Love and My Search for Meaning

September 18th, 2018 / 9 Comments

On a cold February evening, I pulled up to my fiancé Cheryl’s apartment with plans to take her to dinner. As Cheryl got into the car, I turned and slowly shared with her something I had only recently admitted to myself.

“I just can’t believe in God anymore,” I said.

Cheryl and I were both religion majors at the college we attended. Only a few months earlier, I had asked her to marry me, and she had accepted. We planned to graduate in spring, marry in August, and begin professional ministry.

But… I no longer believed in God.

I was someone who took Christian faith seriously. I was a witnessing fanatic: I went door to door around the college neighborhood, witnessed on sidewalks of the nearby city, and joined Campus Crusade for Christ because of its evangelism emphasis. No one who knew me would doubt my commitment to and fervor for Christian faith.

But during the last year of my college career, I encountered arguments from smart atheists, agnostics, and those of other religious traditions. As I studied those arguments, I realized my reasons for believing that God existed no longer made sense.

For the sake of intellectual honesty, I gave up believing God existed.

Atheism

I am not the first person to become an atheist, of course. People abandon faith in God for various reasons.

Some have been hurt deeply by those who say they do God’s will. Many hurting people don’t want to be associated with the faith of those who hurt them.

Others give up faith as a form of rebellion; rebellion against family, friends, or the culture in which they live. Some become atheists to get attention: to shock friends and family.

Some seem to reject faith in God as a way to set aside moral codes, ethics, and the dos and don’ts they’ve been taught. Becoming an atheist is their way to seek moral freedom.

But many people are like me: they give up believing in God because the reasons for faith they once embraced no longer make sense. It’s an intellectual decision.

Return to Belief

I eventually returned to faith in God. I returned, in part, because I persisted in wrestling with the possibility of God’s existence.

Two issues were central to my return. The first was my search for meaning. I could not make ultimate sense of life if God did not exist. My search for meaning led me – and still leads me – to believe in a God who grounds meaning.

Love was the second issue central to my return. Deep down, I sensed that I and others ought to love. I could not make good sense of this deep intuition if there did not exist a Being who was the ultimate source of love and my guide for what love looks like.

Love led me back to God.

Deep down, I sensed that I and others ought to love. Love led me back to God. Click To Tweet

Rejecting Certainty

I once thought questioning, doubt, and uncertainty were signs of religious immaturity. I considered those who were not positive that God existed to be immature children in their faith development. I was even told doubting was sinful.

I no longer think I or anyone ought to seek certainty about God’s existence. I think it’s more plausible than not that God exists. I have a reasonable belief or fundamental trust God is present and active in the world. I point to arguments, evidence, and personal and communal experiences that support my belief.

But I’m not 100% sure God exists.

I worry when people say they’re certain God exists. These people also usually say or act as if they’ve got God figured out. After all, it would be strange to say you’re certain God exists but not be certain who God is. Brazen certainty often leads to pride. It tempts one to ridicule or even want to destroy those who have different views of God.

In contrast to those who prize certainty, I think doubt is fundamental to the good life. In fact, doubt is part of belief. I like what Phineas Bresee once said, “Faith isn’t the absence of doubt; it’s choosing to act despite doubt.”

Christians are believers not “certainers,” to coin a word.

Christians are believers not “certainers,” to coin a word. Click To Tweet

I also worry about people who believe in God blindly. Some say that truly righteous people affirm God’s existence despite having no evidence and no good arguments. “You just need to have faith,” they say, by which they seem to mean setting aside reason altogether. Those who believe blindly are especially susceptible to following charlatans and swindlers.

I recommend a middle way. It steers a path between being certain God exists and blind faith. This plausible perspective or reasonable belief seems the way often depicted in the Bible and modeled by saints.

This via media promotes humble conviction and cautious confidence.

