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. MountainGoat

    Say what you will about atheism, but you leave Pearl Jam out of this!

    May 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  2. Arthur Von Freudenschnooder IV

    I feel bad for atheists. Its obvious that the majority of them arent happy. That view is my experience of the ones i know in real life and its further confirmed after reading the hateful comments that are spewed on these boards.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • GodPot

      Christian "You cannot find true happiness unless you accept Christ as your savior"

      Atheist "I'm fine, thanks."

      Christian "Maybe you don't understand, only Christians can be happy, and we want this country of America to be happy so we must be Christians!"

      Atheist "No thanks, as I said, I'm fine."

      Christian "Well if you can't understand we will just get a majority to pass legislation to force you to obey Christian laws, we'll put references to our God on your money, we'll make your children proclaim "One nation, under God" in your pledge, we will deny the rights of legal relationships to those who don't follow our biblical custom of one man and one woman, we will ban the right of a mother to terminate a pregnancy based on our belief that a fertilized egg has an ever living soul, we will denigrate and persecute those who do not accept our truth, we will get a tax exempt status for our Church so they will not be chipping in when it comes to providing real benefits to all Americans, we will put a litmus test on any and all elected positions to make it almost impossible for a non-believer to be elected to any position of power. And on top of that if you complain we will say you are the ones being hateful."

      Atheist "Fvck you guys..."

      May 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • mandarax

      Godpot, that is an excellent summary of why non-believers are taking a stand. Nail on the head.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • James PDX

      That's a very interesting generalization. But then I suppose it would be easy to be happy if you could convince yourself that you could do no wrong because someone else had died for all of your sins. However, I'm more than happy despite taking responsibility for my own choices.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • PerceivedReality

      What laws are we Christians pushing for that have you so upset? The only thing I can think of is abortion. Abortion kills an individual, what about his/her right to live? Do your Atheistic sensabilities condome killing babies?

      May 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  3. Arthur Von Freudenschnooder IV

    Sheesh atheists sure are an angry bunch. The fact that they claim religion is so violent and the cause of most of our world problems....then within the same breathe they advocate violence against Christians, its mindboggling.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Get Real

      "they advocate violence against Christians"

      Who does this?... other than in jest?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • One one

      Well, It is annoying when believers push their fantasies into the public space (i.e. National day of prayer) and preach that if the rest of us don't buy into their beliefs, their invisible, all powerful god will send us to hell. Even more insulting is that they think that is perfectly justifiable. If believers kept their belief to themselves and treated non-believers with the same respect they would like to receive there would be less push back.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • James PDX

      Arthur, you're very good at generalizing, which is the perfect foundation for bigotry.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  4. Blah blah blah

    Now how exactly does this qualify for a headline feature? Not exactly big breaking news here. A christian girl thinks church is BS, gets drunk a couple times, then that good old brainwashing from her youth kicks in and she goes back to church over the guilt. Wow. Hard hitting journalism there.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  5. James PDX

    "Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam." "I wanted a break from being “good."

    If you consider these to be the "enticements" of the secular life, then you are indeed a very confused girl who seems to lack the will to do good without some almighty being threatening you. I don't need a book or a god to tell me right from wrong, which is why I didn't need to go any further than listening to Pearl Jam. So you go ahead and write about your "break from being good". But don't equate a secular life to being bad. That's narrow minded and bigoted. If you want to be truly good, commit selfless acts of kindness purely for the sake of the act rather than to get into Heaven.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Arthur Von Freudenschnooder IV

      Whats your source of right/wrong? Just your personal view? Can you argue that someone elses right/wrong is incorrect if it directly differs from your view? Is only your view of right/wrng the correct view?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Agreed. Harming herself and listening to bad (no-talent) rock music, then claiming that it "wasn't for her", so she had to return to the church? Please. She took a break from her church, but didn't do any real knowledge-seeking.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Social norms, Arthur. Same as it ever was.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  6. EatYouAlive

    I would totally get her drunk and do her, however. 🙂

    May 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Stephen

      Your icy detachment from your own humanity will one day cause you a very big chill... but you can change this.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Blah blah blah

      Stephen: Your icy detachment from the concept of humor will probably cause you to die prematurely of a stress induced heart attack. Lighten up.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  7. EatYouAlive

    Secular Life does NOT = drugs and rock and roll.

