I was taught that Christians are the only people who understand what the point of reality is. I was taught that everyone has a God-shaped hole inside, and that people who don't know Jesus spend their lives in a mad chase after temporary, fleshly passions, trying to ignore the God they think they don't need and trying to fill the void with things that don't fit. But Christians, we lived life with full satisfaction in each day, because God was with us. I was pretty content that I knew everything that really mattered, and so this made sense.
Then I left Rhea County and found that I was taking a different shape. For one thing, I learned some new synonyms. What we called bleeding-heart liberalism was called compassion by my new church. What we called the reign of secularism was called social justice by the Roman Catholics. What we called being ashamed of the Gospel was called humility by the saints. My brain stretched out to accommodate these new ideas, and I found that the God I'd brought with me from Rhea County was starting to rattle around loose. As I learned more about Jesus, that void got bigger, not smaller. And God didn't fill it any more.
So I decided that the problem was with me. I had built a limited idea of God, and I needed to purge the stingiest parts of that idea and leave the other parts open for debate. Some of those concepts, though once a bedrock of my faith, were pretty easy to discard. Concepts like: All Christians are Republican. Other concepts were things that I already knew to be questionable before I left Rhea County. Concepts like: God is a Zeus-like omnipotent, impassive and unchanging deity best understood through Greek philosophy.
Concepts like: the Church always gets it right.
Concepts like: God answers all prayers of the faithful with the best possible outcome.
Concepts like: faith is the same thing as feeling confident all the time.
And then there were the complicated concepts, like penal substitutionary atonement and male headship. The more I learned about respected, venerable Church doctrines, the more strange and out of sync with Christ I found them. Peeling those things off didn't feel like making God smaller. It felt like shedding a too-small skin to give God room to grow. For a while.
And in the meantime, I found lots of other doctrines, new and old, to play with. I listened hard and thought hard and talked with people older and kinder and smarter than myself, and I replaced my confidence in the Rhea County God with confidence in a new, upgraded God. I looked around and saw the world differently. This was a world where God was active in the hands of the saints, not in the tracts of the churchgoers. A world where Luther was a political player who left bodies in his wake, and Palestinians were beloved children of God instead of squatters, and being gay didn't send you to Hell any more than being straight sent you to Heaven. I was filled with joy at the super, first-rate God I'd found.
The warning was: Don't open your mind too much. Your brain will fall out. That was how we made fun of the tree-hugging New Age bisexual Democrats that were lurking in the world beyond Appalachia. When I found myself empty and parched, I thought I knew my problem. had started opening my mind too much, and that's why I lost my confidence. confidence that, I told myself, was not the same thing as faith. Keep up the good habits, I told myself, just like we discuss so often in Bible study: faithfulness is about carrying on no matter what, not about feeling good all the time. So I kept going to church, and reading devotionals and theological texts, and acquiring meaningful prayers, and studying the history and teachings of my religious tradition. Either I was going through a particularly bad dry spell, or I needed to narrow my mind up just a little so my brain would fall back in.
But the confidence was gone. It happened so slowly-- maybe over the last ten years, maybe over my whole life-- that I didn't notice until it bottomed out, and I spent a couple of years after that waiting for it to come back. And then a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and asked for a healing service. That was when I broke down completely. On the way to Sunday morning worship, I doubled over sobbing in a busy intersection, and I told Patrick that there was no point in praying for my friend because nobody was listening. That if God is real, then God is cruel, because the things that are wrong in the world don't get fixed and God pins the blame on us. And that I felt like I shouldn't be at my friend's service, because I didn't have faith any more, and I felt like a toxin, like something that would corrupt the people around me and prevent God from answering their prayers. That I didn't want to go to church, because there was nothing there.
We walked up the bike trail and I cried and cursed and hiccuped and walked back home feeling like a dried-up leaf about to blow away. Did this mean I was becoming an atheist? I didn't feel like it. Hopefully, most atheists don't feel angry at God all the time for not showing up and, well, being God. Maybe it just meant that I wasn't sure enough of anything to be content. Maybe the problem was with me, for accepting that doubt was part of my makeup, for becoming comfortable with doubt and uncomfortable with certainty.
But I think it's not about doubting the complicated things. My crash-and-burn in the intersection was a moment of realization that I'd been believing in something that I didn't believe in-- I'd been expecting God to be and to act like a version of God I never thought existed. Without the confidence that I mistook for faith, without the perfect answers to my prayers, without a bunch of light-show miracles to change the world, my god had vanished. Maybe it wasn't the result of doubt or a mind opened too wide or a life relocated to the debauched region of Northern Virginia. Maybe it was the result of finding that God didn't fit a shape that I always knew God didn't fit. I had foundational concepts that I had never believed in. What was that warning about building a house on sand?
So yes, the problem is with me. Mostly. Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe I didn't do all of this to myself. Maybe God did it.
And that was how I found myself in the desert.