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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. travelinpants

    The key is to train a child in the way that he should go and when he is old he will return to it.

    June 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  2. Voice of Reason

    "I contend that we are both atheists; I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
-Sir Stephen Henry Roberts

    May 31, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • travelinpants

      She isnt an atheist. She has just matured in the faith in God. You dont seem to understand that her ideas of her leaving the church are the only ones that matter.

      June 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  3. matthewstevens

    6 Top Reasons Young People Leave the Church

    http://matthewstevens.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/can-i-ask-a-question-at-church-uh-no/

    May 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  4. TheMostWise

    Andrea never gave a good reason for returning......She probably didn't have one...Religion is nonsense and will forever be so. It not only poisons everything....it wastes time...and lives.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  5. Amy

    Thank you for your honesty. I am a nonbeliever, but in my experience, believers like you who humbly admit doubt are wiser than any believers or nonbelievers who arrogantly claim to know all the answers.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  6. John

    I'm not fighting a battle at all....this is an antonymic pair that exhausts all possibilities. It is either one or the other. There is no third option. If the universe brought itself into existence, then that would be illogical since something that does not exist has no nature and with no nature, there are no attributes, and with no attributes, actions can’t be performed such as bringing itself into existence. So, that doesn’t work. Whatever caused the universe, existed before the universe. Since the universe had a beginning in time, and since matter and energy do not spontaneously change and arrange themselves into something new, then the best explanation for the cause of the universe is an action that was a decision. In other words, a decision to act at a specific time in the past is the best explanation of the existence of the universe. This decision was made by a personal being called God.

    May 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  7. A Reasoner

    In Andrea's little rebellious list there is no mention, and a clear omission of, critical thinking. She was abusively infected with the god virus as a child, bought the religious b.s. and has returned to it's seductive "comforts" relying on the same nonsense she was exposed to as a child. Nothing new here.

    May 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  8. jon

    As a twenty year hospital employee I can assure you that even the most hard lined athiest finds God on their death bed

    May 28, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Martin

      Not true. Christopher Hitchens comes to mind, but there are many atheists who face death with dignity.

      May 28, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • old golfer

      Probably you have that backwards. Maybe God finds you on your deathbed. But, God gave man reason. Man gave man religion.

      May 28, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • bdstrohl

      I bet you believe that there's no atheists in foxholes, too.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • JM

      If God exists, one can deny it til one is blue in the face but the truth remains the truth. When one sees Him, saying "I don't believe in You" isn't going to make Him disappear; He will simply abide by your choice.

      And, if the God of the New Testament exists, that is truly good news.

      May 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • JM

      Not that the God of the OT and NT are different; the OT predicts the NT (the coming of a savior).

      May 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • fintastic

      Big fat Lie John......

      May 31, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • willie

      To be in doubt means to be without faith. How can she call herself a true christian if she has no faith. I smell something really fishy here.

      May 31, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • travelinpants

      I totally agree with that statement the great equalizer is death. It is like no matter how bad people think life is, if they choose not to take their own life, they struggle to let the light go out no matter how bad it may have been. We struggle to live but life is a beautiful gift if you ask me.

      June 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • withoutgod

      JM, if God doesn't exist, people can still believe in them until they are blue in the mouth, and it makes no difference. Which is exactly what we see in the real world. The universe operates exactly as it would if there was no all powerful, benevolent, loving God. This variation of Pascal's wager is not at all convincing.

      June 7, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  9. Martin

    One of the ways religion has most damaged society is by instilling the belief that the only alternative to religion is to be immoral (i.e., seek the "secular enticements"). Actually, there is another alternative for people who prefer reason to faith and who seek to be moral and to help others. It's called secular humanism.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mike B.

      Did you know that more people have been killed over the last 100 years in the name of progressing society than all of the religious persecutions that have ever been? The Armenian Genocide (150,000 people), Hitler (10,000,000 people), Communist Russia (40,000,000-70,000,000), China, North Korea etc...Am I getting my point across? I am a man of faith and I just used reason to show you're an idiot.

      May 28, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Mike B.

      My point is that secular humanism seems to usually end with absurdly high crime rates and can even lead to mass genocides.