    Again, YOUR CHOICE.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  8. LouAz

    Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements. ?
    You misstated your experience, which is why you are still in church.
    Had you written:
    Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of circular christian reasoning.
    You might just be a regular human being, living a regular life.
    It was BS then, and it is still BS.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  9. eprobono

    My interpretation of Andrea's story is that she is a person who needs the moral constructs of a religion to provide the discipline needed to lead a healthy, productive lifestyle. For people who need this sort of external control mechanism, I'm happy when they finally find one that works for them.

    However, some of us are wired with an inner sense, or have the self-discipline, to channel our behavior to more positive, beneficial endeavors without the moral codes, dogma and doctrine a religion imposes.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • James PDX

      Well stated and true.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Well stated!

      May 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  10. Lilith

    I'll believe in Gods when one of them shows up & actually does something.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Truth7

      "...all the people OF earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming..."

      Because at that moment you will realize He is real and you had been lied to, by man.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Lilith

      Truth, so which "man" lied to you? Pastor, Priest, parent or yourself?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • James PDX

      "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." This was actually a paraphrasing of the words of Jesus Christ. But one could easily replace the words "good men" with the word "God" and it would be equally true.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  11. bdl1978

    Hey believers, take a science class. Our planet is billions of years old. case closed.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Truth7

      Hey non-believer, try reading Genesis. God tells you the world existed when He brought down the Light. It existed, but in total "darkness".

      WHO did the son of Adam and Eve marry? There were others. Try reading His Word.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @Truth7 –

      Snappy response.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Lilith

      wow truth .. surely you jest. The things you posted simply point out the blatant contradictions in the bible, I suggest if you choose to read the bible you stop interpreting and start accepting it's fallacy.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • James PDX

      Truth, who did Noah's family marry and breed with?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Emily

      Mind your own damn business and stop giving Atheists a bad name, haters. It's not your job to convert religious people and it's beyond obnoxious reading the vitriol so-called Atheists spew on this board. What you don't realize you're doing is that you're actually making the general population think that all Atheists are bigoted, ignorant, and egotistical. People should be allowed to practice any faith they want without being verbally abused by egotistical and hateful people. And please, spare me the "First Amendment:" it doesn't protect your "fighting words." Look it up.
      Intelligent debate is one thing, but hate is another entirely.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • phillyboy

      When Galileo revealed his findings on the Solar system agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth was not the center of the Universe the Church put him under house arrest until the day he died nine years later. The church also denounced the existence of dinosaurs when these findings confirmed the idea of a very old Earth and not a 4,000 year old Earth taught by the curch at the time. I believe in Superior intelligence but an all powerful all knowing God is a bit of a stretch.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  12. EatYouAlive

    Sorry, "good living", is not reliant on religion. Religion is a crutch, not unlike 12 steps, that one uses for inner strength. Religion does not make you "good", lack of religion does not make you "bad".

    YOU make YOURSELF what you are.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Truth7

      Actually, God completely tells us that argument is not "good" enough. God seeks those who seek Him. Those who espouse "humanity" and the "self" are those who are in trouble. Man's number in the Bible is "6".

      May 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • James PDX

      Truth, when exactly did God write the new Testament? It was men who were still making changes to it hundreds of years after Christ died. So God doesn't tell us anything. Men with power and who wanted more power tell us what they want us to hear.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  13. BigRed

    Here's another verse and a real gem that says three things; Playing with yourself, and pulling out is a sin. And it says another. Even if you're doing your brother's wife you can't pull out. Plus if you do any of the three you will be killed. "But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brothers wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also." Genesis 38:9 – 10

