Stop Apologizing For Your Faith (Or Your Lack Of It)

NotSorry2

For nearly two decades I’ve served as a pastor to both local and online faith communities, unpacking lots and lots of God stuff with folks from all over the world.

Each day I spend time talking with people about what they believe about life, the Afterlife, about whether a Creator exists, and if so what that Creator’s character is —the things that we all wrestle with at some level in the quiet and solitary places.

I get the privilege of listening to people. I get the blessing of hearing their unique stories and discovering the ways those stories have shaped their story about God. 

Their childhood, their parents, the place and time they grew-up in, the education they’ve received, their church history, the experiences they’ve accumulated, the victories they’ve won, the suffering they’ve endured. It all has led them to the specific ground on which they stand; that ever-shifting spot called Belief.

None of us develops our faith in a vacuum and very few of us finds it in an instant. It’s a slow, constant process of learning and unlearning, of picking up and putting down, of accepting and rejecting. We assemble our complex belief system in fits and starts over time and distance, and it’s rare that we simply wake up one day and choose faith or choose to abandon it (even though it may feel like that sometimes). Through the nearly infinite twists and turns of the meandering path we’ve been on since we were born, our theology has evolved—and rarely does it sit still.

My faith is in flux as I write these words, yours is as you read them.

And as each of us interacts with the world, as we begin to share with others the story we’ve come to believe about God, most of us run into something incredibly sinister and terribly destructive: guilt. It’s an unwanted gift we receive the moment we express some aspect of our understanding of spiritual things. Invariably our personal convictions are met by a brutal wave of instant, violent disagreement from an opposing side, one that seeks not only to invalidate those convictions but to shame us for ever having them at all:

If we are historically religious and our views in some way begin to drift from orthodoxy, those fully ensconced within that tradition come with shouts of “Heretic!”, and vile threats of impending damnation.

If we express a deep and well-defined faith, those rejecting religion often respond with ridicule and sarcasm, painting us as simple-minded sheep incapable of fully facing the difficult realities of the world.

If we find ourselves somewhere in the in-between, unable to respond definitively in one regard or another, we receive vicious rebuke from either side, as if we are simply tentative supernatural gamblers hedging our bets.

And regardless of where it comes from, this shame-throwing and condemnation is all downright poisonous.

None of the guilt-peddling does anything but damage people and fracture our relationships with them. Badgering another person for what they believe or don’t believe about God, is about as helpful as criticizing someone for their height or the sound of their laugh or the shape of their eyes. Our faith is as much a bi-product of our road as it is a move of our own volition.

One of the signs of true maturity (spiritual or otherwise), is being able to believe something without needing someone else to share that belief; to respect that another’s conclusions have been reached in as careful and thoughtful and thorough and valid a manner as one’s own.

A person doesn’t necessarily need more prayer or more examination of Science or more fervent study of Scripture or greater devotion to Jesus or less dependence on religion to be moved from their current religious position to one that aligns more closely with our own. They may have taken those very roads to arrive exactly where they are right now.

I am always mildly amused when someone critiques my faith convictions by suggesting that I pray or study the Bible or engage in some other spiritual discipline, as if these are somehow novel, untried approaches designed to alter my stance. It is the daily, diligent, faithful exercise of these things that has led me to where I am and to the beliefs that I find myself with. In truth, these folks are not really as interested in me consulting God, as they are in me coming up with the exact same version of God that they have. They are not asking me questions to learn the contents of my heart or hear what I’ve witnessed, but to interrogate and bully me into changing my testimony.

Your testimony is not up for debate. It is yours alone.

Whenever I counsel people (regardless of their theological views) I encourage them to resist feeling guilty for those views; to allow no outside criticism to stick to them, because they are responding honestly and in real-time to the path that they have been on and to the faith that path has yielded.

None of us needs to apologize for our road or to justify to anyone else why we believe in or don’t believe in God, or to what degree or in what fashion we do either of those. You and I are only responsible for authenticity, wherever we are at a given moment on the spiritual journey.

Because regardless of what we think, when we engage in discussions of matters of faith with another person, we are not pitting our Right against their Wrong; we are simply sharing our best, most earnest, most educated guess on what is likely true about life beyond this life, none of us having certainty and none of us having cornered the market on Truth.

