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Episode 95: Searching for the Real God - Carrie Sheffield's story

Former skeptic Carrie Sheffield suffered abuse at the hand of her religious father and developed a skewed view of God.  After years of questioning and searching, she finally found the unconditional love of God.

Mentioned by Carrie

Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

Works of Deepak Chopra

Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Carrie's Resources: 

 

Listen to more stories from skeptics and atheists who investigated Christianity.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and Side B Stories:


Transcript


Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of our stories on our Side B Stories website or see them YouTube channel. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Facebook page or on our YouTube videos. You can also email us at [email protected]. We always love hearing from you.

When someone is abused, it's tragic. When someone is abused in the name of God, it is horrific beyond words. If God is supposed to be good and loving, caring and protective, how could someone representing God be hurtful and harmful in unthinkable ways? It is the worst kind of abuse, especially when it's directed towards a child from their own father. How could a child who had suffered under the hand of such abuse ever believe in God? More than that, how could they ever forgive their abuser?

Carrie Sheffield is an accomplished columnist, broadcaster, and senior policy analyst who holds a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Berlin. Her jobs have ranged from managing a billion-dollar portfolio on Wall Street to covering issues at Capitol Hill, Jerusalem, and all over the world. Yet she came from humble beginnings, humble and abusive beginnings. Abuse from her controlling, religious father, whose brand of love was harsh and conditional. Despite turning away from religion and looking everywhere else for fulfillment, she finally found the God who surrounds her with unconditional love and has given her the compassion and strength to even forgive her father. I hope you'll come along to hear her fascinating story.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Carrie. It’s so great to have you with me today.

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

As we're getting started, there is so much about you I would love for the listeners to know, who you are now and the kind of work you do, your new book, a little bit about your education. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ah, thank you, Jana. Thank you for having me. And thank you for sharing these stories and collecting them. I think there's nothing more powerful than a witness, and so what you're doing to collect these witnesses for Christ, I think, is really impactful, and it's going to have a ripple effect into so many lives.

So if there's anyone listening to my voice who can get something useful and pointing to God, that's my prayer for our conversation, but yeah. So I…. just short story, or short version, I am a writer, a columnist, a broadcaster, a policy analyst, an activist in the DC area, and my book that you mentioned is called Motorhome Prophecies. So it's a narrative about a very abusive childhood and one that, for me, was really destructive to my faith. And so for about twelve years I was agnostic. And it's that journey of coming out of that and finding God, being baptized Christian, it was six years on December 3.

Wow. Okay. Well, you really laid the groundwork for us to enter into your story. It sounds like there's a lot there to uncover. Let's start back in your childhood. You have already introduced us to the fact that it wasn't idyllic. Why don’t you put us there? Where you grew up, the part of the country where you grew up, and the kind of family grew up in. And talk to us about whether or not religion was a part of that.

Yeah, so the name of the book is called Motorhome Prophecies, because we grew up largely in a motorhome, or for big chunks of the childhood and consistently throughout my childhood. So I ended up going to seventeen, one seven, public schools, as well as home school. So it was very itinerant. We also lived in homes as well, like physical houses. Sometimes we lived in trailer parks. We lived in tents sometimes. I took my ACT test when we lived in a shed with no running water in the Ozarks. My mother gave birth when our family was living in a tent, which, to me, seems almost medieval. But in the end I had eight siblings, biological siblings. I had two others, but unfortunately they passed away as infants. So my mom gave birth to ten children.

And my dad believes that he’s a prophet, and he's 85 years old now and has Alzheimer's, so he's not really active. But growing up, he believed that he had a prophetic call. He was excommunicated from the Mormon church. My ancestors helped to found the Mormon church, so many generations going back within the LDS tradition. But he was much more fundamentalist and extremist than the mainstream theology, because the mainstream theology only has one prophet, and he lives in Salt Lake City, and he was not my dad, and so eventually, as I grew older…. We were raised on kind of the outskirts of the LDS, so I was officially baptized into the official LDS church, and we would go sometimes, but then we would pop back out into his own fundamentalism, and so eventually that all collided when I was a teenager, where I really had come to a crossroads of, “Do I believe my dad's version of LDS or the official version?” and I chose the official version, in part because I had been physically assaulted by one of my two schizophrenic brothers by that point. I had one schizophrenic brother. The other one developed it later. But all of us, at one point…. I try to protect my siblings' privacy as much as I can. I give them pseudonyms in the book. But our family certainly struggled with mental illness, including myself. I suffered from depression, PTSD, fibromyalgia, suicidal ideation, just really struggled with feelings of self worth.

Okay.

And so, yeah, it was a lot.

That was a lot. You just gave us a lot. Oh, my goodness! So I would imagine, just going back to the very basics here…. You have a very large family, ten children that your mother birthed, two died. But in the Mormon tradition, just to give our listeners a little bit more understanding of the family and the expectations of the Mormon religion, big families were quite…. It’s a good thing in the Mormon traditions or in the Mormon religion, right? So the bigger the family, the better. Is that correct? And so, oftentimes, you would see families…. It wasn’t unusual, let’s just say, to have eight children in a family, is that right?

Correct. Yeah. That certainly it was not unusual, especially for my generation and even more so my parents’ generation.