      May 28, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Martin

      Mike B.: "I am a man of faith and I just used reason to show you're an idiot."

      I think you made your point about who becomes argumentative.

      May 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • John

      If there is no God, if everything is just a random accident, including ourselves, then evolution took one blind, cruel step too far and came up with a species that knows its very existence is ultimately purposeless.

      May 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Martin

      John, I'm an atheist and I find plenty of purpose in living the one life I have to the best of my ability. To me, I don't understand how anyone can see purpose in serving an immoral god that you can't even prove exists.

      May 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • John

      And to me, I don't understand how anyone can see no purpose in their exisitence....have knowledge of God but refuse to acknowledge God because they are mad at God because they think, in their limited understanding of the Creator of the universe, God is immoral. You already know that God exists even if, like a child with a temper tantrum, you refuse look God's way.

      May 29, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @John

      What a load of condescending tripe. How can I be mad at something (i.e. god) that I don't even believe exists?

      May 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • John

      @HawaiiGuest -

      I have no idea how you can be mad at something or someone that you don't think exists....so I have to conclude that someone that is mad at God actually believes in God. Good point.

      May 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Martin

      Sorry John but your arguments don't make any sense. No one said they were mad at god. I just said I don't see how you can find purpose in serving an immoral god like the one written about in the bible. Myself, I don't believe in god, so the stories of the bible that show god to be immoral (like the pain inflicted on job, the punishment of all mankind for the sins of adam and eve, the punishment of children for the sins of their father) are just amusing myths and fairy tales. Not mad at all.

      May 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  10. JAZ

    Beautiful. Honest. Non-religious. Real.

    I once questioned God, I got angry with God and let HIm know it and found out He was big enough to take my questions and in love He listened, He did not change, but He listened and it changed me. I found that it was true in Psalms 23 "His rod and staff they comfort me" as His rules are for my safety. I had always been a "good person" yet was hit with tragedy. I don't know how else to say it, but that I felt Him there with me, like a big Daddy that knew more than I did about the process of life, assuring me that this would not kill me, that I was going to make it. Like Paul wrote, "...the fellowship of His suffering".. I began to see that bad things happen to good people because of the Fall of mankind in the garden and mankind's own free will to choose evil, people make bad decisions that effect good people and that even before the world was formed God knew we would fail and made a plan for us to come back to Him, "Jesus was slain from before the foundations of the world" and 'while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" and just like the story of the prodigal God the father runs to us when we come home. He loved us before the world was made and made provision for us to feel His love even through tragedy and surprises us with His love if we will just allow Him a little bit of room to show us.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:04 am |
    • guest

      lol.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • jim

      "I once questioned God, I got angry with God and let HIm know it and found out He was big enough to take my questions and in love He listened, He did not change, but He listened and it changed me."

      So now you not only know what god is doing but also what he feels? Your going to go to the special fire place for such arrogance!

      June 22, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  11. n8362

    You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true. You believe in it because you fear mortality, seek comfort or are trying to find meaning in your life. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning.

    May 24, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • John

      So you are telling people what they believe....what they are thinking....how they feel. How can you say that you don't believe in God when you think you are God? :)

      May 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  12. Daniel Greco

    Most people share your sense of loss when they no longer believe. I lamented for a long time knowing that there is no god taking care of me. This is natural and it needs to be accepted if you are going to move forward. Growing up is hard to do. We only have each other and no hoping and pretending otherwise will change that fact. Life can be rich and full without imaginary friends in the sky. The secular life at times seem empty because we know that it will end, but the "deep" nonsense offered by religion is still nonsense deep or not. The meaning of life is to live it, share it, enjoy it and work for a better world.

    May 24, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • John

      You sound like a lonely soul, but as a person who has dealt with doubt like the author, I came to some different conclusions. I first reasoned that my belief in evolution didn't negate my belief in God because evolution only deals with the transition of organisms instead of their origin. The origin of life isn't answered by science but is by the belief in God. Additionally, science and reason hasn't explained the origin of the human conscience or soul....the fact that humans have one and animals don't is irrefutable....not talking about emotion but rather the ability to ask "why?'. Religion is not incompatible with science, just different, asking questions science can’t answer...What is the purpose of our life? Where are we going?

