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My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts
Andrea Palpant Dilley as a child with her missionary family Kenya.
May 5th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts

Editor's note: Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of “Faith and Other Flat Tires.”

By Andrea Palpant Dilley, Special to CNN

During my junior year in college, I took a butter knife from my mother’s kitchen  and scraped the Christian fish decal off the back bumper of the Plymouth hatchback I’d inherited from my older brother. Stripping off that sticker foreshadowed the day, a few years later, that I would walk out of church.

The reasons for my discontent were complicated. By most standards, I had a healthy childhood.  I grew up the daughter of Quaker missionaries in a rural Kenyan community that laid the foundation for my faith. I spent the rest of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, raised in a stable Presbyterian church that gave me hymns and mission trips and potluck dinners.

I was surrounded by smart, conscientious Christians, the kind of people who read 19th century Russian novels and took meatloaf to firefighters when much of eastern Washington state went up in flames in the fall of 1991.

When I started into my skeptic phase, my Christian community gave me space to struggle. They listened to my doubts about faith. They took my questions seriously.

And yet when I turned 23 I left the church.

Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.

More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?

These questions didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d spent time in high school volunteering in refugee camps in Kenya and in college working with families on welfare in central Washington. I saw hungry babies. I walked into homes that were piled with garbage and dirty laundry.

In an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, I held AIDS babies and worked with disabled kids who’d been left at the front gates of the orphanage by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. I saw things that I couldn’t make sense of as a Christian.

Walking out of church was a way of saying “To hell with it; I’m done.”

For two years, I skipped church. My Bible gathered dust on the shelf. The local bars became my temples. I indulged in the cliché rebellions of a Christian girl, smoking cigarettes and drinking hard alcohol. I got involved with men twice my age without thinking twice about it.  I wanted a break from being “good.”

And then, strangely, I woke up one morning at age 25, climbed into my car, and drove downtown to attend a 10 a.m. church service. I won’t relate here the whole story of how I came back to the church. But if I had to follow the standard testimonial narrative for Christians, the script for my life story would go something like this:

Step 1: Grow up in a Christian church.

Step 2: Go off to college away from said church.

Step 3: Be exposed to the enticements of secular life.

Step 4: Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam.

Step 5: Leave the church because of aforementioned enticements.

Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements.

Step 7: Return to church with penitent heart.

Step 8: Reestablish faith, discover good living.

In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.

And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.

Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.

First: My doubt belonged in church.

People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.

With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.

Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.

In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.

I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.

Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Palpant Dilley.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Opinion

soundoff (3,753 Responses)
  1. achepotlex

    "touch the untouchable"...is that adolecent code for "waste time on bullsith?"

    May 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • MalcomR

      No, it's a symptom of the disease known as "religion".

      May 6, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  2. MalcomR

    This poor woman really is screwed up. She chants a mantra to do her damnedest to squash the reason and logic that tries to bubble up in her brain. Truly a sad commentary on the majority of human beings.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I cut her a bit more slack than you do. When you're raised in a nuthouse, it's easy to think of insane as normal.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • MalcomR

      Hence, why I refer to her as "This poor woman".

      May 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Bob Bales

      The claim that anyone who believes in God has abandoned reason and logic can itself be used as a mantra against having to consider alternatives to one's own beliefs.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Matt

    The venom from the unbelievers is the greatest argument in support of God.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do expound on your little tweet.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Really? That's your BEST evidence? How sad for you.
       
      Even blind people can tell when the Sun's in the sky. If there really WERE a God, wouldn't it be even more obvious?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • scary

      thankfully we tamed you religious. Now you just go around with your silly remarks/

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • MalcomR

      You're an idiot. We want you believers to shut up, do as Jesus said, and keep your prayers and proselytizing at home.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • momoya

      The behavior of believers is one very strong argument against the existence of their god.. If they really could communicate with god there'd be a lot less disagreement among the church–lol!

      May 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • sam stone

      the pompousness of believers is all we need to know that they are delusional.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      "I don't believe there's a sun"
      "Why do you say that?"
      "I've lived my whole life in this windowless room and I've never seen one."
      "Why don't you go outside?"
      "Why would I do that? I have lights in here and it's dark outside."
      "What makes you think it's dark outside?"
      "There is no sun."