And part of that, in my opinion, based on what I know about Mormon theology is that, because they do teach that in the afterlife, if you are a worthy Mormon following all the rules, male, you will become a god of your own planet, and you are sovereign. They call it a joint heir with Christ, so that you are able to rule a planet. And you spend eternity basically populating that planet with your wife’s, or if you choose to have multiple wives’, spirit children. So, to have as many children here on Earth, is sort of a good training ground for that process. And then also, here on earth, in order to bring as many, they call it spirit children or spirit bodies, to receive a physical body. So the Mormon teaching is that, in order to make it to the highest level of heaven—so there are three levels, telestial, terrestrial, and celestial, and even within celestial, there are other levels within that. In order to get to the highest level, you have to be married to a Mormon in a Mormon temple, and you have to have also gone through a baptism, a Mormon baptism, while in a physical state

And if you weren’t able to do that, you could be baptized on behalf of your dead ancestors or anybody who has died, so I've done multiple baptisms for deceased people. We’d already gone through my family tree, so it was people I didn't know. But the thinking for having so many big families is that you're kind of getting a head start by just getting them Mormon anyway and raising them in the faith.

Wow. I appreciate that kind of introduction to Mormonism, because I think there are probably a lot of people who may not know the differences between Mormonism and, say, a traditional form of Christianity. So thank you for that. There are some quite substantive differences.

As a child, growing up, and you're in religion, and that is your life. Obviously, your father, he’s a prophet of some sort or proclaiming himself to be prophet. Religion is a serious business in your home. What did your picture of God look like to you as a child? Who was God to you?

Well, yeah, that’s really interesting, because there is a debate between Mormons and non-Mormons, like Protestant or Catholic Christians versus Mormons, and many Christians say that Mormons are not Christian, for some of the reasons that I mentioned just previously, in my previous answer, and then also it is not a trinitarian faith. So it does not believe that Jesus is God, and it does not have the Trinity. They call Jesus our older brother. So I grew up thinking of Jesus in that way. However, as a young girl, I didn't know about the Nicene creed. I didn’t know about the trinitarian differences. I was taught in Mormon Sunday school that I loved Jesus. That's what I was taught, and the song “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” I remember singing that. And the practice of journaling is very encouraged in the Mormon theology, to keep a journal, so I've actually kept a journal since age eight. I received my first journal from one of my aunts for my baptism on my baptism day.

And when I was age eight, I had an entry in my journal about how much I loved Jesus. And I told myself, as a young girl, I said, “I hope that I never forget how much that I love Jesus.” So it's interesting to pile on a lot of other, in my opinion, man-made theology on top of that base, as a child. Jesus said that we should be as a child. So I would say that, as a child, my concept of who God was was I loved Jesus. That's all I knew. I didn't know about having my own planet or being a multiple wife of a guy who had a planet. I didn’t know anything about that. They don't teach you that when you're a child. And so I knew that I loved God, and I didn't know the difference of Jesus versus God. I knew that Jesus was God's son, and so I loved them both, and I would pray to God. And in Mormonism, you pray to the Heavenly Father, and then you close in the Name of Jesus. And so that's how I lived my childhood.

And so my perception of God, as a child, was very positive overall. And when I was baptized at age eight in a Mormon church, in the official LDS church, which your father…. Typically, if a father is LDS, he will baptize you as a child when you're eight. They call it the age of accountability, when you're allowed to be tempted, so they say. In the book, I joke that I was deathly afraid I was going to slit someone's throat between my eighth birthday and the day I was baptized about two months later. Thankfully, between February 13 and March 2. But yeah. But I do remember that day of my baptism, at age 8, as a very special day for me. I felt loved by God.

Yeah. That's good, that you had that sense, in some way, that God was love and that God loved you. So then you had mentioned… you said the word abuse, and I wonder: How did you reconcile the idea of a good God and a father who is a religious man but yet abuse happening in your home in some form or fashion, where it wasn't good or it didn't seem loving, but yet he was supposed to, in some way, represent God to you.

Yeah, yeah. So early on, right before kindergarten, I think I was four or five years old—it was one of my first memories. We were almost taken away by child custody authorities. Child welfare came to our home, and we had been really instructed and coached by our dad before, what to say. And we were fiercely loyal because it was our dad. And so we said how great he was and how great life was, and we were terrified, because we didn't want to be taken away. We didn't want to be put into a non-Mormon home. I'm not saying that it would have been better for us or worse. I mean, either way, it was “choose your hell” basically, but in that case, we were able to convince them to not take us away, and then, boom, we left, and we were quickly gone.

But the idea of abuse or understanding what was happening in our home as abuse, just the awareness of it kind of grew as I grew older. And to see… so the way that my dad said that he was fulfilling the prophetic call on his life was to take his classical guitar—he was a very gifted classical guitarist. And I have a whole chapter I try to be as compassionate as I can, understanding my dad's trauma. So he had been, unfortunately, raped by a childhood babysitter of his, a woman from the local Mormon congregation. And, as I understand it, this woman was not arrested. She was not disciplined at all by any Mormon authority. He was not given any treatment or therapy. He was born in 1938. It was a very different generation. And he's written bits of his memoir.

And also he talks about how his parents—the way he described it was they made him live in what felt like to him a dungeon. They were living in Salt Lake City upstairs with his sisters in his dad's law office, and then they had a basement full apartment in the front part, but they were renting that out to another family. And then they basically had like a storage area, almost like a broom closet area, where they put him for several years as a young boy, and it didn't even have a connection directly to go upstairs. He had to go outside in the winter snow of Utah just to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom. So he said it felt like a bunker. It felt very isolating and just cold and lonely, and so he said he turned to his two best friends, which were God and his own conscience. So when you kind of combine those things with childhood trauma and unresolved childhood sexual assault, those are kind of brewing the ingredients for someone who gets a very extreme level of narcissism, in addition to his incredible musical talent.

