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. James

    While rational people agree that god does not exist and the history of Jesus is a fictional account written many years after his life, many people need religion to control themselves. I would not want many of the uneducated people in the US to all of a sudden lose faith – who knows what they would do. I am sure it would be worse than trying to outlaw contraception.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • JT

      As an atheist, I've had Christians ask me what keeps me from murdering and raping and doing other horrible crimes. I just look at them in wonder and say, "I beg you, whatever you do, please don't ever lose your faith."

      May 6, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  2. prayer changes things

    Great while your on your knees praying let me get some work done.
    What a wast of time!

    May 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  3. Greg

    JP – Yes, I am very smart. The divine creator also created you. By the way if you can read this then you are smart too. You really shouldn't be so negative and disrespectful but it's not you that's doing that. I pray you will find truth in His time. All the best to you, He will provide if you ask of him from your heart. Peace.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • JP

      Nope, I was created by monkeys, just like you.
      No church can talk about hate. They are the most hateful places on earth.
      Take all religions since they are all fake and flush them down the toilet.Thats where they all belong...in the crapper!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • sybaris

      Greg said, "He will provide if you ask of him from your heart"

      So I guess 6 million Jews didn't get it right?

      Amputees never get it right?

      Grow up, put down the religion.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Greg

      Those who have faith understands, whether they be Jew or amputee in this case. Have faith brother. 🙂

      May 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. scot pederson

    C.S. Lewis made a brilliant observation on Pain "It is God's megaphone to a deaf world". Suffering comes in many ways, but without any suffering man falls into the trap of thinking he needs no God. So, suffering, pain, disappointment,etc should be viewed as a blessing because it is what God uses to draw us closer to him if we choose to listen and humbly ask for forgiveness for our sins he gladly welcomes us in and wants a relationship.

    Her questions and doubts are quite common for all of us. What Jesus asks of us is to take that 1 step of faith forward and he will give us the light to take the next step and so on. That was enough for the Disciples, the Apostles and 1st century christians and it is enough still today.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Really? Did your "god" inform you on why he/she/it makes millions of little kids all over the world suffer the slow painful death of starvation? Your "god" is so awesome! I'm sure he/she/it feels "all-powerful" making these little sinners suffer what they deserve.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Keith

      I need no Gods, god needs me

      May 6, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • sybaris

      C.S. Lewis was the Joel Osteen of his day, just another charlatan.

      "without any suffering man falls into the trap of thinking he needs no God."

      No, through education man sees the flaws in gods and religion and realizes it's all BS.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    I have nothing to say, I am too dumb to have my own thoughts.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Keith

      That has never stopped you before

      May 6, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • JT

      Well, we're finally glad you're realizing what a dumb shit you are.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Please stop me

    May 6, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    I am a moron, I am fool!
    I am weak, I am pathetic!
    I wish someone would shoot me!

    May 6, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Long Island Tom

      So you think that belittling others is the way to win them over?

      Is this spam tactic of yours truly serving your God as he directed you all...?

      is this you being a Xtian? Because if it is, you are failing...epic failure...

      May 6, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  8. idontknowandneitherdoyou

    "touch the untouchable"?
    Sounds a lot like what they've been doing to children in churches.
    Run away.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  9. TownC

    God lives and helps people in so many ways He has helped this woman live a better life. What a wonderful thing!

    May 6, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Keith

      If you take a little time to read the story, "God" had nothing to do with her return to Church.

      She made all the choices, leaving, coming back, and including Religion in her life again.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Long Island Tom

      What proof to do you have she's truly living a Better life...??? Words on the screen?

      Do you know whats truly in her heart and mind? maybe she's in a constant state of doing charity because of all the sins she's commits in her private life? I know many like that, many xtians are addicted to the "lifestyle" because they cant face their own demons so they distract themselves with endless hours of charity work...while the rest of the life falls into disrepair and completely erodes...

      May 6, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things


      May 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Atheism saved my life

      Person known as Just Sayin' and HeavenSent is spamming us again!!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  11. Long Island Tom

    What about those of us who were not seduced by secular interests...? Who were not as deeply immersed in Xtianity as the author, but nonetheless well raised and well educated by Good Xtian Parents and Family?

    Those of us who sat there in the pews, and in the front to back Bible study classes, the 4+ years of theology and defense of same classes and simply could not stop thinking, "If they go to such great lengths to make up their own set of Universal Laws, all without proof, they create a whole line of defense (Apologetics) that they admit uses terms and ideas they manipulate to mean what is not commonly understood, that they refuse to answer my "Smart-mouth" questions, and use this Religion and Faith as a battering ram and/or wedge-axe against others...??? With all this, how am I to have belief and faith when I see all this blatant manipulation and obfuscation...?

