My favorite book is The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m really not a dark person—it’s just that the book stuck with me, and I’m not sure I even know why. It’s one of those books that isn’t over after you read it—you have to sit down and just think for a couple of hours after you finish the last page, and it keeps coming back to you for the rest of your life. I do know that I have always marveled at the thought of a portrait being able to realistically portray the contents of a person’s heart, rather than their physical appearance. I’ve often wondered, what would my heart look like on canvas? How would today’s portrait compare with one from four years ago?
Four years ago. Just before the change in me began. Four years ago, my husband told me of his doubts about everything we had put our faith in. I wept. I prayed for him to have childlike faith. I was pregnant, and I questioned the wisdom of raising future children with him in a divided home—although I knew I would honor my wedding vows and be his bride for the rest of our lives together. Perhaps my faith helped his for a time, or perhaps he put his doubts on the back burner and feigned belief for the sake of our marriage. Either way, the problem disappeared for a while. To be honest, we didn’t talk much about our faith—I think I was afraid to give him the opportunity to speak with transparency. His doubt was terrifying for me…mostly because I didn’t have any real answers for him.
Months later, I received a phone call that impacted me significantly. I was sitting at my sewing machine making birthday party decorations for my daughter. Her party was going to be our last gathering with family before transplanting our lives to another city for my career. I was hemming a tablecloth when the phone rang. I answered it and received a perky greeting from a woman who worked in the preschool ministry at my church. She explained that they were short on volunteers this year and had been praying about couples they could ask to help out with watching babies and toddlers on Sunday mornings. “I was on my knees today just crying and praying that God would lead us to the people He wanted for the job,” she began as I stopped sewing and swallowed hard. “He immediately placed you and your husband on my heart, and I felt such a peace come over me. I knew He was going to use you in a wonderful way with our children’s ministry.” The reactive part of me wanted to be angry and even sarcastic, but my filter won this battle, and my words were gracious. “I really wish we could, but we’re moving pretty far away next week. But thank you so much for thinking of us.” She seemed surprised and embarrassed, and she quickly and awkwardly ended the call. I sat there with my head in my hands, far too shaken up by what had just happened. One of three things had to be true, and none of them were good. Either 1) God messed up and completely forgot we were moving when He placed us on her heart, or 2) she lied and used a God-story to manipulate a fellow believer, or 3) she perceived something that wasn’t real during a time of sincere prayer. If I believed in an omniscient God, option 1 wouldn’t make sense. If I know this woman as well as I think I do, option 2 doesn’t fit. Even though it’s more likely than option 1, I’m willing to give her the benefit of a doubt. So that leaves option 3. She perceived something that wasn’t real. Wow. She thought of us during a time of prayer for any number of reasons (we have a kid, we love working with kids, we are both very popular in our home church, etc.)—and she perceived it as being a message from God. And she felt peace about it.
Why was I so shaken? I couldn’t stop thinking, how many times have I done this? How many times have I felt a “peace” about a decision? How many times have I felt His love and His rejoicing over me? How many times have I sensed His pleasure in my worship or His broken heart over my sin? How many times was it only my imagination?
I wasn’t ready to let my faith go. I tried as hard as I could to push this incident out of my memory. I blamed it on option 2, even though that went against my instinct, and I continued to force myself to trust my perceptions of God. But the outer wall of my faith had been breached. Over the next year, my husband and I began once again to discuss his doubts. He became bolder with his questions, and I felt alone. I had lost the spiritual leader I had married, and my weak response to his doubt was “Just have faith.” Inwardly, I knew that my own faith was weakening. A year after our move, I told him that I also doubted. I began to feel like the whole concept of “faith” was just designed to squelch the legitimate questions that were bound to come up against a made-up religion. One day he had the courage to share with me a parody of Christianity on a blog he followed. It made more sense to me than I ever wanted it to. I wasn’t prepared to call myself an atheist, but I could certainly relate to their struggle.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage my faith as winter approached, I reached out to other people whose intelligence and faith I respected. If this brilliant person believes, can’t I believe too? I think my heart must have looked something like a flailing squirrel after contact with a vehicle tire—emotions firing like neurons in the throes of death. My faith surged and convulsed with the reassurance of believing friends as I strove with angst to hold on to the life that was pouring out of it. Of course, my expectations were unrealistic. No other person could save my soul. Even the most eloquent spiritual mentor had nothing more to offer me, and I found myself once again alone with my husband’s doubts, two days before my grandmother’s death.
My grandmother had been such a foundation for my family, her faith an anchor in my tumultuous life. Yet even she found herself terrified of death, questioning everything she had spent her life convincing me of. Her end-of-life struggle reminded me of the awkward phone call from almost two years before. She was afraid that she had imagined God’s presence in her life. She wondered if she had ever encountered Him at all, or if she had wasted her life perceiving things that were not there. I made a promise to myself to explore these things now—not in my last days of life. My grandmother had a lifetime of questions that she only allowed herself days to ask, and she died without the peace that comes from resolving them.
My questions continued, but by this time, my husband was the only person still answering. I became more willing to hear his doubts—not wanting to deal with them on my own at the end of my years. His questions became my questions, and his answers to them slowly became my answers. It’s not that he convinced me to believe what he believed—it’s more that he gently challenged me to lay down beliefs that I couldn’t justify holding. I’ll dive into these questions and answers more as time passes. One day my husband asked me where I stood in my beliefs, and I surprised even myself when I answered, “I’m an atheist.”
It’s hard to believe that four years ago I wept over my husband’s doubts. Am I even the same person? How different would my heart’s portrait look now? I’d like to think it has improved. I now love a group of people that I used to feel threatened by. I now sympathize with the intellectual, questioning mind instead of becoming angry and defensive. My heart breaks for the gay people I used to judge, who are told they are sinning when they follow a course their DNA has mapped out for them. I hurt for the people who feel rejected by a God who simply didn’t call them into belief or for the ones who wonder why God gave them a mind if the Church tells them not to use it. I feel nothing but love and sorrow for the Christians who give their all to the cause of developing and strengthening the faith of those around them, only to die with fear and confusion like my grandmother did. I love more; I judge less; I no longer lie to myself with a hopeful imagination. I have let go of the pride that says “there is only one way, and I know it.” And…I feel peace. Unlike my grandmother, I think I could approach death with satisfaction in the reality of a life lived well and honestly—not with the fear of an uncertain eternity or the regret of wasted years. Until I reach that day, I take ownership of my own brush strokes, not relying on another source for sanctification or perfection of the portrait. With humility, I sketch the image with a pencil before I ever apply paint at all. There is no more sobering responsibility or more humbling thought than that I am the artist of my soul.