This I Used To Believe

Posted on May 4, 2009


My wife mentioned this This American Life installment to me entitled “This I Used To Believe.”


There is a website in which you can search all sorts of subjects, which is quite fascinating and insightful:

From the program, here’s the general outline:

  • Act One. Scrambled Nest Egg. One day in January Alex French got a call from his mom, saying that she’d been laid off. A few hours later she called to say that so had his dad. Alex takes a trip to Massachusetts to see how his parents are getting by since entering unemployment for the first time, in his father’s case, in 30 years. (9 minutes)
  • Act Two. Team Spirit in the Sky. This past Christmas a story swept the internet about a football coach at a Christian high school in Texas who inspired his team’s fans to root for the opposition: a team from the local juvenile correctional facility. Among the thousands of emails that the coach received in response to his actions, one stood out to him. Trisha Sebastian mentioned her loss of faith, and coach Hogan got a message from God that he was meant to bring her back. We eavesdrop on their phone calls. (19 minutes)
  • Act Three. Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much. When Molly Antopol was in 7th grade she learned what abortion was—and it sounded to her like murder. Her mom, a pro-choice activist made it her mission to change her daughter’s mind. And went to extraordinary lengths to do so. Molly tells the story. (8 minutes)
  • Act Four. Pants Pants Revelation. Joel and Kate were both working in a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. They both like each other, and she tries to impress him by always wearing her favorite pair of jeans. Little did she know, the jeans were maybe the only thing about her that he didn’t like. (8 minutes)

Here are a few noteworthy quotes and summations from the program:

Sometimes you don’t realize what you believe until you run into something that destroys that belief.

He was trying to argue the existence of God rather than attempting to comfort.

Anytime you pull Hitler out in any argument, you automatically lose.

And now, I’m still left with all these questions. I hoped that there would be answers; I really wanted to believe again.

Why it’s so hard for religious and non-religious people to communicate with each other is because the premises are just so far from each other. When someone says, “we live in a ‘fallen-world,’ ” that’s somehow comforting to the religious person; it’s comforting to not have to make sense of the messiness on earth — things will be better in Heaven, because God understands the details. But it makes no sense to a non-believer. Then, the believer has a hard time understanding why this offers no comfort to the non-believer.

I’m getting an answer, and it’s the answer he agrees and believes in…but I don’t think I’m there yet.

— VIA —

The question of why we believe certain things, and not others (or even why there is belief at all) is really important. I’ve heard it once said that “what is real in the imagination is real in its consequences.” Thus, understanding what we believe, and how we believe is important, not merely for esoteric reasons, but because what we believe can have real implications in the real world. And that comes down to how we communicate what we believe.

Perhaps ACT 2 is the most poignant example.

As this coach lovingly shares “reasons” for an untimely death, (and there’s no reason to believe he is not being sincere in his care), there is a moment of connection with Trisha that is soon dissolved as he dives into a set of “beliefs” that “explain.” The conversation tells the story itself, and caused for me, frustration at how the coach seemed to be “missing it.” This is especially true since the core of what Christianity calls “the Gospel,” seeks to provide real responses to life’s most difficult questions and inquiries such as an unjust, unwarranted, and untimely death of a young, influential, and beneficent individual.

[SIDE NOTE: This also provides an existential test for the validity of a “Christian worldview”; how it fares in real life circumstances. What I find so frustrating, is that people often reject their experiences with “Christianity,” for valid reasons — irrelevancy, or insufficiency. The problem is, similar to this example, what is so often presented is an irrelevant or insufficient Christianity in the first place, and few then go on to seek the religion in its most honest representation.]

I offer the following observations in response to this particular situation:

1. Beliefs are not reasons. I consider this the most fundamental “categorical” mistake of the coach. As the coach went through a series of fundamental theological principles, it offered little, if any help in bringing comfort to this hurting person, even though his theological categories are actually decently orthodox. Rounds of apologetics are not helpful in pastoral counseling, and theology, dare I say, often needs to be tabled so that love can prevail in circumstances of crisis care. In other words, these were “head” answers to “heart” problems. Perhaps we ought to do well to consider that maybe “heart” truth flows up, not down (i.e., from the heart to the head, not the other way around). I pray that one day Christians will see that not everything situation begs for an “argument” for or against God and that our ultimate commission is not to defend and reason with people, but rather to love, and have compassion.

2. That one believes can get in the way of what and why one believes in the first place. I found the coach’s argument to be disharmonious with the actual questions being asked and the need that was very present. (Trisha mentioned that she was getting “an answer,” but the answer was his answer. So many people of faith fail to truly listen.) But not only that, I found it out of sync with the very faith system he belongs to, that of Christianity. Without providing a lengthy treatise on the Christian faith, Christians believe for the purpose of loving, not for the purpose of purporting our beliefs about love. Again, I pray that one day Christians will reach first for the tool of sacrificial love and compassion, and leave the tool of proselytization (which we call “evangelism” which is really a misnomer in the way that it is used) as a far second or third.

3. What one intends is not always what one achieves. My wife gets credit for this point. She said,

Your intentions can be good, and you can still cause a lot of pain. You can have the desire to share, but you may not have very clear eyes to see the impact, positively or negatively, and the consequences of what you’re sharing, and how you’re sharing it.

Perhaps the greatest “argument,” and the greatest “apologetic” this coach could have provided was compassion. What if he was willing to “hold her space” in his soul? What if he decided to weep with her, instead of explaining why she weeps in the first place? What if the story was told that God perhaps has reasons that we will never understand, but that He also understands pain and suffering because he chose to go through it with us? And yes, there will ultimately be a victory, but in the meantime, we fight against the now, and work towards relieving as much suffering and pain as possible as we partner with Him in His work?

The entire program is fascinating, and I commend it to your listening.