I’M HAVING breakfast with a friend, our conversation constantly interrupted by yells from the kitchen and the clatter of dishes as the waitstaff feeds the masses. We talk about what we have been doing and our plans for the future. We talk about God and my love-hate relationship with my school. When it gets to be mid-morning and we’ve finished our eggs and coffee, he asks me a question that I can’t answer to my satisfaction.
“What does your spiritual life look like?”
“That’s a tough question. I think . . .” Insert a 20-second pause while I try to think of a sentence or two that will avoid making me sound like the semi-agnostic I’ve become while not committing me to the good Christian I’m supposed to be. “I think I’ve been walking away from God for the last couple of years and I’m trying to work my way back to him now.”
I hate how that sounds. It sounds like I’m admitting I’ve been “walking at a guilty distance,” like my parents’ pastor always says. I hate it because I know that I’m not “working my way back to him.” In fact, I’m still working to get away from him, from the church, from my Christian friends whom I’ve actively, albeit privately, scorned for all of the time that I’ve known them, and more importantly from any true idea of sin.
It seems I’ve so neutered the idea of wrongdoing that almost nothing counts anymore. Then there’s the view of salvation I’ve come up with: if Jesus paid for my sins, including the ones I’ll commit after I’m saved, then why should I act any differently? I’m covered by grace, right?
Flash forward a week, and I’m sitting on my parents’ couch watching TV at 11 o’clock at night. I’m messaging back and forth with a friend from school who is telling me he’s become apathetic in his relationship with God. I tell him, without much conviction, that apathy is a spiral toward total annihilation of belief, whether spiritual or philosophical or social.
It lacks conviction because I’ve been apathetic toward God for two and a half years, ever since I became acclimated to post-high-school, post-youth-group life. Once the easy Christianity that was mine by proxy of my parents and mentors disappeared, not much sincerity was left. A friend tells me that my attitude toward sin and sanctification makes me “lukewarm” (a reference to Revelation 3:16) and that even “cold” Christians are better because they don’t pretend.
I wear a mask when I’m around Christians to help me disguise myself. I play the part of the good boy who still believes what his parents taught him, but ever since I started reading philosophy and non-Christianized history, I’ve doubted that the seminal lessons I always heard were actually true.
Of course I’m not the only college student who doubts the veracity of the truths he once believed, but it seems that I’m the only one in my immediate surroundings. My younger sister tells me I shouldn’t watch the movies I like because they’re “don’t honor God.” My younger brother preached his second sermon not long ago and witnesses to people he sees on the street. My mother teaches Sunday school, goes on mission trips, and volunteers her Friday mornings all summer to deliver free lunches to children living in trailer parks.
I am an island of uncertainty in an ocean of faith.
Flash forward another week, and I’m sitting in a restaurant eating lunch with the only pastor at my parents’ church that I really like. He’s a thoughtful man who believes things for himself. He’s very much like me in his rationalism and desire for evidence, but very much unlike me in his ability to accept certain truths as indisputable.
He believes, a priori, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that its truth is absolutely and personally applicable. Once that foundation is set, he builds a rational systematic theology. I can’t seem to set that foundation. I keep running back to arguments that opponents throw out: inconsistencies, translation errors, the mechanics of inspiration, and so on.
I keep forgetting what I read a long time ago: there is a mystery to God that makes him infinite, and I, finite as I am, cannot comprehend infinite things. I try, but I fail because he exceeds me in every way. My rationalism is, of course, no excuse for avoiding communion with divinity; after all, even Plato’s philosopher-king sought the Form of the Good.
I keep forgetting what I heard most recently in my brother’s sermon: if my “righteousness is as filthy rags”—he used the example of a cloth dipped in pus and rotten eggs and sour milk—then what must our sin look like? It was gut-wrenching for God to see the sin I was guilty of before I knew him, obviously, but it may be more gruesome for him to see me sin now that I know him and love him. In spite of that, though, he loves me.
That’s the gospel for Christians: God loves us even as the broken and hopeless beings that we are.
So what does the breakdown of my faith look like? I ran away from God, and I’m still not running back to him. But I know that. And maybe, if I force myself to look at reality and stop putting construction paper and glitter all over it to make myself feel better, I’ll be able to do what I know has to be done in a situation like this: return, like the prodigal son that I am.
The author's name has been changed.
Art: The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich.
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