A Guest Post by Sarah
I was raised in a Fundamentalist Baptist church. I was saved and baptized at about the age of six. Throughout my youth, I remember being wholly devoted to Christianity. I remember family praising me as a young child for the example I set because I wouldn’t eat a bite at meals until I made sure everyone prayed together. I also remember being the “good Christian girl” through high school and college. I prayed, faithfully attended church — even by myself after I started driving — and read the Bible voraciously. I sought to be completely devoted to Jesus. I said all the right things and did all the right things. I sang, led Bible studies, and served God. All my extracurriculars were associated with the church or faith-based things, other than being involved in my community arts organization as a teenager, mostly acting in plays. I was so certain about Christianity until the moments in which I wasn’t. In my late teens, I began to incorporate the following story into my salvation testimony to prove I had truly been born again and to use it to allay any doubts I or anyone else might have about the authenticity of my faith.
My mom has always talked about how I was such a headstrong young child, so much so that she didn’t know how to parent me. Mom told me she once went to our pastor crying about me because she didn’t know what to do with me. Recently, she told me a story I had never heard before — that she remembers the first time she really connected with me was in a Pizza Hut when I was about four years old. It made me sad because my daughter is almost four.
My daughter is so much like me. My relatives who knew me as a child say being around my daughter is like being around me again when I was her age. Even though she’s headstrong and hard for me to manage sometimes, I feel we have more moments of connection than I can recount from my own childhood. To hear my mom say she distinctly remembers not having a real moment of connection with me until I was four years old makes me question what was really going on with me back then.
Mom said I was difficult until I “asked Jesus to come into my heart” then it was like a switch was flipped on in me and I became “better.” Now that I’m a parent of a toddler, I realize that my issues as a toddler and young child weren’t the spiritual issues of a hell-bent sinner, but that I was lacking something somewhere, stability or attention or love or something. I was well cared for as a kid and I had a good childhood. I don’t think I was neglected or abused, but whatever was lacking, the problem wasn’t spiritual or that I needed Jesus, but it was behavioral, that I needed something real from my parents, whatever it may have been.
Seeds of Doubt
In my teens, and especially college years, I struggled with doubt. I have a lot of questions. My mind dissects things, deconstructs things to the minutest details, and rebuilds them to understand what’s happening, how things work, and what is the logic behind them. But I’m also naturally loyal. I was loyal to the presuppositions of my faith that were ingrained in me since before I can remember. I questioned, but I never sought answers outside of my faith community, even in college.
One of my biggest regrets is that in college I did not lean into and explore all kinds of thinking. I dabbled in things because I went to a state school. I couldn’t get away from it in mandatory philosophy classes and English classes where I was introduced to secular ideas. I learned what ideas were out there, but I never truly considered them. I observed them from behind the hazmat suit of Fundamentalist Christianity I wore. In fact, I remember driving two hours to my home church to attend a special service where a visiting preacher preached a sermon he called “Babylon University.” He used the story of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylonian captivity to set a principle for those of us going to college to be “in the world, but not of the world.”
Marriage Obsession and Denied Sexuality
As a teenager, I was obsessed with getting married. My church’s worldview, and being a child of divorce, as well as my dad dying from suicide two years after my parent’s divorce when I was 13, caused me to desire stability that was foundational to my obsession with marriage, along with my natural sexual desires that wouldn’t be satisfied until I got married.
Even though I was raised by a single mom who dated and had boyfriends with whom she was having sexual relationships, I was sexually and relationally conservative because I held so closely to the teachings of the church, even more so than to my mother’s parenting. I remained a virgin — mostly — until I got married at 28.
At 18, I began a “courtship” (think Josh Harris “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and Elisabeth Elliot’s romance with Jim Elliot) with a man in my church who was 15 years older than I. He was 33 at the time. This was my first serious relationship. This relationship was supposed to be a “courtship” overseen by our parents, but considering he was 33 and my only parent was a single mom who, along with her boyfriend, (eventually my stepdad), thought the whole thing was super weird, it was mostly overseen by my youth pastor and his wife and my church’s pastor and his wife. By the way, the whole thing top to bottom makes me cringe today and I’m so grateful I did not marry that guy.
I became engaged or “betrothed” (ugh!) but thankfully my mom, and eventually, my church, helped me end the relationship before it got to marriage. After our engagement, my husband-to-be began acting strange — overbearing and potentially abusive. My mom and youth pastor encouraged me to move away to live on campus at the college I was currently attending.