    May 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  14. bdl1978

    lol pearl jam. Why did you have to use that band in your ignorant rant? You make it sound like Pearl Jam, which has no satanic themes whatsoever, was the cause of your losing your faith. I think your story should be you were right wing nut case and then you were left wing, and then back to right wing nut case again. I love how every culture of people refer to their god as "god" as if there is only one that truly exist. The possibility of one god existing is just as implausible as the possibility of any other god existing. Your beliefs depend on your location and therefore it's arbitrary. Your refusal to think outside the box is what makes you a religious person in the first place. bigoted, delusional sheep.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Truth7

      There is only one God.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • James PDX

      Truth, tell that to the religions which predate Christianity.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • TomPaine

      1. Supposedly everything that happens is according to God's plan. So if you pray for something to happen and it happens, either it was going to happen anyway according to God's plan, or your prayer somehow altered God's plan, which means it wasn't much of a plan to begin with if anyone's prayer can alter it. Do you see how prayer wouldn't make sense to some people?

      May 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Hitchens

      Spoken like someone who does not have a clue as to what prayer is about.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • MACK

      Miss Dilley:

      After having read some of these 'pat' answers to the issues you have raised in an excellent article, I can well understand why we (you and I) have been so put off by these so called 'know it all' Christians who have the absolute answer to everything about something which we are totally unable to wrap our minds around. ANY God for whom I can understand the understandable isn't a God at all.

      I wonder at their 'selectivity' in the use of Leviticus or that they seem to believe that they can fully know and comprehend a diety who is capable of creating a universe that I can't even begin to comprehend. If they can comprehend our universe, then please 'bring them on' for many a discussion.

      No one of us will or could ever comprehend the unknowable. But, we can each individually try to grasp and worship and love in our own way something of our Higher Being. And, all of the rest of that which we will never understand 'this side of the veil' is something that will be left on the altar of our not knowing until we are on the 'other side of that veil'.

      The day I knew that I could still love and still be loved by that which I was never going to understand or comprehend was the day of a totally new and wonderful life for me.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • TomPaine

      Hitchens, enlighten me, please. Do you think prayer should supernaturally alter the course of human thoughts and events?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • James PDX

      What does it change? I've been praying for world peace and a pony for 4 decades and I still look foolish and sad with my spurs on.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    "Why does God allow suffering?", Mrs. Dilley asked.

    It is just reality that we are no human robots (this is, what our rulers want us to be), but human beings with a free will. This is a historical fact, which nobody can doubt.

    A second historical fact is that there is a lot of suffering on earth and one could ask the above question.

    Although God is almighty, he faces a dilemma. At the one hand he wants to keep our free will at any rate, on the other hand he wants to finish all suffering.

    Much suffering is caused by human beings making wrong decisions abusing their free will.

    God could always descent from heaven and hinder a single person, which is about to do something evil. But in this case we had no more free will. Hence, God allows evil human beings and evil powers to rage for a small time, so that their malice manifests and finally they will get a bad sentence at Judgement Day according to their evil deeds, which they really committed.

    One could ask: "Isn't it awful that God guarantees the free will of single persons at cost of peace and security of all human beings?"

    Yes, it is somewhat striking, how God works.

    Yet, everybody can come under his shelter. Everybody, who enters the Kingdom of God by the rebirth (birth by Water and Spirit or sacramental baptism) becomes able to endure suffering by the power of the Holy Spirit. Once the prophet Daniel was cast into the lion cage, but the lions did not harm him. Once Daniel was cast into the fire, but the fire did not harm him. This does not mean that a Christian cannot be really hurted or killed, but the Christian has got an existence or life, which is beyond the biological life of his body. A Christian has got Eternal Life at the rebirth. One day every Christian will get a new heavenly body and up to this time he will rest in peace (sleep), even if his natural body gets destroyed here on earth.

    Conclusion: It is only important in which condition suffering hits us. If we are in the Spirit, we will be able to endure it. If we are not in the Spirit, it can lead us to desperation.

    How to get under God's shelter?


    Gospel of Jesus: God the Father delivered God the Son for our sins and raised him from the dead for our justification.

