If you know me, you know I love a reader question. Not only does it mean that someone’s reading my blog (and those stats aren’t lying to me after all!), but it means I don’t have to think of a blog topic for the week. That, right there, is a ‘double yay!’ This weeks reader question wasn’t necessarily a tricky one, but it did still make me delve into the archives of my brain and wrench up some details I’d sorta forgotten. The question was this: “In the enormous process of dismantling and re-establishing your faith, what made you sure that Jesus was still real and worth committing to?”
I’m not going to lie to you; my first answer was “fear.” It’s an answer shared by many a person with a similar background to me. Evangelical, a bit fundamentalist, raised in churches – we Christian kids learn to behave for Jesus before we fall in love with Him. I’d behaved for Him all my life. Of course, there was genuineness in my faith, but for the early part of my walk with God at least, fear was the big motivator. No, not the “awe-inspiring, fear of God” type. Just pure, unadulterated fear. Fear of judgment, hell, stuffing up, getting caught, getting embarrassed, missing out – you know the types.
But in the early process of deconstruction, I realized that the way I’d been viewing faith so far was incongruent with the message of the cross.
If love drove Jesus to the cross, why should fear be the thing that drives us to Jesus? Was it possible to discover a love-based faith rather than a fear-based religion? Was it possible to have Christianity without fear and self-loathing?
As a loving mother, as the wife of an incredible husband, there is nothing in me that wants to scare my husband or my children into devotion toward me. I don’t want to scare my husband into cuddling up on the couch and watching movies with me on a Friday night or whatever. I don’t want to scare my children into sitting on my knee and letting me cuddle them or read books to them. I don’t even want to scare them into behaving well. Rather, I want them to understand how to be safe in the world, and to grow up to be people who make it a better place.
If we stop and think about the reality of scaring our partner or children into loving us, we understand pretty quickly that it isn’t love. It’s abuse.
This equated to a bit of an “ah hah” moment for me. It was followed quickly by another “ah hah” moment: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. This means that this thing we call Christianity is simply mankind’s best attempt at building rituals, systems and understanding around a God too vast and infinite for words. It was always going to fall short. It was always going to be messed up by messed-up people and made better by the best efforts of the well-intentioned ones. It was always going to be a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Because Christianity was only ever going to be an attempt at humankind housing the divine.
Expanding the search beyond the fear
The realization that fear was my first motivator was a sobering one. Thankfully that lightbulb moment happened in a church while listening to a level-headed, and theologically strong pastor. He had dragged a scripture out of the archives that I’d only ever heard one way: it was the scripture about Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son with the clubbed feet. I’d only ever heard it preached one way – that because when Jonathan gave his armor to David, he held back his shoes. The message was always that what you don’t give up in covenant becomes a curse on the next generation. The message below that: obey because of fear that God will curse your kids.
But that’s not what this pastor had said in his message. My husband mentioned it after the service, and the pastor’s words have stuck with me ever since. “To read it that way is to completely misunderstand the nature of God.” He went on to explain himself in more detail, but I wasn’t listening at that point. I was thinking “What else about God have I misunderstood?”
The truth is that Biblical scholarship is an art almost entirely lost. It used to be that people didn’t read the Bible because they couldn’t. They were illiterate, or the Bible was only in such short supply that the scribes were the only ones who could access it and read it.
Now, in an age where most of us can read, and all of us can get free Bible apps on our smartphones, we still seem Biblically illiterate. Thus, we trust the people standing behind the pulpit to explain what we need to know. But what if “what we need to know” is tainted by lost context, personal agendas, leadership challenges, or the colored lenses of the pain and loss life might have thrown them?
There are a million reasons why we can’t just do this. We don’t know what a preacher is thinking when they choose the message for the morning. We don’t know what lens they are viewing that scripture through or what motive is behind it. If we don’t have enough knowledge about God and the Bible to inform us and ring the bell when and if something is a bit skewiff, then we are at the mercy of bad doctrine that takes us further away from a relationship with God, not further into it. But the sad thing is that bad doctrine almost always drives us further into fear and condemnation than into the redemptive love of God.
