I’ve seen hundreds of them. So have you. Those bumper stickers or jeep spare tire covers that say “Not all who wander are lost.” True enough. However, I’ve found that many people who DO wander DO feel lost. I’ve spoken with enough people over the years to develop some observations, and the things that are most common among those conversations include things like…
“I don’t feel like God hears my prayers.”
“I struggle with sometimes feeling like I’m close to God but then a lot of times I get distracted or discouraged and lose that feeling of His closeness.”
“I might have a dynamic spiritual experience and really sense God’s presence, but then that fades and everything goes back to normal and it’s gone.”
My most recent conversation was with an individual who was discouraged because of the ups and downs they saw in their own spiritual life; they felt like they just can’t get it right, that they can’t find that rhythm, or that cadence that would keep them at a spiritual “high” and feeling and knowing that they’re as near to Jesus as they could be. I bet you can relate, can’t you? I had a wonderful conversation and time of prayer with this person and I’ve committed to doing all I can to be an encouragement to them in the future. But I also wanted them (and you) to hear some truth. Because I fear we’re a little sideways in our collective perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If what you’re about to read doesn’t describe you, then promise me you’ll pray for those who resonate deeply with what I’ll share here. I know there are plenty who do.
Let me preface this with the acknowledgement that I’m no guru, no expert on why people wander from God or even dismantle and dismiss their once-held faith all together. But I can say with confidence that these three areas constitute much of the landscape of spiritual bewilderment, discouragement, and deconstruction.
We’re emotional beings. We all live somewhere on the scale of emotionalism. Some very light, some very heavy–but all of us are here and feeling things as we live. I believe God created humans “in His image” as Genesis 1-3 tells us. I believe God has designed humans with the capacity to feel, and to feel deeply. Nothing wrong there. Emotions are not the problem. The problem arises when we place too strong an emphasis or give over too much decision-making authority to our emotions. I’ve said it countless times: Put emotions in the driver’s seat and they’ll drive you into a ditch or over a cliff. Every. Single. Time. The simple wisdom is this: Do NOT let emotions have decision-making power. Do NOT place them in the driver’s seat of your life. Sticking with the driving analogy, emotions might be better described as dashboard indicator lights. They communicate a need in our lives, but are not the need itself. You can YouTube how to clear those indicator warning lights, but you have not dealt with the actual issue. That’s how emotions are. They always point to the problem but are not the problem itself.
The American evangelical Church, to a dangerous degree, seems to have given itself over to connecting feeling with faith. We couple how we feel about church, the music, the sermon, that person who said that thing, and even our own mood with the perceived value of any spiritual gathering, church service, or event we’re a part of. The so-called “worship wars” that many pastors deal with is rooted in how different people feel about different worship expressions. In doing this, we unwittingly place our own preferences over God’s own presence. What can be more tragic?
(Jerry, tread carefully here. You can’t possibly speak for every person’s experience.) For many people, they’ve had an experience that has left them with the perspective that placing faith in God turned out to be as worthwhile as putting their faith in a paper plate. They had a tragedy, a hurt, a broken relationship, an abusive experience, an unanswered prayer, a wrong-answered prayer, a conflict with another person who claims to love Jesus, a pastor who left them feeling neglected, a small group that ostracized them at some point for some reason, silence from a pastor on a particular social justice issue, a church leadership who seemed to ask for money one too many times, a loss in their life where people who said they love God didn’t love them in their pain, or they experienced more acceptance, understanding, support, community or love from the other parents on the soccer field sideline, or in the PTA, or at the bar than they ever experienced from “Christians”. OR they simply experienced a worldwide pandemic along with the rest of humanity and in the waylay of shutdowns and restricted gatherings, they simply found it profoundly easier to NOT gather, even when all restrictions were lifted. It was too late; a new habit had formed, and they were fully disengaged and perfectly okay with that.