    What about those of us who then went on a Knowledge Quest to fill in all the blanks Their alleged Honest, Moral and Ethical Xtian Teachers (priests and laity) left out on purpose – and finds that there is a deep and dark history of the HOWs and WHYs and WHATs of it all as "IT" became to be a POWERFUL and Influential Religious Organization/s – where honesty and truthfulness is a relative thing to be manipulated and toyed with to suit to an (unholy) agenda – so that you're left with no recourse but to LEAVE it ALL behind...to ignore all that Men have said is true and real about this God...all of it!

    What about those of us who simply can NOT make that leap of faith anymore...? Which has nothing to do with being rebellious, and/or desirous of secular indulgences...people who remain good and just and charitable.

    What about those of us who do not think themselves to be or wish to be Gods themselves...and think its silly to be accused of such things...those of us who think the time for lingering in the past and living in the present where REAL proof needs to be met by more than claims of the Bible says so, or God did it! because he works in mysterious ways...

    What about Us...? Who dont fall into the authors nice little 8 point plan...?

    May 6, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      This woman realized THE TRUTH for a couple of years. . .then decided she would rather go back to living in her fantasy world. Religion doesn't make better people, it creates bigotry and division which ultimately lead to wars. Get over yourself. I can't wait till all of this idiotic religious crap is over and done with. Future generations will see religions as humanity's Great Deception.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • hansdick

      well said

      May 6, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Keith

      Some of us, who were like you, left church and found "God". It was never necessary for us to believe any of the dogma that is "Religion" nor to believe the fairy tales again. On my journey I found out I didn't believe in Religion, I didn't have any problem with God.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. Lilith

    Better headline:
    Returning to church dispite my nagging common sense.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • sybaris


      Religion requires willful ignorance to survive.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  13. Greg

    Nearly same experience here. God is good in all things! Thank you Jesus.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • JP

      Your not very smart are you?

      May 6, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Weak minded Greg? Really, the only people who require an imaginary friend are the weak, not the strong. The strong minded are capable of thinking for themselves without the fall back god of the gaps garbage.
      I recall sitting with a friends 3 year old who was having a conversation with her imaginary friend, what she was doing in conversing with this 'friend' is no different than someone speaking to their god. Only children need imaginary friends, adults take responsibility for their own actions and their life.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  14. TownC

    Religion makes bad people good and good people better. This woman is a good example of this. Religion and faith makes people want to live better themselves and gives them a feeling of responsibility towards helping others both temporally and spiritually.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • El Flaco

      There are a lot of bad people in religion. Many of them are religious leaders.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Actually studies show that Atheists are more compassionate human beings than the religious folks. So. . . .I'm not sure where you're getting your "religion makes better people" idiocy from. Read Christianity's history and I'm sure you won't be so quick to judge yourselves as better than other human beings.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      PEOPLE do good or bad, religion only makes them think they're justified in doing either.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  15. El Flaco

    The need for religious experience was built into the human race by mindless, goal-less evolution. Like all personality traits, some people have more of it and some people have less – like anger. Some people are hot-tempered, others are cool.

    If you feel the need for a religious experience, pick a religion that you like and belong to it. It doesn't matter which one you pick as long as it is satisfying to you.

    It's like a cafeteria, where you just pick the dishes you like and ignore the ones you don't like.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • JP

      It is also just like alcohol and anti-depressents!
      Pick whatever works for your crutch and use it!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • El Flaco

      Anti-depressants are a God-send! I know.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Louis

      You are right J.P., anti-depressants are a "crutch". I need that crutch and I use it. Why would I not use god?
      Name me one person who does not need a crutch.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Keith

      That is a good way to look at it. The problem comes because of the need for power and control. All the different "Religions" claim to be the only way to obtain eternity. Religion is not about truth it is about power and control.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  16. Portland tony

    The love of God resides in ones heart and soul. As a single woman, this person has a right to "walk the wild side" if she chooses. How else can she make an intelligent decision of how she wants her life to unfold. It's obvious she reverted to a puritanical life style and I say good for her. Incidentally not all good Christians stopstop smoking or having an occasional sip of alcohol

    May 6, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • JP

      Here is the problem with your post:

      "How else can she make an intelligent decision of how she wants her life to unfold."

