“All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you as I can, especially Christians who are to blame for most of the problems in the world.”
In the early morning hours of December 9, 2007, a young man typed that post on an internet message board. With two handguns, an assault rifle and one thousand rounds of ammunition on him, the 24-year-old drove to Colorado Springs, parked in a church parking lot, and opened fire on random people leaving Sunday services.
He killed two teenage sisters who had recently traveled on mission trips overseas and were active in the church youth group. Their parents, two surviving sisters and church family would take many months to recover. Even then, the loss lingered.
I know, because it was my home church. Following the worship service, I had driven away not long before the shooting happened. Later, I came to know the affected family personally.
That young man ended his life that day after being confronted by a security guard. Some aspects of his story are familiar: isolation, secretly gathering weapons, and handwritten “Hail Satan” messages scrawled over the names of former friends. Yet, in the aftermath, I also saw myself in this young man.
Learning From Extremes
Like myself, the young man had been homeschooled by Christian parents. His brother and I had attended the same university. His family often visited my home church, and we had been through similar missions training.
Two moments seemed to trigger his mental break: when he didn’t make the cut for a particular missions trip, and when a trusted pastor experienced moral failure. It appears that feelings of betrayal and rejection caused him to flee the truth he had grown up with.
I’m not saying anyone without faith is dangerous. But why is it that so many atheists and agnostics started as professing Christians? What happened?
Thinking of friends and loved ones who discarded their Christian faith left me grasping for answers and wondering what caused the drift. While every story is unique, we can also observe attitudes and decisions common to many journeys away from faith. As the parable of the sower and the seed illustrates, not all soils are the same. Consider these four steps the basic instructions for abandoning your Christian faith.
1. Make sarcasm, cynicism and judgment your whole life.
Humorous “hot takes” are all the rage on social media. It’s deeply satisfying to throw down the perfect comeback at the right moment. Crushing all hypocrites and straw men with a few tweets, it feels good to be the only one left standing.
But can fun devolve into something ugly? Scoffing is prevalent among millennials (of which I’m one). It’s an attitude potent enough to destroy people and even the public square itself. According to Proverbs 29:8, “Scoffers set a city aflame, but the wise turn away wrath.”
A friend of mine recently shared insights from her experience serving in public schools. “Almost all incidents of violence in the schools and even suicide attempts could be traced back to some sort of social media incident,” she told me. “A nasty exchange occurred between students over Snapchat or another app, and we learned later that it escalated into violence.”
I follow many hilariously snarky people, Christian and otherwise. Comedy can even be a tool to fight injustice. What crosses the line is cutting remarks that tear people down. Careless, blanket judgments reflect a failure to listen and learn from voices of experience and wisdom.
Just as great a tragedy is how a mocking mindset closes off possibilities of what the supernatural Creator is capable of doing. Addressing the same sneering pride, envy and humanism we see today, Paul quotes the words of God to his audience. “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish,” states Acts 13:41. “For I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.”
2. Forsake the Word of God and Christian community.
Early in life, I learned a truth spoken in a timeless film: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
Being released into the unknown of adulthood is a necessary journey. Then friends die suddenly in a car accident or dashed romantic hopes leave anguish in their wake or gnawing questions raised by failure or depression go unanswered.
Flailing in the winds of pain, it’s all too easy to let go of faith. When adversity hits, you need a foundation of truth in your mind and heart that comes only from consistent and intentional time spent in God’s Word.
“Studying the Bible is not primarily for information, but for transformation of the heart,” says author Dave Buehring. Many days, I’ve needed to ask God to give me a hunger for His Word. As one who has done the on-again-off-again routine of exploring truths in Scripture, I believe only the Holy Spirit can help sustain any life-giving discipline.
It’s simple but also hard. Commit to a time and place. Find a commentary, devotional or other tool that works for the season you’re in. Read and then meditate on what you’re reading. Then actively believe and put into practice what you learn. Knowing God and His Word is more than a Sunday affair.
In addition to consistent time with God, you need friends who know you and leaders you look up to, to point you to truth. The wisdom of parents is valuable (and not everyone is so fortunate to have that), but being invested in Christian community right where you are pays dividends in these moments.
We millennials like to roam. Across America and worldwide, you will find solid churches grounded in God’s Word and filled with people who love Jesus. Committing to a local body of believers requires discernment — which again, only comes by opening the Bible and meditating on the words inside.
3. Put your faith in a person or influence other than Jesus Christ.
In 2006, my home church first made headlines worldwide due to accusations about a pastor’s misdeeds and his subsequent stepping down. A half-dozen TV satellite trucks from local and national networks showed up to cover Sunday services.
A decade later, it’s clear the church weathered this storm. But you’ll still find people in that city who at that time walked away from beliefs they had previously claimed to hold dear. They had placed the pastor on a pedestal.
Today, it’s common to be dazzled by the platforms, influence and opinions of our favorite preachers and teachers. We buy their books, read their blogs, and follow their social media feeds with fervor. But when we spend more time in their spheres and care more about their words than the eternal truths spoken by God himself, we have an allegiance problem.
As humans in need of a Savior, it’s natural to anchor our faith in a religious leader, politician or trusted media voice we admire. However, even Christians are susceptible to bias and the deceptive agendas of the world. People will disappoint you, even close loved ones. That’s why it’s imperative to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
4. Never deal with personal offense, anger and bitterness.
This is a big one. Honestly, the other three are probably linked to it in some way. In talking with friends who have walked away from faith, those conversations often lead to one place: Behind logical arguments against religion, a stew of unresolved hurt and disappointments boiling on their back burner scald anyone who comes close. And there aren’t easy answers.
The book “Total Forgiveness” has a mouthful on its cover: “When everything in you wants to hold a grudge, point a finger, and remember the pain — God wants you to lay it all aside.” This lengthy subtitle reflects the power of intentionally bringing my very real offenses to God and laying down my rights to retribution.
Forgiveness is the very heart of the gospel — knowing how much I need to be forgiven, receiving the redemption available in Jesus’ sacrifice, then extending that pardon to those who have harmed me. It’s crazy stuff that defies logic and fair accounting.
In “Total Forgiveness,” R.T. Kendall writes:
A key to letting go of the record of wrongs and achieving total forgiveness lies in the control of the tongue. Our words, instead of helping us ‘get something off our chest,’ can cause an uncontrollable fire to erupt and incinerate what remains inside us. And instead of that fire subsiding, it doubles, intensifies, and gets a thousand times worse in the end.
The opportunities to spread anger, guilt and offense are abundant. Will we become vessels for shaming others? Only the perfect love of God can cause us to respond in an opposite spirit. What’s amazing about extending forgiveness is it can actually break the power of those crushing burdens in an instant.
So what is the difference between someone who shrugs off the faith they once knew, and someone who keeps wrestling with the mysteries of Christian belief? Every journey is unique. Yet in many cases, the answer is humility and intentionality.
To reject a judgmental attitude, confess my own sin, and forgive those who have hurt me requires humility. As I seek God intentionally through His Word and commit to Christian community, I discover that my selfish pursuits must decrease as He increases.
Rather than letting forces around us erode our faith, allow the words of Hebrews to illuminate truth: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Keeping our eyes on the One who is faithful will lead us in the right direction every time.
Copyright 2017 Josh M. Shepherd. All rights reserved.