I’ve had the same conversation over and over again with my friends who come from evangelical churches. It ends with my friend saying something like this: “I love Jesus and Christianity, but I’m just not sure that God exists.”

Perhaps this happens in other Christian denominations, but speaking from my spot in the evangelical camp, I’m hard pressed to ask why it is that so many evangelicals, who deeply desire to believe in God and to live as followers of Jesus, just can’t figure out what to believe about God.

Is there something about their experiences as evangelicals, or at least what evangelicals emphasize, that makes it hard for them to connect with God?

While we can’t say with precision why some have a hard time finding God while others don’t, I did hit my own wall with evangelicalism about eight years ago. I knew a lot about God, but there was a time when God didn’t seem real to me. After looking back at my own experience, I’d like to share some of my own struggles with evangelicalism and what helped me find God in the end.

Where I Struggled…

Focus on Conversion

I knew what it looks like to be “saved,” but I didn’t have a clear picture of what it looks like to be in a “relationship” with an invisible God. In fact, the word “relationship” proved baffling to me at times when really the main focus was on accepting particular doctrines in order to be saved. Where did “meeting” God actually happen? I watched a video where John Wimber of the Vineyard movement asked, “Where is the stuff we read about in the Bible?” THAT was my question precisely.  

Focus on Victory Formulas

So much of the focus for evangelicals is how to live victoriously. Results are especially big for American evangelicals. We find formulas all over the place: “sing songs of praise and God will show up” or “believe these doctrines and your mind will be renewed with God’s presence.” Everything from books to prayers to worship songs is marketed as the solution that will really work this time.  

My question was: “What if that formula didn’t work for me?” I was surrounded by Christians who were struggling to live holy lives or doubting God. What hope did they have if God wasn’t showing up for them? 

Where I Found God… 

The Language for Experiencing God

The language about a “relationship with God” didn’t cut it for me. When I hit a low point with my faith, I struggled to understand why I felt so far from God. I was earnestly seeking him, and yet, he didn’t seem to show up. Finally, one day, a friend unexpectedly prayed for me and changed my life. God used him to heal me both mentally and physically. 

I didn’t have any language for a dark night of the soul or of a time when God simply seemed absent. The more I read the stories in the Bible, the clearer it is that God sometimes shows up and sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes people called out and God responded. Sometimes they called out, God did nothing, and they wrote Psalms of lament. 

In other words, I didn’t have a clear notion of what it meant to “fail” in the search for God without giving up—persevering in the midst of a dark night of the soul. God simply moves when he sees fit, and that was something I found hard to accept as an earnest seeker of him.

The Hard Places Where I Found God

The one pattern I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of others is that seeking God’s presence isn’t just about what I feel, but about receiving God’s direction. When people encountered God throughout the Bible, he gave them marching orders. From Abraham’s call to leave his home to Elijah’s experience on Mt. Sinai to Jesus’ call to his disciples, God meets his people and then sends them out. 

As Derek Cooper and I wrote our book Hazardous, one of the central points we wanted to make was that following Jesus often puts us in tough situations. We’ll have to depend on God to provide for us wherever he may lead us—which is not to be confused with taking risks on our own and asking God to bail us out.

However, as God leads us into ministry on the margins or into positions where we need to depend on him to provide financially, God’s presence will be there. God does not abandon his people if they are faithfully following his lead. As I served in prison ministry over the years, I regularly found God in our small prayer circles, praying for men who feared failing both God and their families after being released. Those drives home were some of my sweetest encounters with God.

A Matter of Emphasis

Evangelicalism has a lot of good things going for it. I feel at home with evangelical doctrine and its emphasis on conversion. As I look back, I think most of my struggles had to do more with what wasn’t discussed. 

I needed language to describe my season of longing and lament. I needed to know that the absence of God will one day give way to the presence of God, but it is something I can’t necessarily control—even if I can remain open to God showing up. I can obediently go where God sends me, and God will be present in those moments of obedient action. 

Everything listed in the above paragraph isn’t necessarily outside of evangelicalism. These are just things that many evangelicals fail to emphasize. If my experience is in any way common, I wonder if more evangelicals would have an easier time accepting the harder spiritual seasons in their lives and holding on until God breaks through.

Ed Cyzewski, a Biblical Seminary alumnus, shares imperfect and sometimes sarcastic thoughts about following Jesus at his blog www.inamirrordimly.com. He and Derek Cooper are co-authors of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus. Ed is also the author of Coffeehouse Theology (NavPress 2008) and he has served as an Adjunct Faculty member at Biblical.



0 # Katheryne Carte 2013-02-15 11:21
"God simply moves when he sees fit...Those drives home were some of my sweetest encounters with God...God will be present in those moments of obedient action." As I read your statements, what stands out to me is that God is the focus. When the focus is on conversion, victory formulas or anything/one other than God, we lose sight - of God.

What happened to you happened to me too. I grew up with a clear distinction between Jesus and God in my mind, with Jesus as good, kind, ever-docile and quiet. God on the other hand was not-so-good (even though I would never admit that), mad, unpredictable and horrifying (truth be told). So very different from reality, as revealed in the Bible & Jesus of Nazareth.

The disconnect happened in the early years. That may be why it persisted and then was unfortunately perpetuated. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that reversed all of that. Thanks be to God!

God is at the core of everything we study about the Bible. One of my classmates made an awesome observation this week. He said that the creation in Genesis isn't about "Creation", it's about "God As the Creator." As much as I think I've learned so far, that totally caught me by surprise! I never realized it. God is the point in Genesis 1-2. God is the focus. God is the center of the universe.

The title of your blog is so fitting for our times because the answer could very well be "Yes." With this alert, we can take action. In the book My Life Without God: The Rest of the Story, William J. Murray tells about his mother, Madalyn Murray O'Hair playing Christian music in the home, even as she pursued Atheism. We know her best for her triumph in the landmark lawsuit that banned prayer in public schools in 1963. A triumph that I connect to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut last year.

You alert us to the fact that professing Christians can in fact practice atheism in their hearts. Your confession both reminds me of my own past perceptions of God and leads me to ponder the roots and definition of Atheism.

Your contribution is most appreciated. The hope is that in our pursuits of learning the Bible, we keep God front and center in our hearts, minds and souls. It is so easy to get sidetracked. This post is a reminder to stay focused - on God. :roll:
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0 # Katheryne Carte 2013-02-15 11:27
In addition and more importantly, your post is reminder that we can Enjoy God...Kae Carte
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2013-02-17 14:05
Thoughtful post, Ed -- thank you. I'm teaching a series at a church right now on "Postmodern Christian Faith and Witness"; it's interesting, and a little disheartening, that evangelicals who have benefitted from the more "formulaic," "here are the [pat] answers" approach to life with God -- and some have indeed benefitted -- seem to struggle to understand why some don't.
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