[The backlash has begun, so I must clarify. My purpose in sharing Jeff’s story is not to glorify atheism or to come out as an atheist myself. (Huh?) Nor do I claim that his recollections are exactly what others involved would remember. But I am convinced that prevention and healing can only come through understanding, and understanding can only come from truly listening to the person who lived it. Please read from that perspective.]

Meet Jeff Trueman:

Missionary.
Evangelist.
Church-planter in Italy.

In 2005, after forty years of faith and ministry, Jeff admitted to himself and to the world that he could no longer live as a Christian. I consider myself an atheist. By that I mean that I do not believe in a God or gods. However, technically, I could be considered an agnostic, because I cannot say that I know there is no God or gods.”
I have no doubt that others in local pulpits and on faraway fields have waged battles similar to Jeff’s. Some have reconciled with faith, others live as if they have, and yet others, like Jeff, have rejected it all. What leads away from faith? What might protect it? And what can we learn when we engage in conversation with those who become atheists?
I will offer no additional explanation or analysis. There is power in narrative—in a story’s ability to define the undefinable. This is Jeff Trueman’s.

CHRISTIAN YEARS

“My faith was sincere and heartfelt. My thirst for God was painfully genuine. It was my desire and regular prayer that I’d be [as good a] Christian as a saved sinner can be, the child of God that Jesus suffered and died to procure.”
Jeff Trueman

At what age were you saved and under what circumstances?
Religiously, I was raised as a nominal Protestant Christian. For several summers, as a child, I attended a Christian summer camp. It was overtly evangelistic and undoubtedly planted ideas that later contributed to my conversion.
In high school, I had classmates who were born-again Christians and vocal witnesses. They’d corner me on occasion, trying to convince me to “trust Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” I enjoyed debating with them from my perspective as an agnostic. I respected their dedication and sense of purpose in life, but I just couldn’t buy into the whole Jesus thing they said was at the root of it.
Like many teens, I struggled with feelings of self-doubt and loneliness. While having a jovial exterior, my interior life was quite a bit more serious. My teen angst came into sharper focus as my senior year of high school progressed and I had to think about college and career.
One Sunday, after a particularly depressing Saturday night, I kept my promise to a pretty blonde believer to go with her to church. To my genuine surprise, I found myself getting emotionally involved with the offer of forgiveness and new life that this Jesus was extending.

I found myself crying out to God for forgiveness and told him that, if he wanted it, he could have my life—lock, stock and barrel.

I surrendered completely to him. It was an incredible experience and it brought unbelievable relief to my struggling soul.
I immediately told some of my Christian classmates about my experience and how I was now a Christian as well. They took me under their wing, got me started on reading the Bible and introduced me to a good church and some mature Christians who could disciple me. I was treated as a Trophy of Grace, and made to feel incredibly welcome in this new Family of Faith. It was a very heady experience for this once-lonely teenager!
As I read the Bible and was discipled, I came to understand the actual “mechanics” of the Gospel message and how redemption works. As my understanding grew, I called out to God for forgiveness. I must have prayed a version of The Sinner’s Prayer dozens of times during that first year, just to be sure I had it right!
With hindsight, how do you analyze your conversion today?
What I experienced was not so different from what many others have experienced by “converting” to other religions or ideologies. The heady sense of relief is understandable. I was a teen, burdened with all that baggage, and I was able to give it all over to someone else! God was now responsible for my life. He would watch over me, care for me, guide me through the maze I faced and provide for me. He had accepted me for who I was and was going to work with me to make me that person he wanted me to become.

I was forgiven. I was accepted. I had a future, a purpose in life. 

It really was a genuine conversion—a paradigm-changer for me. A whole new way of seeing myself, others and life itself. Deep emotional needs were being met in the context of this new paradigm, and deep psycho/social needs were met in the context of my new “family,” the church.
After the usual “honeymoon phase” of the experience, I started thinking about it less emotionally and more rationally. That’s when the questions and doubts began. But, of course, my mentors had answers for all of that, calling my questions “tactics of the Evil One” that needed to be resisted by faith. It was spiritual warfare and I needed to learn the tools to defeat The Enemy. What they were actually doing, albeit sincerely, was performing a spiritual lobotomy, guaranteeing I wouldn’t think about my doubts and the reasoning behind them.
How long did you believe and live as a Christian?
Forty years—from 1965 to 2005.
MINISTRY YEARS

“I’ve been asked if I am angry at having “wasted” such a large portion of my life promoting an ideology that I can no longer believe in. In the first year or two after giving up on the Christian faith, I did struggle some with occasional anger. But, it didn’t take long for me to mature out of that posture.”