And so, eventually, as we grew older, he assigned all of us instruments. So I grew up playing the violin and the oboe, we all played the piano as the base instrument, and then all singing together.

So that was what was such a dichotomy sometimes, to have this…. We played Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, like the most uplifting, inspiring music I think ever created by man, while also going back home to the motorhome and being screamed at and told that we're evil and that Satan has captivated us and just using religion as a form of control and mind control and abuse and psychological abuse, like deep psychological abuse, like I said to the point where two of my brothers developed schizophrenia, and nobody else in my family, extended family, has developed that, and stress and psychological abuse is certainly associated with that.

So it was really upsetting to me, as I grew older, to see what I felt as a younger child about who God was and then see what my dad would say about God and who God was, and eventually, as I mentioned, when my schizophrenic brother assaulted me and he tried to rape me, I just didn’t feel safe-

Oh, goodness!

… and so I eventually, after some study and deliberation and prayer, I said, “God, I feel like I need to leave to go to college,” so I told my father that, and he raised his hand to the square, and he said, “I prophesy in the name of Jesus you will be raped and murdered if you leave.” So it was… I talk in the book about the dichotomy between that curse that he basically placed over my head and contrasting it with the blessing he placed on my head when I was eight years old, so ten years later, because, when you're baptized, immediately after that, you get confirmed, and your dad and male relatives and the local priesthood authorities, they put all their hands on your head and give you a confirmation blessing to confirm you and to say, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and then my father gave that blessing, and my mom had it all typed out, what he said, and it was beautiful, it was lovely, and it was a blessing.

And so, ten years later, to have him pronounce a curse on me, and then after that, he said I was no longer his daughter. He disowned me.

Because I was the first to leave. And he said my blood changed. I wasn’t allowed home all through college and summer break and Christmas break, and it was isolating. It was very hard.

I can't imagine that. They say hurt people hurt people, and it sounds like your father had suffered so much, and then he turned and hurt his own, which I can't imagine what you must have suffered all of those years. And such a confusing picture, I would imagine, with the love of God, and even the love of your father, but also the abuse of your father on the same hand. That’s a very strange thing. So when you left home and you had only known belief or faith in God or Mormon religion, when you were free, on your own, and you had been disowned, which, again, I can't imagine the pain associated with that, but I imagine freedom was very welcome for you as well, not to be under the auspices of an abusive or controlling father. What happened with your faith during that period of time? Did you leave that behind when you left home? Was it something that you held onto? What happened during that time?

Yeah. So when I went away to college, I first went to a state school in Missouri called Truman State University, and my dad—they were living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the time, and so he and my brother and I, the three of us drove in a station wagon up to Missouri, and he dropped me off, and he basically said to my family later on that… you know, in the Bible verse—and it's also similar in the Book of Mormon—where you shake the dust off your feet. If there's someone in your city, who doesn't receive you, you dust your feet off, and that's what he said he'd done with me. So him dropping me off was surprisingly peaceful, but I later found out what he had said about me, and I'm like, “Okay, I guess that was his way of getting some dignity for himself by doing it that way, dropping me off and leaving.” But at the time I was still very, very devout LDS. And yes, I loved the freedom, but I was also terrified. I had never lived in a quote-unquote normal setting, or a non-Mormon setting, or a non-abusive cult environment setting.

And again, what my father did was cultish, and I do not believe the LDS church was at fault. There are theological issues that I have the LDS church, but the cult environment that my dad did was not condoned by the LDS church. I do wish that there were people, Mormon bishops and people, who would have taken a more proactive role to prevent the abuse, but I was never abused by a Mormon authority. I was abused by my father and what he did. And so I was still very, very devout LDS, which, like I said, that was part of why I left, was because it was that collision course between, “There’s only one Mormon prophet, and he lives in Salt Lake, and his name’s not Ralph Sheffield,” and his claims, because he would say things like, “I follow the Holy Ghost more than the Mormon prophet in Salt Lake does,” and, “I have a more special mission than what he's doing.” And so that was, to me, heresy, and so that was part of why I left.

I was still very devout LDS. And I went to Truman State. I wanted to go to BYU, but I had no money. And so that's why I went to Truman State, because they had no application fee. And then I also got—based on my ACT score in the State of Missouri—some scholarship money, and between that and working for Taco Bell and then student newspaper and then the local newspaper, I made it work.

But I was going to the local LDS student group, but I felt so out of place. I had more in common with the international students than with the American students. So I hung out with a lot of international students, because not only was I from a Mormon background, but it was, like, sub Mormon background, so I had lots of friends from Morocco and Bulgaria and Nepal. I just felt more at home with them.

Yeah. Like a refugee in your own country, I guess.

Yeah. I also—and I talk about this in the book, too. In I think my junior year, we were at home school, and so I did it outside. It wasn't official. I just did it on my own. I read Brave New World, and that book just really struck a chord with me, by Huxley, and I say that man was actually a prophet, what he wrote and how he just wrote this society that is…. I felt that way at Truman State. It’s a society that is just…. Sexuality is just totally uncontrolled. Binge drinking and just the wild frat culture. To me, it was way too much. I felt so strange. I'm like, “I don't belong here. I don't drink. I'm not sleeping around. I don't do this stuff.”

