I grew up in a loving Christian environment where believing in God was as natural as believing in my next meal. Not only my family but most of the adults I knew were Christian. When I was a teenager there came a point where I decided to make a personal response to God. I still remember the unexpected joy that followed that private, middle-of-the-night commitment.
My parents might have described themselves as evangelical but they didn't bother me with that label and they showed respect for people of all faiths. Some of the other Christian adults in my world were rather more narrow. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell was satisfyingly clear to a small child. Only Christians go to heaven and everyone else, good or bad, goes to hell â€“ that message was much more discomfiting. That discomfort perhaps caused the first crack in my confident, taken for granted faith. I felt uneasy about what I thought I was supposed to believe.
At university I plunged happily into Christian Union and uncritically swallowed every piece of teaching I received. I had huge respect for older Christians and anything they endorsed I believed too. Francis Schaffer was big in those days and a strong advocate for Christians to do the hard thinking and evaluating of contemporary culture. I certainly never thought of evaluating his writing from a critical perspective. If Schaffer said the Bible was God's “verbalised, propositional revelation” then that was what it was, even if I had no idea what he meant by it.
With these assumptions I went straight from university to a theological College. For the first time I began to look at the Bible critically. It was not so much that I started asking questions as that questions were forced upon me. I didn't like the process. Part of me wanted to ignore what I was reading and hearing and continue with my happily uncritical trust in God and the Bible. At the same time I've always valued truth and facts. I wanted my faith to be based on reality.
I think uneasy best describes my faith for the next few years. After I left theological college I shoved my doubts to the back of my mind but they continued to rumble disturbingly. I found it wasn't really possible to continue in a heart relationship with God while my mind was unsatisfied.
There came a point where I had the time and opportunity to do some more philosophical reading and thinking. I finally looked honestly at my questions. It was an unsettling process, even frightening. There was no revelation, no burst of light, no emotional event at all that I can remember, but I found myself in the end with a sense that my faith did make intellectual sense. I didn't have the happy trust of childhood but I felt I had enough to be going on with.
If my first struggle with doubt was intellectual the next came through my emotions. At a time of family crisis I felt completely abandoned by God. One of my children was suffering and I couldn't help her. The last straw was such a little thing. I was travelling, my plane was delayed and I had to sit up all night in the airport. Distraught as I was over my child's situation this seemed too much to bear. I knew I would have given anything to protect and comfort my daughter. If God, supposedly all powerful, didn't care for me in my depth of misery, then this wasn't a God I could be bothered with. My faith snapped. Maybe God hated me. It seemed much more rational to conclude that God didn't exist at all.
Life had to go on even if God no longer had a place in my world. The trouble was, my husband and I were involved in Christian ministry. If I had lost my faith would both of us have to give up our jobs? We were bringing up our children in a Christian home. How could I deal with them now? Even the happy family tradition of holding hands to say grace before meals became a dilemma. I didn't want to pretend to pray. I didn't want to overturn our whole lives either.
Giving up church wasn't an option. For the sake of my husband's job I kept going, but avoided sitting though a service for months by always being the one to take the children out.
As the months went by I felt I was settling into a world of no God. But a disturbing thing happened. As unbelief became my default position I began to be assailed my doubt yet again â€“ doubt as to whether God might not exist after all. When I had called myself a believer I'd often had doubts â€“ sometimes fleeting, sometimes troubling. Now the doubts were going in a different direction. I'd lost faith partly because when I called for help I'd received no answer. I began to wonder if I might regain faith because I needed someone to thank. Where before I'd noticed evidence that pointed to God's non-being, now I found myself noticing evidence that seemed to support the likelihood of God.
In the course of a long journey â€“ which still continues â€“ I came back eventually to a position where I can describe myself as having faith. But I have learnt something about myself. I am a doubter. That's my nature. I have moments when I can affirm with confidence, with heart and mind together, that I believe in God. At other times the whole concept seems not just unlikely but irrelevant. I could default back to unbelief â€“ but I know I'd still be a doubter.
Some of the questions that once troubled me aren't a problem any more. I don't worry about contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible for example because I'm no longer trying to do the mental gymnastics required to accept it as the verbally inspired word of God. Other questions to which I once had clear answers (who goes to heaven for instance) are now enigmas. I say ‘I don't know,' about a whole lot more things.
I'm a believer more of the time these days because I believe in a bigger, less comprehensible, totally unclassifiable God. I've got a bit better at trusting my own experience of being with this God and much less reliant on other peoples prescriptions about how and what I should believe. I believe, and I doubt.