Was your shared faith a crucial component of meeting and marrying your wife?
My wife and I met at Bible college, as we both were preparing for full-time Christian ministry. We wouldn’t and couldn’t have joined our lives unless we shared a common commitment to God and his Word. Godliness was as much a qualification as the various other levels of attraction.
When and why did you begin to consider a life in overseas ministry?
Immediately upon accepting Christ, I was told I needed to share my faith with others, to be a witness to my family and friends. As I put that precept into practice, I found that that was really all I wanted to do! I was a senior in high school and making career decisions, and there was no career I wanted more than to tell others about Jesus full-time.
I prayed a lot about it and finally decided on Columbia Bible College. I was there for the entire 4-year Bachelor program. You don’t get out of CBC (now Columbia International University) without being seriously challenged about serving as a foreign missionary. Passionately wanting to be in the center of God’s will, I responded to that challenge somewhere during my sophomore year. I was willing to stay stateside, but planning to go overseas. I just needed God to tell me where.
Upon graduation, still waiting for clear guidance from God regarding missions, I accepted a call to serve as a youth pastor in a church in Sarasota, Florida. From there, my wife and I taught for a year in a large Christian school, then it was on to seminary near Philadelphia. I was asked to be the interim pastor at a church in northeast Philadelphia. Within a few months, the pulpit committee asked if I would be their pastor. After due consideration, my wife and I accepted the call.
What drew you to the particular form of ministry you chose?
At first, ignorance and enthusiasm. I wanted to serve God full-time and the only ministry I knew about at the time of sensing my “call” to ministry was preaching and teaching.
One evening after our 3rd annual missions conference at the church I was pastoring, our speaker, George Murray, presented my wife and me with his vision of building a church-planting team in Italy. A team of missionaries, each with a different and complimentary gift-mix. He wanted us to join this team. That brought missions back into the forefront for both my wife and me. We could see ourselves in that kind of work.
I gave the church my notice, we did support-raising and arrived in Italy in September of 1977.
Do you see any value or gain in having believed and lived as a Christian during those years?
Of course! I realize that I cannot separate the person I am today from the influence of the evangelical world in which I lived for so long. My values were shaped, if not created, by my faith community and its teachings. Despite its many faults, Christianity brings a lot of good things to the table. It directed me toward compassion and kindness in a way I’m not sure a secular environment would have. It reinforced my own natural passion for justice and honesty. It encouraged a love for nature that I believe to be fundamental to any conscientious resident in the biosphere.

Christianity gave me a platform from which to minister to people. As a missionary pastor, I had the right and responsibility to get involved in their lives and try and help them sort out their very real problems.

Even if the doctrinal foundation under that platform was untenable, I still cannot overestimate the privilege it provided to touch lives. And, I can look back and name people whose lives are better today because of my ministry. I value that highly.
Christianity isn’t the only ideological system that teaches and reinforces quality character. But, my culture gave me Christianity, and I don’t regret it.
DOUBTING YEARS

“The whole process took so many years. When I finally gave myself permission to ask the hard questions and accept the answers, no matter where they led, I was relieved to finally be honest with myself.”

At what point did you begin to doubt the existence of God?
I started having serious questions not long after my conversion, but I was told this was “normal” and taught how to deal with them as attacks of The Enemy. Right from the start, I would read things in the Bible that seemed to contradict reality as I experienced it.” This spiritual battle continued, off and on, for years, growing in intensity and frequency. While I regularly beat myself up for being “of such little faith,” I was also increasingly frustrated with God for not playing by the rules—rules that he himself laid down in his word.

As my disappointment with God grew, so did my anger at him.

Then, one day while jogging, I had an epiphany! It hit me like a bolt from the blue: Jeff, the God you’re angry at doesn’t exist. Maybe there is a God. Maybe not. But, if he exists, he’s not as you’ve imagined him and he’s not playing by the rules you’ve understood from all your studying and reading.”
I returned home from my jog both relieved and devastated. Relieved because I finally had an explanation as to why, for me, Christianity just didn’t seem to work. But, devastated because I felt I had lost my Center.
Did anything cause or precipitate the doubt?
On the one hand, I can honestly say that no big event, no crisis, shook my faith. I have no horror stories. I loved the Bible and the idea that I had a communication directly from God to me. I loved being part of the international Christian family, “accepted in the beloved” no matter where I went in the world. I loved the music and good preaching. I was never mistreated or abused by the Church.
My problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking. I asked questions and all too often the answers just didn’t measure up. I blamed myself for not being spiritual enough, for not having enough faith. For years, I combated the doubts, but the suspicions lingered there in the back of my mind.
The second element that led to my doubting God was that Christianity just didn’t seem to work. I was taught the promises of God and then found that all too often he didn’t come through on them.

It seemed that the Christian experience was kept alive by our own efforts. Like an old-time pump pipe organ, stop pumping and the music dies. Stop reading the Bible, attending church, listening to sermons, reading Christian books, and the experience starts to fade.

I longed for and prayed for the promises in John 7. But, apart from moments of exuberance after a worship service or a particularly good quiet time, my experience in life and ministry was that I didn’t have the overflowing river of Living Water Jesus had promised.
I didn’t go from evangelical believer to atheist in one fell swoop. Even after I realized I had lost confidence in some cardinal elements of evangelical orthodoxy and felt constrained to leave the ministry, I still considered myself a Christian.

But there really was little or nothing in the Christian experience that required God’s presence to explain. It was all explainable by simple reason or psychology.

If I was honest and took off the spiritual labels we put on it, it all looked strangely like a big mind game. I desperately didn’t want that to be true—but the suspicion haunted me.

Further pondering led me to the realization that I was actually more of a deist than a theist. From deist, I eventually had to admit that I lived my life as if there were no god at all, and I had no confidence that there was one.
So, I felt constrained to admit that I was an atheist.
Did you have sounding boards to process with as you were grappling with your questions?

During my years in Italy, I’d found it difficult to talk with colleagues or mission leaders about my struggles. It would have been ministerial suicide to confess my doubts to my colleagues. I did talk with our mission director a couple of times during those years. He was sympathetic, but offered no counsel. I think he felt (or hoped!) it was one of the passages the believer goes through, a Dark Night of the Soul, and that I’d eventually come out of it closer to God than ever.

