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. jo an

    I grew up in the So Baptist Church...finally made it to 'Methodist', married a Meth Minister, the whole trip. We divorced after he got more than one of his 'flock' pregnant. I left him and the church. I was with my daughter one day and we drove by the church I'd help build! There were a lot of cars in the parking lot...I said, "I wonder what is going on at the church, today"...she said, "Mom it is Sunday"!!.. I laughed...I knew I was FREE....I am still a seeker...I find my answers 'OUTSIDE' the church...mostly in the woods!

    May 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  2. GayAtheist

    Jesus Christ = Hate.

    Embrace life...dump Christ.

    May 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  3. SlaveWorld

    Christianity will be the downfall of the white man. Sons of the Nords were forced to convert to this weak, spineless religion that supports and apologist agenda, pacifism, and martyrdom AND whose God is nailed to a cross all while turning the other cheek. Pathetic that we haven't stamped out this plague in the 21st century.

    May 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Amanda

    to dragon slayer

    what scholl did you go to. You spelled "coo coo" wrong. you must have rode the same short bus !

    May 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Satanluv

      um I don't know what side you are on but typo's must be forgiven here...you did spell school wrong btw

      May 23, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  5. David Adkins

    To have long discussions about a concept the existance of which can neither be proved or disproved seems like a waste of time. Beliefs are concepts taken on faith without proof. One can neither prove or disprove the existance of God. Why are all you people wasting so much time. I would think a better use of time would be to try to make the world a better place for all life. If only people could resist the need to impose their beliefs (or lack thereof ) on others the world might e a better place. Problems arise when believers want laws governing the behaviors of others in areas that are personal not public. As Mill said, there are public and private actions. If only we could all respect that distinction.

    May 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  6. John

    I hate all minorities, gays, and atheists. If it was up to me I would have them all killed so the Christian and Jewish people could live without fear of persecution.

    May 22, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Well just pray to your god to smite us off the earth, he is all powerful so that should be really easy.......oh....that's right.....your god does not exist....

      May 22, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Satanluv

      yeah..that is exactly why you should be persecuted...that is why the kicked the Puritans out of England...they left to seek religious freedom...yeah right...they got kicked out cause they were a pain in the a s s ...christ cnaan jump in a lake...he's dead and gonna stay that way..see ya JC for permanent

      May 23, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  7. n8263

    Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
    ― Marcus Aurelius

    May 21, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  8. angelosdaughter

    I have faith that there is a God, mostly because I hate to think that this is all there is), but will not return to my Church because it is run by human beings and human beings are judgemental, have the need to think their religion makes them better than others, and few follow the tenets regarding love and tolerance of fellow human beings, of the religion they practice. Many are outright hypocrites. Many claim to know God's mind. I feel that God's mind is unknowable. I don't think He or She is interested in or responsive to the petty little concerns (most of them personal) that people pray for. The God I believe in made this beautiful world, gave it to man (who is in the process of destroying it), gave us the rules for living together, (most of which we contravene),and went on to other things. Most of the problems in the world are manmade. It is up to us to make this world heaven or hell. I don't know if there is an afterlife. I don't know that it matters. The only thing I am sure of us that all of us will die, no matter what we do. As an aside, I had to laugh the other day. Riding down the street I noticed a reverse aging spa next door to a cremation burial society, a fact which illustrates the truth of the one thing I am sure of.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Satanluv

      bummer.. but that's all there is...it is not that hard to figure out with even a mildly objective view point...grow up – there are lots of unfortunate realities related to the human condition..death and nonexistence is probably the most severe of them

      May 23, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  9. Pravda

    Only CNN would post this as a News Article....

    May 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  10. atheists and fools

    why are atheists in here? isn't this a faith based blog? Atheists are sooooooo deluded they can't help but try to spread their folly where ever they go. God was soooooo right when He said: The fool has said in his heart there is no God. ....Psalm 53:1

    May 21, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • taint

      A 'christian' calling atheist delusional...now that's a first. You really are not bright are you?

      May 21, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • DragonSlayer Lights Your Fire

      "maintaining fixed false beliefs even when confronted with facts, usually as a result of mental illness"

      and that sounds like an Atheist????


      go site down village i­d­i­o­t

      You just hate when we come in here and call you out on all your B­U­L­L­S­H­I­T

      May 22, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Satanluv

      Cause i like to expose you for the silly babies that you are...its is so simple

      May 23, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  11. Anne-Marie

    I loved your story, Andrea! Not that my life has been completely the same as yours, but I feel like I'm on the same page as you in so many ways. Now I want to read your other stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  12. n8263

    I am trying to help people out of their religious delusions. It is obvious all organized religions are man made. Whenever you are presented with a concept that shows this you intentionally shut it out and do not honestly evaluate whether it makes sense. You do this because you want to believe.

