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. Jessica

    I grew up as an Atheist and converted to Christianity when I was 37 years ago. I love it!

    May 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Definitely not something you should be proud of.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • JT

      What made you suspend all reason and reality and take such a massive leap from lack of belief in a deity to, not only a belief in a deity, but a belief in the Chrstian god and becoming a member of the Christian cult? Did you sustain a head injury?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • GotMiracle

      What changed your mind? I grew away from my faith, dabbled in other ways of thought, & came back.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  2. prekrasno

    Away from church for all of two years, eh? Sounds to me like you never really left.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  3. EX Atheist

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a Christian nation and will always be.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Why don't you take your blind ignorant bigotry and shove it up your (bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep) you evil little (bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep).

      May 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • nookster

      Take your meds and get back in the basement.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Shayna

      It's difficult to believe so much stupid could be in one person.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • One one

      Do you believe god will send you to heaven? When you go will you be riding a white horse?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "So much stupid in one person." I thought it was impossible, too, until I went to the idiotic website this tool touts.

      Beyond crazy.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      "angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind." Like Bin Laden.
      "satanic and have gothic lifestyle." Like hundreds of priests molesting children.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Those used guys.

      You mean at Cern, the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists are seeking the Higgs bozon that will explain the creation of mass\matter? Prayer may not help in this matter, how about making a contribution to something real, instead of some fairy tale snake oil salesmen, really?

      May 6, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      "cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists." This is the biggest phony argument for religion. Atheists and non-believers use elementary logic to decide that's it's ok not to be able to explain everything. They are willing to wait for a time when new evidence appears. Believers cannot accept this uncertainty. If they did, they wouldn't be believers! So they create stories to explain the unexplainable.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • GotMiracle

      Please, this is not right. We can speak of what we believe or do not believe, but this post is unbecoming to a Christian.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  4. Terry Bull

    Dear CNN,

    Every Sunday morning (or afternoon since I'm in Europe), without fail, you make one of the headline stories on your site a "belief" opinion piece (never mind that you only do this on Sundays, keeping in line with your Anglo-centric view of the world, and that 90% of the pieces seem to leave religion in a "it ain't that bad" kind of light). Perhaps this is a reactionary measure to recapture the demographic that Fox corners in the 'god-fearing' sector? I say let them keep that demographic, because your insistence to pass this meaningless dribble off as somehow 'newsworthy' is nothing more than useless pandering. Stick to what you do (or did) best: serious news, its origins and implications. Leave the "feel good" faith stories to the late night tv evangelicals looking to fund a new mega-church in Kansas. This is not CNN worthy. Please stop.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Well said Terry Bull. . .well said.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  5. DeeCee1000


    May 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  6. Bonnie

    She said, "My doubt belonged in church." How true. Churches these days are full of drama, fantasy and falsehoods about Almighty God and Jesus Christ. She will never truly know God or Jesus if she does not ask HIM directly for wisdom as she reads His own word in the Holy Bible. James 1:5, If any one of you is lacking in wisdom, let him keep on asking God, for he gives generously to all and without reproaching; and it will be given WILL be given him."

    May 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  7. TruthPrevails :-)

    Why God Never Got A PhD

    1. He had only one major publication.
    2. It was written in Aramaic, not in English.
    3. It has no references.
    4. It wasn't even published in a refereed journal.
    5. There are serious doubts he wrote it himself.
    6. There are serious doubts he created the world.
    7. His cooperative efforts have been quite limited.
    8. The Scientific community has had a hard time replicating his results.
    9. He unlawfully performed not only Animal, but *Human* testing.
    10. When one experiment went awry, he tried to cover it by drowning his subjects.
    11. When subjects didn't behave as predicted, he deleted them from the sample.
    12. He rarely came to class, just told his students to read the book.
    13. Some say he had his son to teach the class.
    14. He expelled his first two students for learning.
    15. Although there were only 10 requirements, most of his students failed his tests.
    16. His office hours were infrequent and usually held on a mountain top.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • NorthwestMark