I put out some strong hints to some of my coworkers, thinking maybe one of them would approach me. No one did.

Once, at a prayer meeting for missionary men, the leader asked us to go around the circle and tell one joy in our ministry that year, one disappointment and tell the group if we felt we had compromised our integrity at any point that year. When it was my turn, I told the guys that I felt I compromised my integrity every morning that I got out of bed in Italy. I expected some questions, but got none.
We’re all afraid of vulnerability, and no one is more afraid of it than missionaries.

Coming out
“In my little world, I was esteemed and respected, valued and loved. Losing my faith and coming out would destroy all that. It would leave me ‘homeless,’ and that definitely scared me.”

Who were the first people you told about your “deconversion”?
Once again, this was a process, not an event. When we returned to the USA for good, having left the ministry, I felt I needed to tell our children what was going on. They were all adults by then. So, I had a talk with each of them.
Our oldest son smiled and said, “Dad, I’m just wondering what took you so long!?” He was already in a similar place and had been there for a number of years. Our oldest daughter took it well, even though at the time she was still something of an evangelical Christian. She assured me of her love and trust. She knows me and believes in the integrity of my journey. Our next daughter was very sympathetic. She admitted that she was in a similar deconversion process and for similar reasons. Our youngest son, after years of deep thinking on the matter, has come to a similar place as mine.
Each child has told me that I had no negative impact on their Christian faith, that they were not encouraged to leave the faith by me or my example. Each told me that they had been in the process long before they knew anything about my struggles.

Like me, they simply couldn’t get Christianity to square with reality, and they couldn’t live in a fantasy with any sense of integrity.

As for telling my wife, she and I had discussed my struggles numerous times over the years and she basically assumed, like our mission director, that it was another Dark Night of the Soul. When I finally made the unilateral decision to leave the ministry, she was shocked and heartbroken. I knew she would be, and this contributed to me delaying the decision. She was in genuine mourning for more than a year, and still is to some degree.
How did you feel about making your disbelief known to others outside the family?
Initially, there was a fear of losing my identity. Psychologically, we each need a “place” where we’re known and esteemed. A social context in which we live, where we can relax and be ourselves. A sense of home.
After years in public ministry, my “place” was well-established as a Christian leader, a missionary, pastor, teacher. In my little world, I was esteemed and respected, valued and loved. Losing my faith and “coming out” would destroy all that. It would leave me “homeless,” and that definitely scared me.
Related to that was knowing how much my disbelief would hurt the many people I knew and loved in that evangelical world I called Home. People in whose lives I had invested. People who loved me as their friend and pastor. I hated hurting them.
How did you finally make your abandonment of faith known?
I wanted to get it out there myself, in some sort of public statement. But that seemed ludicrous to me. In the end, I wrote a paragraph and posted it on my Facebook page. In the announcement, I included my email address in case anyone wanted any clarification. That definitely did the trick, and opened the door to a lot of corresponding with concerned friends.
How did friends who were believers respond to your decision?
They responded in varying ways. All were shocked at first. Some admitted that they were angry. Some tried to argue me back to the fold. A few were accusatory, saying I had chosen “the path of least resistance.” A few seemed convinced I had a secret moral failure in my life that I had chosen to pursue. I think these people fully expected that subsequent news about me would include that I had left my wife to live with another woman. I don’t doubt they were a bit disappointed to learn that my wife and I are still very much together.
But, for the most part, the ones who contacted me expressed sadness and disappointment, but ended by assuring me of their continued love and prayers.
How did the mission respond?
It didn’t respond at all. I have yet to hear anything on the subject from my mission or any of my missionary colleagues. And I find that troubling, but not totally unexpected. As I mentioned earlier, over my final years in Italy, I had put out what I felt were obvious declarations of distress, thinking someone in the mission would approach me on the subject, offering some pastoral care or something. I got nothing, either before I quit or after.
Do you personally know other missionaries/pastors who seriously doubt or disbelieve, but have chosen to remain in spiritual leadership?
One or two have confided in me their serious doubts about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and other evangelical orthodoxies. They have somehow managed to live with the dissonance and continue in ministry. In at least one case, I’m convinced it’s largely fear of losing their “place” and their financial security that has kept them from acting honestly.

Looking back

“I miss the esthetics of the faith: the fellowshipping, the worship singing, the comfort of the rites and rituals. If I could only believe the doctrines, I’d go back to all that in a minute.”

What did you gain when you began living/identifying as an atheist?
Integrity: I was finally able to be the person I truly am. No more posing or posturing. No more religious “oughts” directing my thinking.
Freedom: I was free to act on my own merit, according to my own sense of right and wrong. Having shed the orthodox blueprint for Truth, I was free to do my own thinking, my own research, and come to my own conclusions.
Genuineness: This is probably the bottom line. I was able to be a genuine person.
What did you lose when you began living/identifying as an atheist?
Christianity had been my paradigm for 40 years. The church had been my family, my life-context for all that time. I still feel “homeless” to a real degree, though I’ve gotten used to it by now. We all want to feel significant someplace. And I was something of a leader in this community. I lost that prestige immediately. It was exchanged for disdain. Love was replaced by fear and diffidence.
In what way(s) are you a different person today because you’ve embraced atheism?
I didn’t “embrace atheism.” Atheism isn’t a belief system with its own orthodoxy that one embraces, anymore than baldness is a hairstyle. Atheism—or, more accurately in my case, agnosticism—is what is left after one gives up belief in gods.
That said, I’m no different at all today. I am still the very same “Jeff” that my Christian friends knew back then. If we were to spend an evening together, I think they’d see that I’m still the same guy, maybe even better.
But, I do feel that I am now a more honest person than I was then. I can give honest answers to honest questions in a way I couldn’t as a believer, when I had to answer with “orthodoxy.” I have no hidden agendas in my friendships now. I am not responsible for your eternal destiny, so I can be with you as I feel I should be with you.
What do you view as hardest: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
I’d say they both have their difficulties. One significant difference for me is that the Christian has a support group that is lacking for the atheist. The Christian has the church, where wounds are licked by loving family members, shaken beliefs are strengthened, flagging enthusiasm is stoked through worship, questions are answered, etc. The atheist, on the other hand, is usually pretty much alone.