The way of plausibility steers a path between being certain God exists and blind faith. Click To Tweet

The Value of Wrestling

I’m telling my story of belief, unbelief, and return to faith, because I want to stress the importance of questioning, of intellectual honesty, of doubt, of wrestling with the biggest questions of life.

I spend a great deal of time on university campuses surrounded by students who — to varying degrees and in varying ways – ask questions. They’ve come to college to be educated. But education not only means adding knowledge; it also means setting aside some beliefs they once held dear.

My professorial colleague Jennifer teaches college chemistry. She likes to begin her class for first-year students by saying, “Everything you learned in high school chemistry is wrong.” Her students typically don’t react negatively when hearing this. They came to college to open to the possibility they might need to rethink their understanding of chemistry.

Several years ago, Jennifer dared me to begin my first-year theology classes by saying, “Everything you learned about God in Sunday school is wrong.” I’m wise enough not to have accepted that dare!

Of course, not everything students learned in high school chemistry is wrong. And not everything we learn about God in Sunday school is wrong. The point is that part of the educational process involves rethinking, reconceptualizing, and sometimes deconstructing current views in the effort to reconstruct better ones.

Statistics say most students today won’t give up faith in God. But most will decide some current ideas about God aren’t worth keeping. They’ll think some beliefs given them by parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, pastors, or Christian culture no longer make sense. They’ll deconstruct some ideas on a journey to reconstruct new ones.

We must make space for students to do this reconceptualizing, as difficult as it may be for them and us. If we want to encourage everyone to follow the first of Jesus’ commandments, which includes loving God with our minds, we’ll need to allow for changes of mind.

I also addressing my faith journey because questioning, doubting, wrestling with big questions, and struggling to make sense of God and life isn’t just happening on university campuses. It’s happening in churches, neighborhoods, families, and among our friends. Setting aside conventional or traditional views of God seems to be more common.

Questioning and reconceptualizing is often a good thing. And if we are going to love others, we must allow them space for questioning, doubt, and uncertainty.

If we are going to love others, we must allow them space for questioning, doubt, and uncertainty. Click To Tweet

It’s Good to Question

Finally, I’m addressing this subject because I want you, the reader, to know it’s okay to question, to doubt, and not to have things figured out. It’s okay to set aside some views of God for other views you think better. It’s often positive to be unsure and to change your views.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you should become an atheist to be cool or shock others. I’m not suggesting you act immorally and then justify it by saying, “I’m just not sure what I believe anymore.” That’s a copout.

I’m encouraging you to pursue the biggest, deepest, and most important questions of life with openness and persistence.

Your quest may look different than mine. We may come to different conclusions. But I find many people who seek truth end up coming or returning to belief in a loving God who calls us all to live lives of love.

I encourage you to pursue the biggest, deepest, and most important questions of life with openness and persistence. Click To Tweet
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Comments

Mike

Thank you so much for this article. I have been through a similar kind of faith journey and second what you say here.


Benjamin

Tom, thank you so much for sharing your story and for the encouragement you offer. I wonder, what do you feel led you back to Christianity and God as revealed in the Bible specifically? Did you find this representation most plausible? Or perhaps it was simply a return to the tradition that was most familiar?


Stephen Carroll

I have been interested in hearing this piece of your faith journey for some time. thank you for sharing.


thomasjayoord

You’re quite welcome, Steve!


thomasjayoord

Great question, Ben. I’m sure a variety of factors played a part, some of them unconscious. But the most explicit and conscious was the Christian tradition’s emphasis upon God as love and love as the ultimate for Christians. Although the Bible has elements that don’t support love, I think the majority of Scripture does. So my intuitions of love fit most comfortably in the Christian tradition, although I see the language and expressions of love in other religions too.


thomasjayoord

I’m happy to hear you found it helpful, Mike!


Jimmy

Tom, thanks for this!!! I too, have had serious doubts concerning my faith in the past!


Lisa

Beautifully written and thought-provoking! Thank you for challenging AND encouraging all at once.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Lisa!


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