I didn’t want to move away, but I heeded my mom. Living on campus, this was the first time I became depressed. However, I got involved with a church and made good friends and when I left campus for the summer, I realized I was sad to leave and couldn’t wait to go back. I had a great college experience. My friend group grew beyond the church. I became a resident assistant and really enjoyed my friendships with my fellow housing employees. Looking back, I have some regrets about missed opportunities, but nothing that makes me hate my time there. I didn’t date anyone in college, but I wasn’t without my crushes. I literally fell in love with one man, but we never dated, surprisingly. At one point I did feel like God told me I would marry a pastor. Good to know, God.
Not long after college, I moved back to my small town because I missed my church. I eventually connected with a former high school classmate that ended in another broken engagement after three years of an on-and-off-again relationship. After one final rebound boyfriend to whom I nearly lost my virginity, I met my husband.
My husband and I have an amazing relationship and chemistry. If I have any belief left in miracles, then the one miracle I have in my life is Matthew. When I lost belief in God, I felt free to say, “I believe in Matthew and in our love,” but also, I believe in myself and my place in the world.
During that strange time, especially as an unmarried, 20-something, between graduating college and meeting Matthew at age 28, I fell into a deep depression that lasted years; I don’t think it ever fully lifted. This is when I started to lose my faith, though I didn’t talk about it. I had suicidal thoughts. The loneliness facilitated by my church’s beliefs as I waited for marriage was debilitating and I believe denying my sexuality gave me sexual frustration that contributed to my depression. I suspect if I had a different worldview at the time that would have allowed me healthy sexual expression outside of marriage, then I would have carried a lot less shame and guilt about masturbation, which I discovered in college.
Meeting my husband lifted my depression. We had a quick romance. We met and were married between February and November of the same year. I was so happy. Within three years we had two children. My life up until I met Matthew felt so slow and especially those last few years in my 20s felt like a slow grind. Since meeting Matthew, change keeps coming and coming. Big stuff — marriage, babies, becoming a pastor’s wife, losing my faith as a pastor’s wife, moving from a very rural area to a city. When we got engaged, we were looking at a decent combined annual income, but halfway through our engagement, we both lost our jobs. We started marriage and had babies living in extreme poverty and mutual depression over our situation. It was traumatic, but our relationship remained strong.
Loss of Faith
In October 2019, I remember really struggling with doubts about my faith, and that’s the first time the thought entered my head, “I’m not a Christian.” I thought God gave me that thought. The next day, I was emotionally moved by a sermon my husband preached to respond with a recommitment to my faith and I was baptized again.
But doubts resurfaced and I began struggling with deep depression again. Around January 2022, I told my husband that I wanted to take some breaks from attending church, like maybe one Sunday a month, I don’t go, or I visit another church. He was supportive of me doing that. However, I never followed through on it because someone in the church broke her back and I stepped in to fulfill her responsibilities. It put my plan to take a break from church on hold as I needed to be there for these things. I didn’t mind it. It helped me a little because I felt I had more purpose with church than just getting the kids dressed to go and wrestle them into a pew and fight to keep them quiet.
Then in May 2022, my stepdad asked my mom for a divorce after 15 years of tumultuous marriage. It was with this backdrop that I just got tired of pretending that prayer did anything, that faith had any meaning, that Christianity was true, or that maybe God was even real, and if he was real, that he (or she or them) even cared about things the way my church said God did.
At the end of July 2022 and with the help of Bruce’s blog, I told my husband I considered myself a Christian agnostic. Christian in that I am content to practice a social Christianity for the sake of his ministry. I sincerely don’t want my faith status to disrupt his profession and passion and I sincerely love my Christian friends. I don’t want to cause him controversy and pain within the church.
I would be socially Christian in the outward trappings, but I told him that I refused to pray privately. I decided to act as if God didn’t exist, and if he did, then let him reveal himself clearly to me. So far, God hasn’t. I haven’t been struck by lightning. I’m the same person I’ve always been. I cuss more and pray less. My thoughts on abortion and sexuality are changing. But I’m essentially the same person. Better, I think, in how I treat others and how I treat myself.
I’m happier and more at peace with myself and the world as I face depression as essentially an atheist. I would much rather face depression without faith than face it with faith, as if I’m thrown into a fight with a demon with a bag over my head.
I don’t know what the future holds for me as a non-Christian married to a devoted Christian who still feels a special call to be in church ministry. We have toddlers so we have many years ahead of raising children. My husband has resigned from the ministry for the time being for reasons not related to me. He is excited about finding a new church to join in our new city. I told him that I don’t think I’m eligible to become a new member of a church and that I don’t intend to hide the truth about my faith status from people we meet in churches. I don’t mind attending church with him some, because I enjoy having that connection with the whole family, but I’m also looking forward to exploring slow Sundays with no expectations except to truly rest.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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