And so I decided to transfer to BYU for my sophomore year. And that's where I ended up graduating. However, by the time I got to BYU—and I give credit BYU because, it seems like a minor thing of how it all started, of how I lost my belief in the LDS church. But it started my junior year, the spring term of my junior year. I was taking a class called Journalism History and Philosophy. And as part of the class, we had to go down and read some old microfiche back in the bowels of the library, the Harold B. Lee Library. In the microfiche, they had an advertisement for a department store. I describe it as the Macy’s of Mormonism. It's called ZCMI. I should know the full name. It stood for Zion something Mercantile Institute or something. But it was a general store that was in business for a long time, actually. Even as a kid, I remember going there. We were too poor, but I remember looking at it or seeing it or walking through it. I never shopped there that I remember.

But ZCMI was selling alcohol and tobacco. And I was so shocked. I was like, “What?” Because Mormons don’t drink. They don't smoke. They don’t drink coffee or tea.

Exactly!

And I never done any of those things. This was a department store that was owned by the church. And so I was just like, “What! They’re actually profiting off this vice?” Like, it's one thing looking the other way versus making money on it, you know?

Right, exactly.

And so I was shocked, and I just went down so many other rabbit holes, because I was like, “What else is there that I don't know?” and it became almost like this…. In the same way that I researched my own dad, like my first almost investigative journalism project, is my father a prophet? And then the second bit one was, do I believe the LDS church as true? And the more that I was studying the LDS church, the more I was like, “I can't believe this. I can't believe this.” There were just so many things that theologically…. And they still believe in polygamy in the afterlife, like I said, to have multiple wives. Even though they stopped the practice on Earth in 1890, it's still very much in the theology in the afterlife. Which bothered me. And at the time, I had a Mormon boyfriend, and I was like, “You’re okay with this?” Like, “If we got married, you’re going to have multiple wives?” And to his credit, he was was like, “Well, I wouldn’t do it.” I was like, “Well, you say that now.”

Right.

There were just a lot of things. For example, the Book of Mormon purports to be an ancient document that was a family's record, leaving Jerusalem in 600 BC and coming to America. And it says that the Native Americans were primarily descended from a Jewish family, even though modern-day genetics basically shows no evidence of that and that the Native Americans came over probably from the Bering Strait from Asia. So there's no linkage, because when you’re talking about that many years—so few years from a DNA standpoint. It would have shown up, but it didn't, and just a lot of inconsistencies like that, that just were really difficult for me to reconcile.

And, again, I just felt shocked. I didn't want it to not be true. I was so sad. I just felt like… suicidal. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt suicidal, was when I was 21 and questioning the LDS church. Because at that point, the LDS church had been my refuge. It had taken me away. It had rescued me. And just BYU—I felt, for the first time in my, life normal. I was surrounded by 30,000 Mormon kids. Huge dating pool, and it’s just like…. and now it's like, “The one thing that got me out of all that, now I don't even have that.” And I was angry. I was sad, too. I just said, “God, I'd rather be dead than this not be true. I want it to be true because I love You.”

And I just believed that's what He wanted for me, was to be Mormon. They call it the restoration, that it was the truth. And it was so hard for me to let that go, and it was just hard chemically. My brain just broke, the chemistry in the brain, and so I took antidepressants for a year because I became suicidal. And so I spent my senior year basically not believing, but I made kind of a pact with God, to say, “Look, I will coast my senior year not believing, but I'm open if You want to reveal something to me to help me stay. I’m open.” And also I don't want to transfer again.

And I just didn't feel that there was anything really keeping me, and so after graduating at 22 with a journalism degree, that was basically when I stopped going to church, to the Mormon church, and I moved to DC. And I started to go to some Christian denominations. And those did not go well.

Yeah. I am curious. What was it about those Christian church experiences that was off putting?

Yeah. Well, I still very much considered myself Christian at the time. I just was not a Mormon anymore. I just wasn't a Mormon Christian. That's what I believed. And so, initially, I was going to a Catholic church for a while, because I started to date a guy who had been in Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a very small sub sect or order within the Catholic church, but it was just way too intense for him. And so he was still Catholic, but he left Opus Dei. And so we kind of shared that bond of me leaving this very extreme version of Mormonism and his very intense version of Catholicism. But eventually he dumped me to get back with his Catholic ex. And I had been open to go to Catholic Church or even maybe become Catholic, because it was all so new to me. It was so foreign to what Mormon services are.

Yeah. So after he dumped me, I was like, “Okay, well bye Catholics. Hello, Protestants.” And so I tried going to an evangelical church, kind of a big megachurch in the area, and had one of the guys in the young adult group try to force me to have sex with him when I was slightly tipsy from alcohol, which is a terrible feeling. Thankfully, I fended him off, but I also had a terrible experience in a women's Bible study. And the group leader somehow basically got an a fight with one of the members and said, “I don't want to do this unilaterally, but I feel like we should take a vote. I don't feel like she should be in our group anymore.” And she had been in this group for years. You know, it was very close knit. It was well beyond just a weekly Bible study. There were happy hours and birthdays, and so there was a vote, and this is when the show Survivor was very popular, and they voted her off the island.

Oh, goodness!

And so I voted to keep her in, but myself and a couple of others, we were overruled, and so I was horrified, and I just said, “You know, this is a nasty Bible club. This is a nasty little book club, and I could go to the yacht club or the polo club or the hunting club, and they wouldn't do this to me. But they did it in a Bible club. So I'm done. I am done, done, done, done. I'm done with organized religion. I am done with this notion of God. I'm done with people using God's name to hurt people, to abuse people.” At the very moment where this woman needed grace—her mother died of cancer shortly after—she didn't have this network of support behind her. And so I was done.

So I walked away from religion with a clean conscience. I would joke that I'm a registered independent when it came to faith.

