It was close to midnight as I wandered around the quiet streets of a district just across the strait from Hong Kong Island. I was 17 years old. Other than a family vacation to Canada this was my first time outside of the United States. For the past week I had been smuggling bibles into mainland China as a part of a mission’s trip. That day had seen the last of our bible load brought across the border with hardly any incidents. The team that I was a part of was exhausted and looking forward to some rest in a small tourist village up in the mountains. That evening, after we had a celebratory dinner, I decided to go sit by myself and reflect on all that had transpired.
The year leading up to my this trip had been witness to numerous changes in my approach to faith, theology, and spirituality. Somewhere along my journey everything suddenly became complicated and hazy. My hope was that by going to China I would stumble across a focal point to bring clarity to my diminishing faith. There were only a few days left in the trip and I had not had the same profound spiritual encounters that my teammates seemed to have experienced.
I stood up from the bench I was sitting on and decided to take a walk. After nearly an hour of wandering, I realized that I was completely lost. I could see the skyrise apartments where we were staying but every turn I made either led to a dead end or brought me further away from my destination. Eventually I found a storefront church where a small gathering was taking place. I stood outside for a few minutes before walking in and asking if I might join. They explained that the entire meeting was in Cantonese but that if i wanted to join I was more than welcome.
I sat in the back in desperate prayer and contemplation, reaching inward and outward, listening, searching for something, anything to justify why I was there in the first place. I sat for nearly an hour as hymns were sang and prayers were recited in words that I didn’t understand. Like Thomas, I hoped that by asking to reach out and touch the palms of Christ’s hands he might oblige my request. But the longer I sat, the more I felt as though I was simply staring into a vast and tragic emptiness. I hoped that the voice of God would speak to me, but I heard nothing. There was no touch from the divine, no words of prophecy from those I believed to be my brothers and sisters, no miraculous encounter. There was nothing.
I stood up, thanked them for allowing me to rest and found my way back to the apartment knowing full well what had just happened inside of me.
I no longer believed in God.
It took several years before I finally accepted that the God of my youth was dead and never coming back. I feigned an ardent spirituality, delved deeper and deeper into theology and philosophy in hopes of finding a way to justify my actions and the beliefs I had I had come of aged immersed within. I did not feel that I could bear the weight of atheism. I felt as though I was suddenly lying naked in a cold and unforgiving climate that lacked any and all familiarity. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t real. That God was still there and everything would be alright. But nothing was going to be alright.
There is no denying that the loss of one’s faith is a traumatic experience. It does not simply throw into question everything that you were taught to believe about the whole of creation. Suddenly you lack the points of reference that had stabilized your existence. The guide who had walked you through the dark patches of your life is suddenly gone like a former lover without any discernable explanation. The whole world becomes absurd.
It takes courage to confront a world that lacks any and all meaning. Looking back, I wish that there was somebody to look me in the eyes and tell me that it was alright to be afraid rather than attempt to convince me that God does in fact exist. I had to learn myself that it’s ok to let go and move onward. I firmly believe that I may very well once again embrace the God of my youth or perhaps something different altogether. Or I might not. Either way, I learned through the process of accepting my own disbelief that, while it may not be easy, one must accept the journey they are on with open with open arms rather than wallow in a state of denial. It’s easy to stay within a familiar place despite the fact that it may be unhealthy. But it’s okay to let go of the things that had formed you and dive straight into the unknown. I have a feeling that the God who I felt sent me to smuggle bibles into China would have wanted me to learn that lesson.