I have not talked about this publicly before. I have not bogged about it. I have not used it as a sermon illustration. And never spoken of it before while I was teaching. It took me long enough to tell my wife about what happened. Like so many other things, it takes some time to process. I am always timid about events such as these. I don’t really know how to take it. So often, the interpretation that you come up with about the meaning of your experiences turns on you and places mud in your face (or here in Oklahoma, red clay).
It was a Wednesday afternoon when it happened. There was no real reason for it that I know of. In fact, this event was about the furthest thing from my psychological barometer. I was about to teach my classes in The Theology Program. The day before, I had responded to someone who had left the faith, attempting to do my best to restore confidence in this lapsing believer. This was certainly not atypical. There were no lingering doubts that had been surfacing. No new arguments that I heard that made me pause. I had every reason to be as confident as ever in my faith in Christ and the Christian worldview. However, this day would be like none other I had ever experienced. It was the day I quit believing.
You must understand. I have never been an “unbeliever” in any sense. There is not a time in my life that I can remember not believing in Christ. Sure, there were those doubts. Doubts about many things. But the serious doubts always ran out of gas very quickly as they were murdered by a few silver bullets that pulled back the curtain of their weaknesses. But this time was different. It was not any simple doubt that I was experiencing, but unbelief.
Like so many other things, I can tell you where I was when it happened. When Angie died, I was driving with the family on 635 in Dallas. When my mother had her stroke, I was sitting on the loveseat eating cereal. When Will busted his head open, I was playing Spiderman upstairs by myself. When I quit believing, I was beginning to sit down on my couch at home. By the time I pulled my legs up beside me, the terrible and foreign realization came to my mind that I didn’t believe. I don’t know why, but as I began to think about God, Christ, prayer, and all those things that form the normal spiritual backdrop to my thoughts, they had been robbed of their primary fuel—belief. I simply did not believe. There was this sudden realization that it was all false. Covering my life like a dark coroners blanket was a new belief: the belief that my whole life I had fooled myself into believing in something that was not true. I did not believe that God was real.
First, there was a sudden sense of betrayal that overwhelmed my thoughts. This betrayal was concerning my former life: my upbringing, my church, my seminary, and all of those people who were my heroes in the faith. They had betrayed me. Well, not them directly, but their foolish commitment to something that was false. They caused me to be emotionally committed to something that was not true in reality.
Second, in panic and terrible fear, I tried to stop the spiritual bleeding. I knew there would be a scar from this injury unlike any I had ever seen and I need to recover as quickly as possible. So I began to think through what I would tell someone who came to me with this testimony of acute apostasy. My thoughts turned toward good theology and apologetics. I turned to the silver bullets that were normally on automatic pilot, but were strangely absent. So I forced it. I thought to myself “If God is not real, why is there something rather than nothing?” It did not work. Then I went into the prophecies of the Old Testament. How could they be there if God was not real? Finally, I went to the resurrection of Christ. How do I reject that without committing a thousand overrides to my intellect? However, none of them were effective in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong. It was not as if rival arguments were persuasive either. It was simply that I could not access rational thought at all. Everything was overwhelmed by this deep feeling that we believe these things only to make us feel better and have purpose. These feelings controlled, influenced, and short-circuited my ability to intellectually engage the issues.
This went on all day.
Emotionally, the former believer was fighting. I cried out to God saying, “Don’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me. I can’t take this type of trial. Whatever you are doing, stop!”
My kids came home from school and I looked at them in despair. I felt like they were rocks. Yes, that is right—rocks. My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another. I wanted to die, but I was way too scared.
What are my wife and kids going to think? What about my ministry? I have to keep this a secret. These were my thoughts all day.
That night, I did not sleep at all. My wife knew there was something wrong, but she did not know how to respond since I was unwilling to express my fall. I went out to my car in the garage and sat by myself on the passenger side. I called out to God again: “No, not me. Not me. I am not going to be one of those who walk away from the faith. Please don’t let me. Do something. This hurts way too bad.” I began to ask for signs. I just wanted the Lord to do something. However, I knew that even if he did, the problem was not down that road. It was something different.
The next day nothing changed. I went to work (what else was I supposed to do?). I avoided everyone. I did not want to look anyone in the eyes, fearing that they would see my unbelief. But who cared, they were rocks as well. This went on the entire day.
There way no one to talk to. Who was I supposed to call? What was I supposed to say? Should I have called a board member and told them I have lost my faith? Should I call my pastor? I was simply too scared about what people would think. The only ones who I thought would understand where those who had walked a similar path away from God and never returned. I know a lot of these people, but that would have been waving the white flag, and I was not ready for that.
Somewhere deep down I believed that the Lord was taking me through this. Emotionally, I needed to hang on to this. There was that small and weakened part of me that that was playing tug-a-war with a giant.
The next morning after another sleepless long night(mare), I was driving to work praying. I said to the Lord, “Lord, if you are trying to teach me that you are the only one who holds the key to faith, I get it! I GET IT! Now stop. Test over. I fail. I cannot believe on my own. Faith is a gift. Please give it back.”
An hour later I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. I was hoping that some exercise would help. While sweating away, I was reading a book about faith. The book did not really help, it is just part of my memories because of what was about to happen. After 35 minutes of elevated heart rate, suddenly, in a moment of time, it was like I could access the part of my brain again that was responsible for belief. Like a foot is awakened due to renewed blood flow, I felt the same relief in my brain (odd to say, but it felt like the right side) and in my soul. One minute I did not believe, and the next I did. My faculties returned to me and my faith was completely restored as if it never left.
Since my “two days as an atheist” experience, I have had a lot of time to contemplate on what happened. I don’t have all the answers, but I am firm in my conviction that God was teaching me something through experience that I already believed in theory: Human effort is not ultimately responsible for faith, God is. In my ministry, I suppose this is important.
As I mentioned before, I had been discussing the reality of the Christian faith with someone who was a former Evangelical. This conversation was particularly frustrating for me as I could not figure out what the problem was. I felt as if I was saying all the right things. The arguments I was giving were extremely persuasive in my opinion. He knew enough. There was no more “silver bullets” for me to give. It exhausted me. There was nothing more I could do and I was mad about it. Through this experience, I think that God was letting me know who was ultimately in charge. He demonstrated to me more vividly than I would have ever desired that there is only so much I can do. It was like he said to me, “Michael, all the theology you teach is good and necessary, but don’t think it is the least bit effective without my presence. Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle. You are in the fight, but I have the weapons.
“It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Rom. 9:16)
I think that it is important to mention in closing that I have come to find out that this is more common than you might think. In fact, I talked about this with a prominent Evangelical author and pastor (whose name I will not mention). This guy is the very last person I would have thought would have a story like this to tell. He has never spoken about his experience publicly, but he described the exact same experience, only his lasted for three months! I would not have made it that long.