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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

III: The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith


“Radically Saved!” My t-shirt said it all. I was indeed saved and soaring high. In the months after “getting saved” my enthusiasm did not lessen but steadily grew and consumed my whole life. I was learning a great deal about the Christian Faith and could not get enough. An intense hunger to read the Bible filled me and I set aside significant time each day to study. I sent off for free Bible courses and read anything I could get my hands on about following Jesus. I learned to spend daily “quiet time” alone with Him in prayer, which I faithfully did as I sought to get to know the One who had saved me. However, although my personal devotion was commendable, I really had no sense of the importance of any larger Church community in decisions of doctrine or faith. It was the Bible alone, and whichever interpretation of the Bible sounded most reasonable to me.

Although I was a Methodist, most of the material I read was from a decidedly fundamentalist angle, in that I was learning to take everything in the Bible as literally true. This made sense to me because, being God’s Word, it only followed that the Bible had no errors in it. I needed a firm authority to tell me what was true, and for me this was the Bible alone. I was not aware of any other approach to Christianity. To me, if one was a Christian then by definition one believed that the Bible was God’s “instruction manual” on how to be a Christian. There was no other authority needed. A bumper sticker popular at the time stated this doctrine succinctly: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!”

One shift that had taken place in my life which demonstrated how serious I was taking all of this was that the music I listened to completely changed. I jettisoned all my old “worldly” music that I so loved, like R.E.M. and U2, in favor of Contemporary Christian Music artists like Petra and Michael W. Smith. This was indeed a tremendous sacrifice for me to make at the time but it was important for me to surround myself with all that was explicitly Christian and to make a clear break with “my old self”. I was shifting into this new life with all of my heart.

I was talking about Jesus everywhere. I brought Him up at home, at work, and at school among my friends. People told me how different I was, that my attitude was better, and that I seemed happier. Ever sarcastic before, I felt more inclined now to restrain my biting remarks and jokes and treat others with more kindness. At church youth group, my friends and I had formerly been the troublesome crew in the back of the room, but now I spoke up with fervor about my new life in Christ and the leaders and my fellow youth seemed amazed. At times, however, my bold fervor spilled over into spiritual pride: Why wasn’t everyone like me and on fire for God? Why wasn’t everyone excited about Jesus and the difference he can make?

Another significant change took place in my life around this time as my family decided to change denominations. After attending a Methodist church for all my life, our Sunday mornings now found us in the pews of a local Southern Baptist church. This suited me fine, as Baptist evangelicalism seemed more in keeping with my passionate enthusiasm. I considered the more liturgical Methodist church services as “dead” when compared with the livelier and less formal Baptist gatherings.

While in the Baptist church, I was soon taught that the baptism which I had received as an infant in the Methodist was not a “real” baptism. I needed “believer’s baptism”, now that I had made my own decision for Christ. I went along with this teaching because it was based on certain Bible verses which seemed to show that baptism was only meant for people who are old enough to decide for themselves. This act was seen as a good way to demonstrate publicly that I had become a true Christian. So one Sunday evening in November 1989, I stepped into the large tank of water behind the choir loft at Central Baptist Church and the pastor fully immersed me, making me an official Southern Baptist believer. I enjoyed a warm welcome into the church community and all seemed to be going very well with me.

But in the midst of these bright golden days of evangelical sunshine, a dark cloud began to form. It appeared small at first but in time it began to loom larger over me and the sky lost a great deal of its brightness. A strange specter began to haunt the halls of my mind, disturbing my peace and mocking my enthusiasm. The name of the specter was Doubt.

