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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 • My Faith • Opinion

soundoff (3,753 Responses)
  1. void

    That's called "cognitive dissonance", sweetheart. It's something a lot of intelligent and somehow inexplicably religious people experience.

    May 19, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  2. colton

    The bible doesn't say Christianity should be easy and fit into your schedule/patterns of belief

    May 19, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  3. Rachel

    That was a neat article. Well written!

    May 18, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  4. Muffinman

    The definition of faith is..... "Believing in something that you don't know is true". You don't know if it's true or not. It's just a book, bible, torah, talmud, quran etc. Do not force me to believe it when you certainly don't know if it's true or not. You only have 'faith'. Reveled region is 100% garbage.

    May 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • sean

      your logic is post-modern, and thus faulty. of course the bible is filled with fact, i.e. truth. we know only "truth" in a historical sense from witnesses. when enough witnesses agree we call it truth. I.e You don't doubt George Washington crossing the Delaware do you?Or Plato's existence? My advice (in love) read the bible for yourself. Start in the Gospel of John. I was totally a skeptic, thought the last place I'd find truth wa the anachronistic Bible. But it really is true. God bless you!! :-)

      May 17, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Sean,

      Saying "if enough people agree than it is true" is a logical fallacy.

      If you were a skeptic you were not very good at it.

      May 18, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Sean,

      Please stop using 'post-modern' until you can show you have any idea what it means.

      May 18, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Joe Matrinez

      Geez...whos forcing you? Tell me. Oh, no one...right. Your funny.

      May 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  5. Soda

    People followed Hitler too, doesn't make them or you right, there is no god, only an organization raising money and trying to control man.

    May 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • sean

      of course there is right and wrong. you said so yourself! if there is no right and wrong, then how do I know if your post is right??? come outta the post modern culture–it makes no sense.

      May 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Joe Matrinez

      Im just saying, you must base your theory off what someone said, right? Which would have been a theory that he came up with, because there is really no way of proving that there is no God. Right?

      May 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • fintastic

      Joe; Just like there is no way to prove unicorns don't exsist. What does that tell you??

      May 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  6. Stephanie

    Reblogged this on Cake for Your Thoughts and commented:
    Very well-written...and I imagine that at some point or another, everyone has been somewhere in the journey that she describes.

    May 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  7. MannyHM

    "My doubt is actually part of my faith." I say Amen to that x 100. You're very honest in revealing yourself.
    Doubt is actually the force that lead us to the truth and protect us.

    May 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Daniel Uzza

      Sooo many words and opinions, but Jesus summed it all up: 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Even more so today.

      May 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Geraard Spergen

      That's ridiculous religious double-talk. Doubt is the opposite of faith.
      It was BS 20 years ago and it's still BS.

      May 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Daniel Uzza

      For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
      "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
      And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent."
      20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

      May 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  8. Knucklehead

    The Truth is a nebulous thing. If you think you have it, you don't. If you are searching for it, you are on the right path. Read and contemplate what Jesus (and Buddha, and Muhammed, and Confucius, etc., etc.) said, but don't put your faith in others' interpretation. As Kierkegaard said, each man goes to Jesus alone, but Satan is in the crowd.

    May 17, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  9. Ikramuddin Akbar

    Even being a Muslim i feel uncomfortable reading your opinions or "experiences with faith". Is a religion or faith a toy you play you break and you place somewhere for playing later? . ,then you even are fade up with it, its not real faith you are describing its your frustration and lack of knowledge about faith that you could not understand well.Faith is not a hide and seek game. Please dont insult your religion as we also believe in your jesus(PBUH) Even you have separated a church for African christians in States, and you call it BLACK CHURCH.Is there any WHITE CHURCH? we use colors for identifying things like, black cat, brown cow, white rabbit, White house etc etc. I dont have any right to write this ,hope you wouldn't mind.By the way is it an ad ( your story) to sell your book.

    May 17, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  10. No Truth, Just Claims

    Lonni,

    If you would like to have an honest discussion I am more than happy to do that and have done that with the FEW theists who have been willing to.

    First thing, why is disagreeing with someone of the basis of what they believe "hate"? Hate is a very strong word and for you to say that I am spreading hate is strong language. Whither you believe it or not I don't hate those I disagree with. It seems to me too many people want to accuse people on one side of a debate of 'hate'. I see people on my side do it as well, sometimes people do actually hate the other side but in most cases it is a disagreement.

    I disagree with people who believe things for poor reasons. People like yourself seem to think that beliefs are innocuous and have little to no effect on others. I think beliefs are very important. I think belief in god has done more to stifle human progress and divide people than any other single belief. Religion looks to indoctrinate you when you are young and then tries to keep us from asking questions and really getting to meaningfull answers.

    So why is taking the position I take consti.tute "hate"? Or are you just attacking my opinion with emotion rather that having an actual point? Be honest.