Yeah. And for good reason. I mean you were given good reason. It’s amazing. You just got the bad pictures, didn’t you? Of Mormonism, of Catholicism, of Protestantism. Everywhere you turned. You tried it in an open way, but yet…. Goodness, the pictures you were given of Who God is through these people was very disappointing, to say the least. So you became a religious independent. Or independent from religion. So what did you do? What did that life look like? How long were you kind of in this space?

So I called what I was doing agnostic, I describe it like a cosmic fence sitter or like a shoulder shrugger. You're like, “I don't know.” You’re a cosmic eternal shoulder shrugger. “I don’t know.” Because you're not willing to say there's definitely not a God, so I didn't call myself atheist, but I was not comfortable saying there was a God. And I just said that I don't know. And, to me, it seemed more humble, in the sense of like it’s just a posture of, “I don't know. Maybe there is. I don't know.” But if there was a God, He seemed to be a jerk or indifferent to me, if there was a God. Because He seemed indifferent or angry with me, I kind of returned the favor. And so I was angry at God. I was angry at my dad. I was angry at the world.

And by that point I had gotten a full scholarship to Harvard, a journalism scholarship, for a master's degree at the Kennedy School. And so I would describe—to answer your question of what did that look like. I think now, looking back, there's a book by Tim Keller, who I love, and he was instrumental in my conversion. I’m so sad he's gone. But he wrote a book called Counterfeit Gods, and each chapter is a false god that we worship, and he talks about sex, money, power, family, politics, business. We all worship things. It’s easy to mock the ancients and say, “Oh, they used to worship calves. That’s silly.” But we do it. It just looks differently.

And so, for me, I tried all these different false idols. I tried making my career my idol, and then I got laid off, which is… to have your idol lay you off is just existential. And then I also tried other things, like… dating. I tried dating, and I kept dating abusive men, men who were very toxic and substance abusers. And people who are abused quite often date substance abusers. I knew that it was wrong, but there was some subconscious part of me that that was normal to me, and it was another false idol. And then I tried using my intellect and going to Harvard and being around all these smart atheist people. I thought, “Well, that's what God is. It’s a sociological construct. It's whatever you want it to be. And it's used as cudgel. It’s used as a political tool. It's whatever you want it to be. That's what religion is. And for some people, they use it for good.” I did acknowledge that, that some Christians were very good. Nuns helping with hospitals and schools and seeing the Billy Graham Society go and help with natural disasters. And so there were some good things. I was willing to acknowledge that and concede that.

But I lived in Israel when I was agnostic, working briefly for the Jerusalem Post as a reporter, and I was agnostic, and I just was like, “People are dying over this. I mean it's a beautiful place, but why murder each other over the sociological construct of religion for this beautiful place. It's not worth it.”  And so I was worshiping intellect and all these other false idols, and but they weren't bringing me fulfillment. And so that's kind of where I existed for about twelve years.

For twelve years! So what did you find or what made you turn back toward even considering the possibility of belief in God again?

Yeah. Well, I say it was almost by default, because I had tried all these false gods and they kept failing me. That was part of it. It wasn't some great sign of character. It was more like, “I tried these other things, and they don’t work.” Almost like in Ecclesiastes, where—and he was way more successful than I was, had a lot more money and power. And even he said all these things are meaningless. And for me, I thought I had finally settled on a god that wouldn't fail me, and that was the god of public service. I’d spent my career in Washington and then on Wall Street as an economic analyst. And I’d managed billions of dollars in credit risk for very large firms. And I had worked at national news outlets. I’d been on the editorial board of The Washington Times at a very young age. So I knew politics, I knew the economy, and then I went to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which is named after JFK.

And I think what I had done subconsciously in some ways, I had put John F. Kennedy as almost like a messiah-type figure, because he was assassinated for his people, just like Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, which I learned…. I believe he was either he was shot or he died on Good Friday. I think he died on Good Friday, which is obviously very symbolic. And then also Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s another example of a messiah-type figure who gave his life for the people. So, for me, that was my religion. It was my ultimate source of meaning and purpose, and I was working, by that point, in conservative activism and politics, and I was debating on television in front of millions of people on shows like The Bill Maher Show and Fox News Prime Time and CNN Prime Time and all these different shows. And fighting for what I believed in.

I was worshiping the altar of conservative politics. I called myself a conservative agnostic. And then Donald Trump happened. It was like, me personally, I can't worship that. I cannot worship at the altar of Donald Trump. I couldn't. And I felt like he wasn't really conservative. I felt like he had said terrible things about women. And it wasn't someone that I could work for or volunteer for or do anything or even vote for at the time. And so I felt deflated because this sense of purpose was lost. I was really excited to maybe work in the White House or work on a campaign as a spokeswoman or a surrogate or something. But for me, I just felt this existential loss because I just couldn't get on board with it.  It created this void, of, “Well, if it’s not politics, then what I do?” because it was my career. And so that was actually a big force in trying to find some meaning.

Yes.

That. And also I had actually looked at some data on secular conservatives versus religious conservatives, and it was very interesting, because, in every area except for LGBT issues, religious conservatives were actually more tolerant than secular conservatives on issues of race, gender, immigration, and just acceptance. Religious conservatives were actually way more open and more compassionate.

Interesting.

And so I said, “You know, I want to be with the compassionate people.” And I understand the debates about things. I'm a hard-headed policy analyst. I understand numbers. And I do believe we need borders and all that. But just in terms of interpersonal human tolerance and ability to see someone as your brother or your sister, religious conservatives are actually better able to do that, at least according to the data. So that was actually part of it, too. I was like, “I'd rather be hanging out with the more compassionate people, even if I don't really agree with what they're saying.” It was sort of a catalyst for me.