      May 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      MalcomR: What would you reaction be if Christians asked you to be quiet? So why should we be quiet?

      May 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Matt

      But Malcolm, This is a religion blog. There are dozens of other stories for you to read, but you chose to read this religion themed article, then insult others. So who's going out of their way to preach to others?

      May 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  4. hesalive

    It's appointed man once to die, then comes judgment. Jesus said you will be held accountable for every idle word. He forgives though anyone willing to ask him for it. That's the rub. Pride says I don't need a savior. Pride is wrong.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you want to believe that, fine. I simply don't.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      And you "know" this ... HOW?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • sam stone

      free people do not need saviors. slaves do. now, get back on your knees.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  5. scary

    We need to thank Good people, the Realist, for taming christianity in the free word. Hadn't we, it'd be inquisitions all over again.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • MalcomR

      Truer words were never spoken. The rise of secularism in the age of enlightenment is the only reason we have the world we do today, and not the world of the inquisitions and the suppression of knowledge.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  6. JesusChristLordGodAlmighty

    This is god speaking...'If you are coming back, make sure to keep your young boys away from my priests'

    May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  7. brainwashed

    god is fake, church is brainwashing, sounds like she woke up for awhile and now her life sucked so she went back to being a sheep. and 2000 of years of atheist being silenced i think they (we) have the right to voice any opinion of religion now.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  8. BS

    I am out of toilet paper at home and its Sunday so the religious controlled stores will not be open....what do I do?
    Help!!!!
    Oh wait, I found a Book of Moron, a Koran and a Bible.
    I'll be okay now!!!!!!!!

    May 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  9. IN GOD WE TRUST (Look at your money)

    Atheists: Prove us there is no God and we'll happily convert to your religion.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • momoya

      Atheists simply point out that theists don't have any proof, so there's no need to worry about belief or disbelief.. You have the burden of proof.

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KayBys8gaJY&w=640&h=390]

      May 6, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      (1) Atheism is not a religion.

      (2) It's incµmbent on the person making the claim to provide the evidence. We aren't claiming anything: YOU are. Back it up or back down.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • brainwashed

      you can't prove a negetive, prove he does exist and i'll molest children, be a bigot, and create a fictional reality for myself along with you.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • JohnQuest

      That's easy: Just look in any mirror and ask yourself, could a perfect being create a imperfect being like you?
      point 1) if God created you (less than perfect), then God can not be perfect!
      point 2) ask yourself, what has God really done for you, the only answer is Nothing (Everything you have, tangible and intangible) you got it because you earned it or someone else gave it to you.

      No need to create a God to account for anything in your life.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Bob Bales

      John Quest: [1] Could a perfect God create a being with a choice of how to live? The answer is yes. Could a being with free choice of how to live make choices that would lead to imperfection? Again, the answer would have to be yes.
      [2] Since you do not know the details of people's lives, it is impossible for you to know the answer is "nothing."

      May 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  10. hesalive

    Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord, to the glory of God the father.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • BS

      Take a knee and blow me...FREAK!

      May 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • to He...Blah blah blah...

      Your a fool!

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • SDFrankie

      Don't hold your breath. Jesus said he would return before his generation had passed away. Two thousand years later. Still no Jesus.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • brainwashed

      if there is a god i'll meet him on my feet, not on my knees.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • sam stone

      still dreaming of being on your knees in front of the savior? take some breath mints

      May 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Mathew 16:28 (King James) "Verily, I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom." I'm not a theologian, but it seems to me that Jesus may have been referring to John's vision of His kingdom, as recorded in the book of Revelation. Or He could have been referring to what is known as the Transfiguration, when He appeared to Peter, James, and John with at least some of the glory He will have in His kingdom.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  11. Jeremiah

    So basically, the author hasn't found any answers in Christianity, she just finds comfort in going to church. Well, at least she knows that there aren't any real answers to be found at any church.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • hesalive

      Nope. She believes despite doubts. Much of salvation is a mystery. Now we see dimly, but then we see face to face.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • SuFiSm iS dIfFeReNt

