I receive a surprising amount of correspondence from readers offended that I believe in God. I'm not sure what else they'd expect from a columnist billed as an ordained pastor writing about faith and values.
A typical recent email described me and churchgoers generally as "pin-headed," and our God as a "magical, mythical, delusional big-daddy-in-the-sky."
It might shock such correspondents, but even we delusional pinheads have our reasons for believing. And many of us don't accept our tenets blindly or brainlessly. Our faith has its stronger and weaker days. We trust; we also question.
Here are four reasons I believe in God, and four reasons I doubt.
Why I believe
1. The New Testament. I've never encountered in any other religion, philosophy or worldview — or in human society as a whole — a being as loving, forgiving and kind toward sinners as the God of the New Testament, especially as he's described by Jesus, Paul and in John's first epistle.
2. My upbringing. I was raised in Christian churches by pious parents. From the cradle, I absorbed Christian faith by instruction, osmosis and maybe genetics. Had I been born to a different family or in another land, I might see God differently.
3. My spiritual experiences. I've had a few direct, life-altering intersections with what I assume was the Almighty. As someone said, a person with an experience is rarely at the mercy of a person with an argument.
4. Others' lives. I've watched a great many friends face seemingly insurmountable problems — addictions, divorces, bankruptcies — yet find dramatic deliverance through the gospel's good news.
Why I doubt
1. The lack of sensory evidence. It's strange that a God who insists you must believe in him would choose to remain invisible and decline to speak in an audible voice. Why wouldn't he just show himself? Pardon the pun, but it makes no sense.
2. His periodic absences. While I've had overwhelming spiritual experiences, at other times, when I needed God's presence most — such as when my mother and first wife were dying simultaneously — he seemingly left on vacation and turned off his phone.
3 Suffering and violence. Why would a just God allow toddlers to battle ravaging cancers? Why would he put up for five minutes with a Pol Pot?
4. Fellow Christians. The best people I've met are Christians. So are the worst. Nobody's meaner than a guy who's mean in the Lord's name. God's disciples can be his least effective advertisements.
In my own feeble head, then, I find about an equal number of reasons to believe and not believe. Nonetheless, I decided long ago I'd keep walking by faith. Maybe that's a demonstration of God's grace — maybe he's given me a gift for simply carrying on.
Or maybe it's an illogical choice I've made.
Either way, the fact is, I need God.
Despite my upbringing in Christianity, I entered adulthood as an agnostic, then, briefly, an atheist. When I listen to the anti-faith arguments so popular today, they bear a familiar echo. I made the same arguments decades ago.
I admit, my friends who are atheists and agnostics tend to be unusually decent and tolerant folks, indeed, better neighbors, often, than the ostentatiously religious.
Personally, however, in my own time as a nonbeliever, I was not a nice or morally healthy guy. I didn't consider myself accountable to anyone.
I'm only speaking about myself, not about anyone else. Your story may differ.
To me, though, if no God was keeping cosmic score, there was no reason I should give a snap about others. We were all here just to survive and thrive if we could. Eventually, when we died, that was it. We were as dead as a squirrel or a dog.
I enjoyed thinking that way, because it freed me.
I didn't have to worry those nettling rules I'd learned in Sunday school, such as, "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you," or, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
If there was no heaven, no hell, I could treat others any way I pleased, as long as I benefitted from it and didn't get caught doing things that might, say, send me to jail. That's how an absence of faith affected me.
When I re-embraced Christianity, my heart softened.
Encountering that New Testament Lord, I found myself awash in his joy and love and unearned grace. Moved by gratitude toward him, I suddenly cared about the fellow travelers around me: the orphans, the sick, the imprisoned. Previously flinty, I found myself buying meals for hungry strangers.
I haven't achieved sainthood, I realize. Still, there's an old saying that goes, "I may not be what I ought to be, but thank God, I'm not what I used to be."
That's another key reason I keep talking the talk and trying to walk the walk: Faith in a loving, generous God tends to overwhelm my baser nature.
Even if you don't need that kind of help yourself, and even if you don't believe in God a whit, you should be glad I do believe. Be very glad.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.