Life Has No Purpose, and That is Freedom: Vignettes from an Ex-Christian

It’s been years since that night. Those nights. But I still remember them, still turn the memory over in my palm like a small river stone: the bonfire bristling with thick snaps of sparks, soft crackles, insistent heat. The stars glimmering quietly in their shadowy seats up above the glassy black lake, among the silhouettes of towering trees.

There I was on the hill, surrounded by believers, the air laced with cricket song and sweetish smoke, the cold sliding down my throat. In those moments everything felt alive and thrumming, sacred and old. It was easy, then, to look up at the dark summer sky and see God. To feel him moving among us. To love him. Oh, more than anything, to love him.

It was so easy. Easier still to rise when the preacher called, pick my way down the incline and take a stick from one of the servers, stare deep into that flickering fire as I prayed for God to forgive me for not giving him my all, to help me do that now. Easiest of all to throw that stick into the flames, a symbol of my decision to follow God for the rest of my forever. He was my God, and I was his. We were the fire. All else was just smoke. 

– – – – – – – – – –

I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 then. In my life, I’ve thrown a lot of sticks into a lot of bonfires. Walked down a lot of church aisles, knelt on a lot of different spots on my bedroom floor. Growing up Evangelical, pledging my wholehearted servitude to an invisible being every few months was a given.

For little me, it quickly became a sacred and comforting ritual. Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. “Convicted by the Spirit,” realize in horror and shame that I hadn’t been giving all that I was to God. Immediately come before him, “broken,” lavishing him with passionate apologies, praise, promises. Humbly ask that he “reveal to me his plan” and help me, despite my selfish, weak soul, to “live for him.” No matter the cost.

Vowing my eternal allegiance to the God of the Universe was easy. All I had to do was throw a stick into a fire. I watched it burn. Afterward, when I closed my eyes and sang, all of creation sang with me. What else was worth singing for?

– – – – – – – – – –

My knees to my chest, bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, I shifted a little. One of the legs of my bed was digging into my back. I don’t know how old I was – 14, 15, 16? However old, I was small. I felt small.

The words had been there in my head for I don’t know how long. Once, when I was younger, I was brushing my teeth when a centipede slithered out of one of the holes in the bathroom sink and I screamed. This feels like that. Like those words had been hiding, hideous and horrific, just behind the porcelain.

I knew what the words were even though I had never thought them. Now, it was time to think them. I put my hand flat against my bedpost to steady myself. The words spoke themselves. What if, they whispered. What if this relationship with God isn’t working. What if this relationship with God isn’t working because it was never going to work. What if He’s not there. What if heaven is empty. I sat so still. But no bolt of lightning came. No light erupted through the ceiling. No blindness struck. What if heaven is empty.

– – – – – – – – – –

I swing my legs gently, letting my heels bump up against the cobblestone ledge of Chapels’ Pond. The sky above me is a melt of blue, fletched with soft-edged clouds. I sigh and rub my eyes. I’m tired. I’m tired.

Behind me is the Christian chapel on my college campus. I just spent three hours sobbing uncontrollably in its sanctuary while my computer grinded out Tyler Glenn’s solo album, EXCOMMUNICATION. I burst out with bitter laughter when I got to “keep on living, keep on living, keep on living.” When I heard “I found myself when I lost my faith,” I lost it.

It’s been 2 years since I started college, leaving my family and church behind. But I haven’t forgotten the summer before I started college, the summer I realized – that God I threw sticks into bonfires for, he was a monster and a myth – and all the rage hate disgust confusion terror and desperation made a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. I also haven’t forgotten the summer before this year. Both summers, I stood in front of my bathroom sink with a cup full of chemicals on my lips.

I didn’t expect to last this long. There’s a little person in me who isn’t a fan of tomorrows. Now that God’s gone, for her, there’s no point in living. And even if there is, it won’t last long anyway. In the closet in my dorm room there’s a plaid red backpack. In my head is the length of time it’ll take to walk to the nearest homeless shelter from my parents’ house. After all, once my parents find out I’m a queer nonbeliever, it’ll be over. They’ll disown me. They’ve threatened over less. And once that happens, I’ll either die or finally down that Drano. I don’t want to survive. What purpose is there in living? God and I used to be the fire. Turns out I’m just the stick.

But as I sit at that pond, legs swinging, something begins to ripen inside me. Words swell up from a place I haven’t been in a long time. What if, they whisper. What if you’re right. What if there is no point in living. A bird swoops down to settle among the leaves. What if you don’t need a reason to live, except to just live. A little orange fish nips at a lily pad and the pond puckers with tiny quiet ripples. Would you ask a birch what it’s doing here? Would you ask the rain its purpose? Would you ask Jupiter why it spins?

What if you’re right. Life is meaningless. There’s no point in being here. There’s no plan for your life to be revealed, there’s no one to follow or serve, there’s no single sacred reason to keep breathing. The sky’s blue is deep as a voice now. You’re here because your mom had scientists cook you up in a Petri dish. There are no rules. No expectations. You’re here. You’re now. What are you gonna do with that?

