Honesty usually comes easily to me, but telling this story has not. It’s hard to admit that I, who was raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian church, brought up in a Christian family, steeped in good doctrine, and surrounded by Christian friends, fell away from the faith.
I didn’t expect to. I’m an obsessive rule-follower. My skirts go to the knee, and I still address adults as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” The only tattoo I have is a Czech phrase taken from the statue of a martyred Reformer that stood in the village outside Prague where I served for two years as a missionary associate for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I may have struggled with aspects of my Christian walk, but my faith had never wavered. Not once.
I had never felt closer to my Maker than in Prague. It was clear to me that I was where God wanted me to be, serving him in a beautiful place with wonderful people. Even though it was by no means a simple two years, God’s presence was so tangible and his provision so evident that I felt refreshed and revitalized daily.
While there, I frequently hosted friends and acquaintances who were meandering their way through Central Europe. The routine was the same: we’d meet up, I’d show them the city, and sometime between the hot coffee or the spiced wine and the sweeping views of majestic castles and steeple spires, we’d talk about God.
The story was often the same: they were struggling. They didn’t feel connected to God or the faith of their parents. They were afraid to tell their families or people in their church about their doubts. Feeling like hypocrites, many of them were considering leaving the faith altogether because it would be easier to slip away unnoticed than to cause a public stir.
At the time, I didn’t understand. I told them that they should talk to someone, seek accountability, pray, draw near to God. After all, I had a great relationship with the Lord, so clearly it could be done.
Many of those friends are no longer in the church.
I think I left a lot of my relationship with God in Prague. Almost immediately upon returning home to San Diego, I was swept up into college and work and making new plans for the future. And I was lost. There were no road signs from God, no clear direction. It seemed that he had just backed away completely, that he didn’t need me anymore.
My Bible reading was the first thing to go. It was followed closely by poor decisions at school—worldly choices, things that drew me away from the Lord rather than to him. Small sins became habitual, big sins began appearing.
I wanted to see how far I could push myself down the wrong path before something went really wrong. Like the prodigal son, as I began to recognize the trouble I was getting into, I assumed I could work my way out of it. If I hadn’t witnessed my own progression, I would never have recognized the person that I had become—a rebel still parading around as a put-together Christian, leading youth group events and explaining to my non-Christian friends that “my faith is everything to me.”
What a lie.
I kept it up for two years. Late one night, I came home from work, sat on the floor, and opened my Bible, my soul feeling particularly unsettled. I did not know where to begin, so I reached for a devotional tucked in the back cover of my Bible and read the first page. A voice in my head interpreted every line with bitter, cynical mockery. It was a voice I had never heard before—certainly not mine!
I closed the book and tried to pray, only to find my heart empty of words and my mind doubting that I had a listener. God wasn’t there. For the first time in my life, I found myself cut off from my Savior.
The doubt that hit was the worst part. Sin I knew I could be forgiven of, but if there was no God, then there was no hope and no purpose. The world as I knew it was wrong, and everyone I loved and trusted was a fool. I was a fool. Had God just been a figment of my imagination this whole time? Had I been brainwashed by a group of nice but narrow-minded people?
Those were agonizing days. Two years late, I understood at last what my friends travelling in Prague had been going through.
That night on the floor with my Bible, I realized that I had two options. The first, of course, was to give in to the despair and walk away for good. In so many ways, it would have been easier. I was so far into the world already, and I desperately wanted what it offered—status, opportunities, fun, romance, and relationships. I had plenty of sympathetic friends who would have been happy to welcome me into a world without God.
I don’t know why, but by God’s grace I took the second option. Crying on the floor, unable to even look at my Bible, writhing in the physical pain of my spiritual loss, with the clock on my wall blinking just past one o’clock in the morning, I picked up my phone and sent one text message to three believing friends: “I’m doubting my faith.”
They all responded before morning with verses, prayers, and promises to meet up. And for the next three weeks, they were God’s living witnesses, displaying his faithfulness, his kindness, his mercy, his strength, his love. And they held me tightly with arms, like his, that would not let me go.
One friend met up with me in person multiple times—a half hour before work, a quick cup of coffee at the end of the day—to pray and read Scripture together. She sent me articles and told me to meet with godly people at my church to broaden my circle of accountability. She also encouraged me to seek out the wisdom of our elders. (I did. It was both terribly difficult and terribly rewarding.)
Another friend sent me Scripture verses, almost daily. He challenged my doubts and questioned my devotional habits with unbending tough-love. It was uncomfortable and humbling, and I needed it.
The third friend—my prayer warrior—messaged me daily: “How are you doing? I’m praying for you.”
God still felt far away, but I began reading Scripture every day. I began to fight the sin that had built up. I began to pray again. I was drawing near to God—toddling closer with the clumsy steps of someone learning to walk for the first time. This time, I understood what was hanging in the balance. I understood why we refer to our Christian walk as the “good fight”—because it is a fight. It is spiritual warfare that we must consciously engage in, and we must win. And only by the grace of God do we.
I share this story not because I am proud of any of it—not the fall from grace, nor even the return. Rather, I share because I know that I am not alone. I know that those who grow up in the church will one day be put to the test, if you haven’t already, and I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight. Fellow saints and believers are struggling too, and they are here to pick us up as we stumble—in sin, in doubt, in fear, in grief, in loss.
I also share this story to encourage the church to be honest. It is easy for us to waltz into church on Sunday in our best clothes while hiding the sin, hurt, and pain welling up inside. If we do not confess it to each other, we cannot build each other back up. God uses a broken church to work out his sovereign grace.
The three people I reached out to were not randomly chosen—they were friends who had confided in me their own struggles with faith and obedience. They were the people I thought might know how to help, not just judge or pity or condemn.
Finally, I share this story in order to shatter my self-crafted image as a poster child for the Christian community—me, the missionary associate, the youth leader, the camp counselor, the school evangelist, the Christian blogger, the proverbial older sister of that parable with prodigal siblings. No, I am the prodigal. I am a sinner, ransomed and redeemed, lost and found. And like the prodigal’s story, my story is all about the father. What a father. What a God! His grace is sweet, and his mercy is free.
Even though the road home can look long and feel empty, we will not be walking it alone. Christ will be shepherding our footsteps all the way, until we reach the end and find our heavenly Father waiting to receive us with open arms.
The author is a member of Bonita OPC in Bonita, California. New Horizons, June 2019.