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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. Gawd

    Keep giving your money to the child molesters.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Jessica

      There are 2.2 billion Christians worldwide and hundreds of thousands of priests. Just because few sick priest molested young boys does NOT mean all hundreds of thousands of priests worldwide are the same. BTW there are Rabbi's that have done the same molesting young Jewish boys. This happens in every faith and nonreligion!

      May 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      @Jessica: The problem comes down to this, any other religious organization will be happy to turn the perpetrators of such crimes over to face the proper consequences, the Catholic church protects and in turn enables these men. The Pope (the head of that group) has stated that what these men are doing is okay. Anyone supporting that church and anyone still taking their children to that church deserve their parental rights taken away for knowingly putting a child in harms way.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • GotMiracle

      Priests only earn a small salary( about equal to a social worker) & some clergy are also vowed to own nothing. There are actually fewer pedophiles in the priesthood than in the public school system & they earn twice as much. Sorry, I guess your taxes are supporting pedophiles too.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  2. So good I had to cut and paste it!

    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 10:02 am |
    • YUP

      Perfectly said

      May 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  3. Rick

    "the enticements of secular life."?!?! I am an Atheist and I don't smoke or go to bars, I don't do drugs and I help as many people as I can along the way. Did I miss the secular life's benefits meeting?

    May 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • jimtanker

      I'm an atheist and do go go bars and drink. I'll make up your share.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Rick

      jimtanker, Thanks! That's what makes the world go round!

      May 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  4. One one

    I guess she just couldn't kick the habit.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • jimtanker

      OH no you dint!! SNAP!

      May 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  5. Dana

    You took your head out of the sand. Now you are putting it back in.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • JT

      Lol...you summed it up better than anyone so far, including myself.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  6. jimtanker

    #9. Realize how stuipd that is and go back to enjoying your life.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  7. krussell

    Andrea – Your questions are very immature. These are the things that confuse 8 year olds. try to take a more mature look at the church, and actually apply some reasoning to what they are saying.
    It is bulls**t. Why does god send so many souls to an eternity of suffering is the next question you should ask. Especially when those souls never had a chance at salvation. Would an all knowing god do such a thing millions of times?

    We'll get to the harder questions later-

    May 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  8. Dave

    Humanism has one great flaw – it cannot assign meaning to anything. Ultimately humanism leads to tyrrany, or to the desire to ignore larger issues in exchange for a peaceful or pleasurable life.

    The problem with this philosophy is faith is of a different nature than reason. Ergo, there is a place for faith.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • BRod

      Humans assign meaning to everything – always have. No other species does this.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • jimtanker

      Another religious nut who has no idea what they are talking about.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • NoTheism

      "Humanism has one great flaw – it cannot assign meaning to anything. Ultimately humanism leads to tyrrany, or to the desire to ignore larger issues in exchange for a peaceful or pleasurable life."

      As a humanist, I value tons of things, and I do it for good reasons. You do it because your faith commands you to. Let us talk about meaning, please...

      May 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      What is the meaning of facial hair on women? Sounds like a huge mistake to me!

      May 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Dave, I hate to see you so confused. So you think it's only non-believers who are tyrannical? Are believers wonderful, good, and caring? Who conducted the Spanish Inquisition? Who supported the Crusades?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • GotMiracle

      Humanism also cannot heal permanently fused ribs. God can.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @GotMiracle – "Humanism also cannot heal permanently fused ribs. God can."

      What, precisely, does that man?

      May 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Dan

    It must be make believe day again.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  10. nookster

    She's a perfect example of being raised in a cult from birth. She still wants to believe in the unbelieveable. She still wants to live in her imagination. Like a small child does with fairy tales. Because her parents raised her in a cult she will live a life filled with fear, guilt and ignorance. Parents who raise their children in this make believe world are in essence child abusers. They just perpetuate the same lies they were force fed from birth.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  11. Pheadrus

    So... What's the point? It's a 'dog bites man' story...

