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. One one

    I find secular law to be far more fair and compassionate than religious dogma. If you are a Democrate with a Republican administration in power, you still get equal rights under the law. But according to religious dogma, if you are a non-believer, with god in charge you're screwed.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Atomico

      @One one: Secular laws have been modified many times; human laws are meant to be broken. Christian laws, if it exists, have a basis in love; love only breaks when you run out of it yourself.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • One one

      It appears to me that Christian law has its basis in "Believe or burn" what are the first 3 commandments ?

      Where is the love in this?

      2 Thessalonians, 8-9:"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power."

      John 3:36 “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

      May 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      The "laws" as in the "commandments" have ever been broken as many generations have since passed by! In Today's Timely Fieds of Lattered Dayness are not seperate of the Old Ones long since gone! We in allness did once and now do that which was ever talked about in scriptures essenced Word! We in our World get daily remembrances regarding the ill wills of commonalities for bemusements sakes! Even the beguiled snakes and bittered scorpions shall bear their fruit's kinds!

      May 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @God's Oldest Dreamer –

      Twas brilig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
      All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Atomico

      @ One one: I agree that God's love sounds like a curse - and rightfully so. God's love or "commandments" have been broken by God's chosen people, Jews. It's people who broke the law.

      The broken covenant becomes an opportunity to extend love for Christians who believe that God sends Christ to adopt believers into heavenly household. The "Christian law" becomes a belief in God's extended love through Christ. Again, it's people - not God - who break the law.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  2. Rainer Braendlein

    If we persistently knock at heavens door, God will give us the Spirit. Look, what Jesus once told his disciples:

    Luke 11, 5-13:

    And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? 7 And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. 8 I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. 9 And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. 10 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 11 If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? 12 Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?

    It is only that we don't need to get "born again", but to get born by Water and Spirit. The locus in space and time, where we receive the Spirit, is the sacramental baptism, which is not allowed to be repeated.

    I am a Protestant (sacramental baptism is not a Catholic doctrine, but a general Christian doctrine).

    The Spirit "moves" us in a completely different life, which is beyond a natural life. If we are in the Spirit, we can stand suffering.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Luke 11:13 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?

      I can see one's eye upon the scripture! Even then the evil doers who do good works are found favored by their heavenly father! Our ways and thoughts might be felt differently but do we not "ascern" a togetherness of sorts commonwealth in idealistic reverences?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  3. God's Oldest Dreamer

    God's Kingdom is "inside" one body of a God-formed Building called of a man where upon its' insides do live the godly of God for they shall ever reside within and live upon and live even for said body-called building!

    May 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  4. momoya

    Why do christians lie so often here?? And not only that, but the most stupid ones claim the atheists are stupid; the most illogical ones claim the atheists use no logic; the most mean ones claim that the atheists are always mean.. Projection, anyone?

    May 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Atomico

      @momoya: I project exaggeration and gross generalization.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • mandarax

      I am consistently forced to ask (especially with regard to evolution, gay marriage, etc.), if Christians have the monopoly on the one Truth, why do they so often have to lie to support it? The truth requires no lying or deceit. If you have to lie, surely you must not be representing the Truth.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Why do christians lie so often here?

      Because lies are their truth.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Truth7

      A true person who follows God and Jesus does NOT lie.

      "Projection"? Who is the one calling believers liars and stupid? The atheists.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Atomico

      @Voice of Reason: Please provide an example that explains your allegations.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • momoya


      The christian who goes by the name "kindness" has lied on this thread.. You don't even have to go to another page.. Yes, christians lie all the time on these boards.. You can look it up yourself if you wish.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Oh, and to "kindness"? Get laid.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  6. no god

    Lol. What a bunch of losers! You actually believe in a god!? Hilarious! Ok, i worship the the sun god Ra. He is way more powerful than the Christian god. That's a fact. Lol.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • JEM

      Everyone worships something. Most people worship their iPhones, tv, themselves, money...

      May 6, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  7. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Going out to ride my bike in the park. I'll enjoy the natural world while I laugh about the "human calculator", Matt, who dreams he's a physicist but can't figure out how apostrophes work.

