Phantom Limb

I can’t speak to your experience. I can’t speak even to my own. But I’ll tell a story.

I remember the day and time and place that I stopped believing in God, but not the date.The date may be missing because I both believed in God long after this and stopped believing in God long before it.

The story goes like this.

I’m in Orem for a conference. It’s late Saturday afternoon, the sun is low, and I’m alone in my hotel room. I spent the afternoon with a doubting friend. We skipped whole panels of papers. It’s something like ten years ago. Now I’m kneeling bedside, my pose classic, my face wet, my one dependable quality on display. I pray overearnestly.

I explain to God that I can’t be responsible for his existence. That’s not a burden I can bear.  And then, as if in answer to my prayer, it occurs to me that I’m right: God’s existence is not my responsibility. It’s his. If God wants to exist, that’s up to him.

Relief comes in like the tide. I wash my face and go back to the conference, my prayer answered. From then on I stop believing in God.

I don’t tell my Mom, but I don’t stop going to church either. I don’t stop praying or reading or doing my home teaching. I don’t stop going to the temple. I don’t go away. I stay. I’m relieved. I sit in the pew and hold my wife’s hand and color with our children and over years and years a great stillness settles.

This stillness is a door.

I walk through the door backwards. I start to read scriptures and hear talks and give lessons literally. That baptism of fire is no metaphor. That rest of the Lord is no pie in the sky. I know less about Jesus than I ever did, but the kingdom keeps taking on weight and definition and solidity. Without any supernatural recourse, without any fuel in the rocket of belief, Jesus’ words have no place to go and they just stay where, with a thump, they land: at my feet, at the end of my nose, ringing in my ears, knocking at my red, red front door.

Unable to substitute for what’s given a belief in what isn’t, I’m saved. Something is happening to me – something redemptive and penetrating and difficult and not entirely welcome – but it’s nothing like belief. And its happening here and now and in this Mormon pew.

You, work out your own salvation. Undergo your own ascesis. God’s ways are not my ways. He is free to exist as he will (or won’t) and do with me as he wishes.

15 comments for “Phantom Limb

  1. November 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Coming to know God must be a creative act. As He reveals himself to you, you must find ways to describe the attributes shown you, the relationship that develops. Others’ revelations may be useful guides, or not. You are a different person; why wouldn’t your relationship to your God be different than theirs? If we only rely on others’ descriptions of God, others’ testimonies, their words and images, we are never taking time to discover God for ourselves. It is a borrowed faith that may actually distance you from God, until you take the time and care to know God for yourself.
    For me, it’s a struggle, a wrestle to know God. We don’t always agree. I have to hope that my earnest efforts to work, love, and serve are sufficient, although I know that they can never balance my failures and petty weaknesses. I believe my efforts are futile, and I hope for, but cannot expect, grace.

  2. Andres
    November 22, 2011 at 9:20 am

    This is exactly what I needed today. Thank you.

  3. November 22, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Thanks Adam. For those of us who seek knowledge and truth (whatever that means), the reality of God can sometimes be problematic. For every spiritual experience I’ve had, there’s probably something that has happened to suggest that it was all imagination or coincidence.

    Yet, when we just accept that God may be out there, and we are just a sum of our experiences, it is good to know that we do not have to prove God exists. It is okay to just believe, and allow the world to continue on. If at the end we find there is no God and we moulder in the dirt, at least the beliefs we’ve held have helped us create a better world for us and many others. And if it is right, then we will realize the hope of someday having a real knowledge of God.

  4. Jonathan Green
    November 22, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Adam, your first line is one of my favorites of all time. Also, the rest of the post, too.

  5. SteveP
    November 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Adam. Wow. I want to say something. But I’m stuck in a silence you seem to . . .

  6. clark
    November 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    My favorite of your posts Adam.

  7. Mark A. Clifford
    November 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    That is beautiful.

  8. Martin
    November 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    This is a very poetic and meaningful post. Thank you.

  9. Jim F
    November 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    As always, Adam, perfect.

  10. Shawn Tucker
    November 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm


  11. David Gonzalez
    November 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    I was sitting atop my bed advised to consult with the intangible about a question I was struggling to reason out. No emotion. No trust. No earnestness. Only a dastardly hope that again I would get to reckon persuasively with others on the basis of another null experience.

    That time as with other times the earnestness and intensity of God’s imposition on me was disproportionate and even opposite my desire. I want no declaration of God’s existence and in turn I can almost bet on his participation in the banal: reckoning a path, determining what to do next, understanding bayes’ denominator…

    In my life I remain almost churlish but God is given even expedient. How is it that so many earnest inquires are met with silence?

    This I ask earnestly but depending on reaction (or silence) it may be once again proved that earnest inquiry is the wrong tactic.

  12. November 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I don’t normally leave notes on this site, but this was great Adam. Thanks.

  13. Cap
    November 23, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Thank you for that. I think I needed to hear that. I’ve tried and failed to write something to express what it is I’m feeling. It’s something that’s been there a while. All I can say is thanks!

  14. smb
    November 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks for this, Adam. It’s beautiful and I think true in whatever sense is relevant to a meditation like this.

  15. Carl Youngblood
    December 22, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Adam, if you no longer believe, would you characterize your behavior as knowledge? Or something else entirely? I’m curious because what you’re describing doesn’t sound like certainty, and yet you seem to be advocating literal interpretations: “I start to read scriptures and hear talks and give lessons literally.”

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