If Christians feel maltreated by society at large, much more so the atheist. Things are changing as the “nones” grow in number, but atheists remain a misunderstood and despised sector of our society.

All things being equal (which they never are), I’d say it takes more courage to openly live as an atheist than as a Christian, in our American society.
What do you view as most hopeful: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
If a person can believe and put himself/herself into the Bible paradigm, then there is obviously great hope to be found in Christianity. It is the archetype of all Happily Ever After scenarios. But, for me, it is just fantasy, and the hope it whips up is mere emotion, with no real life substance.
The atheist has no hope beyond the grave. At least, nothing he or she can count on. This life is all there is. But that means he should make the most of it. Enjoy every minute of it. Invest in the good of those who come behind him, who will be left after he is gone. As for death, it need not hold any fear for the nonbeliever. If there does prove to be some sort of afterlife, I am absolutely certain it won’t be the one depicted by Christianity.
What do you view as most fulfilling: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
When I embraced Christianity by faith, I believed it to be a picture of how things really are. For years, the plotline gave my life meaning, as long as I didn’t look too closely. But, it’s my nature to look closely. I simply couldn’t hang onto that belief in the face of daily reality. It took years for me to be willing to face that fact.
When, at last, I was willing to admit to myself that my faith was built on fiction, I found myself with a potpourri of feelings: sadness, loss, relief, hypocrisy, loneliness, and not a little anger.

I felt I was living a lie. I was trapped in that lie because I was one of its paid storytellers. I had built my entire life on the veracity of the Story. Giving it up wasn’t merely changing jobs. It was changing life as I knew it.

But to go on with the game after I knew the truth was unthinkable. As it was, the final years it took to extricate myself from it all almost killed me…literally.
So, which do I find most fulfilling? Reality. Yes, I look back with nostalgia on occasion. But, I’ve never once, in the ten years I’ve been out of Christianity, doubted the wisdom and the rightness of my decision to leave it in my past. Learning to live in the real world has certainly had its challenges, and it’s generated its own set of questions. But, in the end, it’s far more satisfying.
IN CLOSING
Christian belief is a faith posture. And, in my experience, faith cannot be commanded. Like romantic love, there is a personal, subjective element to it that cannot be simply willed into existence. Faith involves a personal feeling of confidence in the object of that faith. If a believer loses confidence in the cardinal objects of his/her faith, then deconversion is inevitable, whether kept private or openly admitted.
I very much wanted to live my life to its end as a believer, serving my God to the end of my days. But, as the years passed and the unanswered questions accumulated, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain confidence in the credibility of the Bible and the picture of reality it proposes.

I called on God continually to help me understand, to “help my unbelief.” What I got back was a proof­text, a Bible Post­It, calling on me to do the very thing I was finding impossible: “Trust in The Lord with all your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding….”