    As an atheist, I hear this line over and over from the religious. "I was an atheist, but I found God"... stated proudly as if this personal 'epiphany' lends some sort of credence to the god myth. Rebellion and atheism are not the same thing, as people like Dilly would have you believe.

    Also... Dilly speaks of 'the enticements of a secular life'... 'drugs, cigarettes and Pearl Jam' as if life outside the church is nothing more than evil incarnate. This is another canard that rings the BS alarm bell... if Dilly had 'really' been involved in the secular movement she would have found that atheist morals are based on humanity and reason... not fear of eternal fire and brimstone for violating the 'sin du jour' as biblically interpreted by some charismatic Christian Apologist, money-grabbing control freak.

    I doubt seriously Dilly ever left her religion. I doubt seriously that she has even the slightest clue of what secular life and atheism is all about. What she has is an unstudied, anecdotal opinion of secularism... which is what religious folks write about over and over here on CNN. If it wasn't pathetic journalism it would almost be funny....

    May 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  12. AGuest9

    Secularization in a Post-Religious World is happening – FINALLY!

    May 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  13. The Great Kreskin

    So let's get this straight; the author started to smarten up, caved in to some serious space-daddy issues, lived for "rebellion" instead of living for what would actually make her happy, got dumped by a bunch of guys, and decided to save her ego by slinking back to church to decry the vapid evils of one mode of secular life... Okay.

    Please god, if you're real, please knock some sense into your followers.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • AGuest9

      One of my friends' older sisters was stood up at the altar, so she joined a convent. I was caught somewhere between the thoughts "what a waste!" and "what is this, 'The Sound of Music'?" Very truly sad.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  14. Religion is for idiots!

    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 9:55 am |
    • JP

      Just as an FYI:
      Genisis is smooth and cotton like....but Mathew, Mark Luke and John are a little rough and the book of revelation is like wiping with Sand Paper!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • alex

      It seems absurd but if you give anyone a piece of paper telling them how to live their life, they would probably wipe their azz with it too.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  15. Mike d.

    I commend you Andrea, don't let all of these doubters and haters discourage you; God has a good plan for them, if they choose to see it. I have seen God's miracles and God's blessings in my life; I have also suffered greatly and in that suffering God has developed and strengthened my faith because I turned to him and he delivered me. Remember that God sometimes has to allow suffering for a greater purpose which we will not always understand from our position.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Greg

      Agreed!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Right. God lets children die horrible deaths for what purpose? They are guilty of what crimes?

      May 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • JT

      "Remember that God sometimes has to allow suffering for a greater purpose which we will not always understand from our position."

      You're smoking crack and delusional.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Always funny that you need to "choose to see it". The very definition of "self fullfilling prophecy".

      May 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • NoTheism

      Mike, your life, based on your religion, is already determined. Nothing you do can help you evade that fact. Your god "blessed" or condemned humanity from the beginning (again, in your view). Additionally, because of this, you have no free will, as free will is incompatible with "his" omniscience.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Mike d.

      We all leave this earth the same way, ther is no escaping it. Just because babies die does not mean they have committed a crime against God. It is hard for you to understand because you do not believe in heaven. It is easy for me to understand because I know that when babies die they go directly to heaven.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      ....if they CHOOSE to see it?!

      HA HA! I CHOOSE to "see" that the moon is made of Swiss cheese and therefore it is. HA HA HA HA!!!!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Keith

      That is BS, God does not cause suffering nor can it be stopped. Allowing suffering would indicate that God had control, that is idiotic Fundamentalism not Christianity.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • One one

      God lets bad people kill at will.
      The devoted say it’s because of “free will”.
      Then why do they pray, and pray, and pray?
      For god to help them, day after day?
      They pray to god to improve their fate
      Their own free will they ask god to negate
      “Free will” for us all…, from the god of peace!
      Who sends us to hell for a wrong belief.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Dan

      Yeah. Keep up that false hope and ignorance.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      So Keith, you believe your "god" was in control enough to create the universe but is now not in control enough to even so much as prevent innocent children from being born with debilitating congenital defects, being born into $h|+hole countries where there is not enough food to keep them alive, etc.? HA HA!