      May 29, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • SAi

      John- You are fighting a losing battle if you think that science can never figure out the origin of life. Eventually, someone is going to figure out how life begins. We even have a very plausible scenario how life can arise based on our current knowledge on biochemistry, physics and cosmology. While many of these ideas are still hypothetical, they are based on hard science, not wishes and can be testable. To me, science actually provide a much basis for spiritual advancement because it is based on what is true to our knowledge, rather than what we hope is true. The fact of our existence, unlikely it may be is not a basis for the need of a supernatural explanation. It is poignant to see the success but also just as easy not to count the failures.

      May 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  13. Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

    Note to self: Christians are so brainwashed...

    May 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  14. Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

    Here we go again, with the god and jesus fairy tales. Please keep your easter bunny jesus out of others lives. He doesn't exist. Nor his sky-papa.

    May 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  15. Satanluv

    silly believers, god is for kids

    May 23, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Jason

      UMM. You seem to be an Athiest... Why are you trolling on the BELIEF BLOG?? If it is so simple, why are you still here?

      May 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • John

      Good point, Jason. But I'm happy they are here because it shows that they are still looking for answers and haven't given in yet.

      May 29, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  16. Satanluv

    "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?" I'll tell you why, becuase god is a bunch of nonsense...it is a load of c r a p...blatantly false...and while you were sitting there amongst all those bored, desperate people, the truth of it struck you..."what am I doing here, what is the purpose of this? ...clearly none of these people are into this" Take a step back and look at it from an objective point of view and suddenly the light goes on...there is no god

    May 23, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  17. Joshua the Agnostic

    Your story is pretty typical. I've seen it hundreds of times. It's pretty typical to get back to a place where you are loved unconditionally with people that share a similar belief.

    The Bible calls us sheep for a reason. We aren't lions. We don't do well alone. BTW: you were right about your pastor.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  18. FraterT

    Pravda says "Only CNN would post this as a News Article..."

    It's posted on the "belief blog". What's your boggle with this?

    May 23, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. Kindness

    Some thoughts to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    May 22, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Joshua the Agnostic

      How about you read the Old Testament first. You're missing most of the story if you don't.

      May 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Satanluv

      bla bla bla..grow up

      May 23, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • Gecul

      Better yet read Chis Hitchens for true enlightment.

      May 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

      The above is all bull.

      May 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • old golfer

      I have read your book many times over the years. Here are a couple of books that I would recommend that you read. Both were written by brilliant people. THE AGE OF REASON, written by Thomas Paine. THE BIBLE ACCORDING TO TWAIN, written by Mark Twain. There is no proof of any kind that your book is correct and certainly no proof that your book is the word of God. Think for yourself once in a while and you will be a lot happier. I believe in God, religion, all religion is another matter. All were created by men for men.

      May 28, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • fintastic

      "Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive."

      What a load of crap!

      May 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  20. S. Rich

    Note to Andrea: Read James G. Fowler "Stages of Faith." What you describe is the transition from Synthetic Conventional (the faith that we grow up in, and based on "fitting in" with the group.") to Individuative Reflective (breaking down the faith of childhood/adolecence and redefining your faith based your own learning, reflection and experience). This transition typically takes place in a crisis mode during the early to late twenties. The good news, Andrea, is that you made the transition. Most people never leave Synthetic Conventional. They are locked in to the faith of their childhood, which explains a lot if you consider the religious right in the United States. They are a collective case of arrested development.

    May 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Andrew

      Thats a very interesting book. People need to break down their religion and what they believe in order to appropriately practice what they believe and not just adhere to a belief they recieved from that religion. There are certain tenants of religion that define something as a religion, but EVERY person has there own individual political and moral belief regarding the details of that religion. Im liberal and was brought up Catholic till I was 11, I slowly started after genetic studies, scientific studies of the nature of humanity and evolution, bible reading and evaluating, and personal intuition I chose to convert to Judaism. It is what feels right, feels secure, and holds most of my religious belief. I did that when I was 19-21 to convert so I suppose I broke down the religion earlier as Ive always been a fan of philosophy.

      June 2, 2012 at 6:37 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.