Over and over again, for years, I would “re­-up” and commit myself to “trust,” to have confidence in God and His Word. To try and stop thinking, looking for answers…to not use my brain, the mind that He gave me and that was trying to understand, to reconcile the Biblical paradigm with life as I saw it and lived it, with the world that science was unveiling with ever more evidence.
But, as I tried to put that text into practice, the dissonance only grew greater, and my sense of dishonesty grew with it. Some people can live in relative peace with accumulating apparent contradictions. I, for whatever reason, cannot.
God knows I tried.

~~~~~~~

Please join the conversation. What strikes you from this interview? How have you personally experienced doubt? How does this description of rejected faith impact you? If you can do so without attacking Jeff, leave a comment below and use the “Like” and “Share” buttons at your convenience. (There are now 2 comment options: the Facebook box and the WordPress box.) To subscribe to the blog, email michelesblog@gmail.com. And don’t forget to add me on Facebook!

 

Comments

Comments(41)

    • Wolf Paul

    • 7 years ago

    The biggest disappointment for me is the lack of a response from the mission Jeff served with. Their leaders have a pastoral responsibility towards their members/staff, and if there was indeed no reaction from them, they will have a lot to answer for.
    For the rest, it all seems a bit vague to me. What were those specific discrepancies between a biblical worldview and reality? And having decided that there is no God he could believe in, how does Jeff explain to himself the evident design underlying the created world?
    Even as I see the shortcomings in the Evangelical Christianity I live in I would find it much harder to believe that things like the genetic code and the entire complexity of creation came into being by itself than to live with these shortcomings which to me come under the heading, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” For this reason I have to also say, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
    And I hope and pray that Jeff will find his way back to God, if not fully to contemporary Evangelicalism.

    • Carole Hoskins

    • 7 years ago

    I appreciate the lack of emotive language in his story. Surely this journey was accompanied by much grief, but he is not derisive. That is refreshing. I’m sorry that he did not receive better care from his friends and colleagues. Were they shocked speechless by his hints and admissions? Thank you for sharing your story Jeff, and thank you for publishing it, Michèle.

    • Liz Stuart

    • 7 years ago

    Thank you for sharing. So well articulated. Was just listening to this album while reading this and heard the song “The Silence of God.” Felt very appropriate.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cY4SJ_aBnY

    • Liz Stuart

    • 7 years ago

    Just wanted to add the lyrics – so powerful & profound:
    It’s enough to drive a man crazy, it’ll break a man’s faith
    It’s enough to make him wonder, if he’s ever been sane
    When he’s bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
    And the Heaven’s only answer is the silence of God
    It’ll shake a man’s timbers when he loses his heart
    When he has to remember what broke him apart
    This yoke may be easy but this burden is not
    When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God
    And if a man has got to listen to the voices of the mob
    Who are reeling in the throes of all the happiness they’ve got
    When they tell you all their troubles
    Have been nailed up to that cross
    Then what about the times when even followers get lost?
    ‘Cause we all get lost sometimes
    image: http://static.urx.io/units/web/urx-unit-loader.gif
    There’s a statue of Jesus on a monastery knoll
    In the hills of Kentucky, all quiet and cold
    And He’s kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone
    All His friends are sleeping and He’s weeping all alone
    And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
    What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
    So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
    The aching may remain but the breaking does not
    The aching may remain but the breaking does not
    In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God
    The Silence of God, by Andrew Peterson

    • Brekka Trueman Taft

    • 7 years ago

    Thank you, Michelle, for interviewing my Dad.
    Thank you, Dad, for showing each of us kids what it means to live with personal integrity…both privately and publically, even when it costs you dearly, even when it’s messy… You have given us an amazing gift.

  1. Christianity is not a religion, it’s a vibrant, living, moment-by-moment relationship with an entity that inhabits you. Faith isn’t something you create in your own soul, it’s a gift from the author of faith. Where is the person of the Holy Spirit in Jeff’s life? Did Jeff actually obey Jesus’ instructions to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers? If he didn’t, he may have been a religious man but he wasn’t a disciple. Once you’ve had the dynamic of the “Co-worker” who created the universe walking around inside of you, it’s hard to unbelieve. May the real God, “the hound of heaven,” never give up on Jeff or his family.

    • Erwin and Edna Evans

    • 7 years ago

    Dear Ones, Asking prayer because I have two granddaughters who have come to this. The says she never believed but pretended and the other was really excited about her Christian life, left her life of sin, repented and wanted to go as a missionary. He sister’s husband (the one that said she never believed) said he was saved (after he spent 10 yrs in prison) but we never did see a sincere heart. He very suddenly denied Christ and said he was anti God and even worshiped satan. Now they all deny Christ and teach their little one to do the same. It is such a hard thing for our family. Their Dad is a missionary in Brazil and it is such a burden to them. We also are retired missionaries and we just can’t believe how satan has blinded their eyes to the truth. Edna

    • Helena Witherall

    • 7 years ago

    I really appreciate you posting this interview with Jeff. It is challenging in many different ways. I have experienced some incredible difficult situations since my time at BFA and they have changed who I am. I have also walked with friends through some gut wrenching painful experiences. What I have seen is that when wrestling through the reality of these situations –some people seem to genuinely find there was nothing there in the first place and others find themselves wrestling with a Person (such as Jacob –who became Israel). I do not doubt his sincere experience coming up empty but I would have to say the same experiences have left others with a new name.

  2. I appreciate the forthrightness and effort at honest disclosure of this interview. This is a classic example of why THINKING about what we believe matters, not covering over doubts or shoving down real objections and perceived discrepancies or unthinkingly swallowing lock-stock-and-barrel what others tell us about faith and theology. And why, when push comes to shove, genuine faith isn’t simply following a set of religious regulations or mentally agreeing with a particular set of theological ideas. It is about the self-disclosure and personal relationship of the only True God with us.