    As far as Brian's point I really disagree with his sentiment that you should not ask 'why' you should just deal with it and accept 'god' knows what he is doing. Brian I am sure is a kind person but that type of belief can be very dangerous if used by someone who is not as moral. I am not even talking terrorist, I am talking about out local religious leaders that can have a large impact on the individuals in their comunity.

    May 16, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Andy

      "I think beliefs are very important. I think belief in god has done more to stifle human progress and divide people than any other single belief. Religion looks to indoctrinate you when you are young and then tries to keep us from asking questions and really getting to meaningfull answers."

      True, beliefs absolutely are important. How we think the world works affects how we respond to it. However, belief in God is by no means the only (or primary) thing that has divided people and stifled human progress. That's an overly Westernized view of history (where abuses of power often from religious authorities resulted in a lot of pain and suffering and death). In the 20th century, aside from Hitler (who espoused a theology derived more from Wagner than from Christ) think of the people who caused the greatest amount of suffering and death: Mao Ze Dong (China) and Josef Stalin (Russia). They firmly believed and clearly taught that there was no God whatsoever (though Mao's cult of personality verged on worship, particularly during the Cultural Revolution). My point is that there's no inherent flaw with belief in God that inevitably leads to the things you described. The inherent flaw is inside of all people regardless of whether they believe in God, even people like you and me. We're all morally sick (or, to borrow the words of the Bible, "dead in our sin"). Do you have kids? If you do, then you know that you don't have to teach them how to be selfish; they take care of that on their own. The majority of our time parenting is spent trying to help them to consider others first. Plenty of other people have described Christ's solution to this problem, but if you'd like to see for yourself go check out Mark 10:35-45, particularly the last sentence.

      Also, a lot of folks on these comment sections seem really hurt and embittered. If that's you, I'm sorry to hear that you've gotten to that point. Maybe you've been through some pretty rough experiences. I hope and pray that God will send some authentic Christians into your life who will love you the same way that God loves you.

      May 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Andy,

      The difference is belief is not something that should be legislated. The dictators murdered for power not dogma, they didn't want a belief in god because it threatened their power.

      Yes I do have kids and I won't subject them to the fear religion teaches. Christianity gives you the disease and the offers the cure. I want my kids to act in a responsible manner because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear of eternal torture, that type of teaching is abuse.

      May 20, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  11. Omar

    Jesus worshiped on the Sabbath as was His custom. The Sabbath is His law. However, the Harlot church described in the revelation which sits in Rome changed Gods law and has cause the whole earth to be drunk with the wine of her fornication. Sunday is the mark of her power. It is the mark of the beast. The Sabbath on the other hand is Gods true day of worship, it is His seal. But the majority obey the laws of the created rather than the laws of the Creator. "Come out of her my people"

    May 16, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      " But the majority obey the laws of the created rather than the laws of the Creator."

      Omar,

      How do you know that the original law was not ALSO just created by man?

      May 16, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  12. Pt8685

    Beautiful. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certainty is.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • TJ Weber

      Well said!

      May 16, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • fintastic

      Reason and fact are the opposite of faith.

      May 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  13. Jeanne

    This is my story as well. Thank you for being so honest. Sometimes those that are raised in a Church going family have to find out for themselves & then when they do return, they have a stronger appreciation for what they left behind. Thank you for sharing!

    May 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  14. WWRRD

    Sounds a lot like my journey. I didn't "live it up" quite as well as you did. A pastor I respect very much once told me that faith isn't knowledge. It involves doubt. People with very great faith have significant doubt. Then he said that the practical considerations of good living and loving one another are worth it even if turned out God doesn't exist. Compared to the vapidness of secular living I think many would agree. Faith might mean salvation, but even if it turns out to not be true, we are better off for it.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      "Then he said that the practical considerations of good living and loving one another are worth it even if turned out God doesn't exist"

      WWRRD,

      What you are claiming is your belief in god makes no difference if you are wrong. You are essentially arguing Pascal's wager which is a fallicious argument. Beliefs matter and if there is no god (and no one has any good reason to think there is) believing in god will change how you act. Now in your case it may help you to act better, more moral even. But this is not always the case, some people will justify extremely immoral behavior on their belief in god. Some people will manipulate others through the belief in god. If Bin Laden's god exists, and there is no way you can prove it doesn't, Bin Laden acting in a logical fashion, any believer of a god can say the same thing and no on can prove them wrong......beliefes have consequences....including yours.

      May 15, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Oh and Andrea did not seek answers to the tough questions in any honest fashion according to her article, .....she went to the bar, I am not surprised she went back to the church.

      May 15, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • ME II

      "vapidness of secular living"
      Secular almost by definition means not derived from some ultimate right and wrong code, so whether life is vapid or not is up to the individual.
      Int other words, the vapidness of your life is a reflection of you not the secularness of your life.

      May 15, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  15. Brian

    Andrea, Thank you for being transparently honest. Thank you also for rejecting the foolishness that greater faith in God becomes a 'get out of suffering' card. Every single person of note in the New Testament and the vast, vast majority of the Old did in fact suffer. As we look at this world and see all of the pain we believers need to be kind and mostly quiet. We are not called to give the reasons we are called to assuage the affliction. I will buy your book.