      4,000 since Abraham and Christianity is growing. You are not smarter than the millions and millions of people before you.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • NorthwestMark

      4,000 years

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

      To NorthwestMark:

      Mankind today is smarter and more knowledgeable than the mankind of the past. As we're making that progress, we're developing deeper understanding of the facts of evolution over the fantasy of gods. You can choose to keep your mind open to the knowledge we'll continue to discover, or you can choose to stay with the knowledge of the past.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  8. Pope Benedict

    "unanswerable questions" This woman is very confused. An asylum would be a better place than chuch.

    "I wanted a break from being “good.” Going to church doesn't make anyone "good", it only makes them stupid.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  9. NorthwestMark

    Most of us will never have missionary parents that dedicate their lives to helping people.

    In regards to the commentators complaining about Christianity, what service did your parents perform?

    May 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • JT

      A missionary's job isn't about doing good but to go into vulnerable, poor societies and cultures to proselytize and convert them into their cult. The doing good part and offering shelter and food, etc. is simply the bait. Missionaries are the killers of cultures and the most selfish and vile humans on Earth.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  10. Sky

    This a beautiful article that I can very much relate to. You captured perfectly my simultaneous feelings of deep faith and deep doubt. Keep up the struggle. To the many snide, hateful, commenters here, the fact that they read this article at all tells a lot.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • alex

      Hey I have a cure for that Deep doubt. Lose the deep faith and come to reality. You are going to die. It will be an eternal blackness void of all consciousness. Yes it is SCARY. No we dont need to make stuff up or detach ourselves from reality to cope with it.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Jason

      I thought it most beautiful when she left the church.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • GotMiracle

      Everyone has doubts. Some of us just doubt the way things work or fail to work rather than God's existence.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  11. dean

    The sociological question is a big one: why do people return to "the church I grew up in"? The only realistic answer is personal need rather than spiritual need. Is it a matter of convenience? There is probably something more cultural than spiritual going on. I guess what I am asking is: "Where do we choose to hang our spiritual hat, and why?" Somehow it often tends to be a place of familiarity. Sure there are some who jump from one end to the other (Christian to Islam or vice versa), but those people are rare, and I suspect their driving desire has some psychological need as well. I am rather fond of the Buddha (Siddhartha) story because he struck out on his own...but he two didn't stray from the Vedic traditions. People: very interesting. Religion: even more interesting. (Is atheism a type of spiritual experience? What will happen to our belief systems if robots 200 years from now have "soulfull" experiences?) Our smallness continues to be emphasized, as we really know so very little.

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

      I do not know about you but I took a course in philosophy that compared all the types of religions. I feel the answer would depend on whether the robot is truly sentient or merely a reflection of it's programmed response.

      May 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  12. Steve

    Christian girls who lose their religion in college are the best. Because of the liberation and guilt, they can be really wild! I would love to hear more about those stories that how she found religion after. Any of her past boyfriends who can she light on this?

    May 6, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  13. Dan

    Would priests molest kids if they really believed in hell?

    May 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Truth7

      Ah but remember, they've chosen their side and they believe the promises of their "god" satan.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Pwayne

      Dan...the question isn't what someone else believes....you will be judged by God based upon your belief system not theirs.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • One one

      Good question. I suspect that MANY people who claim they believe, deep down inside, don't believe. They know it all just a myth.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  14. Those used guys.