    I struggled for a number of years with rational doubts, especially in light of hipocrisy I saw in the Christian environment around me (thank God NOT from my parents or their closest coworkers), and with poor theology (thankfully mostly communicated to me just by avenues outside my own home). But God Himself through Christ made Himself known to me, not just a bunch of religious ideas and flighty emotions, but a God who really reveals Himself to the heart and mind in His three-person glory. I couldn’t find Him, for all my genuine searching. I couldn’t grasp or keep genuine faith for all my desiring. I couldn’t do right for all the right and good I knew to do. And I knew it and despaired. But He found me, held on to me, changed my desires from the inside. He gave me spiritual life and faith where before there had only been death and doubts. And He has taught me and continues to lead me into all truth by His Spirit through His word, just as He promised in the Bible He would. For well over 2 decades, He has never left me to my own devices or given me cause to doubt Him.
    Theology matters, people. Bad theology hurts people. But you can’t think your way into faith. Sound theology and doctrine comes from knowing the One to Whom they point, and help point us to the One we long to know better.
    I realize this can sound like a bunch of goofy mysticism in many ways – but once you’ve met the Living God, you know with absolute clarity it is not. No moralism, asceticism, rationalism or empiricism can ever bring anyone to that point. Our finiteness fails to carry us far enough to bridge the gap sin places between our hearts/minds and God. Only the gracious work and power of Jesus can do that. I could say much more about theology, practical living, and a thinking faith but I’ll stop for now.

    • Andy Kerr

    • 7 years ago

    Thanks for posting this. I’m sure a lot of Christians wouldn’t have gotten this far through the conversation to hear him out face-to-face, which is unfortunate. It’s so important to listen and respect.

    • Sally Phoenix

    • 7 years ago

    I am left with a feeling of deep sadness. I feel like I should apologize for the “church”; for the failure of church and mission leaders and Christians in general to listen and take him seriously.
    I think what I kept looking for was a vital relationship with the person of Christ, rather than a disappointment with “orthodoxy”.
    I would also like to recommend to anyone out there looking for answers that you look into “L’Abri,” where atheists and doubters are welcomed with open arms. They will not preach, or try to reconvert, but will listen and discuss and love with unconditional love. It is a place where every question is taken seriously. They are more interested in the person than in their “spiritual condition.”

    • Andy Kerr

    • 7 years ago

    Interestingly, this dropped into my in-box just one day after I read an article in Reader’s Digest about how they identify potential mass murderers—and a LOT of the statements are the same: Dropping hints, wanting someone to confront them, to be responded to, to come along side and check up on them. Trudging down a reluctant path because it seems like the only reasonable option. The similarities were eerie.

  3. Thanks Michele for doing this interview. I am sure there are others who have traveled a path similar to his. Others traveling this path have left the evangelical tradition yet are still Christian. Others have just rejected any doubts. Personally I appreciate his honesty with himself.

  4. I appreciate the honesty with himself. I agree that doubts and fears need to be discussed openly in the church, with respect.

  5. I don’t understand how/why his mission board, and his elders and missions committee at his sending church did not reach out to him as soon as he expressed his concerns in the first place. Financial support is only one piece of what the home church needs to provide for its missionaries. I comment as a 10-year member of our church Missions Committee, and one-time elder.

  6. A great piece! And utterly typical that he received just silence from the mission.

  7. Thank you for sharing this! My own personal story has many parallels. I’m proud of us for stepping out and being honest.

  8. Thank you, Michele, for your incredible courage in posting this very honest interview! I can relate very much to Jeff”s journey. I find myself edging away from churchianity, but it is so important for me to hold on to my integrity and genuineness as I experience more and more freedom.

  9. Rachel, there’s no courage in posting someone’s story. The real courage is for people of faith to read it and learn from it without feeling threatened.

  10. Can I please simply say something as someone who is about to celebrate 50 years since i first came to know my Lord. Yes I have been hurt by churches and other Christians, but never by my Lord. When, not if, but when you go through the rough times, simply look at Jesus, no one else. Ask yourself, has anyone ever come up with a better idea, a better philosophy, a better way of life. Simply look at Jesus. Look at the way He handled Himself. Talk about a real gentleman. He was never afraid to talk to anyone. They were far more important than His apparent reputation. The established church hated Him, yet when a senior Pharisee (Nicodemus) came to Him with a genuine motive, He immediately responded in a loving meaningful way, such that Nicodemus later became a disciple and had the guts to ask for His body after He’d been crucified. Then there there is the fact that He was prepared to die for me, and you, and then say, “OK guys that’s enough of the gory stuff, let Me show who I really am”. If you’re going through that rough patch, please give me a call through Facebook. He is real. He is alive and He ain’t going to let you go.

  11. I’m grateful for Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward. It helped me process through the idea that there are other choices beyond 1. repression of reality or 2. rejection of God. I understand Jeff’s conclusions, but I’m still trusting that faith and reality hold together in the great mystery that is Love.

  12. Just sad. Sad that no one was there for him, sad that he just gave up and left. Just sad. I hear his pain and frustration, and I do think that sometimes it becomes a matter of just having Faith in what you cannot explain and understand. I think trying to hold God to our standards and decisions is the biggest mistake there is. He is God. He can do whatever he wants and does not have to explain anything to us. It may sound like a cop out, but I have too many other experiences in my life that confirm to me that God is real.

  13. interesting story. I have an mk friend who was devout and passionate and now an atheist. in his case it was tue cognitive dissonance he saw in the way his folks expressed their faith. IE, they held a YEC (young earth creationist/ism) position and he (a computer programmer with a degree in biology) found bizarre. These things happen – and only God knows the end game

