“I don’t believe in God…” the man said to the elderly woman.
She laughed. “That’s okay, sonny. God believes in you.”
It’s a paraphrase of a scene from a Stephen King movie, one that I never finished watching, but the scene has never left me. I believe in God, in fact I believe in Jesus as the Son of God, but it hasn’t always been this way. After a childhood of being raised in the church, I found myself at a liberal arts college and academically deconstructing the Bible. I wanted to feel enlightened, but instead felt empty, like I had lost something. For the first time I understood the perspective of atheists—there is no God.
Then I started meeting people who had tackled Biblical criticism and believed. I was astounded. How could this be? We faced the same evidence, but came away with different conclusions. I said, No God. They said, Yes God. They were intelligent, fun people, and had peace that was elusive to me. I found myself hanging around during their conversations and wanting to learn the secret. I didn’t say much and rarely missed one of their words, but what I found was that it was not the words they spoke but the motivation behind their speech and actions.
- Watch and Listen. People invited me to churches and sometimes I accepted. I saw and heard some weird stuff. More than once I walked out of a sermon, particularly if the speaker was yelling or I felt uncomfortable. Some places were boring and others were overly active. I desired to be able to say, “Ahhh…” with contentment, as after a good meal, but more importantly I was watching and listening to see and hear if words matched actions. Did the leaders and members have consistency in their public and private conversations? How did the concepts of compassion and forgiveness, two central values of their Bible, live out in their daily lives? What happened when they made mistakes? Did they try to cover them up or did they admit them and ask for forgiveness?
- Find People You Like. There are no two people alike in the world, and there are plenty that you are simply not going to appreciate. Find people who will listen to your experience and kindly share their own. Try the Internet for groups that match your interests and tackle spiritual issues. There are spiritual groups for anything from tattoo artists or motorcycle clubs to environmentalists and single parents.
- Be Real. Don’t Fake It. If you don’t believe, find a place where this is okay and people value and respect you anyway. Plenty of churches pride themselves on allowing people to belong whether or not they believe. Their job is to support and encourage you, not to dismiss or judge you.
- Recognize Imperfection. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses was a murderer and led the people of God. Rahab was a prostitute and helped accomplish a military coup. Both were ancestors of Jesus. The Story of God’s love is not dependent upon your ability, but God’s. The amazing theme of the Bible is not about scientific accuracy or literary cohesiveness, but of a loving God who reaches out to imperfect people and wants to be friends.
- Find A Mentor in Books. If you have trouble finding a sympathetic and intelligent ear to affirm you, try reading an author who acknowledges the role of doubt and unbelief as legitimate options. C. S. Lewis/Mere Christianity (and others), Anne Lamott/Traveling Mercies, Jan Karon/At Home in Mitford (series), Lauren Winner/Girl Meets God, Donald Miller /Blue Like Jazz and Madeleine L’ Engle/Walking on Water are just a few options.
- The Presence. Some people have life-changing events in a blink of an eye. My belief has been a series of events where experiencing God surpassed atheism. The ultimate turning point for me is when I said aloud to the empty sky above me, “God, I don’t believe in you. If you exist, you’re gonna have to show yourself to me.” To my surprise, over time something answered and that something came in the name and values of God. Like when I witnessed the kindness of a Christian to someone who was mean—grace. Or that warm feeling that comes from certain songs about God’s goodness—the supernatural. God has never stopped answering that cry of mine, but the response comes in a variety of ways—through mercy, compassion, and beauty in the midst of a dark and faulty world, through people despite people.
There are times when I still find it difficult to believe, but then I remember a powerful statement from a man in the Bible. I turn it into a prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief.”