you.

– J.S.

I default to doubt very easily. There are entire seasons I’m not sure He’s real and I’m ready to throw the Bible in the trash. Maybe that’s too candid, but I look at our “Bible heroes,” and they often skated the edge, too. Their victories were interspersed with so many valleys.

But you know, I keep serving anyway. I keep acting like God exists. I keep loving people. I keep obeying His commands, as far-away as they feel. I force myself into the church community. I put my tiny little shred of faith into His Son. I pray, even if it’s a few words at night. I read Scripture, my heavy head on a pillow as the app shines its tiny little screen into the darkness. And most days, that meager little mustard-seed-faith is just enough.

It sounds like legalism, but effort is not legalism. It’s only legalistic to presume that God’s law can save, which leads to self-righteousness. I don’t believe merely following God’s law will save me. I believe following His law will lead me back to the heart who made me. As C.S. Lewis said, I’m trying to trace the sunbeam back to the sun.  The days I succeed, I praise God. The days I fail, which are many, I continue on by the bare skin of my teeth.

I’m learning this is okay. I’m learning we are works in progress looking towards the work finished, Jesus.
I’ve been learning that doubts do not disqualify me from knowing Him. They’re certainly troubling. But sometimes doubt is the persistent prompting to investigate our deepest beliefs, especially when life hits hard. I’m learning that Christianity, if anything, will challenge you to think for yourself. Not what to think, but how.