  14. While I was still in Mexico, on December 12, 2012, my friend of 40 years disappered in the mountains of Northern Mexico, along with her sister and two of their nieces. They were found murdered, three days later. Numbly I wanted to know where the Angel of the Lord was, as He certainly wasn’t encamping round about her and defending her! My faith got to one peg from the bottom. I could say, “Yeah though I walk through the Valley of death, I will fear no evil.” Last year, reading William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, at my brother James’s suggestion, I came across Job’s quote, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” I realized my friend Chefina would have said this, and my faith has been growing back.

  15. Hope P., I’ve discovered that a LOT of the promises we claim are from the Bible are either superstition, completely made up or lines taken out of context from Scriptures and “expanded” to cover our human wish-list. Yet we preach them so loudly that when the promises don’t “come true” in the most tragic circumstances we’re tempted to throw it all out. Yet God never said that he’d keep us safe, or healthy, or happy or that our ministry would be productive… He did promise that life would not be easy but that he’d love and comfort us without fail. I’m so glad you came to a point where you saw a deeper truth.

  16. I honestly think the greatest danger to someone’s faith is the platitudes that we teach as gospel. No one wants to preach that life is going to be hard, but that is exactly what he says/promises. We just don’t like it so we ignore it.

  17. “Over and over again, for years, I would ‘re­-up’ and commit myself to ‘trust,’ … To try and stop thinking, looking for answers…to not use my brain, the mind that He gave me and that was trying to understand, to reconcile the Biblical paradigm with life as I saw it and lived it, with the world that science was unveiling with ever more evidence.”
    I find this a deeply disappointing consequence of that segment of the Christian community that ‘cautions’ Christians against thinking too much, about ‘idolizing the mind’ and so on. God gave us our minds. Shouldn’t we Christians, of all people, consider the *full* use of our minds a form of responsible stewardship, if not a unique form of worship?

  18. It’s sad that people can’t really share what they’re thinking/feeling. It’s also sad that oftentimes, missions don’t really seem to care that much about their ’employees’, that is, their missionaries. Maybe I’m being too negative, but when my dad was told by his mission to seek counseling, his counselor told him that he thought it was the people in the mission who needed counseling! Not him! But he still felt called […], so he came back and was here for 30 more years as an independent missionary–teaching to make a living while doing evangelism and working with churches (one of which he was pastor of in his 60s). I, too, spent 28 years teaching in schools while I was planting churches.
    I am glad that Jeff is so honest. I pray, tho, that this is not the end of the story.

  19. I think the danger is in substituting intellectual exercises for relationship… There needs to be room for both in authentic faith. Relationship covers the gaps where there is insufficient information to get solid answers. Some of our questions just won’t have a clear answer in the Bible, because it wasn’t written to answer them.

  20. Or [when we say] “all things happen for a reason”. The fact is, this universe is full of suffering and as residents of it, we will suffer. God promises to provide for us, not stop us suffering. All of us suffer, some of us terribly, but the believer never suffers alone. Because our suffering God suffers with us and is with us

  21. Thanks for posting this. Jeff is someone I would like to know. His manner is authentic and gracious and honest. However, I don’t in the least bit feel threatened or sense doubts manifesting as a result of his journey. He obviously has thought long and hard. He didn’t elaborate on what constituted God not doing His part or playing by His rules. There are pieces I don’t understand, and I too am saddened that his colleagues didn’t sense the pleas for interaction.
    It causes me to look around at those around me and evaluate where I am turning a deaf ear to conversations that I don’t have the energy for.
    Thanks!

    • Jennifer

    • 7 years ago

    This interview is disturbing and tragic on so many levels. How sad that this man and his children have been lost to the kingdom, and how mystifying it is that the people who could have spoken into their lives just let them walk away. I think what grieves me most is their rejection of Jesus: turn away from the church if you must, deny the authority of Scripture in your life… but don’t rebuff your precious Savior who gave all for you.
    I serve as a missionary too, and I have had doubts over the years about certain aspects of the faith. Yet for the most part, the Big Picture still holds together for me and I continue to believe in God and his promises. In fact, seeing the goodness of God in the lives of African believers is one thing that keeps me on track. The poor do not expect that becoming a Christian will make them rich or spare them suffering. They recognize that we live in a fallen world and don’t expect to be spared the same trials their unbelieving neighbors experience. But they keep clinging to Jesus.
    [I realize that Jeff did not state that it was the problem of pain which turned him away from God. I simply address this issue as an example of what DOES cause many Americans to reject Christ.]

    • Jennifer

    • 7 years ago

    One more thing: CBC became Columbia International University (CIU), not International Christian University. ICU is a private Christian university located in Japan.

    1. I’ll correct this. Thank you.

  22. Just wanted to respond briefly to this. I , too, am a friend of George Murray and grad of Columbia Bible College. I, too, am a missionary……36 years. I think the face of missions is changing drastically to allow for honesty in our struggle in life. I wonder if we are bold enough to reach out to one of our own who is questioning everything and still love them with the love of Christ. My heart ached as I read this account. I guess my initial reaction was that the One who is the object of my faith has disappointed me at times by not acting the way I wish He would…..like taking my daughter to heaven with cancer when she herself was planning to be a missionary. There is no understanding of that. But I also resist the notion that if one is a deep thinker, they would come to question God’s existence and come to the logical conclusion that He does not exist because He makes no sense.
    Read the book of Job……of course, you can always blame the words on a mere man that, for some reason, wanted to write a fantastic story of how much God would push his subjects to the brink and enjoy the unfolding of an amazing drama complete with well-intentioned friends who do their best to find a reason in it all. And then, God tells Job to remember who he is talking to…….the One who hung the stars and moon and sun and created all living things. This particular book kind of summarizes the deep questions of life. Kate, my precious daughter, and I were studying it together…..along with the teachings of John Piper on this subject…..when she died. What I got from it all is that God just does not make sense……..if He did, He would not be much of a God. So I must live with this lack of understanding on my part and quit locking God up in a theological box.
