Why did I stop believing in God? The shortest answer would be that I ran out of excuses for him.
Pentecostal Christianity stresses that God is actively involved in the believers’ lives, answering their prayers, communicating with them, and changing events around them. As a teenager, I loved this idea. I was raised in traditional Catholicism, where God, while powerful, was very distant. I always thought that if there is a God, I wanted to have close contact with him – I couldn’t imagine any other way of living a meaningful life. But the dull Catholic liturgy, repeated week after week, did not provide me that. So when I found myself at a charismatic, joyous Pentecostal meeting, I knew immediately that what I had discovered was a religion for me.
On that very day, I was “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and started “speaking in tongues”. I never attended a Catholic mass again (except for sporadic family weddings, christenings and funerals). I found a God who felt so close I could almost touch him, who was personally interested in what was happening with me, and who seemed to personally speak to me via the Bible and the “quiet voice” I kept hearing in my head. It was the fulfillment of my childhood dreams.
And then came the excuses.
When you sign up for a new insurance policy, reading it may be very reassuring. You feel protected. It seems that every unfortunate event in your life will be covered. But attached to the policy is also the fine print – an endless list of clauses that allow the insurance company to bail out on coverage in numerous (and often quite surprising) situations. Reading the fine print can leave you very disillusioned, and you may start wondering if the policy actually covers anything at all. (That’s why most of the people skip reading it altogether.)
Pentecostal Christianity offers exactly this kind of “policy” for your life. It is full of promises about what God is supposed to do for you, both in this life and in the next. He will answer your prayers. He will guide you. He will protect you. He will give you wisdom, strength and an abundance of everything that you will ever need. All of these promises are more or less directly derived from the Bible, which is treated as inspired and literally infallible.
But when you live this kind of life for a few years, you start noticing that more often than not, these promises fail to materialize. You begin collecting answered prayers, because they are so rare. You notice that bad things happen to you as frequently as to your non-believing friends. You make bad decisions thinking that God told you to make them, only to realize that you must have heard him wrong. You cannot turn a blind eye anymore to prophecies that failed to become fulfilled, to miraculous healings that were promised but never happened, to people for whom you prayed so hard but were never “saved”, and dozens of other situations where the Bible promises you something but you never get it.
What do you do then? You start building excuses, the fine print of your Pentecostal personal theology.
Some excuses are found in the Bible itself. Even more are just passed around in countless sermons and other elements of Christian culture. God will answer your prayers? Sure, except when he won’t because you don’t have enough faith. Or because they are not consistent with his will. Or because his perfect time hasn’t happened yet. Or because you have selfish motives for praying. Or because of countless other reasons, often made up on the spot. God will protect you from evil? Sure, except when he won’t because he wants to teach you a lesson. Or because he has different plans for you and you just don’t understand them. God will heal the sick, feed the hungry, save the lost? Sure, except when he won’t. The fine print keeps accumulating, up to the point when you are not really sure what to expect anymore.
Perhaps I could have kept up with the excuses for much longer, if they weren’t so poorly and inconsistently defined. I could have understood that God doesn’t want to answer prayers which are inconsistent with his will, if there was any simple way to know what his will is and what it isn’t – but there is none. You are supposed to “let the Spirit guide you”, study the Bible and learn to listen to the voice of Jesus on your heart, but you never know for sure if you heard it right or read the Bible right. The same for every other excuse – how are you supposed to know whether you have “enough” faith or not? How are you supposed to know if your motives are pure enough? You are left with constant guessing, expecting less and less from God until your faith is reduced to some intellectual conviction with no discernible bearing on reality. This wasn’t what I signed up for.
All of these dilemmas would be easily resolved if only God spoke clearly about something. This is what I spent countless years praying for – that God would answer some simple question of mine. What does he think of me doing this or that? What does he want me to do in this or that situation? Why am I supposed to waste years on guessing, when he could resolve everything in seconds? I spent nights and days pleading him to answer just one question, say just one word. Anything would do. But he kept silent.
In the end, the one thing that did it for me was observing, as a pastor, how Christians lead their lives when they think nobody is watching. Because if there was one fundamental promise of Christianity that I kept sticking to after years of disappointment, it was that God is changing people’s lives. I could live with God not giving me my daily bread and not delivering me from evil – after all, it could always be because of his perfect heavenly plan that I am just too limited to comprehend. But the one thing that I thought the Bible is clear about is that he is supposed to change people for the better. Maybe not instantly, maybe not completely (not in this life anyway), but by the power of Holy Spirit people should be transformed into the glory of Christ, becoming better, more compassionate, more moral, more Christ-like. But nothing like that happens – in church, they just learn how to masquerade better. This was the final straw, the ultimate promise of the Bible that turned out to be false too. The whole house of theological fine print finally collapsed.
Leaving faith in personal God was an unimaginable relief. For the first time in my life, the world started to make sense without retorting to hundreds of self-contradicting excuses. For the first time, I found a worldview that matches the world as it is, not as I wanted it to be. I don’t have to fight facts anymore. I don’t have to find excuses for God anymore. This whole big layer of spirituality, which was supposed to be comforting, turned out to be simply confusing. The world is much more beautiful when you are actually able to understand it.