And suddenly the backdrop of death I’ve been carrying around with me for so long falls away, and I see life, I see everything ahead of me. And it is vast and bright and beautiful. 

Whatever you want. You don’t have to die. You can plan to survive what your parents will bring you. Save up. Fight for your voice back. Recover from God. Change your name. Get tattoos. Forgive yourself. Wake up early. Sleep late. Skip math class. Go hang gliding. Learn the back handspring. Study Polish. Move countries. Make friends. Lose them. Write blog posts no one might ever read. Kiss a girl. Get drunk. Camp out in a national park. Roast marshmallows over the stove. Let people see you. Let people love you. Let yourself love.

I don’t know how to leave God once and for all. I don’t know how to make him leave me. But I want to learn, I think. I think I can try to learn. No matter how long it takes. How hard it gets. I have lost my God; I have lost myself; I have lost the fire, and the stars, the hill and the lake and the cold. Look at how little I have left to lose. Look at how much I have now to gain. I still have the smell of smoke on my skin. But maybe, just maybe, with time and a whole lot of fresh air, I could make my own sparks.

Cover image by ninniane of Flickr ]

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6 thoughts on “Life Has No Purpose, and That is Freedom: Vignettes from an Ex-Christian

    • maxgoesgodless November 4, 2016 / 10:03 pm

      Sorry to hear you can relate, because I know how painful and low a journey like this can get… but I’m glad to hear you found something that resonated with you. 🙂 Good luck to ya!

      Like

  1. whrrgarbl November 4, 2016 / 5:32 pm

    listening to that album now, wow ok I am going to have to buy it.

    I had a similar experience when I was 13 or so. My bible study group swapped prayer requests every week and I was going through the list one night and suddenly the bottom fell out and I didn’t know what I was doing. I went crying to my mom but I’m not sure she understood what happened…

    I was baptized twice – around 14 and 19 and I felt like a fraud each time, but I knew the answers to the questions, and it would have been more scary to not do it when everyone expected me to, you know? Sometimes I would take communion to fit in and worry I would get struck down for it.

    I still remember vividly a worship night in college.. I spent years trying to get that high again. It felt so real so how could I say I didn’t believe? Looking back, my logical side says it must have been the intimate community and love everyone was expressing, but it’s still hard to reconcile sometimes.

    I hope that wasn’t too long lol, it just brought up some memories. Thank you for sharing, this was beautifully written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • maxgoesgodless November 4, 2016 / 10:01 pm

      Hi there! No, not too long at all – I love hearing from other ex-religious people, thanks for commenting and for the compliment!

      Yeah, Tyler Glenn… so much I could say about him. That man has made me cry so many times. Definitely buy it to support him – it’s free on Spotify too if you’d rather not spend money though, fyi.

      Hey, high five for fellow double baptisms! I was baptized in middle school and then again in high school because I thought I wasn’t saved the first time round. I was actually secretly banned from taking communion because apparently hell is hotter for unbelievers who take communion, and my pastor had found out I’d “~fallen away.”

      And WHEW, those spiritual highs. Talk about every single retreat or camp I’ve been to. I think it must’ve been the community too – I felt God move not just in me, but among us. Were you Evangelical too? I think sometimes we’ve got the worst of it. Our relationship with God might’ve been abusive, but God, did we feel it.

      Like

      • whrrgarbl November 4, 2016 / 11:06 pm

        My family goes to a Baptist church, so it was pretty evangelical, yeah. Actually that church is why I got baptized twice – the first time we were going to a different church and I just got “sprinkled”, but the Baptist church said it didn’t count unless you did full immersion. (Apparently this is a thing, my grandma has attended her Baptist church for years and they won’t let her be a member because she’s in her 80s and doesn’t want to do immersion.)

        I stopped taking communion a while ago because I felt guilty about it.. the pastor always made sure to preface communion with a talk about how you have to Get Right With Everyone and God, and I was definitely not. I’d seen my dad not take it a few times so I hoped nobody would make a big deal over it. They noticed, I held my breath, but they didn’t actually say anything. so at least I wasn’t *quite* as worried about being struck down in the middle of church, ha.

        Like

      • maxgoesgodless November 5, 2016 / 4:37 pm

        Ahh, good ole immersion. I dunno what it is, but Baptist churches really have a petty bone to pick with Catholic churches. My church emphasized that every believer should be full immersion baptized in front of other believers, in order to tell the world (and Satan) that you belong to God now. So sprinkling babies with holy water wasn’t gonna cut it. 😛 Us kids took a class on the Bible and doubts before getting baptized in groups.

        Membership was tied to immersion baptism in my church too, but I think it’s so silly that your grandma can’t become a member!

        Right, my church did the whole “do not take communion in an unworthy manner” thing too – 1 Corinthians 11:27, to be specific 😉 I relate to that feeling, ugh. Isn’t it kinda jarring? Seems like a big part of leaving Christianity is getting really nervous something that turns out to be just fine after all.

        Like

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