'I Would Go Into the Woods to Yell at God'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Nick, a young reader in Georgia, opens up:

I am not sure if you are still running your series on religious choices, but I feel like this topic is especially poignant to me. My biggest religious choice was when I chose to stop following Jesus when I was 24. I’m 28 now, and it is still one of the hardest and most painful decisions I have ever made.

From my high school days up through the end of college, I was madly in pursuit of a relationship with Jesus. As a Christian, I felt it my calling. I would go to church on Sunday by myself and sit in the pew and bask in the glow of fellowship with other church members who also searched for His presence and warmth.

When I got to college, I joined a “non-denominational” contemporary Christian college ministry and it was the perfect fit. All of my friends were in the church. I traveled across North America on missions to Colorado, Memphis, Mexico, and Honduras and had the time of my life seeing various cultures and feeling a closeness, a connection with God. I felt his presence in my prayers, felt it when I was in the woods, walking with Him in closeness. There were intense joys but also intense sorrows when I would fall short. But I knew I was imperfect, and that all my shortcomings could be made up by seeking His presence.

But when I was 21, I decided that I wanted to start being honest with myself and respect my wants/needs more often. I was gay and closeted and living in fear that God could never love someone so different and unnatural.

Up until that point, I always did what I was told and always did what others wanted of me. But I knew I was not living. I was loyal and good in my relationship to God but not myself.

Suddenly, I felt a weight I could not shake. I don’t know if I would call it walking out of a closet door, as it was a slow unraveling. I no longer felt peace at church or peace in nature. I just felt tired and lonely and angry. And I would go into the woods to yell at God so that I could be alone and tell him how angry I was that he could not let me be at peace with being gay or wanting to explore my needs and desires.

And then I could not take it. I could not take being in a church and worshipping God when I was so openly wanting to be gay and to explore relationships with men. I was tired of pretending to be sorry for sinning when I truthfully felt weight lifted off of my shoulders when I began to explore a culture of people who were like me, who felt what I felt. I was tired of asking for forgiveness for what I did not need to be forgiven for. I was emotionally spent.

So I left my college town, left the church, and moved away so I could be free from judgment to explore the life I wanted to lead. I searched for churches, but God and his love slipped away from me.

After I had my first gay kiss, I felt so much shame. But I also felt relief. And I knew after that first kiss I could never go back to who I was before. It was a very raw, very real emotional break from the sheltered, buttoned-up person I was before. I was a new person, and Jesus did not seem to gel with my new sense of my self.

To make it easier, I broke it off cold turkey and no longer prayed or went to church. I could not take another moment of feeling shame. And that’s why I stopped following Jesus. Because there was no longer joy in being with Him—just shame and an endless cycle of repentance. I realized I would never grow, never be vibrant or alive if I focused on all of my faults.

I am happy and living my life today but religion is not a part of it. And I still feel the pain of loss over the innocent, care-free person I was when I was religious. I miss the peace that comes from the confidence of belief in a higher being. I feel I shoulder more worries that I used to displace onto my prayers and my faith.

But I know in my heart giving up religion was worth the pain and the heartbreak if it meant identifying my authentic self and living life on no one’s terms but my own. And I take solace that today I can hold my head up high and be proud of how I fought to be who I am today.

The wounds are still deep, however. I would like to be at peace with how things ended some day, but I don’t know if I ever will. And while all of that may sound sad, I am happy for the experience because I know how far I’ve come. And I know now that my sense of self and identity are everything and that I can not give any part of myself to others if I don’t know who I am.

And that’s my story. I hope it was worth reading. Thank you for this opportunity; it was actually very therapeutic. I look forward to reading more fascinating stories on your site.

If you have a story of you own about the biggest religious choice if your life, tell us about it.