It ironically sprang from my voracious reading of the Bible. I took for granted that the Bible was completely true and free from error in every historical fact and detail. Being analytical by nature, my mind wanted answers to all the questions that were raised by certain passages that I read. I wanted to know how God made the Universe in six days only a few thousand years ago, according to the apparent timetable in Genesis, when science seemed to demonstrate that the Earth itself is millions of years old? How do the fossil records and the dinosaurs fit into the Biblical account of Creation? How did Jonah live inside the belly of that fish? The story of Noah and the Ark bothered me greatly, as I could not see how all those animals fit on the Ark and lived there together for a hundred days and nights. A related question was regarding animals like the kangaroo and koala and how they got from Noah’s Ark all the way to the island of Australia, which is the only place where they are found. These questions seem so juvenile to me now, but they were the types of questions that I really wanted answers to at the time.

I also had questions about the miracles of Jesus, which for some reason sparked incredulity in me whenever I read them. Just how did Jesus multiply those few loaves of bread into enough to feed thousands or walk on water? These events seemed too unreal to be believed literally.

Above all of these, I think it was the inconsistencies that I noticed in the various accounts of the Resurrection as given in the four Gospels that most confounded me. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection and encounter one angel (Matt. 28:5 and Mark 16:5), while in Luke the same group encounters two angels (Luke 24:4). The Gospel of John relates an entirely different sequence of events and tells of Mary Magdalene coming alone to the tomb that morning and encountering no one. She returns to the tomb after Peter and John inspect the empty tomb. After the disciples leave again she sees two angels and then Jesus Himself (John 20:1-18). This matches the Gospel of Mark which states that when Jesus “rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Mark 16:9), but Paul seemed to indicate in his first letter to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to Peter first (1 Cor. 15:4-5). These passages and many like them left me thoroughly confused. In my mind they could not all be true, as they contained conflicting statements, yet the Bible was supposed to be without error from cover to cover. The ground under my feet was starting to rumble.

I sought feverishly for answers to all of these questions in various Biblical commentaries and Evangelical apologetics materials, but unfortunately I found less than satisfying explanations or the difficult issues were glossed over or ignored altogether. My doubts persisted and expanded until I began battling with questions that struck deeper into the roots of the Faith: There are so many religions in the world, so how did I know that Christianity was the only one that was true? If I was born in another part of the world, I may have been brought up in a different religion and would have thought that religion to be true. How could I think that I just happened to be born into the one true religion? How did I know that the New Testament was not just made up by some people 2000 years ago? Perhaps Jesus never lived. How could I know for sure? Questions like these swarmed around me like stinging flies. I looked for proof after proof to force them away, but nothing was effective. I examined the prophecies in the Old Testament and how they related to Jesus, but my mind instantly sabotaged such efforts by formulating counter-arguments: perhaps the people who wrote the New Testament simply made their fiction fit the prophecies about their expected Messiah. The moment I thought that I had banished one difficulty another one would materialize. While dealing with that one, the previous difficulty would reappear with renewed strength. I could not ignore these doubts, but the more I struggled to confront them, the worse they got. I poured out prayer after prayer, but these were met only with silence.

At the local public library one afternoon, searching desperately for some book to help me, I came upon one volume bearing the inflammatory title: “All of the Contradictions and Inconsistencies in the Bible”. Unfortunately, I picked up this book up and began reading. One by one the author laid out apparent contradiction after apparent contradiction. I tried to deal with them the best I could, but to no avail. Some were petty (such as pointing out that Jesus called the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds” (Matt. 31:32), but it is now known that there are many seeds much smaller than the mustard seed). Some were truly perplexing, many of which I had never thought of. It was pointed out that there were parallel accounts of the same incidents in the Old Testament (for example, in the books of Kings and Chronicles) which, when compared to each other, contained contradictory information and details. Of course, the author also took delight in emphasizing the similar inconsistencies which I had already noticed in the various Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.

I began to truly get overwhelmed but I could not put the book down. I had been taught that every word in the Bible was true and without error, and yet there were all these apparent mistakes and contradictions which I would not explain away. I did not want to admit defeat, so I kept trying to convince myself that all these supposed errors in the Bible were not really errors. However, I was still new to Scripture study and did not have sufficient knowledge in myself to combat this threat. God seemed so silent and I felt very much on my own.

