Pastor's Blog

Who is a pastor supposed to talk to when his heart is struggling with weighty things?  When I was wrestling intellectually and emotionally through the 1990’s, I didn’t know where to go. 

Maybe I should have talked to another pastor who understood.  But at my ordination the pastors that I knew and trusted determined that I was “unfit for fellowship”.  And some of them had gone on to say worse about me in the years after that.  I wasn’t sure I trusted any of them.

Maybe I should have talked to someone else in the church – maybe the elders.  Tell the elders that I was struggling with whether I could even believe Christianity anymore?  That sounded to me like a good way to lose my job.  Besides, I wasn’t committed to unbelief.  I was just struggling with hard and reasonable questions.

On occasion I did dip my toe into the water, entrusting someone with one of my smaller doubts, to gauge their response.  But the responses I got weren’t encouraging enough to get me to wade out any further with my friends.  It wasn’t safe.  People were shocked that I would dare entertain radical unchristian thoughts.  And these were my small questions.  I knew I could never raise the larger things that were haunting my soul with the people that I knew.

There was nothing left but to wrestle it out in my own head.

I began exploring in more depth the perspective of secularists, evolutionists, and atheists.  To them, religion was silliness, the incredible stories and superstitions of unscientific ancient men.  These writers dismissed religion as not worthy of consideration.  They dealt with reality, providing reasonable explanations of life in a world of dust and gases;  a world that arose by chance, in which there was no overarching moral story and no absolute standards of right and wrong.  Life just happened to be here and had to be lived as best as we could.

The more I read, the more I learned to look at the world without God. 

And it made perfectly good sense to me.

Christians often exclaim “How can anyone live without God?”.  I think life without God is much easier than life that acknowledges Him.  Without God, you just live within your times, do what feels good, what you enjoy, what makes you happy.  You live your life and others live theirs.  You stop worrying about what it all means, about whether you did it right, about whether you did it wrong; you just live each moment and enjoy it.  You stop worrying about petty consistency in morals or standards because none of that matters.  Live in the moment.  You do what you want today;  if tomorrow is different – so what?  Do what you want and deal with what comes your way.  There’s nothing more -- and nothing else -- to it.  Why add an invisible God and His rules to the mix?  It complicates things unnecessarily.

Once you see things that way, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, seems like only so much complication of a simpler (and more desirable) picture.  Religion and religious people are an annoyance.  Religion is just a splitting of so many fine hairs, creating worries and conflicts and fears – and for what?  Religion makes people more picky, more critical, harder to get along with – and for no good reason.

I hadn’t finally given in to this thinking.  I was exploring my options and weighing them.  Secularism and atheism didn’t seem as nonsensical to me as Christians always seemed to make them.

And then I had a strange little conversation with an atheist that turned my thinking around…

The first two ingredients in the atheist soup brewing in my head through the 1990’s were the unexpected hostility of conservative Christians and my struggle to reconcile tragedy in the world with the idea that a truly good God exists. 

The final key ingredient involved struggles that I was having with several Christian doctrines.  The first was a cluster of teachings on the end times.  The discussion is theologically technical, and most would find it tedious.  Suffice it to say that when I tried to discuss it with people that I thought could help me work through the questions, I was criticized for daring to question “the system”.  I was given pat answers to my questions again and again.  When I questioned the pat answers, the discussion, rather than deepening and continuing, was over!  That left a bad taste in my mouth.  I began to wonder if all evangelicals were this way -- just accept what you’re told and don’t ask questions that make waves.

A second issue was young earth creationism.  In my education I had been taught evolutionary theory, but at home and through my college years I learned young earth creationism.  I accepted young earth creationism as a necessary corollary of belief in biblical authority.  I never thought much about it; it didn’t seem to me to be that big a deal.

One of my professors in the mid-80’s was Dr. Robert Newman.  Dr. Newman had a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Cornell.  He became a Christian, took several theological degrees, and became professor of New Testament at my seminary.  In one lecture he mentioned a story I had often heard about NASA scientists who found a glitch in their calculations of time – a “missing day” somewhere in history.  Young earthers had always touted this as proof of the day the sun went backwards in the book of Joshua.  Dr. Newman noted in passing that this was an urban legend among young earth creationists.  There was no such study and no such “glitch”.  I was certain Dr. Newman had to be mistaken.  Many times I had been told that story was true. 

I started digging and found out that Dr. Newman was right. 

I also discovered that Dr. Newman was a creationist who believed in the big bang and that the earth was billions of years old.  A few years earlier I probably would have written him off as a heretic.  But having been written off by fellow-conservatives myself, I decided to keep asking questions and learning.  I took more courses from Dr. Newman, who kept piling up the evidence for an ancient universe and the big bang, all the while even-handedly explaining his reasons for rejecting young earth creationism.  After several years of reading, study, and questioning, I concluded that the universe was billions of years old and that young earth creationism was sincerely mistaken.