    May 15, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      In other words, "don't think just believe".....

      drivel

      May 15, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Lonni

      @ No Truth, Just Claims

      You don't exactly inspire me to be like you with all your hateful posts. Why is it that people like you comment with so much anger? Don't talk to me about terrorists or holy jihad, blah blah. Brian obviously isn't that kind of person. He obviously takes the path of love thy neighbor, not blow them up. Yet you spew hate and anger at him. Isn't that the same narrow minded behavior that makes you detest reglion to begin with? I have my doubts about religion, but if I had to choose right now I would rather be like Brian than you. If you want to get a point across you should try doing it in a way that doesn't make you seem like the most hateful, miserable person on earth.

      May 16, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Lonni,

      If you would like to have an honest discussion I am more than happy to do that and have done that with the FEW theists who have been willing to.

      First thing, why is disagreeing with someone of the basis of what they believe "hate"? Hate is a very strong word and for you to say that I am spreading hate is strong language. Whither you believe it or not I don't hate those I disagree with. It seems to me too many people want to accuse people on one side of a debate of 'hate'. I see people on my side do it as well, sometimes people do actually hate the other side but in most cases it is a disagreement.

      I disagree with people who believe things for poor reasons. People like yourself seem to think that beliefs are innocuous and have little to no effect on others. I think beliefs are very important. I think belief in god has done more to stifle human progress and divide people than any other single belief. Religion looks to indoctrinate you when you are young and then tries to keep us from asking questions and really getting to meaningfull answers.

      So why is taking the position I take consti.tute "hate"? Or are you just attacking my opinion with emotion rather that having an actual point? Be honest.

      As far as Brian's point I really disagree with his sentiment that you should not ask 'why' you should just deal with it and accept 'god' knows what he is doing. Brian I am sure is a kind person but that type of belief can be very dangerous if used by someone who is not as moral. I am not even talking terrorist, I am talking about out local religious leaders that can have a large impact on the individuals in their comunity.....

      May 16, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Marc

      @No Truth, Just Claims,

      Your username is a paradox. By asserting that Christians do not have truth, you presume to know what truth looks like. You're preaching yourself into the grave. Such wisdom.....

      May 17, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Marc,

      I am not exactly sure what you are trying to get at, but you say

      "By asserting that Christians do not have truth, you presume to know what truth looks like."

      I will ask you the same question I have asked many theists and have never gotten an answer to...

      Name ONE thing claimed by a religion, ANY religion, that was later proven true?

      May 17, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • fintastic

      ....crickets....... chirp.......chirp......chirp...

      We're waiting.....

      May 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Drexxell

    Seriously, you spent 2 measly years away from church and you write a story like that was a huge life trip away from it all? How about someone who turned their back on it for decades and still returned? Two years isn't enough to build up a life of experience away from the church's influence.

    May 15, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  17. culuriel

    So, you decided to just stop thinking and enjoy it? I can understand that. That's how I tolerate watching the Twilight movies.

    May 14, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Drexxell

      Seriously, you spent 2 measly years away from church and you write a story like that was a huge life trip away from it all? How about someone who turned their back on it for decades and still returned? Two years isn't enough to build up a life of experience away from the church's influence.

      May 15, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  18. Fuyuko

    I don't get it. She states she leaves the church because of secular enticements, leaves that statement in, and then changes her mind later. She should state what is true. She left the church becuase she was disconent which is what she says after her list.

    May 14, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  19. Carolyn

    Excellent, honest article. I relate to a lot of it, esp. the "I believe help my unbelief," and the yearning. I am Mormon who left the faith after many years in it. Now I am many years out of it. I cannot imagine myself "going back" to any organized religion, which I feel has devastated entire cultures (Hawaiian Islands for one example), but I still have a certain belief and a yearning and "homesickness." You expressed this all so well. thank you for writing.

    May 14, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  20. HamBone

    A few things that cause Christians to become disconnected from "The Church". The word church means the believers, NOT the actual building. The model with one pastor at the front of a building, talking while everyone only listens is not Biblical. To the body of Christ have been given Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers for the perfecting of the believers. The Holy Spirit is to move in and among us, as He will. The disconnected culture of Church in the West will not last, will not stand. We need to get back to basics as was the Early Church. House to house, with elders, Spirit led worship and giving.

    May 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @ HamBone

      Agreeing with everything you said!

      May 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      "We need to get back to basics as was the Early Church."

      HamBone,

      You mean where the followers of christianity fought like rivel Mafia bosses over ideas like, is Jesus all god or partial god, is he equal to god the father, when did he obtain divinity, was Mary really a virgin and did she actually give birth to god, ect. Yeah the early christian church was such a happy time!!!!!

      May 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Noni Lette

      you mean like the Jehovah's Witnesses?

      May 15, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.