      Western Christianity offers no help to its flock. Christianity lost its message when Constantine and the Council if Trent changed the written word. "Metanoia" was falsely translated from Greek "CHANGE" to now say 'REPENT" ... a huge difference in operation. So the Message of Jesus was ... if something is offending you then "change". YOU change, not them, or it...YOU.

      a simple instruction that is miraculous... the first miracle is learning how to. For some of us (maybe we are born to it) we are able to see both sides of an issue ..and hence we are able to see its NOT an issue. TO walk the middle ground is a blessing.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  12. SuFiSm iS dIfFeReNt

    a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be "protected from suffering"<-- this is a mistake. suffering is a mechanism for change ...which fully engages "the free will". GI Gurdjieff.

    Andrea you where correct to leave a system that has removed the "true answer" for operating through life, but the pendulum swings and you found the exact opposite as all people do. The reality is All you've done was to swing between the two extreme poles. so when your ready for "the balance" to come and full understanding of life, read Harry Benjamin's "Self knowledge" the gateway to the 4th way teaching. This is the path less taken by the many and traveled more by the few. It will not uproot you from your base spirituality as it shines the light on what Jesus was "really" trying to tell us. The Counsel of Trent and Constantine removed/changed the bible to give power to the church and take CLEAR direction away for the people. but it can be rediscovered. Now my life is changed for the best it can be, I do not suffer for an answer to life's biggest challenges anymore because I realize my myself through self remembering. Good luck on your search for the answer.... it comes in many forms and when your ready to receive it, you will see it has been waiting on you all along.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  13. Henry

    Voice of reason, you are nothing but another looser defecating through your mouth!

    May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • momoya

      You claim to profess the love of Jesus, I take it?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Henry

      momoya, truth is love!

      May 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • momoya

      Yep, and you're fvcking delusional; truth is love.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      henry: to feel that you have the objective truth is not love, it is hubris.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I love you, Henry. You're a pig.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    I'm about to turn 68. I recently dug out my old teddy bear from when I was a kid. I loved that teddy bear. Still do, I guess. It was there for me when I needed it, and I have many fond memories of it.
     
    But I've grown up and learned to face reality. Just because something may be comfortable doesn't make it true — or even good for you. Good luck with your doubts, Andrea. Doubts are healthy. Just bear in mind that they may NEVER be resolved, and that "nobody knows" is a perfectly legitimate, honest answer.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • J

      I'm assuming we will know once we die.

      19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

      22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

      25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

      27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

      29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

      30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

      31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

      May 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I'm assuming, based on the available evidence, that once you die you'll no longer know ANYTHING.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      And upon dismissing the validity of your Bible I assume we will never know...ever. When we die ...that's it...no further discovery.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • J

      "There was an old Welsh grocer who lived near us, and my father was at his side when he was dying. He said, 'Frank, can you hear that music? I've never heard such music in all my life–the orchestras, the choirs, angels singing'–and then he was gone.' – Billy Graham

      People believe because faith in God has transformed their lives.

      If it's true, one can say there is no God til one is blue in the face; it doesn't alter reality.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • momoya

      Eccl 9: 5

      English Standard Version (©2001)
      For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      J writes: "People believe because faith in God has transformed their lives."

      No argument from me, as long as you stick to "FAITH in God" and don't take the insupportable next step of saying "GOD transformed their lives."

      J also writes: "... one can say [X] til one is blue in the face; it doesn't alter reality."

      Again, no argument from me. The truth of [X], whatever [X] happens to be (such as, for example, "God exists"), does not depend on how often someone says it, or how sincere they are, or how loud, or how numerous, or now powerful. Truth depends on EVIDENCE! Got any?

      May 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • J

      Prove it? No one knew that the world was flat until they discovered the earth was flat. No one knew DNA existed until they discovered that DNA existed. We shall know when we know. We shall see when we see.

      Try praying. As an experiment. Say "God, I don't believe, but if you exist, show me."

      Check out Ravi Zacharias' website. You'll have fun arguing with him.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      It would be possible for faith and all that goes with it to be the reason for changed lives. However, in at least two cases: Prison Fellowship Ministries, and Teen Challenge (an anti-drug ministry)m studies have shown a relapse far lower for these programs based on Christianity than for secular programs with the same goals. So, apparently, what you believe in does make a difference.

