All these observations piled up like a stack of firewood

Before becoming a pastor, I thought more time in Bible study, more time in prayer, more time exposed to hymns and worship songs, more time in Christian fellowship meant my doubts would decrease, not increase.

But when I became an insider to the religious industrial complex, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I saw how petty and shabby religious people can be under their Hallelujahs and Praise the Lords. I saw how often money reigns, even in the so-called kingdom of God. Speaking of money, I saw how much of it is expended (along with time and effort) for relatively little personal and social transformation. I encountered a significant minority of my fellow religious professionals who were arrogant, insecure, or emotionally enmeshed with their congregations, creating a narcissist/co-dependent syndrome that often resulted in outward success (measured in money, facilities, and attendance) and inward misery (measured in anxiety, fatigue, hostility, self-hatred, and depression).

To make matters worse, because I was preparing two, three, four sermons and Bible studies each week, I was reading the Bible more than I ever had, and as you’d expect, with all that exposure, I started noticing things. I noticed tensions – I couldn’t yet let myself call them contradictions – between versions of stories told by different storytellers. I noticed passages where God seemed infinitely loving and kind just a few pages away from other passages where God seemed horribly cruel and vindictive. Of course, I read books that tried to resolve these tensions, but they often struck me as contrived excuses rather than convincing explanations. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t employ those excuses when others came to me with their questions about things they were noticing in the Bible.

When members came to me for counseling, I observed how much relief and comfort traditional Christian theology brought to some people. But for others, it did the opposite. It confused them, terrified them, even traumatized them. And it emboldened some to be even more arrogant, judgmental, or insecure than they would have been otherwise. When I compared notes with my fellow pastors, I realized that many of them were struggling with similar observations. 

All these observations piled up like a stack of firewood, and that morning, looking into the mirror in a dingy high school bathroom, I could smell smoke. 

From “Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It” by Brian McLaren