If I ask a person why they aren’t in church today, many may say it’s because of the hypocrisy of Christians. For Mary Jo Sharp, this objection is personal, painful, and forms the background of her latest book, Why I Still Believe. Though she’s an apologist and professor, her experiences in the church have driven her to question if Christianity is true…or even worth it. Having been drawn to God through the beauty of His creation, but seeing the ugliness of human failings, she’s heartbroken that what she found in church didn’t match what she longed for. Mary Jo calls her journey an “anti-deconversion” story about finding hope and answers in the grace of truth of Jesus. It’s a grace to welcome Mary Jo to the farm’s front porch today…
My husband isn’t good at recognizing the difference in women’s clothing sizes. However, he is extremely thoughtful about washing, folding, and putting away laundry.
When these two characteristics come together, it can be quite amusing.
Roger would fold the laundry and put the items in our dresser drawers. Then, in the morning, I would open my underwear drawer and find my preteen daughter’s set of underwear staring back at me.
“Where are you? I need to show you something.”
“I’m in the kitchen.”
I sauntered into the kitchen with my daughter’s underwear halfway up one leg over my clothing, a completely serious look on my face. “So, I think I’ll wear these today. I found them in my drawer. What do you think?”
Roger smiled. “Oh, that’s not your underwear, is it?” “No, but I’m flattered that you think I’d fit into these.”
It wasn’t just an underwear issue. Roger’s clothing-size judgment skills extended to all pieces of my wardrobe. Over the years, I’ve found my shirts in Emily’s room and my jeans in Roger’s closet. I routinely engage in impromptu fashion shows to demonstrate the error.
Now, suppose for a moment that I didn’t recognize the error before I put an item on. Assume that I just put on the under- wear and then wondered why I felt uncomfortable.
For me, that is what “churchy faith” felt like. Trying to put on my church’s cultural expression of faith made me feel like an imposter, like I was wearing someone else’s Jesus-believing clothes.
Yet I had no idea how to find a genuinely fitting faith. And so doubt began to creep into my soul.
However, my ability to pinpoint the problem was as bad as Roger’s ability to determine whose underwear was whose. I felt lost in this endeavor.
I had no training from the church in how to handle cantankerous church people, much less how to handle doubt about God’s existence stemming from those same church people.
So what if I’d read a book that gave me evidence for the claims of Christianity? I still had concerns and questions.
Further aggravating the issue, I felt caged by my circumstances, for I determined there was no person I could truly trust to discuss this matter with, especially not as a staff wife. Plus, the few times I had opened up about serious life issues, I had been burned by the fiery arrows of gossip and marginalization.
The Christians I had met so far taught me (albeit indirectly) to hide my problems and my doubts.
Due to my experiences, I initially viewed doubt as an enemy of faith.
It took me a long time to realize that maybe doubt could be viewed as part of growing up.
As a child, though I liked to argue, there was a time when I just trusted my parents and their authority in my life.
Of course, being strong-willed, I had my moments of rebellion. But for the most part I trusted and obeyed my parents.
In my later childhood and early teenage years my knowledge of the world began to expand, and I began to have doubts about things my parents said and believed.
I often questioned them or pushed back on them. My parents never assumed any ill will or lack of love as the reason for my questions. They knew that I was still young and navigating my way in the world.
I was outgrowing my old clothes of belief. My childhood faith and trust in my parents didn’t fit me anymore, for I needed to develop a deeper kind of faith and trust.
It was not a lack of any trust, just a different kind of trust. It was a growing, maturing faith and trust. I needed appropriately sized clothing for my current age.
When I playfully paraded around the house in my daughter’s clothing, I didn’t expect to continue to wear that clothing the rest of the day.
Neither should I want to parade around in my initial thoughts about God as I get older as a Christian. However, I was donning those youthful Christian belief clothes.
This lack of maturing in my understanding of God made a substantial impact on me for ill.
I didn’t really understand how to bring together the reality that while God’s character doesn’t change, mine was changing. In fact, everything around me was changing.
All these changes impacted my thoughts, ideas, and character.
Plus, as I’ve aged, I have seen much more disease, suffering, death, and evil. Ideas, such as God’s goodness, that once seemed rather basic or easy to accept, now had to contend with my experiences of the wretchedness of human evil.
Acceptance of God’s goodness took much more understanding, and so the questions came.
However, should my questioning be equated to an ill will or lack of love toward God? No.
While I can certainly pervert or manipulate questioning in several ways, ill will is not a necessary propertyof questioning. Even Scripture reminds us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
Rather, what I needed, and what the church has always needed, is a community dedicated to growing older and more mature in faith together.
We’re all learning how to trust God, from the newest to the oldest of believers.
In an environment where doubt and questioning are viewed as a part of human development, faith and trust can flourish rather than diminish.
We need a place where we can learn, make mistakes, and cultivate an appropriate faith-wardrobe of a maturing believer in God.
A former atheist who came to faith, Mary Jo Sharp has experienced two worlds of American culture: the post-Christian culture of the Pacific Northwest and the evangelical culture of the Bible Belt. She first encountered apologetics in her own spiritual search while seeking answers. Now Mary Jo is an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University and the founder and director of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry.
For those who feel the ever-present tension between the beauty of salvation and the dark side of human nature, Why I Still Believe is a candid and approachable case for believing in God when you really want to walk away.With fresh and thoughtful insights, this spiritual narrative presents relevant answers to haunting questions like: Isn’t there too much pain and suffering to believe? Is it okay to have doubt? What do I do with it? Does atheism better explain the human experience? How does the truth of Christianity matter when the behaviors of Christians are reprehensible?
At once logical and loving, Mary Jo reframes the gospel as it truly is: the good news of redemption. God’s story is not only powerful but also wonderous in its apologetic evidence. With firmly grounded truths, Why I Still Believe is an affirming reminder that the hypocrisy of Christians can never negate the transforming grace and truth of Christ.
[ Our humble thanks to Zondervan for their partnership in today’s devotion ]