    This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Believe this gospel and get sacramentally baptised and you become righteous. At baptism you die and resurrect together with Jesus. You die for the sin and you enter Christ or receive the Spirit. By the power of the Spirit you become able to overcome the lust of your flesh (body) and to do works of love and righteousness. Day by day you invite Christ to control your body, which is actually dead in itself. Consequently your body, which is sinful in itself, has to do works of righteousness, because Christ or the Spirit is stronger and greater than your body. If you keep the faith by daily following Christ, God will give you shelter, peace and happiness. If people harm you, don't beat back, but commend it to the Lord. Just keep on loving even your enemies in the power of the Spirit. God is a God, who wants to give you great joy. He gives you infinite joy, if you keep the love after the rebirth. If you keep on loving God and your neighbour, God supports you with everything, what you need.

    First after the rebirth we become capable to really love, but after rebirth we have to love God and our neighbour. Someone who still hates after baptism (rebirth) casts away his faith and will get lost, if he doen't repent until death or Judgement Day.


    May 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      The nutzo german is back!

      May 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • sam stone

      or.....there is no god, and suffering happens. to ask "why?" is a fool's errand. occam's razor

      May 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Voice of Reason

      Why do you hang out about a belief blog, if you are not interested in faith?

      Is that actually reasonable?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @Rainer Braendlein says:

      @Voice of Reason
      "Why do you hang out about a belief blog, if you are not interested in faith?
      "Is that actually reasonable?"

      Why don't you try and answer that one for me?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • phillyboy

      You should go an volunteer some time in a Children's hospital, maybe the cancer wing.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Consider This

    Whether you believe God or not....you can do away with someone else's testimony! God can reveal himself to whom ever he pleases! Just because you don't believe doesn't make Him or his word of no effect! Get over yourself, you don't nor can not sustain your life (the breath that you breathe in and out all day long)! Any body can make a statement based on their experience! I know God is real and don't have to prove it to no body....God can and is proving Himself everyday! Whether you believe it or not is your business! I choose to believe that He is real, alive, and is revealed unto those who believe! He that comes to God (Christ) must first believe, and that He is a rewarded to Them that seek Him!

    May 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      Prove it. JUST PROVE IT.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • holy shi…

      jesus christ, calm the F down. u sound like a religious lunatic. good for u that u believe. now relax.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  18. James

    So essentially, we have a girl who was brainwashed into religion at an early age, saw some problems with it and threw a temper tantrum to rebel against her parents. I don't think she was ever an atheist, she was just someone angry against religion. And she was NOT a skeptic, there was no logical reasoning to why she didn't believe in god. "there is suffering in the world so i'm going to be mad at god and my parents' is not a compelling argument against god. If she actually thought more rationally about religion, she would be a non-believer. However, it is very very hard to dispel ourselves of strong emotions.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Truth7

      I'd say that God let her experience different things so she could see the destructive forces that exist in this world. God seeks those who seek Him.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. Doubters

    Common on people.. get the point here.
    The point is human beings have a hole in our heart that longs to be filled. Some refuse to admit it's there (and you know who you are and you're only kidding yourself). But like this girl many do acknowledge, and realize that after all is said and done, the emptiness cannot be filled with anything of this world. How to fill it? Where do you suppose that desire and longing comes from?
    Why are we (humans over any other animals) designed that way?

    May 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      It has to be god, right?

      May 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Doubters

      Unless you have a better explanation...?

      May 7, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  20. Kevin

    Thanks Andrea. I've been a believer since childhood. I'm 49 years old now and I have learned not to trust preachers or churches. But Jesus is more fascinating to me than ever. I've heard all my life that Christianity is about a personal relationship with Christ, but no one could describe the relationship. I was an adult before I got answers.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Truth7


      As Jesus states "they are to be taught by God".

      Everyone seems to ignore that statement and look to men to teach them.

      May 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      So, how is jesus these days?

      May 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • no god

      He be dead. When was he coming back? Oh yeah, never cause he never existed. Just like the man made god. Oh poor believers how dumb can you be?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
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