    I am okay with that……..in fact, I am good with that. My God is beyond my pathetic attempts at comprehension. He is God……who thinks higher and deeper than me. And He has invited me to be His friend, His child, His daughter. And the terms of that relationship were laid out by His Son. I love Him. I adore Him. I want to go to my grave doing that. I don’t shut down and ignore the dissonance of those who are struggling to reconcile who He is with life. I read some of the writings on this subject matter. I hear their struggle. Some are close to me. I love them and I pray for them.
    But please do not think that in order to have a faith that lasts, I must check my mind at the door. I look forward to an eternity of learning and experiencing God face-to-face. Until that time………..I will revel in His joy in me, and struggle in how He acts sometimes, and grieve over the affects of sin in this world, and read and study and struggle to live life and love Him. I can only imagine how He struggled to send His Son to die for a world that could care less.

  23. In my limited experience as an atheist I think that the process that Jeff underwent is a common one for those who grew up Christian and later gave up their belief in God. I certainly identified with the cognitive dissonance. And the exchange of my identity for authenticity. I feel like the same person but I lost a place of prestige in that community.

    • Bonnie

    • 7 years ago

    Others have said many of the things I could have said: religion is not relationship’; “churchianity” is not Christ; the Bible is not book of promises or an encyclopedia of answers; Scripture is often made to apply where it doesn’t. And, most importantly, the God we believe in is not the real God. The real God is the real God now matter what we believe about him or what he think he should or should not be like.
    A good resource for anyone (believer or doubter or unbeliever) is D. A. Carson’s book or audio/video (free) series: “The God Who is There.”
    I too have wrestled deeply to understand reality in light of what the Bible actually says (not what people have told me it means). One of many realities that I have struggled with and sought to understand is why and how some people can walk away from the God that is so very real and personal and present in my life. Jeff’s answer to the question about what he gained by leaving Christianity is the same answer that the Scriptures offered me. Jeff said he gained: “Freedom: I was free to act on my own merit, according to my own sense of right and wrong. Having shed the orthodox blueprint for Truth, I was free to do my own thinking, my own research, and come to my own conclusions” That is the nature of man as the Bible describes it. It rejects a God who says, “I created you, I determine right and wrong. I am Truth. Your thinking apart from me is finite at best and corrupted by your own desire for self-determination, at worst.” [Note: The nature of man is to reject this God. To question what other people tell us to believe about God is right and appropriate.]
    Jeff also said, “I was actually more of a deist than a theist.” Much of Christianity today is a moralist, therapeutic deism. It says, “Believe in a God (deism) so you will be a better person, so you can do the good things Jesus did (moralistic); so your life will be better, so you will have peace and get over your problems, so you will have someone to pray to for help when you need it (therapeutic). And here are the verses that prove it.” However, all of scripture from the first page to the last is about a Creator, a rebellious creation and the restoration plan – Jesus.
    As long is we want a God that we can define and a God we can manipulate to make our life as we want it and freedom from a God who has the right and authority to tell us what is right and wrong, then the right and honest thing to do is to walk away from that God. He does not exist.
    If however, we are fully aware of God’s holiness and our own un-holiness; if we are despairing of the unbridgeable gap between us and God; if we recognize Jesus – his death and resurrection as just payment for our sinfulness and our only access to God’s presence, then God grants faith to believe.

    • Scott Bailey

    • 7 years ago

    I can relate very strongly to Jeff’s story. What be says about we Christian’s trying to generate something is very real. While I am still a Christian I have had to give up some of the false ideas of God that Jeff described. It has not been easy by any means. I appreciate Jeff’s desire to have integrity although I have come to a different conclusion.

    • Michael Walsh

    • 7 years ago

    As a graduate of Columbia Biblical Seminary and a missionary in Europe I found your article very interesting. I appreciate Jeff’s honesty and I’m glad he acted with integrity by leaving the ministry. At the same time it must be said that Jeff has just voiced his opinion on a matter of life and death. Jeff says he is not sure if there is a god or not and that is OK with him. Well if he is right I guess it is OK. He will live life reaping the benefits of being around Christianity. He has learned honesty, community and compassion from his encounters with Christians that will make his life better even as an agnostic. If however Jeff is wrong then he is facing an eternity in hell. If I was Jeff I would not end my quest for truth and reality so quickly. I would keep asking questions and seek out those who could answer them. If there Lord has truly put eternity in our souls then deep down Jeff knows this fleeting life is not all there is. I hope the Lord will bring him to place where he will cry out: What must I do to be saved! God’s answer is simple, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Like Lydia in Acts 16 it is only the sovereign Lord who can bring him to that place. So once again Jeff, thanks for your honesty and I trust that you will keep seeking the truth.

    • Peter G

    • 7 years ago

    Jeff and Michele,
    Thank you both for this.
    I hope this “revelation,” and the mostly-thoughtful responses to it, will push the Christian Church, especially in its more conservative and evangelistic manifestations, to reconsider the logical consequences of our fire-insurance/behavior-modification/coke-machine-religion which we have so long presented and defended and called “Christianity.”
    Our counterfeits have, in fact, often been far too effective for way too long, and they have, in the end, only deepened our disillusion.
    But, after all, the very existence of a counterfeit actually vouches for the existence and true value of the Real Thing.

  24. I am touched by the sincere sharing of Jeff’s story, and humbled by his wholehearted ownership… ownership of the truth of where he is at and why and how he is there, rather than of some pretense of where or what anyone feels he ought to be. I seek the community and the communion of the wholehearted, and I would feel far beyond honored to be counted among those like him. What I find frustrating in this post is the number of comments that reflect the feeling that his current sense of allegiance is something we need to fix. It’s not. We’re all broken, and Jeff is maybe just a little more raw than we’re willing to confess to being. More power to him. More power to the honest ones who can be fully present with their fractured selves and with this fractured world we live in. Let’s stop trying to fix them and instead seek their kind of sincerity.

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