Experiences are perhaps the most influential aspects of our lives. What I see, touch, hear, do, and speak is what makes up my experience. So my senses are dictating to me what is and what isn’t. Experiences can often lead us to a new perspective on what’s real and true. Most humans have a default setting of doing nothing when they don’t know what to do. Doing nothing seems safer and certainly easier. A story was told where a car had come to a complete stop right in the middle of a busy highway in Florida. People honked and went around until finally someone stopped to see what the issue was. Turned out, an elderly woman had simply died while behind the wheel. Her car came to a stop and when the medical examiner determined the time of death, it was well over an hour before she was finally discovered and seen. The experience of many is that they believe they are unseen and therefore uncared about. This is merely one example of a possibility that stems from experience. For many people, one hurtful experience can far outweigh the possibility (or reality) of countless positive experiences. I’ve lived enough and learned enough to know not to say “Just get over it”. I don’t want to be calloused or dismissive. But I will challenge any person that’s hurting to ask, “Is the reality of the hurt more prevalent than the availability of the help?” and then “How do I begin today to engage the help and release the hurt?”
Confession time: I put this one last to give my brain as much time as possible to formulate just want I want to convey just the way I want to convey it. If talking about emotions is the most flighty or subjective, then talking about evidence is the most grounded, weighty, and objective. To put it simply, even to someone who perhaps had a faith in God that was at one time real, the evidence mounts against Him to the tipping point where they cannot logically remain in that faith. I realize this is closely related to experience, but when it comes down to it, the evidence speaks and cannot be ignored. Think of a courtroom and the onus of the prosecution to present an airtight case that brings a conviction against the defendant. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is how we put it in our judicial system. And quite frankly, faith in God or walking with the invisible Jesus gets to the point of being illogical, based on the evidence, even if that evidence is not rooted in personal experience. Suffering, injustice, depravity, greed, exploitation, natural disasters, famine, and imbalance of all kinds tip the scale in favor of faith dissolution. In other words, there is not only not enough evidence to prove God (a point I concede), but the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming and to many people turns out to be irrefutable. And boom. Those who once didn’t wander now do. And some do so blissfully.
Take the well-known examples of Rhett (Rhett James McLaughlin) and Link (Charles Lincoln Neal III), hosts of the ever-popular YouTube show “Good Mythical Morning”. Both of these incredibly talented, articulate, hilarious, and faith-filled men each underwent their own crisis of faith. If you’d like to listen to each of their stories, visit the podcast “Ear Biscuit” where each of them tell the story of their dismantling of faith in Jesus. I listened to both stories carefully as they both with beautiful vulnerability drew their own conclusions about their once-dearly-held faith in God. For many like these two men, the evidence simply becomes too strong to ignore while the gravity that keeps a soul grounded in God seems to dissipate. The result? We’re left floating. And floating isn’t bad if you want to be floating, but many one-time-disciples lament what was their faith; they simply could not continue in it. It got to the point of integrity. They couldn’t pretend to believe something when the evidence said otherwise. So they wandered. Left, really.
I’ll simply say that evidence for faith, God, spirituality based on the unseen, or Jesus is plentiful and varied. You can take any aspect of life on planet earth and you won’t have to trace it very far to something unexplainable outside of divine/supernatural activity. So in short, unsatisfactory evidence for some is not the same as no evidence for all. In my experience, atheists would do well to dial back the vitriol and disciples of Jesus would do well to dial up the evidence of a truly transformed life. Have you been saved? Tell your face.
Whether you resonate most with emotional reasons, experiential reasons, or evidential reasons, the ability to recalibrate and recenter on the Jesus of the gospels is always in front of you. I have found time and again that nothing–no emotion, no experience, and no evidence can compete with the person of Jesus; who He is, what He has done (all verified historically, archaeologically, and biographically), and His very real desire for closeness with every human. I realize this is easier said than done, but whichever of the 3 areas described above is where you struggle and what causes you to wander, let me entreat you not to allow any of them to outweigh the gracious love of God. When emotions win out, we essentially declare that they are God. When experience wins out, we essentially declare that experience is our gospel. When evidence wins out, I’m sorry to say that a part of our hearts have turned away from what is true and real, to the detriment of our souls.
Some of my posts attempt to be neat and tidy. They can be wrapped up with a bow and presented and concluded. This one isn’t one of those. So I welcome your thoughts, or any other area you can add to my list (whether it starts with an E or not–you’ll need to forgive my tendency to alliterate; its the curse of the pastor).
At any rate, know that you are loved, cherished, adored, and purchased with the very blood of God. That same God is near you now, calling you quietly, and waiting for your next step in His direction. Grace and peace to you.