    Why would you feel an urge to be demeaning towards me?


    May 21, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • RobertG

      It was actually a pretty good video, up until the last 2 mins. The fact is, everyone's belief is based on choices. Atheists who reject God CHOOSE to believe instead in the impossible probabilities regarding the creation of a simple cell (the beginnings of life). They choose to put their faith in a flawed Theory (note: not science, but THEORY) of Evolution. (It's not science because you cannot prove or predict, how, when, or why a mutation will occur).

      Atheists choose not to even TRY to find evidence of God. They choose not to pray, one of the easiest ways to find evidence of Him. They choose not to read scripture, one of the greatest ways for God to touch their hearts. They have enough information to seek Him, they just CHOOSE not to.

      I look at it quite simply, would I rather put my faith in a God that gives me an indescribable peace than in a flawed worldly system that may provide pleasure for a short time, but is filled with guilt and regrets for the remainder. The real question is why haven't YOU tried to find that peace?

      May 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • DrewNYC


      Your statement on the Theory of Evolution is flawed, because you don't seem to understand what a Scientific Theory is. I guess you think that Gravity doesn't exist just because it's a scientific theory.

      Your second statement regarding Atheists choosing to review information is 100% false. Atheists and Agnostics know more about the bible and Christianity then most Christians. Stop spreading your lies.

      Unlike you, I've found peace in the absence of a god. I grew up Christian, my father is a pastor and I still respect him, because he doesn't preach hate. I gave up my faith after years of studying and analyzing, so don't even try to say that we don't know what we're talking about.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • DragonSlayer Lights Your Fire

      RobertG:"Atheists choose not to even TRY to find evidence of God. They choose not to pray, one of the easiest ways to find evidence of Him."

      Praying is evidence of God? What school did you go to? The one with the Short Yellow Bus perhaps.

      You are coo coo.

      May 22, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Ahem

      "Atheists choose not to even TRY to find evidence of God. They choose not to pray, one of the easiest ways to find evidence of Him."

      Listen, Bub, I was a believer and prayed mightily for close to 50 years. There is no one out/up/over/under there.

      May 22, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  13. n8263

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

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

    May 20, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Patrick

      You don't believe only because you don't feel you can measure up to gods expectation. You fear sharing the darkness you feel with a higher power. You give endless tirades against what good others feel to give you a sense of power because the rest of your life is hopeless. Sound rediculous? So do your assertations about my belief. Don't preach to me about my beliefs being fairy tales and I'll resist the urge to be demeaning to you. But don't worry, I'll keep you in my prayers.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:17 am |
    • n8263

      I am trying to help people out of their religious delusions. It is obvious all organized religions are man made. Whenever you are presented with a concept that shows this you intentionally shut it out and do not honestly evaluate whether it makes sense. You do this because you want to believe.

      Why would you feel an urge to be demeaning towards me?

      May 21, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • DragonSlayer Lights Your Fire


      You are so correct with your statement. Denial is a horrible thing. Denial is a form of inattention and even blindness to certain realities of our lives. Religious n­u­t-jobs use justifying for their denial (when someone takes a choice and attempts to make that choice look okay due to their perception of what is "right" in a situation) and 100% of the time they use thier "BOOK".

      Just sad really.

      May 22, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • EJ

      Turning to religion is in response to seeking to find out what more there is to living in this world. To reject the possibility that God exists means to reject an entire aspect of one's self, to declare that a part of oneself simply does not exist. And yet it does exist. I have simply chosen to reject the materialism and existentialism that pervades western civilization. I have gained something that you cannot find, no matter how many times you may read the Bible, for you read it as if it is a fictional novel.

      I love you as a person but it does not automatically mean that I love all of your conduct or your beliefs. I love all of my children, but not all of the things that they may do or say. And I inform them when I do not agree with them. But I do not do so hatefully or spitefully. It is done in love.

      May 22, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  14. michaelatx

    Congratulations on outsourcing your spirituality. I hope it transforms you into at least some part of what you could have been.

    May 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  15. Hypatia

    Tried it. Found out when I was praying I was talking to myself. Left for good.

    May 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  16. Jamest297

    I heard it is possible to cure christianity and the christianity lifestyle because christianity is not genetic. Does anyone on this forum know whether that is true or not? I am desperate and depressed and have asked everyone I know and everyone they know if anyone knows how to cure my christianity. Are there any therapists you know of? Is anyone working on a vaccine where I might be able to get into a clinical trial? Please get back to me if you have any information that might help.

    May 20, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Vanka

      Find a good Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapist (REBT) in the tradition of Albert Ellis. Irrational beliefs (such as doubts being part of faith) and the dysfunctional behaviors and codependent relationships that coincide with Christianity or its wierd cults (like Mormonism, Scientology, or JW) CAN be treated and sent into remission! A few people like myself are fortunate enough to have experienced a full and complete cure.