Friend, as much as you feel led to pursue answers to the deepest questions of life—do so, but show equal reverence for the conclusions of those who cross your path, trusting that they too have not come by those things haphazardly or easily.

And as you come to believe or not believe things about God or the ways of God, share those discoveries as openly as you choose, but resist the temptation to ever be sorry for them.

Never apologize for the faith you have or for the road you’ve traveled to find it.

 

 

35 thoughts on “Stop Apologizing For Your Faith (Or Your Lack Of It)

  1. Great post, John.

    Look, just so there’s no misunderstanding or tension, I just want to say that I’m sorry if my last question on one of your previous posts was uncalled for. It wasn’t my intention (the one about your writing).

    Regards. 🙂

  2. The empathy in this piece is legit. Thanks for that. I’m an agnostic who chooses to believe, a Catholic in a state of common but serious dissent, and kind of a mess–definitely in flux. It’s nice to hear someone suggest that I’m not a spiritual failure for my internal confusion and uncertainty. Peace be with you.

  3. John, I find this blog disturbing. Specifically, I find it disturbing because I see the wisdom in what you say and I see too much of myself arguing to move others to my point of view, rather than being genuinely interested in how they arrived at their point of view and wondering what insights I could gain by hearing their story.

    • Yes, except if the reason you now want to sit and listen to their view is to gain insight so you can use that insight to change them to your view. I visit other religion blogs, and one of the most common things I see can be summed up like this:

      “Well, if you can just explain to me the details of why you left your Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church 30 years ago, I will be able to pick out the key factors that made you go wrong, show you how you failed all of us, and get you back into the one, true, and only Christian faith and church again.”

      There is also very much of a my spiritual penis is bigger than your spiritual penis factor in this as well. If someone is a really famous on-line defector from Fundiedom, you would not believe how many “little jerk” fundies show up to test their own SPIRITUAL MOJO.. Then 10 show up and it is like a huge contest where each person has said to himself or herself going into the contest:

      “Man oh man. Bruce Gerencser is one of the most famous fundie defectors in the United States. If I could reconvert him on-line in the eyes of the whole world, I would be famous in the halls of Fundiedom and then I would finally know for certain that the Holy Spirit dwells in me and my spiritual penis is huger than all my competing spiritual penises.

      Been there. Seen this. It is disgusting..

  4. John, i first came across your blog when you responded to the reactions from the faithful to the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. I was sufficiently impressed to sign up to receive notifications of other blog postings. What I have read so far shows you to be a thoughtful, compassionate and deep thinker.

    But I must respectfully disagree with you on this post. Even beliefs that have been arrived at through long and serious thought do not automatically deserve respect. In most cases, a person believes what their parents believed; they have not really thought it through, they have just gone with how they were brought up. Those beliefs are even less worthy of respect. I’m not saying that it is OK to trash someone’s beliefs – that is unnecessary – but this exaggerated “respect” for religion has allowed utterly awful ideologies to emerge and flourish.

    May I suggest that if you feel the need to apologize for your religious beliefs, you are not really very sure about them. If others are critical of your beliefs, may I suggest that you ask yourself why. But most of all, may I suggest that the best thing is for everyone to keep their religious beliefs to themselves, and to talk about them openly and without apology only within the confines of their congregation, whatever that may be.

    • I respectfully disagree. Perhaps it is best not to go to a convention of agnostics and proselytize without expecting some backlash, but if you do so, do so with your mind open to listening to their side. There are many reasons people have difficulty with faith, especially now. It is a human quality to question and to search out for answers. Some more vigorously than others, but it is the discussion with others that allows for expansion of thought and ideas. I have never questioned being a Christian or in my Christian beliefs, but I have had a struggle of faith with the organized Church and do not feel comfortable discussing my ideas there. Not because I question my faith, but I question theirs at times. Even so, I am not silent in church and give my ideas openly. I am just not comfortable doing so. And just because someone’s belief and faith may not be as yours, it does not diminish their journey to that faith.

      • You can tell how often I visit my own blog!
        I am unlikely to have much backlash at an agnostic convention, as we are more or less on the same page; I’m just a little more extreme in that I have no doubt at all.

        If you are uncomfortable talking about discussing your ideas and struggle with the organized church, why do you continue to go? What do you get out of attendance? Is it not possible that you and your faith would be just as happy going your own way?

