2020: Deconstructing My Faith, Dealing with Depression, and Discovering Honesty
2020 was quite the year for all of us. There are so many unique stories to be told. This is mine.
The story actually starts in 2018 when I moved to the great city of Houston. I had just gotten married to my best friend and couldn’t have been happier about that, but just about everything else in my life was chaos. Transitioning from a small town to a bustling city combined with the transition from college to the workforce would’ve been chaotic enough, but we had also just experienced a significant relational betrayal from some very close mentors. To say I was in pain was an understatement.
I tried to fit in at the church my husband went to, but my pain just kept coming to the surface. I encountered happy, smiling faces along with expectations that I would step into leadership, neither of which I wanted. I just needed a place to be broken, and I didn’t find it. So I stopped going.
I started to go to therapy — still one of the best choices I’ve ever made. In those sessions, I realized that I had a very disjointed relationship with myself; in fact, I hated myself. I kept coming back to this phrase: “Something is wrong with me.” In 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and told that I had been suffering from it since my move. I finally sought out help from a psychiatrist because the crying spells, feelings of hopelessness, and lack of desire for any human connection were too much. She put me on an antidepressant, and after some trial and error, we found a combination that worked.
After about a month of being on medicine, I started to be able to lift my head above the fog, finally having the emotional energy to think about things again rather than just surviving. I realized that my self-hatred was at the root of much of my depression. As I tried to dig deeper into the origins of this self-hatred, I bumped into something unexpected — my faith.
Asking the First Questions
I never set out to question or dismantle my faith, but when I started to realize the answers I had been given growing up were no longer satisfactory, I didn’t have much choice. If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have said my Christian faith was the most important thing about me. It was my entire identity, my worldview, my way of connecting with people. Yet the questions were unrelenting. Here are some of them:
- Question 1: Original sin. One of the seemingly foundational tenets of my faith — the concept of “original sin” — was first on the stand for questioning. Original sin refers to the idea that since the “fall of man” in Genesis 3, every human being is born with an evil/sinful nature and is deserving of judgment and wrath from God. This idea was at the root of so much of my self-hatred, and I could no longer ignore it. I had a choice to make — I could start questioning and risk going down the “slippery slope” of doubt, or I could shove down my questions and risk being depressed for the rest of my life. For maybe the first time ever, I chose myself. And I started questioning.
The first question — is original sin true? — was the hardest. I felt like a heretic for even wondering. It wasn’t until a friend mentioned he didn’t believe in original sin anymore and recommended a book — Original Blessing by Danielle Shroyer — that I started to see some alternatives.
- Question 2: Hell. Quickly after breaking down original sin came questions about hell. Did God really send people to eternal conscious torment if they didn’t pledge allegiance set of beliefs or say the magic words (sinnner’s prayer) that only Christians have gotten right? I was always taught “God is love” but it was quickly followed by “….but he’s also just!” as an explanation for hell. For me, the idea of God being love and sending people to eternal torment could no longer coexist.
My next read was Love Wins by Rob Bell, where I found a breath of hope in that maybe my ideas about hell could be wrong. I saw biblical texts in a completely new way, specifically the teachings of Jesus himself, and thought to myself, “This might be a God I can believe in.” (Next on my reading list is Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak on the topic of heaven/hell).
- Question 3: Substitutionary atonement. This is a big one. Why did God need to kill Jesus in order to forgive us? Why couldn’t he just forgive? The idea that God had to have a blood sacrifice like a pagan deity demanding its subjects kill their children to avoid his inevitable wrath was suddenly not adding up. Since I was already doubting original sin, I had a lot of questions about if and why Jesus had to die.
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd taught me much about alternative atonement theories and a God who is truly all loving and forgiving, and what the cross could mean in light of that — and also some new ideas about how to interpret the Bible.
