Souled Out:

We didn't leave our faith because we cared too little, we left because we cared too much to be dishonest with ourselves about the results.

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Those of us who broke up with Jesus (he wouldn’t return our calls) are accustomed to having our motives and our sincerity questioned by those still happy with their faith. We get it all the time.

We hear that we weren’t authentic enough, or we weren’t fully surrendered to the will of God, or we had some unconfessed sin in our lives, or whatever. Maybe we just didn’t go to the right kind of church, or we read from the wrong version of the Bible. Didn’t you know the King James was the version God always wanted?

Or maybe we just “fell away” because our faith was weak, or our love of worldly things was just too strong. I’ve been dismissed in so many different ways, I’ve lost count.

The truth is that, just like me, most of my post-Christian friends left, not because their hearts weren’t really in it, but because they were too into it to settle for anything less than following all the way through with their faith commitments. We weren’t the complacent ones, the ones neither hot nor cold, whom God was going to “spit out of his mouth.”

No, we were the ones most committed to following our faith to the limits of our capacities and beyond–past the point of our own breaking, following Jesus wherever he led, even to the ends of the earth. We were totally “souled out.”

In other words, we didn’t leave because we didn’t care enough. We left because we cared too much.

We took our faith too seriously. We were far too committed to seeing things through to pull back when the harsh realities of our religion came crashing down around us. Like Truman reaching the end of his town-sized television studio in The Truman Show, we kept going right up until we finally found ourselves on the outside looking in.

We didn’t leave because we didn’t care enough. We left because we cared too much.

I’ve surveyed a number of my friends whose histories resemble my own, and together we’ve compiled a list of ways we ended up leaving our faith (or having it leave us) precisely because we did what everybody was telling us to do. That was our biggest mistake.

Six things we did right

1. We took the Bible seriously. We read the Bible. We studied it both formally and informally. Many of us achieved graduate degrees in theology, biblical studies, missiology, you name it. From conservative seminaries, even.

We read it devotionally and we read it prayerfully. Some of us even prayed our way through extended portions of the text. We studied passages and their historical contexts for months on end, even learning the biblical languages so that we could go right to the original sources themselves.

This was a big mistake.

Maybe you did this, too, and it only strengthened your faith. But speaking for myself and so many of my post-Christian friends, it was our reading of the Bible that put us on our journey out of the faith entirely.

I think the Catholics have the best strategy: Don’t make too big a deal about being biblical, because people might actually start reading it for themselves. The smartest thing the church ever did was to keep both the scriptures and their worship in a language that nobody but the priests could understand, much less critique.

For some, it’s the violence, either commanded by Yahweh or else carried out directly by his own hand. You have read the story of the flood, right? For others, it’s the blind eye the Bible turns toward systemic injustices like slavery or viewing women as property to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

These were all cultural norms at the time, to be sure, but you would think that divine revelation could overcome such limitations. It would seem that God is only able to reveal to us whatever our cultural context has already predisposed us to know and understand. If that’s the case, though, I’m not sure what’s so revelatory about it.

2. We prayed for the things the Bible told us to pray for. We didn’t pray for a pony. We didn’t pray to get rich or drive better cars. No, we prayed for our loved ones to overcome illness just like Jesus and James told us to do.

But nothing out of the ordinary happened. The people we prayed for either got better or they didn’t, but at exactly the same rates as people who weren’t being prayed for at all. As someone once put it: “Believing actually led to the demise of my faith because it caused me to expect God to do things.”

It turns out the Bible writes a lot of checks that reality simply can’t cash. The Christian faith overplays its hand, making promises of provision, health, and security which no one with their eyes open would say get met unless they happen to be affluent.

And it’s not just about healing, although unambiguous assurances about that are everywhere. It’s also about prayers for things like spiritual fruit, personal character, peace and harmony between people, and guidance or protection. Seeing that even the prayers of Jesus didn’t come true, you’d think we would finally learn our lesson.

Related: “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History

As another friend quipped: “There’s a reason one needs faith the size of a mustard seed: any larger and it will destroy itself.”