      May 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • alex

      Studies show that religion IS actually anxiety medication for the brain.. So even though its complete fairy tail, sometimes we need to remember that its ingrained into us via natural selection, so i cut some religious people slack.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • One one

      @religionis4dolts. No, but every now and then god helps someone win the lottery.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Mike d.

      What do you have to lose when one Christian encourages another? Why are you wasting your time attacking someone for their beliefs? Is it so bad to live a life (or to want a life) without smoking, drinking, and promiscuity? Is it so bad to dedicate your life to helping not hurting, and to loving and forgiving instead of hating and attacking?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So one must be a Christian to abstain from promiscuity, alcohol, and cigarettes? To do good and be kind to others? To help those less fortunate?

      Really? Prove it.

      Then show proof that all Christians abstain from alcohol, promiscuity, and tobacco, and help others who are less fortunate and treat all with kindness.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Mike d: I've known plenty of altruistic people who have been drinkers and smokers (of all kinds of things). One's vices do not necessarily determine the quality of one's soul, chief.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • One one

      You can believe anything you want. The problem arises when believers push their fantasies into everyone else's faces. Why do you think last Thursday was declared a "national day of prayer" ? Do you need a special day to pray? Or is it really about pushing religion into the public space whether we want it or not?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Mike d.

      Live a rational life (or a life based on another religion), by all means do so... It is your free will. I just hope that when you do see Jesus, you are able to say you were wrong and ask for forgiveness. If you are right and there is nothing after this life, I will... (well I guess it would be physically impossible for me to reciprocate the idea here, since I would not exist.)

      May 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Chewbacca

      Mike d,

      Please take your delusional beliefs and imaginary deity and shove them up your a**

      Thanks in advance

      May 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Keith

      Religion4Dolts – I dont' understand your question in relation to my comment.

      I dont' believe in Religion

      May 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • GotMiracle

      @Peteyroo, The man who invented the heart apnea unit that saves numerous infants a year was invented by a man whose infant died of SIDS.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  16. MadZagyg

    This reads like an advertisement for the positive aspects of being brainwashed, written by the brainwashed.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • lilyq

      Funny, you chose to read it though. lol Oh the irony.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • MadZagyg

      Yeah. I chose to read it.

      Also, you don't understand what the word "irony" means.

      May 7, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  17. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Today's Religious are like the last of our ancestors coming out of the trees, the ones afraid to let go of that last branch.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  18. Peteyroo

    Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, unicorns & Jesus/God: myths for children and the feeble-minded.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      We give our children those stories to enhance the wonderment of childhood, but when they mature and logically question them we tell them the truth. But when it comes to the religion story they are threatened into continued belief against their own common sense. This is nothing less than psycholigical child abuse.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Keith

      If Horses hs Gods – Why would you lie to your children? I really don't understand why lies enhance childrens lives

      May 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  19. Shaun187

    So you needed an imaginary friend to make you think its bad to smoke and do drugs and sleep around? Life is only vapid for those who think there is something better after it so they take this one for granted.... Maybe you should have tried to help people instead of getting high and partying and blaming it on secular life. Are you happier now that you are afraid of "hell"?

    May 6, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Keith

      It doesnt' seem to me that she returned to her former beliefs, she returned to "Church"

      And I had a question. Is sleeping around bad?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  20. NoTheism

    "the lure of so-called secular life" ... Andrea, please, you probably understand that belief is not a choice. I use reason to decide whether my beliefs are justifiable. I do that because I cannot do otherwise; I cannot bring myself to ignore reality and abandon reason for faith. It seems that you were on the right track... but, of course, you do not explain what happened that caused you to go back to faith/religion/church.

    Anyway, the article is very shallow.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • lilyq

      seems your reply isn't about anything but you

      May 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • NoTheism

      lilyq... and it seems that you're good at making straw man arguments.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Rick

      lilyq, who should he reply for?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:05 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.