      With religion there is NO intelligent decision, it is all fake!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Long Island Tom

      not everyone needs to walk the Wild Side. Thats just an excuse the ones who do make for their mistakes that they now regret. Its a lazy POV, that merely belittles people into being run by their emotions and lusts. "Oh I have to do this to get it out of my system." For many people thats never even a thought much less a desire. Many of us would never seek to run headlong into various Walls, so to get it out their systems.

      Many people simply can not make the leap to believe in the fantastic.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  17. Puzzled in Peoria

    Short post: God does not exist–for atheists.

    God reveals himself to those who seek him humbly and sincerely. Atheists don't do that, so to them, God does not exist.

    May 6, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • martog

      Reigion= DELUSION and IRRATIONAL thought

      May 6, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • sybaris

      Puzzled in Peoria, your short post doesn't explain why there are x-christians. But then your ilk will say that they were never true christians. That's a convenient but dishonest thing to say. It's like saying someone who quits selling cars was never a car dealer or someone who quit being a lawyer was never a lawyer.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • CounterwwDavid

      Read the parable by Jesus of the sower sowing the word. It explains why people fall away. Cultivating Goss word in your heart is the key.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • CounterwwDavid

      *Gods word...

      May 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Long Island Tom

      How about this – The God you and others describe and lay ownership to doesnt exist, because there's never been any proof ever put on the table for all to examine. That seeking the unproved does not make it appear...and that the alleged proof you received is wholly insufficient for me/others.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • sybaris

      People who quote their bible as fact to give credence to what they are saying have no concept of corroborative evidence.

      In other words, just because you say it "is" doesn't mean it is so.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Keith

      Humble, Sincere, Pious, I didn't do any of that crap, I found God. My God doesnt' need any "Religion" to exist.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Puzzled in Peoria

      Atheists, atheists, why so testy? If you don't want to seek God humbly and sincerely, that's on you, not on us.

      And BTW, the reason there are "ex-Christians" is, as you would say, "feelings are not facts." They allowed their feelings of anger or disappointment to turn away from God. He never turned away from them.

      May 6, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  18. sybaris

    Religion.....the ultimate ponzi scheme

    May 6, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  19. Your gods are all FAKE!

    god does not exist
    christ did not exist (No capitol letters because they are not real)

    Nothing you fools believe in ever happened or exists

    I exist, but not because of any god. Two monkies banged and a couple million years later....here we are (yes you too.)

    Get over yourselves you fools and braggarts about religion! You are weak!

    May 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • JP

      LOVE IT!
      So true!

      May 6, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Say it ain't so

      you sound as stupid as iran's president saying the holocaust didn't exist, that it never took place. You don't have to believe in God, your choice, but don't say Jesus Christ didn't exist because he did & there's evidence outside of the bible to prove it just do your research & you'll find it, that is, if you're willing to put your sword down for a second to find out.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • JP

      Jesus is a myth so are all gods.
      I agree, you are from monkeys too.
      Get over yourself and your pathetic beliefs.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • El Flaco

      Jesus lived and died.

      Christ was invented three centuries later at the Council of Nicea.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • JP

      If jesus lived and died than I am a monkeys uncle....oh wait....I am but so are you.
      jesus is nothing, he never existed. I know jesus too, he is a pimp that lived in miami a couple years ago.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Long Island Tom

      to Say It Aint So – actually that "outside the Bible proof" is specious at best (edited by others much later in history) and NEVER once is there a mention of Jesus by name. Never. Only inferences to an alleged christos/christ/messiah...not a Man known/named Jesus. Jesus the Man is never ever mentioned anyplace in any records or historical journals. Do a little honest a and real research yourself...not that which ONLY supports your POV, posted on some website by others on the same Team.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Rationalintn

      I don't disagree with your underlying argument. However, the correct word is APE. We did not evolve from monkeys. Monkeys have tails, apes do not. We share 97-98% of our DNA with apes. Fun facts; we share 75% of our DNA with dogs, and 33% with daffodils.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  20. Religion and politics

    We got rid of michelle, we got rid of rick (Both very weak religious fools) now if we can just get rid of the idiot mitt maybe we can move forward! Religion is stupid and so are the people that believe in it!

    May 6, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • DCffom NJ

      Amen (to both you and JP)! If mankind quits worrying about the "next life", perhaps we can make this life better. Evolution happened, not the "virgin birth"....

      May 6, 2012 at 9:15 am |
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About this blog

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.