This morning I was thinking about someone who left a comment on our blog last year. After immersing himself in apologetics, “Searching” had found himself struggling with his faith. Since I first read his comment, I’ve heard virtually the same story at least twice more, so I suspect that talking about this could be helpful for some of you—if not to deal with a current situation, then at least to avoid these difficulties in the future. Below is an abbreviated version of his comment followed by my (edited) response:
Having been a committed and serving Christian for nearly 30 years, I have been going through a real crisis of faith over the past few years. During that time, I have been increasingly engaging in the debate that has arisen with the New Atheists, and I have come to the conclusion that the case for God's existence cannot be finally settled one way or the other. The evidence is inductive, rather than deductive, and cumulative. It will get you so far and then the move from merely cognitive to relational and existential takes place, and one places one's trust in God.
But that's where it has broken down for me. For, at the same time as I was exploring the apologetic arguments, I suffered from a very severe case of depression (induced, most likely, by an underactive thyroid). I was overwhelmed by a whole series of completely non-rational emotions that caused me to doubt almost everything in life, including my relationships with those closest to me.
I have leveled off emotionally now, and am much more in control of my feelings. However, the nagging uncertainties remain; I think I still trust in God relationally, but I am often assailed by doubts from my analytical side—you’re deluding yourself, you've been suckered into this, this is purely wish fulfillment. Set against this are 30 years of very real experience of the truth and reality of my relationship with God.
So which do I believe? How do I reignite the existential side of my relationship with God without being bombarded by questions and doubts from parts of my rational thinking? I desperately want to reclaim my faith, but I fear I am slipping into the agnostic camp.
When it comes to putting our trust in God, I wouldn’t describe it as analytic thinking getting you “so far” and then intuitive/relational thinking “taking over.” I don’t think that’s exactly what’s going on. I think, rather, that we get information from both of these types of thinking and they interact with each other. So in your case, when you lost all accurate input from your relational thinking because of your depression, you were working on less complete information, and your confidence failed (just as it did with your other relationships).
Now think about how spending a large amount of time on atheist blogs will affect you when you’re in a less-than-optimal emotional state. Imagine if, while you were feeling severely depressed, you had spent all your time with someone who was constantly trying to prove to you that your family and friends didn’t care about you. How would your relationships have come out? Not so good. So it’s not surprising that you’re feeling this way now about God.
We’re such complicated beings, and our physical bodies affect so much of how we think and feel. I know from experience what depression does for a person’s relationship with both God and man, and it’s not pretty. I don’t blame you at all for feeling disconnected from God and not knowing where to go from here.
The important thing to remember is that our relationship with God is a relationship with a person. Sometimes I think we forget this and start treating Him as if He were a thing that we walk around, look at, and learn about, rather than a person whom we know and relate to. When you’re asking what to do about reigniting the existential side of your relationship with God, ask yourself what you would do about reigniting the existential side of any relationship after a situation of distrust like this.
First, you’re going to have to work through your cognitive issues against the relationship, just as you would with a friend whom you no longer trusted, but with whom you wanted to try again to develop a friendship. Keep looking for answers. You’re probably better off reading some good, new apologetics books than hanging around blogs. It’s just quieter that way. Give yourself a chance to focus on one question at a time.
But secondly, if you were working to reignite a relationship with someone, you would also spend time with that person, right? Again, speaking from my own experience with depression, if you stop spending time with anyone—God or man—the relationship will seem shaky, less real, distant. The trouble is that when we’re depressed, we don’t have the strength to keep going back to a shaky relationship when it’s not immediately rewarding. So here’s the oh-so-annoying answer: you have to do it anyway. Even if it’s boring and plagued with doubts.
What I’ve found with prayer is that it’s very difficult to start up again after being away from it. But don’t stop. Because I’ve also found there’s a dramatic difference in my life when I pray and when I don’t pray. The older I’ve gotten, the more God has not allowed me to drift. I’m forced to depend on Him and stay close because as soon as I stop meeting with Him, things get very difficult. Not in terms of my belief necessarily, but my life, and drive, and love for God, and connection to Him.* I’ve learned firsthand that my soul is real, and it’s a spiritual reality that if I don’t eat and drink prayer and the Bible, my soul will starve. I wrote about this here: “The answer to your apathy or despair might be as simple as beginning to eat again.” You need to place as much urgency on these things as you do on eating physical food. This makes all the difference for me.
In addition to prayer, I highly recommend you try something like this. Pick one of the shorter books in the New Testament (Ephesians, Galatians, etc.) and read it twice or more a day for a month, then move on to the next one. Memorizing whole chapters can also help you to meditate on them. See what happens.
I also recommend you get out of apologetics a little and start listening to people who plumb the depths of God. Apologetics aren't always focused on the person of God, so you're not getting the full picture if that's where you're spending all your time. Read some books that are hundreds of years old (I love this autobiography and this book). Listen to these. God is bigger than the discussion that's happening right now, and maybe it would help to see that.
I’m not saying spending time with God will make up for intellectual doubts, but neither would I say that answering intellectual doubts will make up for a lack of time with God—don’t go after one at the expense of the other. Remember that God is a real person, not just an argument. If you’re not interacting with Him as a person—even if only weakly—you can’t expect to strengthen your relationship just by thinking about arguments about Him. You wouldn’t approach a relationship with any other person that way, right?
And just as it would be the case with a person other than God, it means something that you have a past relationship with Him that you remember and cherish. Don't forget that—it’s something for your analytic side to keep in mind. Knowledge of that past relationship makes it worth doubting your doubts about the current relationship and trying again.
*Of course, I’m speaking of my subjective sense of connection here. My actual connection with God is objective and unshakable because it depends on Christ’s work on the cross, not on my feelings. Think of the difference this way: I am securely my earthly father’s daughter no matter how well I know him, and yet there are real relational benefits from closely and consistently interacting with him and knowing him more deeply. In the same way, my standing before God depends only on my union with Christ, and yet the relationship can be experienced more deeply by me, and I will be more affected by it, as I spend time with Him.