    • And I respectfully, and completely, disagree with you. If beliefs, “have been arrived at through long and serious thought” then, it would seem to me that you’re not necessarily, “believing what your parents believe.” Just as you came to your conclusion of John’s post, and then you wrote your comment, you have come to a thoughtful conclusion. I have “respectfully” disagreed with your conclusion even though you’ve made it clear that I don’t have to respect it.

      All things “God” are too many and too big for us to fully comprehend. Given that, I believe respect isn’t so much a consideration to be made on the subject as it is a necessity. See, you called it, “…this exaggerated ‘respect’ for religion” but, what if it’s only exaggerated in your mind? What if it only seems that way due to the conclusions you’ve reached about God/religion?

      Lastly, I think that for others to “keep their religious beliefs to themselves” encourages the status quo. What if free-thinkers didn’t voice their opinions on slavery, equality, or a number of other issues? Would the status quo of those types of issues remain adequate? Each person, as John said, is on their own road. To reject or disrespect what they’ve learned is irresponsible.

      • Religious beliefs are, well, beliefs. There is absolutely no empirical evidence to support them. On the other hand, opinions about slavery, equality and other issues are arrived at by looking at the world, reading what other people have observed and maybe talking to real life people. These are opinions rooted in fact. They are not beliefs. And yes, it is irresponsible to keep them to oneself if there is the remotest chance that speaking out will improve the lives of others. I have yet to be convinced that sharing unsubstantiated beliefs does that.

    • Quite true. There is a big difference between faith and convention or habit – and too often the latter are confused with the former. A faith fully examined and tested against its consonance with The Golden Rule is worthy of respect, as is the honest desire to constantly reevaluate and perfect such a faith. But the question is…evaluate it against what? The writings of men, or the crucible of life itself, in all its diversity? If what one calls “faith” causes suffering to others and in so doing diminishes ones own self, that “faith” is worthy of scrutiny. Perhaps this is a question of semantics we are arguing here, though. What is often called faith is nothing more than the structures of religion and clan.Faith, to me, does not create “others”. Mislabeling religion as faith in what are social arguments destroys the self-reflection and openness to change that I think faith always possesses.

    • I love what John had to say and totally disagree with you. I think not to talk religion or faith is to bury one’s head in the sand, and it’s the very act that encourages a blind or unthinking belief in someone else’s faith, like that of the parents perhaps. Questioning, talking, discussing – all respectfully as possible – is such a wonderful tool of discovery and growth.

    • So, you are suggesting that John should shut down this blog so no one can discuss their religious views openly on it. Clever—but transparent. Go back to Satan and ask him for a better plan than that. You can also tell him for me that that this was pretty damned lame for an entity who fancies himself to be better than God and worthy of the throne.

      • Supposing that I am the ‘you’ referred to, I will respond.

        The First amendment of the US Constitution allows anyone to blog about anything they like. They do. And many of those blogs are just plain nasty.

        This one is not. I have already said that I think John is a deep thinker and therefore worth following. dover1952, not so much so. Invoking Satan is not much of an argument for or against anything.

  5. Thank you for your continued honest revelation about faith. I was raised in a very fundamental evangelical church and have attended my whole life until a crisis gripped me a few years ago. Although I don’t doubt God’s existence, my ability to participate in “churchy” things is greatly diminished as a I have begun to doubt the value of those things in my life. Many days, I doubt my belonging to a faith movement that is so incredibly negative and exclusive. I long to find an authentic explanation and community, but I find that elusive. However, your thoughts through your blog has done more to help heal my heart and assure me that I am on a path that God has set before me than any other words I have encountered in ministry. Thank you for listening to God and sharing what he has laid on your heart with me. I hear Him calling to me through your words.

