I’m a Seventh Day Adventist. So this past week when Ryan Bell, former pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church, made headlines with his 2014 resolution to live like an Atheist it immediately caught my attention. Throughout the week more people picked up on the story and gave their slant. As expected, most Christians condemned it while Atheists applauded him and chalked it up as a win for unbelief. But lost in the middle of the banter were all the people left shocked, hurt and confused. How could a person whose whole life had been devoted to God suddenly “have questions the church wasn’t able or willing to answer”?
Several years ago I went through a similar, although less public, struggle with my faith (see I Tried to be an Atheist and Failed). I had questions about the existence of God, the history of religion, and the validity of its incarnation in today’s modern world. I spent a significant amount of time struggling with this while maintaining a position as a youth pastor, elder, and worship leader for my church. In a blog I wrote afterwards, I shared how I tried, even at some points wanted to be an Atheist, but couldn’t make sense of it in much the same way an Atheist can’t make sense of religion.
At the heart of my struggle was the church and its leadership which was slowly losing sync with my personal growth and understanding of God. The questions that I had, much like Ryan Bell’s, stemmed from the inconsistencies of those representing God’s authority on this earth. Sins seem to have a hierarchy when Jesus and the New Testament authors clearly say otherwise. The good news has terms and conditions we must agree to for use. And “Truth” belongs to a select few. Furthermore, I was blinded by what I saw as petty, politically motivated, hypocritical, selfish, shallow people leading and attending church. I struggled between wanting to strangle people and falling to my knees and weeping. God’s hands and feet on this earth were neither going nor doing in a manner in which I felt God would.
See, I’m a fourth generation Adventist. My father and grandfather were both pastors. Growing up I remember my dad and grandmother sitting around on Friday night debating Ellen G. White. My life has been spent in and around the church. I have been all too aware of the fallibility of the people who are supposed to represent Jesus on this earth. And as I sat back and watched Ryan Bell I had flashbacks of two of the people closest to me in my life leaving the ministry because of the people in the church. The difference however, was that they didn’t give up on their faith or God or even their beliefs as Adventists.
What I realized in my journey was that my struggles had less to do with God and everything to do with religion. In its current incarnation, religion seems to put boundaries on justice and grace that are inconsistent with the “boundless love of Christ” that is preached. This is where I see so many people turn away from belief. Atheism is their best definition for where they are in their confused and often angry state. As a student of mine put it last weekend while discussing the topic “Atheism is just hitting the reset button. It’s not necessarily ‘I don’t believe in God’ but more of an ‘I want to start from scratch and figure this thing out’”.
(Please, this is not a referendum on Atheists, so all those non-believers out there already writing your comments can just take a deep breath. Not all non-believers are confused ex-Christians angry at their parents or pastor)
So, I delved deeper into my personal connection and understanding of God. I sought God. I turned my focus from what frustrated me, to open my eyes and see the hurt, lost, and confused as well as the genuine, grace filled, loving people that by far outnumbered the others. And to those whom I felt anger towards I began to look past their outward stumbling and into their heart. I found myself believing in them more than I had before; believing that their heart was good and somewhere between the passion God placed in their heart and the external actions influenced by a world of pressure, something had just been bumped off course.
Right now Ryan Bell feels so hurt and confused by what has happened with the church over the past year(s), he’s having a hard time seeing God anymore. I can’t blame him. I’ve been there. He’s lost hope and when you lose hope, it’s hard to have faith. There are hundreds and thousands of people out there who are exactly the same. Gay, straight, black, white, democrat, and republican; they look at selfish, uncaring, intolerant, hypocritical, and just plain ugly human beings who are the supposed “vessels of Christ” on this earth and can’t come to any other conclusion than “there is no god”.
What finally got me back was realizing that religion is not God. Religion is full of stupidly flawed people. Yet for some reason we look at those people instead of God for defining our faith and relationship with God. We look at those people leading us in ministry and we hold them in too high of regard. Many of them would agree. They are sinful human beings just like each one of us. And just because they get up front once a week and inspire us to continue to follow Jesus does not mean that we should be emulating and following them as people. There’s only one person whom we should model our lives after.
While I believe that God calls us to respect the authority that is placed over us, we don’t always have to obey it or agree with it. We see this all throughout scripture from Daniel continuing to pray despite the king’s decree to the thousands of martyrs killed in the early stages of the church. Remember that Jesus was killed because he didn’t think the way that religion thought. His connection to God wasn’t identified by a religious leader, a specific orthodoxy, or a multi-million dollar building.
There are many like myself who have made the same journey as Ryan Bell, and many more that are still making it. My faith came out unshaken and my resolve to know God better means my journey still has a long ways to end. My advice to Ryan Bell or anyone along this phase of their life’s journey is to have courage. Don’t be dismayed by the pressure of the world. It’s not an easy journey seeking God beyond the noise of belief and even unbelief. The encouragement I would give is not to listen to the noise. Seek out those who you trust to help you along the journey. Open your heart and your mind, listening to that still small voice wherever it’s leading you. And may you feel blessed.