And then I mentioned the other force of science. So around this period, in 2017, I stayed in New York. I was running a media company at the time and started to go to church, started to go to Tim Keller's church, started to go to an Episcopal church, to but I also was contacted by the publicist for Deepak Chopra, whom I know some people won’t necessarily agree with him, and he is New Age. So I went kind of from agnostic to going into new age, but for me, a book he wrote was instrumental in believing in God, and that was a book he had co-authored with a PhD physicist from MIT, which meant that this was a person who was very well versed in metaphysics and understanding the laws of the universe. And so to read the science that they put in understanding the probabilities of creation, the probabilities of earth, the probabilities of, as they say, the fine-tuned universe, that the universe is…. It’s like it's created for us, just mathematically speaking, and that it actually takes a lot more faith to be an atheist, statistically speaking. The probabilities of it all just being random, I give it like the analogy, a joke. It's like having a tornado go through a junkyard and formulate a perfectly fine tuned nuclear weapon system. It's just not possible.

So I think the evidence, in my mind, the scientific evidence, is very much in favor of a Creator. So reading that book was instrumental for me just to feel intellectually grounded to say, “I believe in God, and I'm okay with that. I'm not ashamed. I don't feel like it's actually strange or something to look down upon.” And so that's how it started.

So again as a thinker, an intellectual, I appreciate that about you, that you have to have good reason to believe. Whereas, when you grew up with, I guess, some would say an indoctrinated or inculturated kind of religion because of the family in which were raised, at this point in your life, you were looking for something, longing for something, but I would take it that you wouldn't believe it unless you believed it was true at this point in your life, and you were convinced in some way that, scientifically, There were good grounds to believe that God exists, that everything is not random. And I think that's fantastic, but I'm also curious why it is that you actually…. You said you went to Tim Keller’s church, you went to an Episcopal church. Why did you start attending church again? Was it because of your association with religious conservatives, that they were good people, that you were curious? What allowed you to walk into the door of a church building at this point?

Yeah. Well, Episcopalians are not conservative generally.

And I liked the Episcopal Church. For me, I thought was a good fit at the time, because I was coming out of agnostic. It was almost like from agnostic to New Age to Episcopal. It was a good kind of middle ground for me?

Yes.

Because it was not so dogmatic. But the more… What I say is the more I studied Christianity, it was the opposite impact of when I was studying the origins of Mormonism, so studying the origins of who Jesus was, His life, His ministry, the ministry of the twelve apostles, who they were, the evidence for things that He said, and even understanding the science behind the miracles that were in the Bible, that there is a scientific explanation for things, or that they are evident. Not to say that you can't have miracles in the Book of Mormon as well. But it just seemed that it was very different. There were claims in the Book of Mormon that were of a very different nature, that were actually not provable, whereas in the Bible they're provable. And so it just was an opposite experience for me.

But I think, for Christianity, I had also…. I have a chapter in the book about exploring other faiths, too, before going into the Christian faith. When I was in grad school, I went to Asia and spent a night in a Buddhist temple up in the mountains with some monks. It was a group of friends and I. We were doing meditation and martial arts and hanging out with these monks, and it was beautiful and very contemplative, and when I came back and eventually moved to New York, I started to go to a Buddhist temple, but then I got disciplined by the Buddhist monk because I wasn't sitting on the cushion right because I had a rollerblading accident. He was mad at me because I wasn't crossing my legs right. And there was a language barrier. He banished me to the back at the wall. And I was just like, “I'm injured!  What’s going on?” It was so awkward. I'm like, “You’re supposed to be full of zen. Why are you aggressively pushing my leg?” It was so strange, and so I was like, “Okay, I'm done.” But yeah, it was strange. And also, too, it didn't have community. Like people would just file in separately and then just kind of leave. It wasn't this vibrant congregation at this Buddhist temple. And I know there are others that are not that way. Absolutely. But where I was, on the Upper East Side, I just didn’t have that experience.

And I lived, like I said, in Jerusalem. I studied Islam. I traveled in other parts of Asia. So yeah, I'm pretty well versed in, I think, world religions, and I think, for me, what I really stood out to me about Christianity was… well not only understanding the roots of… I guess part of it is, I was, as a conservative, and to me it shouldn't be a political thing, actually. I think it should be like an American acknowledgment of God, and at the time, when I was secular conservative, I actually hated it. I did not like that our motto was, “In God we trust.” I wanted that to get eventually… I describe as getting the bug out of the cell phone. You know, version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, like, “We get that bug out,” and with enough good policy and a good technical fixes and technology, we can get that God bug out.

But I was very much appreciative of Judeo-Christian philosophy as an underpinning for Western civilization. And as a conservative, I do believe that is a fundamental good that should be preserved. So that was part of my interest in Christianity as well.

Okay. So you had done a world tour, literally and figuratively, it seems like, through the different religions, You said you went from agnosticism to New Age to Episcopalian kind of belief, but then you didn't stay there.

Yeah. Well, and to be clear, I was doing them all at the same time.

Okay.

So when I was in New York, I was simultaneously attending all these churches.

Okay.

In part because I was… I had spent twelve years avoiding church.

Okay. Got it.

So I felt like I had to make up for lost time.

You were on a mission!