    Have a nice day, all.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Nestor Makhno

    As an atheist, I truly admire religious people who question their faith. This woman is okay. At least she is thinking, and this does not even remotely sound like she has gotten to the end of her search.

    Those questions and concerns did not get answered for her, and they are not going away. She is only on the second chapter of her book, and she is still far more confused than she thinks. Whether she finds faith or abandons it, she needs to rid herself of the heavy indoctrination she was subjected to, and that is a slow and difficult process.

    Whatever she chooses, at least she thought about it, recognized that a lot of it was bullsh!t. She's a work in progress, and good for her for actually thinking deeply on it, and not just brainlessly vomiting biblical verses.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Truth7

      ...brinlessly vomiting Biblical verses..."

      There is always such nastiness and hatred in the hearts of the people on here who call themselves atheists.

      We know why...you've rejected God . It's telling though, they ONLY go after the followers of Jesus.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Get Real

      "they [atheists] ONLY go after the followers of Jesus."

      Wrong. This happens to be an article about a Christian, therefore Christianity will be at the forefront of the discussion.

      Other articles on Islamic beliefs, or Hinduism (rare), or any other form of theism will garner equal comments of disbelief... and the hidebound adherents will be taken to task just as fastidiously.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  9. Voice of Reason

    I have a sad and pathetic life bc im literally on these comments board every single day. This says much more about how big of a loser i am then anything i could possibly say.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • kindness

      thanks momya for proving my point...... DONE

      May 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Voice of Reason


      May 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  10. kindness

    Done with this, no answers from either side, just meaness, which I suffer from everyday in real life. Just another attempt to try to understand and all met with meaness. Nilhism is alive and well.........

    May 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      What can I do to help?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • momoya

      You're such a liar; several atheists have replied very respectfully and provided several reasonable points for your consideration.. You're disrespecting those people when you post like you just did. 🙁

      May 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • mandarax

      Yeah, kindness, I must admit your comment really disappoints me. I responded thoughtfully to your question – you even thanked me for my respectful and helpful response. Others responded thoughtfully, too. Now you are showing your appreciation by lying about it in order to try to maintain your stereotype and make your point. It's dishonest and insulting.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • momoya


      You're the one being disrespectful and lying.. Several atheists here have been very nice to you and have taken chunks of time to explain their position to you very carefully and properly.. For you to say that they haven't done this is EXTREMELY wrong of you.. Does jesus approve of your lying behavior here?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • No Truth, Just Claims


      I hope I am wrong, but you seem to want the negative responses. I and many others have repsonded in a positive way as did many others.

      Any large group of people will have jerks amongst them. If a belief in god actually gave people a moral foundation there should be fewer theist jerks, but that is not the case.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  11. longshot

    this author illustrates the problem of not having any internal values, getting your morality from a book, from a paternalistic good, she thinks "secular" lifestyle is about drinking and acting selfishly, with no morality...what a pity, but all too typical of the falsehoods they teach in the church

    May 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Truth7

      Actually, God teaches that. Living a "good life" is NOT all that's needed. Recognizing your Creator is also needed.

      Do pastors in churches teach falsehoods? Absolutely. That's why one should listen to Jesus "they are to be taught by GOD". Notice, He didn't say "man".

      May 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  12. Weak Sauce

    Atheism is the biggest and easiest copout of alltime. The fact that they think theyre more intelligent and open minded is hilarious.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      How so?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Truth7

      Man's number in the Bible is "6".

      Intelligence means one would go to the source, God, to find out if He is real. They don't. All one has to do is ask God with an honest heart to get the answer.

      They won't, so that reveals alot.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Get Real

      "All one has to do is ask God with an honest heart to get the answer."

      Listen, I did just that for about 50 years. No answer. How many times have you, with an honest heart, asked The Leprechaun King for an answer? He is just as likely to exist.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Justin McNally

      You take the average atheist, and the average Christian and I am willing to bet the atheist is far more intelligent.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Jay

      Yes, let's get the answer from God, history's leading cause of death.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      "All one has to do is ask God with an honest heart to get the answer."