The only prayers that reliably get answered are the ones we can answer ourselves. We learned this through repeated experience over the course of our lives.

3. We shared our faith with others. Boy was that a mistake. More often than not, it’s a fool’s errand to share your ideology with people who don’t already accept all the same fundamental beliefs that you do. They ask really good questions for which you won’t find good answers.

I don’t mean the answers are elusive, I mean they don’t exist. Some inconsistencies really can’t be reconciled, and the only way to make those questions go away is to bury them. Just learn to live with the slow dull ache of pervasive cognitive dissonance.

Now, evangelism does work–as long as you restrict it to those people and places where everyone already thinks the same way you do. They call this preaching to the converted, and as pointless as that sounds, that’s the only kind of preaching that reliably works. If you branch out and try to introduce the Christian faith into a context in which it’s not already culturally privileged, you’re gonna have a bad time.

4. We believed God was a person who wants to be known through an intimate, personal relationship. This, for me personally, was the fatal error of my religious upbringing. I realize there are many different ways of viewing God, even the Christian God in particular, and not all traditions stress this idea of an intimately personal God, much less a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But mine did, and that to me was the biggest mistake of all.

As a young Christian with a heart full of passion and idealism, I cut my spiritual teeth on the Wesleyan pietism of A.W. Tozer, who instructs us in The Pursuit of God:

We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can. It is inherent in personality to be able to know other personalities…Religion, so far as it is genuine, is in essence the response of created personalities to the Creating Personality, God. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

–A.W. Tozer

They should have gone with the absent God, like the God of Deism who set the universe on its course and then promptly disappeared into the Upside Down never to be seen again. Or maybe like Spinoza’s God, who isn’t really a “who” at all, but more of a metaphor for Nature, or physics.

What this miscalculation did for me was it set up an expectation that I should be able to sense, perceive, hear, and know this Person through direct, immediate contact, spirit to spirit. I operated within that paradigm for two decades, and for a long time the narrative held together.

I felt God. I heard God. I knew God, in personal experience.

There’s just one problem. If you take this relationship too seriously—if you come to it with too much expectation that reality will match what you were told to anticipate—you may one day fall hard upon the cold ground of self-honesty. One day you may finally admit to yourself that you have been conjuring this relationship through your own imagination your entire life.

Talk about a disorienting realization. In the end, what made us see through the illusion was our sincere expectation that it wasn’t an illusion at all. We trusted it. We leaned into it. No, we dove headlong into it, and we found in the end that there was nothing there. Just our own thoughts, feelings, and imaginations, adept though they were at creating our own Creator.

Related: “God Does Exist

5. We landed in leadership positions and got to see how the sausage was made, so to speak. Be careful how far you advance in your faith. If you do things too well, they put you in charge.

Before you know it, you’ve become a part of the machinery that produces the experiences that everyone else takes for granted as manifestations of divine presence. The show must go on, and it’ll soon become your responsibility if you’re a gifted person who can “make Jesus real” for everyone else.

If you’re not careful, like Dorothy in Oz you’ll push your way through to meet the Wizard only to discover it’s just an old guy pulling levers and pushing buttons. Or worse, one day you look in the mirror and discover that you’ve become that person yourself.

Related: “When your Supreme Being turns out to be an illusion

6. We loved people the way our faith told us to, but got kicked out of the club for doing so. A prophetic tradition runs through the Bible exhorting the people of God to advocate for social justice. It repeatedly tells them to look out for the poor and the infirm, taking care of those who are less fortunate.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” the Bible says in a phrase Jesus loved to quote.

But that didn’t go over any better in his day than it does in our own. A funny thing happens when you try to emulate his example: You become an outcast yourself, even from among those who are supposed to represent Jesus to the rest of the world. Like another friend said:

I tried to live my life according to the “god is love” philosophy and it turned out that the closer I got to completely loving others and myself, the further I had to go from the teachings of the Bible until all that was left was the love part and not the god part.

I could go on and on with this list, but I’ve hit the points I heard most often repeated among the post-Christian friends I surveyed about this matter. So what do you have to add to this list? Did we touch on the ones that ushered you out of your faith? Which one was it?

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...