Yes. So I would joke that the way some people bar hop, like they go from bar to bar. I church hop. At the time, I was going all over. I also thought it was just sociologically fascinating. New York is such a rich place for the Christian faith, because you have… I would go to church in Harlem at the First Corinthian Baptist Church, which has just…. The preaching there is incredibly soul filled, and the choir just… a historically African-American church. There's a church in Brooklyn that was the church where Abraham Lincoln came to speak against slavery.

But I love the richness of Christianity, and the church where I was eventually baptized was St. Thomas Episcopal. Just the caliber was incredible, of the musicality. It was so rich. And I also went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Church in Brooklyn, which is another amazing choir, but just the different variety of music. And Hillsong, the contemporary, and pastor A.R. Bernard, who's a Brooklyn pastor. I think he actually has the largest evangelical church in New York, and he became a mentor of mine.

So I love the whole experience of Christianity and seeing the richness of the experience, and all just pointing with issues of racial reconciliation, that there is no black or white or Jew or bond or slave under… we are all one under Christ. And so that really spoke to me, as someone who works in public service. I saw the public good that faith can do in a way that government cannot. And in that way, I don't think it should be partisan. As far as my faith is concerned. My politics is, right now, conservative. That’s how the label is. But to me, theologically, the Bible is the Bible, and I think…. I'm still an Episcopal Church member. Now here in DC, there's a local church that I sometimes play violin for. But my regular church is a nondenominational church. And I think that's where I feel at home because I don't like denominational warfare. I don't like rigidity. And maybe that's the part of me coming out of a very religious environment to where…. I believe God is different from religion. Religion is human made, human run. God is God.

And it's interesting to hear that we're… the church, in the way the word church is understood in Protestant lingo versus Mormon or Catholic, and to me, the Protestant interpretation is that the church is the people, that we are the church. We are the body of Christ, the people. I think, for me, the interpretation of the difference between God and religion to me is very important, as someone who had seen religion used as a tool of oppression.

Yeah. I think that’s a very important distinction that you just made there, the difference between God and religion, because, as you’ve shown through your story, man can distort the things of God and paint a very distorted picture of Who He is. And I appreciate that you have found… I presume you’ve found God to still be your good and loving, because you have moved back in His direction.

I'm wondering, at this point in your life, considering all that you suffered in the name of religion, I guess it is that distinction that you’ve been able to make emotionally, existentially, and even intellectually, that you've been able to move back towards God because there was nothing else the world could give. And you were convinced that God does exist, for good reason, but yet I would imagine you were looking for something as well. How has the Person of God kind of filled that need as compared to what you were looking for and not finding, and you have found it in God?

Yeah. So I think something that's important to understanding God, in my view, is this idea of unconditional love or unconditional acceptance, and then it's really, as we grow closer to God, we actually bring God more into our hearts and our lives, and our lives become richer, but we're also unconditionally loved and unconditionally accepted, whereas if you're in a work setting or you're in a career setting or a politics setting or even a marriage or a relationship or a family, even, as I found with my family, it's not necessarily going to be unconditional love. And quite often, it's not, and I kept experiencing it as very conditional love. And so to finally know that there was a Presence or just an Intelligent Source of unconditional love, to me that was liberating.

I would imagine it would be life changing in a sense. It speaks to very essence of who we are as beings who want to be known, fully known, and fully loved, and that that is a reality is pretty amazing. So it sounds like you’ve moved into a pretty solid place, then, of belief in God and Christ. And that your life has changed, I would imagine, as a result of moving into this place of, again, just calling yourself a Christian, being in Christ, among the people of Christ, like you say, the community of Christ. Is there anything you'd like to say about how your life has changed since you’ve moved back to the space from agnosticism and rejection of religion to embracing Christ.

Yeah. I think I definitely had a lot of…. The struggles have continued. I think sometimes there's this almost like bumper sticker version of Christianity that's really off-putting to people who have suffered. And so I've definitely suffered a lot, actually, since I was baptized. I almost died in 2019, a couple years after I was baptized. It was because I had worked myself nearly to the bone, and I had exhaustion, and it was of my own doing. However, I was doing it because I was trying to do what I thought God wanted me to do. It was very much a workspace mentality, and I think that's something that I kind of brought with me from the Mormon background. It’s very much a workspace mentality, which I think definitely has its pros, because there are people who—as the Bible talks about. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, God, I love You,” and then it's one thing to actually do something for that.

But thankfully, now I do have a vibrant church community that's helped me through some really traumatic family matters and issues. And so having that community, that body of Christ, to really open up to them and be vulnerable, was hard for me initially. And I've read The Screwtape Letters, and he talks about that, and I think he—I know this is a C.S. Lewis podcast, and some of the things, since he was baptized, I think, in his 30s and I was, too, I was almost 35. And he talked about feeling out of place in the community, or just out of place among the believers and just culturally he didn't belong really, and I certainly identified when I read that book. I’m like, “I'm not married. I don't have a family. There’s no support for me.” It's hard being a Christian in your mid thirties and late thirties, and there's just no support for you. It can be very ostracizing. But at the same time I've also had amazing support.

So I guess all that to say is that fundamentally my hope and my knowledge of Who God is is again that unconditional love. And so that that’s certainly been something that has carried me through the struggles and also helped me to forgive my father and to be able to release the anger that I felt toward him and to just not be angry and not feel like I need to hold this over his head. And in other areas, too, to be able to forgive in my life. So I think forgiveness is one of the most powerful tools that I've received in my Christian walk, because it is such a powerful theme in the Bible, and it is something that I certainly needed, and I needed to be free from the anger that I felt toward my dad, and it was really through my Christian walk that I was able to.