Dr. Newman and others offered explanations of how to fit Genesis into the ancient earth scenario, but I wasn’t satisfied with his or any of the explanations I read.  I was left hanging and uncertain about what the early chapters of Genesis meant, and that uncertainty, added to the other uncertainties I was experiencing, became a potent ingredient in the atheist soup brewing in my heart.

In the evangelical Christianity I was part of, uncertainty was a no-no.  Faith, if it was anything, was certainty.  Christianity was a series of logical dominoes that led the believer to certainty. 

God is all-knowing and doesn’t lie, so if the Bible is His Word, then it is true. 
Interpret the Bible with common-sense literalism and you’ll know the truth about anything. 
If it’s God’s truth, then you can have absolute certainty.  God said it; I believe it; that settles it.

It was that simple.  Uncertainty meant a lack of faith and that was a bad thing to be avoided at all costs.  But I couldn’t avoid it.  I had never been so unsettled in my life.  I was experiencing greater uncertainty at every turn of my life, it seemed.  I was struggling to make sense of the Bible and God’s working in the world.   And amidst all those wrestlings of head and heart I kept experiencing hostility, alienation, distrust, and betrayal from fellow Christians.  I felt very, very alone.

But I had to keep preaching, teaching, counseling, leading – and almost pretending – every week.  I had to in order to do my job.

A pastor is expected to know and to be certain.  Who does a pastor talk to when he struggles with questions, doubts, and uncertainty?

During the 1990’s, although our church was growing and I was “succeeding” as a pastor, my heart was seriously considering abandoning the Christian faith and the ministry.  The first ingredient in the atheist soup brewing in my head was the hostility I experienced from Christians, including betrayals by people that I thought were my friends.

(Some of you have communicated that my blogs are helping you understand me better and that you want to know how I fought my way through the struggles.  I will get to that;  let me make the soup in its entirety first.  All the ingredients were brewing, mixing with each other, at the same time, and it was the whole of the recipe that was crushing my soul – not just the individual ingredients.)

The second ingredient in my atheist soup was the fact that horrible things happen in people’s lives.  I’m talking here about people being afflicted through the natural world – devastating illnesses, tragic accidents, and destructive natural catastrophes – not people suffering from the actions of other people.

Tragedies occur all the time but our first-hand experiences of them are so few and far between that they seem to be rarities, the exception in life.  Our minds seem to accept “exceptions”.  So sad when they happen, but life overall is still good. When you are in ministry, the tragedies of others become yours to share, and tragedy knocks at your door so regularly that it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  Life seems overcast all the time.  The sun never seems to come out.

When tragedy knocks, people want to know why.  Why did this happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?  Why is God punishing me?  And it is the pastor’s job to answer those questions, to give comfort and hope.  Suffice it to say, the longer I was in ministry the fewer answers and the more doubts and questions I had.  After more than thirty-five years in ministry I know of no words of comfort that don’t demean the pain of tragedy.  There is nothing said that doesn’t seem cold, distant, and removed from reality – at least in the deepest moments of pain.  I have concluded there are no good answers to the question “Why?”. 

Christians talk about the importance of prayer amidst tragedy, and we have our prayer chains, and we try to get a lot of people praying – as many as we possibly can.  (Does it take more people praying to guarantee the desired outcome?)  Despite all our prayers and prayer chains, people, including children, still die tragically.  Why?

Not all die, of course.  But the other side – where God seems to answer with healing – is troublesome too.  “Praise God, you got your miracle!!!“  But what about those other families whose kids were in the room across the hall or on the next floor who didn’t get a miracle, people who loved their child as much as you loved yours – but their child died.  What about them?  And what do you say to them?  Why didn’t God answer their prayers but answered yours?

I have been with people going through these kinds of suffering.  Christians seem to feel that trust in God means keeping a stiff upper lip, not feeling pain amidst tragedy, that expressing pain or hurt or even anger is somehow a lack of faith.  I’ve watched suffering people do and say what is expected of them when they are in the public eye, who then go home, crushed, broken, weeping, and exhausted, not sure that they truly believe everything they said.  But when they go out again, they paint on their happy Christian faces because that is what others expect of them.  That shallow social expectation angers me, as though being honest about the ugliness of tragedies and the depths of pain is a lack of faith.

I have also observed pastors in hopeless situations reminding people – sometimes in a soft, comforting voice and sometimes in a bold, loud voice – that God is the God who heals the sick and does miracles and raises the dead, and you’ve got to have faith and believe that your loved one will be healed.  And I want to grab those guys by the collar and escort them right out of the room, put them up against the wall in the hallway and say, “Good God, man – what are you doing?  Don’t you see these people are suffering???” 

Tragedy.  Senseless suffering.  More and more unanswered questions.  Ministry bombarded my heart with these things.  The fact that I had no answers, and worse, that the answers traditionally provided didn’t really seem to work and weren’t answers at all,  though we all had to keep pretending that they did and were, drove me in the direction of questioning whether anything about God or religion was true.  Or was it just a crutch of lies we created to help us cope with an ugly world, the way my atheist friends said?

I was struggling to understand how the Christian explanation of reality and this wonderful, loving God could possibly be true or be believed.

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