There were two things that happened this week that led me to a few realizations that I’d like to share. First, I read some conversations online between atheists and believers. And second, at the Youth Group I was leading this week, I initiated a conversation with the teens about where they are in terms of faith. There were a lot of good responses, but one girl’s response stuck with me more than the others. She said, “Well, I don’t really know, and maybe it’s just a teenage thing or whatever. But I guess I think the idea of a God is comforting, and it would be nice, but honestly, if I’m praying or whatever, do I think there’s actually someone there? No. Not if I’m really being honest with myself.” I was thinking about this, and comparing this state to the state of a confirmed atheist (or confirmed agnostic), and I think I’ve had a few insights.
I think everyone comes to a point where they realize that “if they were honest with themselves” – that is, if they looked at their heart – they would realize they didn’t believe in God. This doesn’t mean that everyone lets go of their intellectual faith, or their willingness to “stick with” their religion. But the fact is, faith only exists where there’s charity, and we don’t start with charity. We can have enough faith to keep following the path that will lead to real faith, but we come to a point where we realize that our faith is basically just historical.
Some people decide at this point to start being honest with themselves. And because at their heart they don’t actually believe in God, they feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders when they reject faith, because it was artificial – they were lying to themselves when they said they believed. And some of them assume because of this that everyone who has faith is deceiving themselves. Because that had been their experience of faith. Still, I think many people come to this state and then later do come to see God in an honest way. But others start to see this state as the only truly reasonable one and back up their positions with arguments and set themselves firmly in this state.
But other people don’t take this step, and there are those who do take this step who decide to at least be open to the idea of God . And some of these people come to a place where they keep learning, they keep trying, and then at some point or another, they see God. They have a sense of incredible awe from the order in the universe – that we live in a universe with structure and rules. Or they actually feel the unfathomable miracle that a baby can be born. Or they realize just how incredibly real love is – and they realize that the love they feel must be from something (well, Someone) much bigger than themselves. We have moments where we realize that if we are honest with ourselves, we completely believe in God. And we realize that this belief, this sight, is much truer, much clearer, much more alive than our old “honesty with ourselves.” Our faith is not a construction; our faith is the rock that everything else is constructed on.
The thing is, though, that until we’re regenerate, there are going to be times in our lives when we feel like if we were honest with ourselves we couldn’t say we believed in the Lord. Even after knowing the Lord, there are times when I don’t feel His presence – when if I was “honest with myself” I wouldn’t see Him. The beauty of it, though, is that the Writings pinpoint these moments with perfect accuracy. They say that if we’re acting entirely from the sensuous level of our minds, or that if we are putting love of self above love for the neighbor, then we’re shutting off heaven. And those are exactly the times when I don’t actually feel like the Lord is there. But (and like I said, this is the beauty of it), because the Writings so accurately describe these states, my faith in what the Lord says is strengthened rather than weakened. And when I’m able to feel love for other people again, I always know that the Lord is real, because I know Him.
[Note: I’ve added a little bit since I first wrote this, acknowledging that many people who go through the stage of rejecting faith come back to it later.]