I started reading books, listening to podcasts, and consuming basically any content I could get my hands on that offered different perspectives. Other voices who made a big difference for me include Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, Jon Steingard, Mike McHargue, Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, Brenè Brown, Joseph Solomon, Jemar Tisby, and many others. I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but I started to see a larger picture in which many deeply spiritual people had ideas about God, the Bible, and faith that actually made sense and were completely different than what I had previously believed.
Despite discovering a lot of hopeful ideas, I still felt like I was burning everything I had ever known to the ground. And that’s when this piece of art (above/left) from Scott Erickson spoke deeply to me.
The prayer Erickson pens with this picture reads, “Give me the wisdom to know when to light the way forward or to burn the whole thing down. May my Light be a gift to others either way.” I honestly wasn’t sure whether my process was leading to total destruction or lighting the way to a new future, but either way there was no turning back.
Keep in mind, all of this was still in 2020. In the midst of all my questions, I was completely unprepared for the emotional chaos that the cruel, horrific death of Houston native George Floyd caused me. It opened up a whole new world of questions — what is systemic racism? How have I participated? Why have we never talked about this before? How can I name my privilege and still help somehow? And where in the world is the church in all this?
I became angry. Like, very angry. What has happened to the church? Why is the church causing so much harm — to me and others — and doing so little good? Is any of this even real?
I questioned God’s existence. In my darker moments, I feared that God was real, but that he was a monster I could not worship or follow any longer. I looked ahead to the bleak future of what my life would be like if I decided not to be a Christian. I knew I would lose many friends and so much of my identity.
As I marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, I was completely shocked to feel that somehow I was closer to God than I had ever been.
When I look back on the times I have personally experienced God’s presence in my lifetime, it is hard to name many. But as I marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, I was completely shocked to feel that somehow I was closer to God than I had ever been. In the energy of the crowd shouting, “No justice, no peace!” I experienced a God who cares about the oppressed and longs for justice. And this is the God that I have decided to search for.
So why does this matter? The racial unrest in 2020 exposed more questions, this time involving the church — why was it not stepping up to be the source of healing and justice it was always supposed to be? Why was it pointing to a god that didn’t care?
I felt deep in my soul that God actually did care about racial justice, and discovered a passion within myself to be a part of the solution. This was a big first step for me in rebuilding a picture of who God is that made sense to me and a mission that I could get on board with.
Settled in Uncertainty
To be honest, I have not been able to find answers to all my questions. My anger has mostly subsided, yet burning questions remain. However, I have become completely comfortable with not knowing. I have realized that the person who needs to be certain and right about everything is not the person I want to be.
I am a person who now values my own voice. My own intuition. My own feelings. I no longer view myself as a piece of trash who barely escapes eternal torment because God killed his son instead of me. I have thrown away that narrative and am exploring new ones. I am also extremely grateful for my new church community, Gather, where I found such a safe place to express myself and my questions.
My fundamental identity no longer lies in certainty. It lies in being honest about my questions and not making loving people complicated. I’ve thrown away my agendas for “converting” other people and started just loving them instead, and it’s pretty amazing how much freer and more genuine I feel in my relationships. I don’t pray much, but I breathe, and I think that’s enough connection to God for now.
I still struggle with thinking of God as powerful because almost all the power systems I’ve known have been harmful (I know, I’m working through it). But I can imagine love. And that’s what I am holding on to. Love can address systemic racism and white supremacy and broken families and homophobia and eating disorders and everything that’s wrong with the world. So I’m trying to become more like love. And I think that looks like trying to become more like Jesus.
Wrapping things up, my guess is that there are several different groups of people reading this.
- Family/friends who already know about my journey: To all of you, I love you, and thank you for loving me unconditionally while giving me space to be honest.
- Friends I haven’t seen in a while: I value the role each of you have played in my life. If this article has piqued your interest, I invite you to explore whether you have questions of your own in your faith journey.
- Friends who resonate with a similar journey/feel exiled for asking questions about faith: There is light in the midst of deconstruction and mental illness and questioning. I’m here to offer space and friendship to you, not the answers. Feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org — I would love to connect!