    I had a more well rounded religious education than you. My mother would drag me and my siblings off to church and sunday school but when I returned home I would tell my father what I had learned from the bible stories. To which he would reply, you don't really believe that BS, you don't have to go if you don't want to. Leaving that decision up to me at a young age is what many parents do not do.
    Several things in your story are missing. You now have returned to your chosen church and I assume get some satisfaction from listening to the clergy. Do you feel obligated to provide financial support so that you have a building with a pew you can sit on? My point, is if you need a space to search for God, why not go to a beautiful garden surrounded by natures bounty and do your searching for free? I mean a search for what you are looking for should not need a sales pitch, because that is the only thing the religious organizations want from you is cold hard cash, your soul is of no earthly value, can't buy streets of gold and all that regalia the clergy likes so much.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      "My mother would drag me " Typical child abuse, taking advantage of young, gulible children, which garantees a future for churches.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Those used guys.

      Yes, in one of the most reprehensible of the christian cults, the catholic church, the parents of children are OBLIGATED to have the children baptized and educated as to the teachings of their dogma. An obvious attempt to brainwash the children before they can think for themselves, helps with future cash flow, don't you know.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • retrostar1000

      Well said. You can fellowship anywhere, anytime, with anyone. You certainly don't need a church for that, although it is convenient. I think Christianity is a monstrous lie. It is nothing more than big business in the name of God. They are also in the business of controlling our government and subsequently our lives by constantly lobbying to legislate morality with laws against gay marriage and abortion. The church is an abomination. I was forced into this brainwashing cult called Christianity at an early age, went to church almost every Sunday until I was 16. I get it. Christianity is a mind-boggling paradox. Bible says to shed your worldly goods and go into the world spreading the good news of Jesus. Yet the church is on a never-ending crusade for wealth and power. More people have died in the name of God and Christianity than in all the wars of all mankind combined. Christians have done many incredibly inhumane, treacherous things to his fellow man. They have killed untold amounts of people just because they didn't follow the church. Priests have been molesting little boys forever. When they get caught the Church tries to protect the priests. The author of this story states "My doubt is actually part of my faith." Actually your doubt is your ability to reason kicking in. You can thank God for that ability. If it doesn't make sense, it probably isn't true. Christianity is pure evil in my opinion.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  15. nick

    yup..she's an idiot, and insulting. "vapiodness of secularism" ? Drop the whole thing. Enjoy the beauty that is Atheism.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • lolwut

      How about just enjoy life without having to interject some kind of tall-tale to make yourself feel special? Life is still pretty fun if you don't think the entire universe was created for you, just sayin'.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  16. cyn

    Thank you Andrea, for an authentic portrayl of your faith journey. Some of the postings are so predictable, lots of critics and opinions, but no worthy alternative answer......

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

      Yours included.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • NoTheism

      Cyn, an alternative answer to what? The article is clearly biased and you're praising for the wrong reasons. Her "journey" was not a journey at all... and the article offers no real insight of any sort (I.e., she doesn't even tell us why she went back to faith).

      May 6, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • cyn

      I rest my case.......

      May 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • GotMiracle

      Yes, she is being honest with herself, cyn. A lot of times teenagers will break away to explore on their own just as a process of maturing by questioning everything their parents taught them. I get the impression from the article she was a young adult seeking to find her way when she left & now she is returning as a more mature person. Time gives us a broader vision. I looked around & saw what else was out there, looked at alternatives & returned.

      May 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  17. ipmutt

    This is the last place on earth you should come to for input on your faith.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  18. Dan

    It's amazing how much time is wasted on this nonsense.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  19. Jesus

    She said, "For two years, I skipped church. My Bible gathered dust on the shelf. The local bars became my temples". This is clearly rebellion against the way she was raised and not a result of logical reasoning that brought her to the conclusion that this God and religion business is bogus. The latter and objective approach (reasoning through it) would have resulted in a rejection of religion and diety worship without all the emotional crap.

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

      Yea, and maybe she should dust more.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Truth7

      I'd say it could have been the intervention of God in her life. To let her see the evil that exists in the world that will just lead her to destruction. As God states, you have to make a choice between right and wrong.

      May 6, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  20. J

    i was gonna write out a large essay but i think i'll just sum you up in one word andrea. Idiot.

    May 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.