      May 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  15. scary

    Without fear, religions couldn't exist. Deny it's fear, you have the makings for a terrorist. And 'terrorist' don't need to be the religious flying into buildings, it includes those who deny healthcare.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • scary

      terrorist deny woman's right to choice

      May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Sir

      Ihm don't confuse Muslims with Christians.
      Atheists act worse than Muslims....

      May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • scary

      muslims/christians, all the same..bet christians killed more innocent than muslins.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Sir

      Really?
      Which Christian country impose Sharia Law?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • hesalive

      you should be afraid of rejecting Christ. The fear of God is a very healthy pursuit. When you die, you will give account of your every word to him. The only way to prepare is to repent, believe in the Son, and follow him.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • scary

      crusades??? inquisition?? clergy abuse destroying childrens lives? Shall I go on? Or don't you think the christian Nazis doing Hitler's catholic work was that bad either.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I have no fear of rejecting Christ. I have already committed the unforgivable sin of denying the Holy Spirit. By that I'm already damned and there's nothing more for me to do or worry about. Of course I don't believe I've committed anything like a sin since sin is a totally contrived religious fear mongering device to enslave believers.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Suppose the atheists are right and the idea of sin is all about fear. The message of Christianity is that Jesus Christ has paid for our sins, that if we accept this, God does not remember them. So, therefore, Christianity does not lead to fear.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  16. Dr. Ron

    I did not know how intolerant Atheists/Nonbelievers are until I checked out this faith blog.
    I thought they were tolerant and acted like normal humans, but unfortunately they act worse than animals and don't deserves anyones respect. No wonder why they are hated. They "laugh" and complain how intolerant believers are while they cannot see the way they act.

    Have a nice weekend!

    May 6, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • momoya

      I did not know how intolerant Theists/Beleivers are until I checked out this faith blog.
      I thought they were tolerant and acted like normal humans, but unfortunately they act worse than animals and don't deserves anyones respect. No wonder why they are hated. They "laugh" and complain how intolerant non-believers are while they cannot see the way they act.

      Have a nice weekend!

      May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • SDFrankie

      Physician, heal thyself.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Really-O?

      @Dr. Ron -

      Hypocrisy much?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I didn't know how much doctors were given to wild generalizations based on a sample space of a dozen or so comments on a message board, but now, based on what Dr. Ron says, I'll never trust another doctor again as long as I live.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • technoblaze

      Said those who want to strip fundamental rights of others and promote hatred and violence against people who do not agree with their fairy-tale beliefs.
      Only the weak cling on to such a feeble thing as religion.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Kindness

      Really o very clever :-) Personally a person's response carries more weight than their words.....

      May 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  17. Really-O?

    Whoa! This is the hard-hitting journalism needed to reignite my faith. I haven't stepped over the threshold of a church since I was twelve (except for the occasional wedding – bah), but I now know years of education were meaningless when compared to my narcissistic concern for my immortal soul. Here I come Jesus...save me!

    May 6, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  18. SDFrankie

    So many doubts. Why, oh why does this gibberish not fit inside my head?
    Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. You'll always have doubts because your faith will always be gibberish and a reasonable mind abhors gibberish.

    May 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  19. eqgold

    There is no god, no santa, no tooth fairy either. Get over it and out of the middle ages. Live in the real world. It's actually pretty nice!

    May 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • JM

      And then we die.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Sir

      Prove us there is no God.
      You can't :)

      So shup the F up

      May 6, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • hesalive

      He is alive. Why we know and you don't is the mystery,. I invite you to believe.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Really-O?

      ...and then we don't care. Sweet parsimony.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Kindness

      WOw sir do you hear yourself! Using explecatives is your best arguement? When Peter lobbed off the ear of the guard in the garden Jesus, did not use an expletive, any Christians out there? Can you tell me what Jesus' respnse was?

      May 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Really-O?

      @Kindness -
      "It's just a flesh wound." ... right?

      May 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Why should I believe there is no God?

      May 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  20. Henry

    The s-o-d-o-m- i-t-e-s controlling this blog keep deleting my comments

    May 6, 2012 at 11:40 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.