Is belief a choice?

For most of my life, belief in God was something I took for granted. Faith was easy, self-evident, obvious, undeniable. Believing in God was like believing in the moon, or gravity, or my own family. I could imagine what it would be like if they didn’t exist, but I certainly couldn’t choose to disbelieve. In the same way I could imagine a world without God, but I couldn’t genuinely believe that I lived in such a world. I could question what God was like; debate how he wanted me to live; study the history of his interactions with people in the past. But I could not have authentically renounced my faith any more than I could have chosen to believe that the moon didn’t exist.

This sincere and unaffected faith was often a source of comfort to me as I navigated the turbulence of youth. It gave me a sense of peace, acceptance, and hope, especially as I hit the teen years and began to experience the dawning of my sexuality, and with it, the unwelcome realization that I was different. Though I wouldn’t have applied the label “gay,” it became pretty clear to me that I wasn’t what I was supposed to be. I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling inside in light of what I was being told by the people who mattered most to me. Why was I an “abomination”?

Rejection by the Church did nothing to lessen my faith. Even at times when I experienced painful rejection from the church, I couldn’t simply choose to disbelieve. Though logically it might have made sense to reject those who had rejected me, my own heart affirmed every judgment of my weakness, every disapproval. Stephen at Sacred Tension expresses it poignantly and masterfully:

I’m not a Christian because it makes my life easier.  It doesn’t. I’m not a Christian because it has saved me from depression, addiction,  and pain. It hasn’t. I live every day with a battle against addictions, despair, hopelessness, and pain, and that has been true every day of my adult life. I’m not a Christian because it rescues me from the cold, terrifying hands of doubt. It doesn’t – I struggle with doubt every day.

I’m not a Christian because I have a home in the church. It has never really felt like home to me. I’m not a Christian because church feels like a safe, natural place for me. It isn’t, and never has been – not as a gay man, and not as the black sheep from a family of pastors.

In fact, my Christian faith has brought more pain, and more discomfort into my life than perhaps anything else. I am certain now that not only would my life be easier without the church, it would be objectively better and healthier.

Because let’s be real. My own religion doesn’t want me. The International church would kill me or excommunicate me for being gay, and historically the church has hated me. The American and European church is in a bloody, self-destructive, self-defeating war over people just like me.

I’m tired of my faith. I’m tired of the church. I’m tired of the hurt. I’m tired of Christianity. I want nothing more than to give up and walk away. Not because I hate God. Not because I hate the church, but because I think I would live a healthier, better life if I did. Because I honestly don’t know if I can stand the hurt any longer. I know I’m a strong person, but I don’t know if I can do it any longer.

Powerful stuff, right? I feel his pain because it is my pain. His experience is my experience. Despite trying my best to find a way to live productively and authentically as a Christian, I’ve experienced the rejections and hurts he describes. Stephen goes on:

I read the gospels and for some reason I cannot understand, I believe. I know the apologetics: I can quote Lewis and Chesterton and Saint Thomas Aquinas all day long. I know the historical evidence for Jesus. But at the end of the day, that’s all superficial to me. I’m not going to try to argue anymore that my faith is rational – I’m not convinced that it is. The truth is, I believe because I can’t help it. I believe because there is something at my core that can’t stop loving Jesus, that can’t stop experiencing Him as real. I make that irrational leap of faith across the chasm of doubt with fear and trembling, and for some crazy reason, the faith makes sense to me. I don’t have absolute reason or proof or empirical evidence on my side. But I have something else – something very deep within me that may be very foolish and cowardly, or something that may be very noble, beautiful, and true. That something keeps me believing.

And this too I can understand; I can feel it; I’ve lived it. Despite the rejections and pain, despite being constantly reminded every single day that deep down, what I am is a failure and a disappointment to my family, my friends, my church, and my God; in spite of all that, I still found it impossible to disbelieve. When I looked at the sunrise, God was there. When I sat on the beach or walked in the woods, God was there. Where else would I turn?

The clash between hope and comfort on the one hand, and condemnation on the other, has remained constant and inescapable throughout my life. Faith was both a lifeline and a noose. The God that I experienced was patient, understanding, and above all, loving; a God who “loved me the way I am, but loved me too much to leave me that way.”  But the church made it clear to me that I was evil at the core. So I clung tenaciously to God; to the assurance that he loved me in spite of my broken sexuality; and to the hope that he could and would deliver me from my vile nature.

But the years piled up, and deliverance never came. The messages I heard again and again, from my church, my family, and my friends, all told me unmistakeably that God did NOT love me the way I was. And after hoping and praying and trying for forty years, in the end it seems that he didn’t love me enough to change me, either.

And now, too late perhaps, I’ve come to discover that what is true of belief is also true of disbelief – it isn’t something we choose. Somewhere along the way, the faith that had come unbidden, left again without notice. Like a mist burned away by the insistent morning sun, my unshakeable belief has evaporated into nothingness. When I look at the sunrise, I see beauty, but where is God? I still enjoy the ocean and the woods, but where is God in all of this? It turns out that what I couldn’t have chosen by force of will, was chosen for me without much fanfare, without even my awareness that it was happening.

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2 comments

  1. So powerful. So true at many points in my journey, as well. Although, I’m not finding that my faith has all evaporated away; instead, all the superfluous junk has…and in some cases, still is. Greg, I don’t see your words as without faith, but the dawning of a most vibrant and alive faith, one like you have never experienced before. God is calling you, and I, into a new whole and holy relationship with Him that surpasses all the proclamations and suppositions of man and the church.

    Wash your hands of religion, but embrace a new relationship.

    We can do this!

    (BTW – this is as much a pep talk to you as it is to myself.). 😊

    Like

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