Post PPD, Church, and the Struggle to Believe
My feelings towards my church of 10+ years are ambiguous at best. Where I've landed today is with gratitude for and love of my immediate community of believers, those I’ve held close and who have done the same with me, yet disengagement with and distrust of my church. I won't say exactly what events have led to this place, but I know the ache in my heart I feel over those on the fringe - those whose marriage status, gender, age, personal struggles, season of doubt, past sins or current sins feel less than - not in the eyes of Jesus of course, but in their value to the church.
And yet I know I am deeply and unwaveringly loved by God.
As I’ve shared in the past, the last five years have not only brought two amazing children to our family, but they have also brought two miscarriages, severe insomnia, and postpartum depression brought on by the sleep deprivation, which coincidentally have overlapped with the church struggles. Thankfully, my doctor helped me out and I found emotional stability and sleep for the better part of two years. I’m very thankful for the medical intervention that pulled me from a dark place and enabled me to care for my family and myself. Then a few months back, seeing Wookie's reaction to my tears, I realized he had never seen me cry. I could only remember a couple of times that I'd cried since being on antidepressants, but I could feel the numbness and my calm façade of spiritual apathy beginning to form cracks.
This season of frustration with the church, which began shortly after Scooby was born, was tucked away for a while (I thought I had moved past it) before resurfacing in the past year as my entire perception of it was blown to bits. This was accompanied by severe distance from God. I began to question His very existence and wasn't too troubled about the depth of my doubts. I could blame it on the winter blues, but this felt darker. I was actually quite overcome with cynicism and began to view believers as those simply seeking peace over or a consolation prize for enduring the harshness of life. I observed the smiley Christians, and saw their joy as foolish, their love, insincere, and I wanted nothing to do with that. I saw others crush each other and say mean things about each other. I saw reconciliation and apologies but a lack of restoration. I found religious projections verbal or written doused in smug-faux-holiness that only served to alienate me farther from the church – quite the opposite of the intentions of the authors.
Then in January I got a random text from my friend that Jesus was going to seek me out that day. Actually, she said “Today God’s gunna be all up in your biznass… He’s got something for you.” Immediately I assumed I would find myself in a car wreck and hospitalized, because God (if He were in fact real) would obviously have to cause me pain to turn me back towards Him. I drove as carefully as possible to pick up Scooby from preschool and waited the rest of the day for something bad to happen. As I relayed this bit to her semi-shocked self, it became quite evident that I had trust issues with Jesus and it was time to start a new conversation with Him. I've always leaned strongly into Him in times of hurt and loss, but during seasons of "normalcy" or at least of minimal drama, I've never learned how to lean in. So I assume that in order to reconnect, He's going to bring pain. My response to her text was a bit of a shock to my system, and I knew it was time to wean of my medication and begin the other side of healing.
After carefully coming off a two and a half year relationship with a low dose antidepressant (with my doctor’s permission) and coming off a prescription sleep aid, I began to feel and process again. The thought that crossed my mind several days after my last dose as I was driving through downtown Raleigh was that a world without the Father was a very sad, very scary and hopeless place. Then I chose to remember the times He had carried me. I remembered how He was my sole companion many nights during my early college years and I remembered how He wept with me during my second miscarriage as I twelve weeks pregnant sat alone to the silence on the sonogram. Also I heard my five year old child’s heart seeking to know more about God and heaven and looking to me for answers and preaching to me about grace. Finally, I didn’t feel shunned or judged. I saw that He was there regardless of my anxiety about the church keeping me outside its doors. I felt His patience with me, and I cried out. I know You are there, and I know You aren't letting me go. I just don’t know what I believe. When I chose in that moment to believe that He was there, my soul was responding to that seed of faith He planted 25 years ago. And I cried. I answered a friend's phone call after sending her a heartfelt "this is where I'm at" email, and I was a blubbering yet joyful and awake mess.
As I’ve continued to deal with my doubts, I’ve seen that maybe there is a difference between faith and belief.
Ephesians 2:8. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Faith is something God gives us. It is His grasp on our souls that is steadfast no matter how far we wander off, no matter how much we kick and scream with our hands over our eyes pretending that He can't see us. He lets us go out in the world, reject Him, and while we are headed back His way, He's there waiting. And while we're out on the town face in the pig slop (even this internalized kind), He doesn't love us any less. His affection doesn't wane. We are just as valuable to Him and as precious to him as the most steadfast long-suffering deacon who serves week in and week out. We are approved.
And sometimes, I think we need to see that. We need to drop all the balls we are juggling and be reminded that though we fail, though we absolutely do nothing, though we may not even be able to believe, God is still on his throne sustaining us and He isn’t talking smack about us to the people that actually seem to get it right. Though the church grows up all around us so that no one recognizes our faces any longer and we feel like a complete stranger in a place that once felt like home, there is an eternal home and Kingdom and a loving father that is always welcoming us in. Always has the table set for us. Always stoops to wash our feet – our dirty pig-slop, tired and weary feet.
And then there is belief: the choice to drown out the lies with truth, the struggle to see Jesus' face amongst the crowd, the climbing up the tree to catch a glimpse as he walks by, rowing the boat to the other side of the lake to spend a moment with God. Perhaps belief is the struggle to respond in truth to the person of Jesus.
Mark 9: 24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
This unbelief that has been plaguing my heart, in some regards is a choice. I've heard the phrase, "Doubt your doubts," and while that is a fantastic idea that I wish I'd employed, I've instead leaned into my doubts. Has this changed my status before God? No, but it has made me spiritually ill.
Psalm 42:1-2. As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? God is the water for our soul.
Choosing unbelief or opting to pull away from God is choosing liquor over water when we are parched. When we pull away from God, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are better off alone, but what we actually experience are echoes of death. However, God doesn't let us go. There's no spiritual hospice, because we were created in God's image as eternal beings. Our souls don't die. They either rage on in defiance masked in enlightenment, apathy or tolerance or they relent to Him. The fire of the Holy Spirit that burns inside is constantly whispering to us and crying out to the Father on our behalf.
Romans 8:28. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
I’m now struggling to accept that my church attendance has nothing to do with God’s hold over me. As my same friend who sent the poorly received text of encouragement says, even if I stayed on the couch and ate Cheetos the rest of my life, God would still love me just the same. However for so long, I’ve allowed my involvement in and usefulness to the church to define my value to God. And this error of identity is what has caused so much friction and pain. While God doesn’t let us go, sometimes the local church does let us go, and sometimes it fails to love and blames others for its failings. So due to that issue of transferring God’s role onto a corruptible institution, as I have struggled with the church’s shortcomings and use for me, I have struggled with God.
Until I believe that God alone is worthy of my worship and defines who I am, my connections with the church are bound to get warped. I do believe in loving the local church – the local church is part of the body of Jesus, and you know what? I do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be hurting for it and constantly thinking about it. I just feel I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with it as I’ve sought it to provide me with the security and identity that can only be found in Jesus. And yeah, the church has really made some mistakes.
Eventually God does win us back, having never truly lost us in the first place. He wins back our belief, our love, our obedience, our enjoyment and worship of Him. And if we can learn to forgive and trust that His design for Godly community here on earth is possible, though broken as it will be, He wins us back to a local body of believers. This past Sunday I knew it was time, and as I slid into one of the back rows a few minutes late, it was okay. I felt I was supposed to be there. And appropriately, we sang the line, "if you tarry till you're better, you will never come at all."