It finally happened. I’ve felt it welling up within me many times, but I’ve always been able to clench my teeth, breathe deeply, and keep the boat steady. Not today. Today the proverbial last piece of straw was placed, and I crumbled. Or maybe I stood for the first time—I haven’t yet decided.
As you may have guessed, I went to church today. My husband and I take our family whenever we can, because we have to keep up appearances for the sake of our extended family—and it allows our kids to learn the Bible stories they’re expected to know without us having to teach them ourselves. The topic of our Sunday morning Bible study was Ephesians 2. The discussion was superficial, and platitudes were plentiful. I was on the verge of tuning out when a quiet voice from the back asked a slightly off-topic, although very thoughtful question—and it mattered deeply to me. She asked the lesson leader, “What about backsliders?” We had been talking about the “completeness” of salvation by grace through faith. He asked her to clarify, but she just repeated the same question. It was good enough for me, but he still seemed unsure of what she meant. “I’ll open that up to the group,” he said. The group began discussing the “assurance of salvation” and the “doctrine” that says “Once saved, always saved.” “If anyone turns away from faith and completely rejects God,” they said, “you would have to wonder if they were ever really saved at all.”
“You’re not answering my question,” she said, as I became suddenly aware of my heartbeat.
Her interjection was met with a cacophonous reiteration of everything that had already been said.
“No, you’re still not answering my question,” she said louder. She was right, and I had to speak up.
“I think I can help,” I said over the roar. My voice is loud when I want it to be and commands attention, and as I kept talking, the other voices quieted. “I think I might have the same question,” I said. “Hebrews 6 talks about it, about people who truly were saved and then turn away.” I started reading the passage, and I heard her whisper “Yes!” from behind me. She wasn’t asking about people who never believed. She was asking about those who had tasted and seen, those who had been enlightened, those who had repented and shared in the spirit…and then turned away. She wasn’t talking about prodigals; she was talking about apostates. She was talking about me. I read verses 4-6, and the elderly man next to me barked, “What version are you using?” I told him it was ESV, and he scoffed as if it was somehow inferior, informing me that other translations phrase it differently. He then asked other class members to read the same verses from different versions. Of course, I’ve read these verses in context and in many different versions. I knew that this maneuver would not prove any point of his. I was correct, and faces and voices softened as the words were read several more times in different translations.
The discussion continued long after I realized it was fruitless. Some class members and visitors understood the question I was asking on behalf of the girl behind me (and on behalf of my own non-confessed disbelief). The more outspoken ones kept answering it by perseverating on the idea that those who turn away were never really saved. I tried to end the conversation gracefully, saying, “We’re not going to come to a conclusion in a few minutes of discussion—I just think it’s important that we are thinking about these hard questions and coming up with more satisfactory answers than ‘They were never really saved.’” Still they continued, with one woman saying “Satan had many true encounters with God when he was the highest of angels,” to illustrate her point that people can know of God without actually being saved. She continued—“You can’t possibly know if the people you’re referring to ever really…” The ellipsis is because I cut her off.
“I’m referring to myself,” I finally confessed.
Conversation over. Well, almost. The brief, stunned silence was broken by the elderly man next to me, who said, “I think sometimes when true believers start to turn away, God simply takes them from the earth. For example, I have a friend who was a believer and was in so much pain over an addiction that I believe God took his life in a car accident as an act of mercy.”
So what happened? Why did I rip off the facade? I guess I felt like I had to defend the people who really did experience salvation and now find themselves where I am. I had to defend myself. Oddly enough, I also felt like I had to defend scripture. These words are in the Bible—we can’t just make them mean whatever we want them to mean and then move on. They deserve thought and study and conversation. It’s time to talk about it, and if the Church can’t do it with a woman who can relate to their desire to believe and who loves them with a compassionate heart, they will never be able to do it with the vast majority of skeptics beyond the shadow of the steeple. It was more well-received than I thought it would be. Several class members who hadn’t said a word during the discussion came up to me privately afterward and thanked me for speaking up. Even more found me during the church service following the lesson. Some asked me again for the references to the verses I had read from Hebrews. I don’t care if we disagree—but I care that they care…and I think some of them truly do.
I should add that I’m still very much hoping to keep this a secret from my parents and siblings, who fortunately have no contact with anyone in my church. I am, however, aware of the fact that any public transparency on my part increases my risk of being uncovered by my family. Still, it felt right today. I’d had enough of false assumptions, and I had to say something. I was also aware of the probability that the story of my confession would go beyond the walls of my Sunday school classroom. I suspected that it might reach church leaders who would be astonished to hear of my position and perhaps offended that I’ve been hiding among them like a spy for over a year and a half. I preempted this by finding my pastor after church and telling him everything (a two-minute condensed version of my position regarding faith, a summary of the discussion in Sunday school today, and the promise of a link to this blog). I told him that I really do want to believe, but I can’t justify it. His response to all of this? “Wow. That’s gutsy. Thank you for sharing this with me.” Then he hugged me and said, “Love you.” If everyone responded that way, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to be anonymous. I don’t expect him to try to convince me. I honestly don’t think he can. But it gives me peace to know that he knows and loves me anyway. It gives me hope as I wonder what could happen in a church that knows that skeptics walk their hallways looking for reasons to believe. If they can come to love those they disagree with—and perhaps even validate our questions and learn to discuss them with open hearts free from false assumptions and annihilations of straw men—my struggle will have accomplished something.
Less than five minutes after I spoke with my pastor, my Sunday school directors found me in the hallway. “We were just talking to [name of one of the church ministers] about you and our discussion in Sunday school. We were worried that you might have felt attacked when some of the others got so heated up. We’d love to discuss some of the questions you raised in private sometime, but we want to make sure you know that your questions are always welcome here, even if it didn’t seem that way today.”
So it begins—I’m a target for ministry. And that’s okay. I love these people, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to converse honestly. I have not always been welcomed into friendships like these, and it’s a privilege. I’ve developed confidence in who I am now, and I don’t need them to convince me to be someone else. I would simply like for them to understand my struggle and love me anyway. The weight of my loneliness has been oppressive, but it’s starting to lift. I rocked the boat today, and it stayed upright—maybe now we can actually go somewhere.