What a gift that is! A gift to your father. A gift to your family. A gift to yourself. There is freedom through forgiveness, and it’s only because we’ve been forgiven that it becomes easier to forgive others, right? I am so impressed with your story, Carrie, in so many ways, and I’m thinking of those who might be listening who have been deeply hurt by religious people, by the church, by really, really bad representatives, or even just general abuse in their life, and they think, “How could there be a God? And if He’s there, He’s not good.” But yet, in sitting across from you today and seeing your just inner beauty, as well as your outer beauty, and that you’ve been able to come to terms and find resolution and reconciliation and forgiveness. That’s an extraordinary testimony to your faith, to Who God is to you now. And I'm sure in many ways there are many who would long to be where you are now, having been through so much struggle. What would you say to a skeptic who might be listening who’s saying, “Well, I just don't see that for me.” Or maybe they do want it, though. What would be a good first step for them? What advice could you give to someone like that?

I’ll tell you. The priest who baptized me, And I remember when I came in, getting to know him and talking through the conversion process, and one thing he said, for him, when he kind of solidified his belief in God, it was that he realized that his questions and doubts that he had, they were really not that original. And I think having a level of humility, that there is nothing new under the sun, that if you look at the life outcomes, even just scientifically, of people who have faith—it's just that same level of strong correlation of reduced suicidal ideation, reduced deaths of despair due to alcoholism and drug overdose. It is strongly correlated with religious participation. People have better mental health and life satisfaction overall. It's just proven.

And, again, not to say your life will not suffer. But overall, if you want to have a life with less suffering, be in a faith walk, because it will be a place that will help you alleviate your suffering. And it certainly did for me.

Yeah. There are so many today that are struggling in so many ways, like you were saying, with suicidal ideation or anxiety or depression, not knowing where to go. And I think you’ve given them a path forward.

And for us as Christians. Wow! I'm sure that there's a lot you could say about that, because there are a lot of bad representatives of Christ. And sometimes it's hard to look beyond the Christian to see Christ, or to look beyond the religious person to see the goodness of God behind it, because they distort things so much. And I wonder what you would say to those of us who want to give an authentic, loving picture of God, one of truth and grace, compassion, generosity, or something. It seems like many times we’re going against such a negative cultural picture of who Christians are or what Christianity is these days. How would you speak to us in terms of how can we best engage with those who are skeptical but may be curious?

You know, it's interesting because I am a big advocate, as someone who was abused in religion. I am a big advocate for holding religious leaders accountable for abuse. So I think, when you see news stories reporting—and for anyone who would cover up child abuse in a church or excuse sexual abuse, any form of abuse in a religious context, I think that's from hell. And so we need to make sure that we're not covering or making excuses for those types of people.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

It’s the same even dating back to Christ, that Judas Iscariot, who was one of the very first Christians, betrayed God. And so why would we think it's any different? If someone who was that close to God behaved that way, why would we expect anything different two thousand years later? So I think managing expectations of the human experience is actually very grown up. So when you have atheists or agnostics who knock religion because they see a horrible person who is religious…. I heard a really good response to that, which is that, if someone plays Beethoven horribly, do you blame Beethoven or do you blame the musician? You don't blame Beethoven. You blame the musician.

Exactly. Yes.

So I think, when you see a horrible Christian, do you blame Christ or do you blame the Christian? But the beauty of Christianity is that, through Christ's sacrifice, even that person is able to be forgiven and reconciled. However, they need to accept Christ, and they need to repent and go their way and sin no more. So everyone is redeemable. However, they have to accept the Redeemer. So that's what I would say to people who are skeptical.

And I think too, as Christians, there's a great quote. It’s Ronald Reagan, so sorry, but Ronald Reagan's great, and I don’t apologize for that. But he said, “I'm cautious in claiming that God is on my side. I think we should spend more time asking ourselves, ‘Am I on God’s side?’”And I think that humility, that understanding of the fruits of the Spirit. That’s a really good road map, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Those are pretty identifiable traits to your behavior and your action, and you might want to square that up and see how—I'm talking to myself, too.

Yeah, no. We are all constantly being reminded of our shortcomings with regard to who we are and who we should be. But we’re always depending on Christ to transform us, to surrender to the process of that, hoping that maybe tomorrow is better than today, so that we can represent him in the best way.

Carrie, you have given us so much to think about today. Goodness. I’m sitting across from, again, a beautiful woman of God whose life has been totally transformed. You have experienced, it sounds like, the pit of hell at some point in your life and points, but yet, you’re sitting here as someone who is proclaiming the goodness and the love, the unconditional love of God. And I think somebody can sit back—I know I am—and wonder and just thanks giving for who you are and how you’ve managed that journey, how God has really restored the years that the locusts have eaten in your life, that He can take beauty from ashes and create good out of evil. What was intended for evil. I'm sitting, again, across from you and seeing someone and something that’s really, really good. And I'm amazed by that, and I can only say only God can transform a life like that. And I’m so thankful for you, for your transparency and for your honesty in coming forward and telling your story. So thank you for being with us today.

Thank you. Thank you for having me, and thank you for being so kind, and again, for all you do to point people to Christ.

Thanks again.

Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Carrie Sheffield’s story. You can find out more about her and her book, Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our email at [email protected].

This podcast is produced through the C.S. Lewis Institute through the help of our wonderful producer Ashley Decker, audio engineer Mark Rosera, and podcast assistant Lori Burleson. You can also see these podcasts in video form on our YouTube channel through the excellent work of our video editor Kyle Polk.

If you enjoyed it, I hope you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.


COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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