      I did most of my life. I never got an answer from god, don't even think about claiming I did not have a honest heart.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  13. mandarax

    I don't think it is fair or honest that she conflates "se.x, drugs, and rock and roll" with not believing in god. Those behaviors are personal decisions you must take responsibility for regardless of your beliefs or lack of. It is a soft-peddled accusation that members of another group are morally inferior to you. Same old judgments written in gentler words.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • AGuest9

      True. She never really "left" her church.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  14. Bootyfunk

    despite knowing the very idea of a god is ridiculous, i'm going back to the cult!

    May 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Atomico

      You need not understand he Creator as an idea. Everyone has the desire to live forever; people pass on their possessions to other living people, because the dead want to be remembered.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • GodPot

      "my doubt is my desire"

      This is not something a reasonable person would believe.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Atomico

      @GodPot: It sounds like "curiosity" to me. Nothing unusual for a reasonable person.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • GodPot

      There is a big difference between being curious about how something works and doubting your understanding of how something works. The curious person is using an open mind to search for the inner workings of the universe, whereas the doubtful person comes in with a belief of how thinks work but is not sure if they are correct, so they only examine those areas of their understanding that still do not make sense.

      It would be like putting a mechanic under a complex vehicle and asking him to repair it. If you gave him no instruction manual then he would simply have to explore every component to come up with his solutions, but if you gave him a manual he would simply start following instructions until the instructions came into conflict with the reality, then he would start doubting if this manual was the manual to this vehicle or to something else entirely, and if it was not this vehicle, then it's likely that any other works he has already performed in accordance with the bogus manual will not be correct.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Atomico

      @GodPot: Your "manual" examples assumes that the reader is perfect but not the writer. "Manuals" may contain fundamental instructions that do not change with time. If so, the reader needs to adapt to current reality and overcome past differences. Otherwise, the reader sounds like a complainer of his own imperfect understanding.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  15. 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 doesn't repent until death or Judgement Day.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  16. aj

    There's no shame in not believing and following the sheep. Some people find interdependent thought and scientific fact hard to live with, it's not for everyone I guess.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  17. Atomico

    The shepherd always looks out for the lost sheep.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Get Real

      The shepherd has two goals for his sheep - profit and dinner.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Atomico

      I feel sorry for your shepherd.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  18. CJ

    Again, the pathetic mischaracterization of those of us who live very well without god dogma 'vapid'. If you think we just drink and smoke cigarettes and listen to rock and roll (which, by the way, most every 'religious' person does just as well) and call that the good life you are absurd. What we turn to instead of bronze age dogma is to each other, without any pretense of doing kindness to 'earn points' because we are being watched. We spend our time with science, music, literature, and appreciated them all the more knowing that it was just people who were able to do such things. And we do not have to listen to predominantly male religious 'leaders' who protect their organization at the expense of others and who are blatantly misogynistic. Oh yeah. And we read and study the bible and come to understand through its incoherence and failed prophecies that it is a very human book, like the iliad and the odyssey. Just less well written.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Truth7

      "...and appreciated all the more knowing that it was JUST PEOPLE who were able to do such things".

      See, you have taken your Creator out of everything. WHO do you think gives people talents? God.

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

      I see. So does god also give the 'gift' of autism, asperger's, trisomy 21, tay sachs, and hundreds of other inherited disabilities too?

      May 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  20. Elmo

    All to often individuals see thier relationship with the one coming through a group, a book or even a specific location. The path to the one is walked alone. None will join you, it is not an easy path. Yet it is as simple as drawing breath. The truth will seperate you from the majority , you will be alone. Will you then percieve the gifts from the one to be a burden or a joy? Will you be a animal or human being. An animal will deny the truth to be accepted by the whole. A human being survives on the nutrition of the truth yet the body starves unless they truely accept understanding. Then the one will feed them and they will become the one.

    Remember, Hell is seperation from the One, the whole. Why you choose to remain seperate from that which you are part of is amazing almost impressive. The Thirsty man chops off his hands to not be tempted by the glass of water.

    May 6, 2012 at 1:08 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.