That realization drove me into the thing I’d always had in my pocket but never had the power to use: the Bible. But I ditched the complexity of the whole thing for a while and just stuck with the Red Letters.
Red Letter Christianity
I blogged on this a while back, and I won’t rehash the whole thing (because you can read it here). But a personal challenge I took on back at the beginning of my deconstruction was to read just the Red Letters for a while. After all, these were the words spoken by Jesus who was one-third of the Trinity. What could get us closer to the nature of God than the words spoken by the Son of God?
They are a big challenge in and of themselves, so much so that the rest of the New Testament seems largely geared at helping us understand how we can live out followership of Christ. But the revelation that I got from my foray into Red Letter Christianity was that judgment was not the goal of God. Love was. Love had always been. Judgment was a thing that He hoped He could spare us from, so much so that He sent Jesus.
He wasn’t after a perfect people. He was after a devoted people. And if our hearts are turned to him, then despite our humanity and the inevitability of failure, our imperfections are all covered. This, essentially, is the nature of God – love. He is love. He does love. He gives love. Yes, he is holy. Yes, he can’t stand sin. But because he loves us, he found a way around that.
That took me back to the fear-abuse conundrum I spoke about in the beginning: If God loved me, then He wouldn’t want to use abuse to drive me into His embrace. And right there, in that sentence, was the great inconsistency I had witnessed over and over again – People professing to have been moved by the love of God, and the higher way of living He called them to, using the fear of Hell and judgment to drive people into salvation and keep them there. “Just do this one thing different and God will love and bless you. Just change this. Just repent of this. Just cease this…” Always one more thing when the truth of the matter is that His Grace is sufficient and His strength made perfect in our weakness.
Boy, it takes the pressure off. Just like that, a lifetime of striving and wrestling got swapped for the safety in knowing God loved me even in the midst of deconstruction. Even if I had difficulty trusting Him or understanding Him for a time, that was totally okay. Because God has big shoulders. He can deal. He could see the grapple, and he could see my struggle to get to the heart of true Christianity, and He wasn’t going to judge me for that. Because that’s not in His nature.
Other World Religions
During the heavier initial stages of my deconstruction, I read a lot and watched a lot of documentaries. I always did so with one thing in mind: my own life experience had taught me that there is a God. That was something that history and science both echoed and did nothing to refute. Even atheism seems consistent with the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, as written in Genesis. If we choose that tree, we eat of its fruit.
(Whole magazines are devoted to these topics, so I’m not going to talk about that in this blog post.)
But one documentary series stood out: Morgan Freeman’s “The Story of God.” In it, he looked at many different world religions including Christianity. It seems that, throughout the world and throughout history and even the post-modern age, we all seem to seek out the divine. And though our words for it differ, very similar themes echo through.
It seems to me that from the beginning of time, mankind has been aware of the divine. From the farthest stretches of the world to the modern centers of civilization, there exists an awareness that there is something out there – some greater power. We find different words to wrap around it. We find different lenses and structures to see it through. But its there.
What makes Christianity different? Well, I guess that’s a series for another day. But the place I arrived at is this: throughout my life, I had seen the hand of God. I had seen Him protect me from certain things, and seen him enable certain things that I’d always thought impossible. He had seen what I prayed in the silence of my room, or in the loneliness of my darkest times. He made these things happen in time. Other people might call this divine force something different. But I call Him Jesus. He calls Himself the way, the truth, and the life.
One day I’ll tell those stories, of the things he rescued me from and the things he bought me through. But for now, here is my truth:
Illness, personal upheaval, loss of church, loss of community, financial hardship, deconstruction of faith, a search through science and other world religions, a critical look through the Bible in its various translations and iterations, a critical look at the world around me – none of it has driven me away from God. Rather it has driven me towards an understanding that He is bigger than what I can possibly understand, and more loving than I ever thought. I don’t have to understand everything about him. But I can spend the rest of my life trying and that will be just beautiful.
Anyway! That’s kinda my thoughts on it. Its taken years to live through, so it’s going to take longer to unpack. But these are some of the things that made me realize, throughout the enormous process of dismantling and re-establishing my faith, that Jesus was still real and worth committing to.