I had an interesting conversation this week with a band I was interviewing–a friendly young husband/wife duo. The guy had mentioned church roots a couple of times in prior conversations, and it came up again during our interview. My curiosity was piqued, so at the end of the interview I turned off the recorder (so he wouldn’t feel he was on the record) and asked him about his faith.
“I’m actually an atheist,” he replied.
He went on to share about growing up in church (his parents were ministers), and being witness to a senseless tragedy in the local community as he came of age, and observing how the church tried to explain it as part of the purposes of God. It was obviously a marking moment for him. He was not the least bit hostile to faith (in fact, he mentioned that he dislikes atheists who try to push their “non-faith” on others the same as religious people do); he had just concluded that he was more “comfortable” with a worldview in which God did not exist. His wife (the other half of the duo) also shared that she had grown up in church, and while she hadn’t drawn the same conclusions as her husband, she was not very clear about what she believed about God. All in all, it was a very enlightening conversation.
These stories, as I’ve come to realize, are not isolated. I know of several others even within my local music/arts scene who were once believers but have abandoned their faith, as well as several other friends whom I think of as peers.
I recently read a book by David Kinnamon called You Lost Me that explores the recent phenomenon where a disturbing number of people (particularly the up-and-coming generation) are not only leaving the institutional church, but many are on the fence about faith, or abandoning faith in Christ entirely. The book categorizes them into three groups: prodigals (those who claim no faith), nomads (those who are more on the fence or noncommittal), and exiles (those who have retained their faith but no longer feel at home in the institutional church). In reading the book, I’ve realized that although my wife and I aren’t in the younger demographic Kinnamon studied, we fit squarely in the “exiles” category. Among my two new young musician friends, one is a prodigal and one is a nomad.
As far as the “exiles” go, I have long felt that this is a good trend, one that could eventually serve to help the Body of Christ return to a more relevant role in the world. But I’m understandably grieved over the growing list of people I know who have lost their faith, both younger and older. I personally believe we are seeing a sign of the end times–the Bible does predict a large-scale “falling away,” and Jesus himself warned that even the “very elect” can be deceived.
But I’m not content with philosophizing about the times we live in, because whether or not we’re seeing an end-times sign, I think the church itself has been misrepresenting God to people for many, many years, and I think that has as much to do with the “falling away” as anything else. We’ve painted God in terms of the American Dream, a product to meet a need, instead of the infinite Almighty God that He is, unfathomable to finite people like us. It shouldn’t be too surprising that when the picture we paint of God doesn’t match what people experience, they get disillusioned. This intellectual generation is consumed with doing the math, and when the math doesn’t add up, some conclude that the entire equation is based on a false assumption: namely, the existence of God.
What I’m saying is that in many ways, it’s our own fault this is happening. Perhaps unintentionally, we’ve reduced God to formula, and preached Him in a way that insinuates that we’ve figured Him out–and in so doing, we’ve sent a subtle message that God can be figured out. And when He doesn’t figure…people lose faith.
But when did figuring God out become the point of all this?
Consider this: we are finite people, having a beginning and an end, walking around on a fallen world, trying to figure out an infinite Being, who has no beginning and no end. Is it not inevitable that something is going to be lost in translation?
Now, God has certainly expressed a desire to reveal Himself to us, and I believe the Scriptures are the product of that desire. But even with Scripture to teach and guide us, as Paul puts it, we are “seeing through a glass darkly.” There’s just some stuff about God we are not going to figure out–not in this age, anyhow. And that’s where faith comes in.
I’ve talked about this repeatedly on this here blog, but in modern times, Christianity has reduced faith itself to a formula. We equate faith as being absolutely convinced that God is going to behave in a certain manner–and if He doesn’t, we obviously didn’t have enough faith. That is completely missing the point. When we have God figured out, we don’t need faith. Faith isn’t about what the stuff we know, or think we know; faith is about what we don’t know. Faith is about trusting God when we can’t do the math, when we can’t figure it out.
As I said, I believe God wants to reveal Himself to us. But I also believe He knows what we are made of, and that despite all He can say or do to explain His ways to us, there are things we just aren’t going to understand. That is why He asks us to trust Him with the parts we don’t understand, or the things in this life that we can’t explain. That’s why, as Hebrews 11 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him.”
And that’s where I’m going with all this rambling. I think by presenting God the way we have over the past few decades (as someone who can be figured), we have, in a way, crippled people in their ability to have faith. On one hand, when God doesn’t act in the way we think He will, some people get disillusioned and accuse God of abandoning them (or worse, conclude He was never around to begin with). On the other, when some senseless tragedy happens, religious people start philosophizing about how it was all part of God’s plan and our destiny or some other such nonsense (which makes us all feel like we’re rats in a maze, and just makes things worse). I’m coming to realize I have little tolerance for either of these repsonses, because neither one has anything to do with real faith. When we find ourselves in a crisis of some sort, it does not mean God has abandoned us, nor does it mean God is toying with us. It means God is too big for us, and we can’t do the math–and we need to trust Him with the things that don’t make sense.
When Heb. 11 says that without faith it is impossible to please Him, it goes on to say that those who come to God must believe two things:
1. We must believe that He is (that is, that He exists, that He is there); and
2. We must believe that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (that is, that God is looking out for our best interests).
That, I believe, is the two-fold foundation of trust in God. It’s actually very simple. When we can’t do the math, when we can’t figure Him out, when we can’t explain whatever bad stuff is happening around us–if we can simply trust that He is there and that He is for us, I think those two things will carry us through. In my own experience, I’ve had times when my own faith has been stripped back to foundation, where these two principles were the only things I had left to hold onto. I grabbed onto them with both hands, and for what it’s worth, I can tell you that they carried me through.
I don’t have any clear answers for what’s happening with people falling away from faith in God, nor do I think we can talk people back into faith. I think that whatever can be done to turn this around is going to begin with re-discovering for ourselves what true faith really is, and to be okay with the mysteries of God, and the things we can’t figure. Meanwhile, I purpose to actively love the people around me who have had a crisis of faith, placing my own trust in the God who alone knows how to draw the prodigals back to Him.