The unresolved doubts began to pile up and smother my newborn faith. Standing there in that library aisle I felt a sinking feeling that I had been duped. I thought for the first time in my life that it was quite possible that Christianity was not true. I felt that those who had taught me about Christianity had held this back from me. They knew about the Bible’s self-contradictions and yet continued to teach that it was true. I had been tricked. There was a deep deep emptiness that settled upon me. I truly wanted to believe but my mind would not let me. I could not force myself to believe something when I could not logically see how it could be true. The doubts were all that I could see whenever I prayed or read the Bible and I could not see beyond them.

I did go talk with the pastor at my Baptist church and spilled out honestly what I was dealing with. Both he and the youth pastor listened to what I was saying and seemed to be eager to help. However, they did not have any answers for my many questions. They acted like these questions really were not that important. In the end, they took a sort of jovial approach, and with a slap on the back sent me on my way with the admonition to “plow on”. The only other comment I recall them making was “The devil’s really workin’ on you, isn’t he?” I thought to myself that that did not help me at all because I was having serious doubts that there even was a devil or anything else that the Bible taught. I was not encouraged after this meeting and I slipped further away into my doubts.

How long can one keep up the fight against persistent doubts? It was an ever-present obsession in my mind. I doubted when I woke up in the morning and I doubted all day long. I doubted at night when I laid my head on my pillow and I lay there doubting in the darkness until I drifted uneasily into sleep. This went on for weeks and months until I think I just collapsed from sheer exhaustion. After a year and a half of flying high, my faith laid down and died a pitiful death.

I grieved this loss in silence for some time, but my life had to go on. It had been an exciting period of newfound faith, and it was disappointing to have it live such a short life, but there was nothing I could do to revive it. I entered into a period of a sort of “agnostic deism”. I retained a belief in a Divine Being as this was evident to me from the created world, but I did not know if this was the God of Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism or some other world religion, or perhaps of no organized religion at all. Perhaps He was not even directly involved with the world after He created it. God seemed distant again and I was alone to figure out the rest of my life.

I recall at that time writing a poem, which was based on a “Christian Agnostic” book I read. I have since lost the poem, but I still recall the title as it was the same as the book: “Awaiting Further Light”. This phrase appropriately describes my life during that period because I did send up a sort of prayer to “God”, whoever He was, to give me more light and to show Himself to me. However, as the currents of time swept on and I passed from high school into college, this attitude of waiting faded and I forgot about that little prayer. I lost any hope that it would ever be answered.

But God had heard my prayer and had not forgotten me. In His time and in His way He would answer that prayer and quite unexpectedly bring my faith back to life again.Continued in Part 4 of My Conversion Story: “A Miraculous Resuscitation."


(Read a reflection on "The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith" here).

4 comments:

kkollwitz said...

"parallel accounts of the same incidents...which, when compared to each other, contained contradictory information and details."

That doesn't distress me any more than it does in the courtroom or nonfiction books. Human being are imperfect witnesses.

Speaking of a loss of fervor, one's faith journey may be thought of as more a marathon than a sprint.

I tend to think that if someone says they have no doubts that they're lying, kidding themselves, or not taking faith seriously enough.

George @ Convert Journal said...

Excellent piece Todd!

It seems to me that we often put too much emphasis on our own intellect to open our hearts completely to God's will. There is so much hand wringing and struggle. Often so much one sided communication too. Sometimes just being quiet and listening carefully is all that is needed. I speak only for myself, but also see some of that in what you wrote.

The Catholic Sojourner said...

So true George - trying to figure out God by human reasoning is never a succesful venture - we must receive Him in His way and in His time.

The Catholic Sojourner said...

I agree, Christian - I now know that doubt and questioning is a healthy spiritual exercise, if done in sincerity, and God uses that seeking for Truth to bring us deeper -