It became an international story last month. "Former Adventist Pastor Embarks on Year Without God." Perhaps you heard or read the story of how Ryan Bell, former pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church, left the ministry and is now considering life without God.
In his article published by the Huffington Post, Bell briefly outlines his spiritual journey, struggles, and ultimate falling out with the church. Then, the paragraph that has garnered the most attention he states:
"I'm making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will 'try on' atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result)."
As I read that statement, I couldn't help but think of a sermon I heard Elder Don Livesay, President of the Lake Union Conference, give a few years back. There he gave 9 phases people go through to become a person who has lost their faith and ceased to identify themselves with a movement of God's people. The first phase is "Quit looking to God," and the resulting second phase immediately follows, "Begin looking at or to something else."
As I pondered those two statements, I could hear my theology professor from college telling stories of former students, now pastors, calling and saying, "Doc, I'm all dried up. I don't know what to preach, and I feel like my faith is dying." But more than that, I can remember his words of caution to us: "If that ever becomes you," he said, "it's because you're not reading and studying your Bible. Your study must be personal and devotional. It can't be just for preparing a sermon--it must be for life!" I've never forgotten those words and continue to live them to this day.
But if Elder Livesay's first two points aren't startling enough, numbers 5, 6, and 7 are simply bone chilling:
#5: "Replace God."
#6: "Decide sin is okay."
#7: "Decide sin is right."
Some years ago I went through a spiritual and faith related crisis in my own life. During those dark weeks of spiritual confusion, questioning and anxiety, I felt as though my prayers were ascending no higher than my ceiling. It was as though God had stopped talking to me and turned His back on me.
Not only did I feel isolated and alone, I felt I had no where to turn. I didn't think my wife would understand, nor did I believe my parents--who I've always been able to talk to--would be able to help. I couldn't ask a church member to listen for fear they would report me to the conference and I'd be asked to resign or be fired. After all those kinds of spiritual struggles and faith battles don't happen with pastors--or so I thought.
Those were lonely days. I remember weeping in my office behind locked doors mere minutes before having to go on the platform to preach a sermon I didn't feel qualified to preach. How do you encourage and strengthen someone else's faith when you're struggling with your own? I felt trapped and couldn't share or unload except in prayer.
Finally, I called my friend, mentor, and theology professor from college. He listened to me. He heard my struggle. He identified with me--giving me a short testimony of one of his own struggles. But most importantly, he didn't judge me. Instead, he prayed with me and for me.
"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12, NKJV).
"One day soon," he told me, "the valley you're in will be seen as a mountain top." Before letting me go he encouraged me back to the Scriptures--to the texts of promise and hope. "Read it for life." As he said that, I couldn't help but remember his words in class, Bible study isn't just for sermon preparation--it's for life. Then he told me to hold on through the pain and doubt because even the fiercest of storms reveal rainbows. So hold on. And pray through it.
So I did. I prayed. But sometimes those prayers were one-side yelling matches.
I was angry--but mostly at myself.
Sometimes I just cried because anything else was just too painful.
And you know, a few weeks later, I was again in my office wrestling with God and I finally heard Him say, "Ben, I haven't left your side--and I never will."
For a short period of time, I had been lonely. I had struggled. And while I hadn't done anything morally wrong, my pride kept me from seeking help, and almost sent me in a direction of life I'd rather not consider. But I write this because I know that some in my congregation, in my community, and the many more who read my blogs, may even now be in the midst of that kind of spiritual struggle and doubt. And I don’t want anyone to ever have to feel that feeling of loneliness. You need to know you have a friend/pastor who cares. A friend/pastor who won’t judge. A friend/pastor who will cry when you cry. Laugh when you laugh.
If that's you, I'm here for you--because I know Jesus is there for you. On the other hand, if it's your friend or your neighbor that's struggling--why don't you be there for them?
At my church--BAC--we are embarking on a journey to become a "Church of Refuge." Here we want people to know we are a family with open arms. That while we don't care about your past failings, we are interested in your future success. We want to build a church that makes a difference in people. A church that cares. A church founded on God's word, with joyful praising and gentle encouragement.
But what if we could all put a moratorium on unfair judgments and critical comments and commit to making our church, and our community--wherever it may be--a safe place to find and experience God?
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul" (Matthew 11:28-29, NKJV).
Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
NOTE: The comments posted below were posted on the original blog before I moved it to this current location...
Thank you so much for taking the time to post your blog. It was a perfect midweek boost. You and your wife do so much for our church and I want you both to know its appreciated !! See you sabbath:))
We don't have time for conversations as before, but I'm reading you and lifting your ministry and family up in prayer. This piece resonated with me.
Ben, your blog is inspiring as I am going through some issues with my eyes right now and even though it is very scary I can see God's assistance to me in other areas as I need Abby to drive me and thankfully her college classes are evening ones this semester. I realize that things do not are ways go the way I want. But God knows the whole picture and he is leading me in my life.