It starts with an itch, the slightest feeling of discomfort. You sit at the back of the church and ignore the questions hovering in your mind. You sing the words of the hymn extra loudly, looking at the faces around you who all seem to be rapt in wonder. You think about the word, ‘rapt’, and discover you have no idea what it means. You realise you are no longer singing, and join in again with a jolt. You can’t be sure, but it feels like the pastor’s eyes are watching you.
The next part is more disturbing. You sit in a Bible study, and all you want to do is argue. Suddenly it has come down to one issue: perhaps for you it is the conquest of Canaan, or the predestination of sinners, or issues surrounding sexuality, or who wrote second Isaiah. Every Bible study circles around to that one question – because you bring it there.
The others all take a discreet sip of their coffee, eyes down on their Bibles, and the atmosphere is awkward. You have made it awkward. The Bible study leader takes you aside at the end and asks you why you are so bothered about this, and you break down in tears. You sob exuberantly, so much so that the Bible study leader looks as though they have regretted their pastoral question. You can’t explain it, why it didn’t bother you last year, but now it bothers you all the time. You feel a tightness in your chest. Your faith, once so freeing, now feels like it is suffocating you.
At home, you wonder if you will be able to ever face that particular Bible study group again. You are such a trouble-maker, a questioner. You wonder if they will be glad if you don’t return.
You feel the itch again, and you scratch, in irritation. To your horror, your faith all starts peeling off before your eyes in one long translucent line.
Your old faith fell off, and it looks and feels like you died. You are not yet sure which of the beliefs you have inadvertently shed, or if there is anything left, but there is no getting it back—it has gone.
You check your pulse: your heart is still beating, you are still alive, there may even be a thin covering of faith still, but it is not like the robust skin you once had. Everything else has peeled off, dead and limp on the carpet. It is an outline of you, but it is no longer you. You feel raw and naked, and you hope that no one at church asks you how your faith is doing, because you won’t know how to answer.
You talk to a few carefully-chosen Christians, you cry uncontrollably at unexpected times, you read theology books in secret. You mourn yourself. You wish you could return to the kind of Christian you used to be whilst despising the kind of Christian you used to be.
Meanwhile, you move lightly through faith circles, avoiding people’s hard probes and questions. Your new self feels tender and bruises easily, and you’re pretty sure that one good shove of “Christians should be filled with joy at all times” could finish you off for good.
They say that snakes need to rub their bodies against a hard surface, a rock perhaps, in order to shed their skin. But if they don’t shed their skin, the skin over their eyes grows so calloused and dry they become blind.
This is how it feels to have a crisis of faith: it feels like a death, but it leads to growth.
The seasons change; time passes—weeks, months, even years. You pick fewer theological fights, you stop wondering if everyone thinks you are a heathen.
You talk to others, and realise this is not as uncommon as you once thought; there are other people who have shed their entire faith and found a new one underneath.
One day, a way down the line, you realise you no longer despise the old you, nor do you want to walk the path of spiritual nostalgia, and the questions have quietened down into a gentle pulse.
Though to onlookers you probably look much the same, you are not.
You are still a Christian, you still have faith, but it is newer, bigger. Your skin is not as tough as it once was, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Your faith is now simultaneously gloriously different to before, and gloriously similar.
You take your seat in one of the middle rows in church, and the sunlight streams down through the window, illuminating the page of your open hymn book. You think again about the phrase “rapt in wonder.” You open your mouth to sing.