      May 20, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Read Dan Barker's "The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God"


      Darrel Ray's "The God Virus"

      May 20, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • mccc

      The easiest cure for christianity is education. It's impossible to be educated and a christian at the same time. The two are not compatible.

      May 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Olujil

      My heart pours out to you as I read your comment about curing christianity, even more so as I read all the "advice" that other people left. I understand how a fellow christian can feel like they've being plagued with christian faith. In most cases, this is due to inaccurate knowledge of our God that left people with many questions than the answers they got. These are the things I want to say to you: 1) Ponder on the fact that the sovereignty of our God neither depend on human ability to support it nor is it diminished by all the evidence we've gathered against it; 2) Figure out why being a christian feels like a disease, and tackle that problem with christian resources. Your doubts still belong in christian circle; 3) You do not have to look hard to find reasons to not be a christian, but you have to work hard to understand the essence of being a christian.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  17. Its Not About Church

    Its not about Church, its about the Lord. Church attendance is really just symbolic of our relationship with God. Although in these last days, many "churches" have fallen away, so some prefer not to attend church even though they feel close to God. First things first. We must be sure we are right with God. How does that happen? Through faith in Christ as our personal Savior. We need to confess our sins to God, and receive His forgiveness. This can only happen when we realize that it is because of what Jesus did for us, not anything that we seek to do for Him. He paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross, He Himself never sinned. We need to receive Christ into our lives. A simple prayer of faith to God asking for HIs forgiveness, and inviting Jesus into our lives as our Savior and Lord has changed the lives of millions. If you havde never done this, or have fallen away from the Lord, I recommend you get alone with God and get right with Him. You will be truly blessed if your faith is founded on the Rock (Jesus) rather than on anything else such as church, a pastor/priest, your parents faith...etc. God bless

    May 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • eagle

      Amen, finally someone who understands it. All people are imperfect, that is the point. It is all about Jesus Christ and why we need Him. Look to Jesus not the church. The church won't save you, Jesus will.

      May 22, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • jim

      Why do I need a personal savior? Oh yeah they told me I need one...

      June 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  18. Steven

    Belief that doubt comes from God is not doubt; it's more certainty. This woman doesn't know how to think critically, even when it comes to doubt itself, because doubt can always mean two things;
    1) It comes from God, or
    2) It comes from a the realization that what you believe may actually be untrue.
    This woman is only willing to perceive doubt as the former. As such, she'll never be free from the "programming" of Christianity.

    May 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  19. Timber

    The problem is "the church" itself. Mainstream "christianity" has fallen far away from God. "The church", be it Catholic, Protestant, etc., has accepted, and teaches, the doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1), that is, that a person must just "believe", and they will be "saved", even though they still sin.

    This simply isn't true, and never has been. Yes, salvation is a free gift that cannot be earned in any way, but...as scripture clearly teaches, unless we repent...that is, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit (Hab 2::4), turn away from ALL sin, and obey God completely...we will not see life.

    I had the same issue...the "church" was filled with unrepentant sinners (including myself), wandering around telling people that the only difference between them and the world was that they were "forgiven." What an abomination! No wonder the world looks at the "church" and laughs. They're right!

    God calls the church to be a HOLY nation (1 Pet 2:9), which means separate from the world and its ways. This is true, and has been true, since before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). So, people walking about claiming to be followers of Yeshua (Jesus), yet refusing to put away their sin, are fooling themselves and their end will be destruction (Matt 7:23)

    The answer? To believe and repent. To live in obedience to all TEN of God's Commandments. To accept the atonement of Yeshua on the cross. To be obedient to him who paid for our sins. Only then will we see life.

    May 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  20. dexnew

    Andrea: Are you genuinely born again, however? If not, then it's simply religion (something the God of the Bible hates) - you are still unregenerate. Romans 10:9-13.

    May 19, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • No Truth, Just Claims

      Are you? And how do you know, I mean really know?

      May 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • appapo

      You didn't understand anything, or did you?

      May 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Steven

      Please answer one question for me;
      How would God "get through" to someone who's completely and utterly certain they're born-again...but actually isn't?
      How could God "reach" such a person and make them aware of this?
      Well, the answer is that the only kind of person God COULD get through to is someone who was willing to admit they might be wrong, correct? That's the only way God could reach such a person; someone with humility, humbleness, openness and those same qualities directed at other people's spiritual lives.
      Consequently, people who are completely certain of being born-again and scrutinize, question and doubt OTHER PEOPLE'S faiths MUST be the kind of person who God CAN'T get through to.
      And the kind of person God CAN'T get through to is someone who's not born-again but thinks they are.

      (If your response to this is, "That's ridiculous, of course I'm born-again, then I hate to break it to you, but you're just proving my point.)

      Chew on that for awhile.

      May 19, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
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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.