  6. Another really good message I think AND it brings me to point this out – when you came home from your visit with your friend on Wed and told me a bit about her story and her miracle – I apologize if I seemed harsh or judgmental about it. I didn’t listen with a very open mind – and you were just sharing – Sorry for cutting you off. I think my reaction is due in part to how much I have learned about MS – and how it can or cannot manifest – how many docs get the diagnosis wrong- how difficult it is to diagnose etc. AND also how I think too many people use the word “miracles” in a frivolous way. At that moment in our conversation on Wed , I felt like I put you on the defensive – I am working on being a better listener and more open minded – AND I don’t want to put you in the position of feeling like a “child” in having discussions with me – or feeling like I am judging you – YOU are a gift and I love you and those kiddos – AND even though there will always be areas of disagreement (that’s just life) I want you to always feel safe in sharing – and know that I respect you – and be able to discuss with an open mind/heart. Sorry for the rambling….I love John’s writings – it sparked this writing to you for me – but I had wanted to apologize for my terse words about your friend. I love you Jenny! xoxo mama.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am a person on a faith journey, one of mountains and valleys, light places and dark places. My own faith is evolving, and after a long time of feeling like something was wrong with me, I have come to a wonderful understanding with the holy spirit that my questions and doubts are ok. It is refreshing to read your thoughts, which touch my heart and soul.

  8. Good for you. One of these days you will also figure out, contrary to the teachings you have received, that Jesus is nothing like those people and your old church. You don’t follow the preacher, the Bible, or your church. You follow Jesus himself. Sure, the Bible tells us about Jesus—really about all we know about him. However, the Bible is not God himself and the purpose of a disciple is not to save the Bible and worship the Bible. Jesus said (invitationally): “Follow me.” He DID NOT SAY: Follow the preacher. Follow the Bible. Follow the church. He said: FOLLOW ME. Those two words, simply put by Jesus, are a knife in the back of the whole Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical establishment and the rank evil that rests there day in and day out.

  9. The key word in your post, John, is “evolved.” I’m not the same Christian I was at 13 or 35. My learning has evolved over a lifetime. NOTHING can truly ever remove my belief in God; it’s part of who I am now, never to be uprooted. Of course, I have doubts……….we’re lying if we say we don’t. Sometimes on social media when there is a terrific post about the total vastness and magnitude of the universe people will comment and you can tell they do not believe in a God of any kind. But, to me, it’s MUCH easier to believe in a God who created the Beginnings of that universe than to believe it was all random. Much more rational to believe in a God who set the universe into motion through means we humans can never even contemplate or begin to fathom. Actually, it makes my faith STRONGER to read about the unbelievable infiniteness of the creation He began and continues to sustain.

    • There is no problem that I can see with calling the force which brought the universe into being God. Why not? But how do you get from there to believing that God created man in his own image (when) and that he looks out for each and every one of us (unless you don’t believe in him)?

  10. I agree with John. I am not sorry for my faith in Jesus Christ, and I am not apologizing to anyone for it. However, I do think millions of people who CLAIM to be Christians need to apologize to both God and man for what they believe and the evil that they are carrying out in this world in the name of God. My new photo essay on the “Flee from Christian Fundamentalism? blog makes that point abundantly clear in spades:

    https://faith17983.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/what-happens-when-the-church-sells-out-to-a-political-party/

  11. I was raised catholic and fell away from religion due to problems in my own personal journey and often find myself without being able to give a definitive answer, not completely without faith, just unable to specify what it is or where it comes from. I’m constantly the odd duck out and guilted into going to church to prove how much I love my family. Its really really a hard place to be, not ready to commit to something I can’t make myself fully believe in just yet and being pushed to do so out of compliance with what others want for you. And our relationship has suffered immensely because of this. I really appreciate this article, I do, and how you write from both sides of the road and for both sides of the discussion to encourage understanding over judgment. This has helped my heart a lot today, I thank you for that.

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  13. Thank you for this. I lived for 44 years of my life as a evangelical Christian…directed the choir, served on worship team, lead a BSF group, Sunday School teacher…yada yada yada. But the older I get, the more questions I have and I found that when I ask those legitimate questions within the church community, I am not welcomed. Questions like…How does living in a $500,000.00 house with a pool in an upscale neighborhood show God’s grace when there are children in the world who won’t have anything to eat today? Seems that the blessing priority is skewed. How is the need for great parking spaces worthy of the Almighty’s attention, but He evidently wasn’t aware of the depth of my father’s depression when he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger or my mother’s Alzheimer’s decline that took her mind, her voice, her ability to walk, to toilet, to swallow… But, parking places are important, I know. I’m tired of trying to reconcile all this. It’s easier to believe that there just isn’t a God than that there is one who does nothing about all the bad. I am so very tired…but I am still searching.

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