This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/
This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/acceptingrejecting-calvinism-pt-4a-doubting-my-faith/
During my Freshman year of college, I began to doubt my faith, for a few months coming mighty close to becoming an atheist. And it is this process of beginning to doubt the truth of Christianity that I’ll cover today. It may seem that rejecting my faith would have nothing to do with accepting or rejecting Calvinism, which is what this series of posts is about. However, it is relevant for three reasons:
- It’s what happens next in my story.
- This season was very formative, not only for the content of what I would end up believing, but for how I began to think.
- The Christianity I began to reject was a thoroughly Calvinistic Christianity. I was very, very convinced that Calvinism was correct; and I was certain that if Christianity were true, then it is the Calvinist rendering of Christianity that is true. And if Calvinism is false, then so is Christianity. They would rise and fall together. In the end, I came to see it was possible to let Christianity rise and Calvinism fall — and that is what I did.
This third point is why it is so crucial to be honest with your kids, students, or congregation about what things are actually crucial to Christianity and which things are not. I’ve heard way too many people argue that “If you don’t believe in young earth creationism, or complementarianism, or a particular view of inspiration, you’re undermining the Gospel!” This cheap tactic to use fear instead of offering reasons has a devastating consequence: if someone comes to the point of doubting whether or not the earth is really only 6000 years old, he doesn’t just question how he ought to interpret Genesis 1, but he begins to doubt all of Christianity! Why? Because some lazy teacher told him that it’s impossible to deny one without denying the other, and the poor kid wasn’t able to see how wrong his teacher was.
Doubting My Faith
There were a number of problems that together led me to a vulnerable point in which I questioned my faith. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and I think I’d boil it down to four things:
- I was struggling with sin. Specifically, I was addicted to pornography during this time. And the effects were devastating on me. The chief effect of sin is separation from God; the soul feels alienated, alone, and cold, deprived of the warmth of the Father’s love. And I was living so much of my time so far from God, that it became easier to question it on intellectual grounds. And to make matters worse, I became somewhat reclusive that first semester, spent much of my time inside my basement apartment, and spent more of my free time playing video games than in the Word or prayer. Prior to this time, if doubts arose, my relationship with God, my experience of him, and my joy in him had all been strong enough to keep me believing even if I couldn’t answer a few questions. But the distance of my heart from God, due to sin and a lack of devotion, was stripping a layer of spiritual/emotional/subjective confidence that I used to be able to lean on. I think this is why Blaise Pascal recommended that those doubting their faith should first focus on “diminishing [their] passions” before they focus on solving intellectual problems.
- The seriousness of the question began to weigh on my heart. I was going to college to prepare to be a pastor; I was about to devote the next four years (and then several more after that) to prepare to be a minister. I, for the first time in my life, began to feel a more urgent need to know that what I believed was true. Did Jesus rise from the dead or not? Does God exist or not? I feared getting to the end of my life and finding it was all a ruse.
- My inability to answer the problem of evil, especially from a Calvinistic perspective. I was slowly becoming more and more convinced that Calvinism couldn’t answer it. Intellectually, and consciously, the biggest problem lay here: no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t figure it out.
- My inability to provide positive evidence for Christianity. If Christianity were able to be demonstrated more probable than not, I was unable to do so during that time. I kept thinking through the traditional arguments for God’s existence that I had heard during my youth (I used to be pretty into apologetics), and I kept coming up with objections to them all that I couldn’t answer.
These four things, together, led to a horrible downward spiral. I came to the point of feeling like I couldn’t know anything. Even though I knew it was ridiculous, I was even tempted to think that I couldn’t even know external reality existed. I often felt like a mind in a vat, making up external images that didn’t actually exist. I felt horribly skeptical of everything, hating it, but unable to help it. I was depressed. Spurgeon’s words rang true for me: “The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.”
Also, Zack Eswine’s words captured my experience: “These kinds of circumstances and bodily chemistry can steal the gifts of divine love too, as if all of God’s love letters and picture albums are burning up in a fire just outside the door, a fire which we are helpless to stop. We sit there, helpless in the dark of divine absence, tied to this chair, present only to ash and wheeze, while all we hold dear seems lost forever. We even wonder if we’ve brought this all on ourselves. It’s our fault. God is against us. We’ve forfeited God’s help.”
But to make it worse, I didn’t feel this way all the time, or all the way. I would often go through life as if I had one foot in Christianity and one in atheism; as if with one eye I saw the world as a gift of a loving God who cherished me, full of light and love, and with the other eye I saw the world as dark, cold, and meaningless. I would pray, and often I’d simultaneously think “God is hearing this prayer” and “this is nothing but a psychological tool to ease the insanity of life.” I remember, though, the feeling that the “atheist within” was getting bigger and bigger. I one day woke up, and while I was brushing my teeth I looked at myself in the mirror and just asked: why do you keep pretending? Why are you still here? The thought that immediately came to mind: “How would I ever tell my family that I was leaving the faith?”
One Horrible Night
It was early enough in Fall to still be outside in Minneapolis, so I went outside to go for a run and to think. I had found that just getting outside had been helpful. And after the run, I felt a bit better, but thoughts of God’s existence were haunting me again. I felt like nothing mattered or meant anything. Suddenly, I got a phone call from a close friend who was going through a lot of difficulties in life. I did what I was supposed to do: I shared the the hope we have in Christ: I encouraged them about who they were in Christ and how God would take care of them. We prayed over the phone. And I remember this person telling me what a huge blessing this was. I hung up my phone, and I was wrecked with feeling like a hypocrite.
I went back inside — everyone else was either gone or already asleep — and I lay on the floor and cried. No, I sobbed. I felt like Asaph, who, when he wrestled with his faith, at one point nearly gave up, saying “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me” (Ps 73:16). And then, for whatever reason, I tried to push out the thoughts and scroll through Facebook. And I ended up reading an article about a down syndrome boy at a high school, back when they were doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, who had been asked by some friends if he wanted to be video taped doing the challenge. He agreed to do so with the beautiful trust that only special needs kids can show, completely oblivious to even the possibility that his classmates might be trying to prank him. They started recording, and they indeed dumped out a bucket full of stuff on him, but it wasn’t ice water. It was a mix or urine, feces, blood, tampons, and garbage. This poor boy, completely unaware and innocent, horribly mocked and ridiculed. And he didn’t even know what was going on. He was just trying to make friends. Anger, disgust, unbearable sorrow, and utter despair consumed me. My sobbing turned to silent wailing, until I fell asleep, only to go to class the next day, where I felt so alone. I felt like I couldn’t even talk to people about these things. How could I convey the depths of darkness I had fallen into? So I didn’t even try. And this was probably one of the biggest mistakes I made: I didn’t talk to anyone about it.
In this post I covered the psychological aspect of doubting my faith. In part two to this blog post I’ll post a sermon I preached at my church in California on Psalm 73, in which I cover the “Benefit of the Doubt,” as it were. And after that I’ll cover the intellectual aspect of my doubts: namely, a look at the problem of evil.
Eswine, Zack. Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression. Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition. [By the way, I highly recommend this book.]