Talking to a friend recently who was experiencing some serious doubt about her belief in God, I found myself saying, "Everyone has to give up the old God and find the real one." What I meant was that we often reach a point in our lives where one crisis or another has led us to a realization that the God we had been worshipping was a false god, a god who never really existed in the first place. Though I won't pretend that this process is enjoyable in my experience, I look back and see it as a necessary process in my growing understanding of the true God I now worship more clearly.
For me, the god I used to worship was an "arcade game" god, one who waited for me to rack up enough points for "goodness" in order to reward me. When I didn't get the reward I wanted over and over again, despite the fact that I felt strongly I had racked up enough points, I was angry. And then despondent. And then rejected God altogether.
How could a god worthy of worship choose to punish me when I had been so "worthy"? I had my little checklist and I could tick off all the check boxes on it. I prayed and read my scriptures daily. I went to church every Sunday. I paid my tithes. I served in my church callings valiantly. I followed our church's food code. On and on. It was a long list of things I had done, and all of them in honor of a false god. But the real god was always waiting for me to realize He was there. He is always waiting.
When I finally came back to wanting to believe in God, I found that I no longer wanted God to be like a school teacher (though I had always done well at school) who is counting scores on assignments in order to determine a final grade. I couldn't understand why I ever had, honestly.
Why does it seem to be human nature to create these false gods? I suppose it is because we are trying to understand God and so we build Him to be something like other things we understand. I had always been good at school and collecting grades. I am a list maker, and some fundamentally judgmental part of me had always wanted a god who unrolled a long, long list of all the things to be done to achieve heaven, as if it were the PhD that I had been awarded years earlier. I was uncomfortable with the idea instead that God was not interested in intervening in my life to make it easier for me. I didn't want a god who would mourn with me, but not take away my pain. I wanted a god who would tell me "why" everything had happened to me, who would take away my clouded mortal vision and allow me to see the fullness of his vision from the beginning to the end of the universe.
But when I prayed and prayed and received no answers that were sufficient to what I wanted, I became an "atheist," at least in my own mind. Perhaps I was like a petulant child who had decided that if Santa Claus didn't bring her the candy she wanted, he must not be real and she didn't ever want to celebrate Christmas again. My younger sister told me when I announced that I was going to try to believe in God again that I must never really have been an atheist. Maybe she was right. I don't mean to imply that other atheists are all people angry at a false God, only that I was.
But I believe now that all of this was an important part of my process of growing understanding. The pain I experienced in realizing that God did not grant favors or degrees to those who worked the hardest or proved themselves most "worthy," was pain that led me toward the real God. Without that pain, I think I would be tempted to fall back into the worship of the false god in my head. I suspect that when my essays find the response, as they often do, that I am a "horrible person" and a "disgrace to Mormonism" or "not a true Christian," it is because my ideas rock the foundation some have in this false god. I try to be sympathetic to them because I was honestly one of them not so very long ago.
I do not believe God gave me the pain I have gone through, because I don't think He needed to do that. Life is full of plenty of pain and no one, least of all God, has to engineer a special brand of it just for you. But through my pain, I discovered the true God of my faith today. I am not glad about the pain that I went through, but I am glad that I found the strength to find a way out of it, and to the real God.
My new understanding is that this real God is full of love and acceptance. He is a god who comforts through day to day tribulations, a god who hopes that I find compassion for others. He is not a god who sends snow on a sunny day because I prayed for snow for my wedding. He is not a god who punishes gays by sending the HIV virus. And He is not a god who decides to hand out tragedies because certain people need to learn a "lesson."
So if you are someone who is the midst of a faith crisis like mine, who has realized that the god you always worshipped isn't true, after all, take heart. Really, there are many of us out there. Some of us are still angry. Some are so broken they think they will never be able to stand again. Some are going through the motions in hopes that the old God will return again and use His old power to restore what they think they deserve.
You are not alone. You have never been alone, in fact. But if you need help to rebuild your faith in a truer God than the one who crumbled before you as all idols do, take my hand. We'll walk together on the new and frightening path into the unknown, but truly magnificent world that lies ahead, one step at a time.