The Scarlet Letter of Unbelief

Sometimes I don’t think God exists.

Sometimes I think God exists, but he is a terrifying sociopath with a twisted sense of divine comedy.

Sometimes I want God to exist — more than anything else — so that I can be held in the loving arms of a divine father or mother and cry myself to sleep.


It’s hard enough on its own, this thing called belief.

Life is filled with pain and suffering and when those elements get overwhelming, they reveal how fragile belief can be. I think anyone, if he or she is being honest, will admit that somedays belief in a divine being or cosmic creator is hard to come by. This is why the phrase “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” stirs us deep inside. We may put on facades of certainty to impress one another with the “house built on rock” quality of our faiths, but there are those moments — for some of us, more common than others — when cracks begin to appear and the tears well up and we admit to a close friend: “I kinda feel this is all made up.”

But it’s even harder when you are like me, when you daily wrestle with depression and suicidal thoughts. When life isn’t just filled with pain and suffering, but rather life becomes a monster that isn’t content to stay under your bed. It rises up in the middle of the night, shadowy and distended and grotesque. It grabs you by the throat and shakes you like you are a baby in the hands of an abuser; it rattles your bones and chills your blood and throws you like a rag doll on the ground.

Those are the days and nights it just isn’t enough to say, “Help my unbelief.”

Those are the days and nights when you can only muster enough energy to curl into a ball and rock back and forth in pain. “Help my unbelief” is the last thing on your mind, with “Help my belief” following it.

“Help me stay alive.”

Help me to last until tomorrow.

I need to be honest: on those days and nights, no. I do not believe. If God exists, he can go fuck himself.


I try to ask for forgiveness.

I try to love.

I really do try.

I try so, so hard. I try to show compassion, to listen to those who hurt. I try to be there for those in need. I try to put other people before me.

But sometimes I don’t believe in God.

And what terrifies me during those times is that — if I am honest and admit that — I know I am suddenly an outcast. I am literally a danger to the people that were my friends and confidantes a minute before I admitted it.

Shun the unbeliever.

Do not be unequally yoked.

I am a vessel made for wrath.

The moment I say, “I am no longer a Christian,” I know I will lose friends. They may not unfriend me on Facebook, but things will change. I know that some friends will remain, but some of them will no longer consider me “safe.” Some people, who previously thought that my ideas and my passions and my various advocacy projects were awesome, will no longer want to associate with me. Because the mere fact that I might no longer intellectually assent to the name “Christian” means that, somehow, my ideas and passions and advocacy are no longer valid.

If I am no longer a Christian, I am suddenly “other.”

I am dangerous.

As Jack Crabtree, my undergraduate senior thesis advisor recently said at a Gutenberg College presentation:

It seems so accepting and right to “see the beauty in every human being.” In truth, there is beauty in every human being, but that is not the whole story. Every one of those beautiful people out there is in active rebellion against God; and insofar as he is in active rebellion against God, he is dangerous.

Never mind that some of those people might one day bounce back. Never mind that belief is an inherently complex phenomenon. Never mind that depression is a heavy blanket that suffocates the soul with chemicals and synapses and memories of shadows and spiders and pain.

If I am not for God, I am against God. And if I am against God, I guess I am committed for life.

I am a vessel made for wrath.

That was the lesson I internalized growing up. Us versus them. For us or against us. In a sense I don’t care if I am an outcast. I know how to fend for myself. I know what it is like to feel alone in a pew on Sunday morning while surrounded with joyful, happy people that I cannot relate to. I know what it is like to think I am broken and I should be “happy” I am broken and just suck it up because, you know, God and stuff.

Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Maybe predestination is true and I was made by God specifically to be a fuck-up, so I can be an example for the Christians on what not to be. To be a caution sign:

Danger! Warning! This is an unbeliever!

But I know better than that. I know that who I am, deep down inside, is not my depression. I am not my depression. I am not my suicidal thoughts. I am better than that. I am stronger. I am brave and I will fight.

And I am not my beliefs.

I am so much bigger than my beliefs, and so are you.

I know that some days I believe in heaven, and some days I do not. But I know that, if there is a heaven, heaven will be filled with not only Christians but atheists. It will be filled with Buddhists and Jews and agnostics. And I know that saying such a thing is not necessarily an expression of universalism. It is an expression of the simple fact that life is complicated and messy and we change and we grow and we struggle. That Jesus himself said, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat” to “vessels of mercy,” and “I was a stranger and you invited me in” to “vessels of wrath.”


Sometimes I don’t think God exists.

Sometimes I think he does.

And I am learning, a little bit every day, to be honest. To speak up. I am learning to breathe. I am learning that I am more than truth-propositions and my worth and beauty transcend my mind.

And when I do not believe, I will not not be ashamed. I will wear the scarlet letter of unbelief proudly. Because I am being honest and real.

And when the monsters under my bed rise up and attack me, honest and real is the best I can be.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

13 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter of Unbelief

  1. i swear, it’s as if you took a mirror and placed it in front of my cracked-open ribcage so that pieces of my heart were reflected for everyone to view. i have nothing to really say but, wow, i needed this.

  2. I really appreciate how you struggle to hold onto your faith without devaluing those who haven’t/don’t/can’t. And your writing is so affirming and beautiful. Struggling with faith is hard and scary.

  3. The “church” needs to recognized that it is okay to be sad and okay to be messy and okay to be broken.

    Having been kicked out of a church because I chose to move out of my parents’ house instead of living at home until I married, and wandering from church to church seeking a spiritual home for a year, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel at home in a setting like that again. And I’m figuring out that’s okay. I’m finding “church” and “home” in so many people outside of a building.

    You are so right…belief is messy.

  4. Thanks, Ryan.
    Honest is good. And for a long time I didn’t think I could be honest about my doubts–to anyone. Not even God.

    And belief is indeed messy.
    I was told that belief in God was rational, logical, obvious. In fact, belief in God is irrational, illogical, and a leap into the unknown.
    That doesn’t mean it isn’t true; it just means that it’s risky.

    Today I choose to believe. I ask God to show me truth. I acknowledge the mystery. I plead for mercy. God is God. He is bigger than the boundaries I draw for him, and I like that.

    I am thankful for those moments when God seems real, but sometimes he doesn’t seem real. And that’s when faith steps in.

    I try to be honest with others as I muddle through faith because in some ways my weaknesses actually make it safe for others to face their own doubts. Sometimes I do that well, but sometimes I don’t.

    Ah well. I got distracted. I hope your honesty brings you people who accept you and love you and encourage you in your pursuit of who God is and other things.

  5. Thank you for your honesty, Ryan. I learned a lot by reading this. How I wish I could just give you a hug right now. I pray for you often and I will continue. I pray that someday you will be one of those people that are filled with the joy of genuine, life-changing belief.

  6. Oh yes. YES. This. This is what I needed to read today. This is where I am at with my faith/non-faith. I am finding myself feeling like other Christians see me as a threat, as something to be contained. But God must have more for us than containment, than giving up the fight for Life, for knowing Spirit. I am glad to be called other, I suppose, if that I the price for my being able to breathe freely in my spirituality (or lack thereof, given the day). Thank you. So much.

  7. This is so hard to carry by yourself. I hope you have people to share it with, and I’m sure that you talking about it helps people who don’t have anyone safe to talk to. I went through years of angst about this basically freaking out in secret, afraid of losing all my friends and family.

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