I distinctly remember sitting on Lindsay T.’s couch on July 4, 2013, drinking from a cheap Strawberry Daquiri Seagram’s bottle. “I don’t know if God loves me,” Lindsay admitted. We had recently upgraded our acquaintanceship to friendship, and this conversation was a milestone. “God loves me when I’m good,” I responded. “But deep down I’m pretty sure He’s just waiting to give up on me if I screw up.”
Just two years later when I graduated from seminary, everything had changed.
I spent three years hearing my professors say things like, “God is not the god of karma, but the God of grace,” and “It is grace that justifies us, sanctifies us, AND glorifies us,” and “When I get to heaven and God asks why I deserve to be there, I’ll just shake my head and whisper, ‘Jesus.'” I spent three years in a church that offered weekly Communion so that we never forgot where our strength comes from. I spent three years in a small group where we argued about abortion and gay marriage and Islam and transsexuality and feminism in safety and love. I spent three years befriending counselors who were delighted to discover my darkest secrets and shared their own with me. I was spoiled with grace.
But then I moved home. The problem with leaving your hometown and changing is that when you return…you revert to your old mental and emotional habits. Or at least, I do. Who was I before I learned to trust in God’s unconditional love? I was the Good Girl. I measured my worth in my modesty, I argued people into heaven, and I covered my possessions in simplistic Christian statements. I was determined to earn people’s approval. I was determined to earn God’s approval. I knew how to work the system, and honestly, it was comforting. Legalism is nothing if not controlling, and I am good at controlling things.
Added to this natural regression was my months of fundraising. I was asking people to give me money so that I could work in a ministry! People kept calling me a missionary! Most of the time I felt internal pressure to conform to some hyperbolic picture of the Perfect Christian. Other times I felt external pressure, like when I was told that people would not give me money because they didn’t like that I had doubts about theological issues. It was too much for my perfectionistic, attention-seeking, desperate-for-approval heart.
So I shut down and became spiritually paralyzed.
But only kind of, and that’s the weird part. I clung to grace. I was determined to continue to believe in a God whose love doesn’t change whether I drink alcohol, say “fuck,” fantasize about sex, or get angry. I was determined to be a safe place for friends who felt ashamed of themselves, someone who they could pour out their doubts and then respond, “I totally understand! Life is crazy and messy and you are doing the best you can! I love you!!” I had tasted a God who loved unconditionally, and I refused to give Him up.
But…doubt had entered my mind. Which was nothing new, because Doubter is one of my central spiritual traits. Only this time, I didn’t feel like I could say anything, and that kind of doubt will kill a person.
What did I doubt this time? I worried that I had created my own kind of God, and that the dream world of grace I experienced in Dallas was a lie. Maybe rules and limitations really were the path to salvation….but surely not! But maybe!? So I avoided my Bible, terrified that I would be faced with a God who micro-managed his creation, who waited to see them fail, who suffered for them with a begrudging heart, just waiting for them to get their act together. I was scared the God of my childhood fears would reappear.
This past weekend I found grace in, as so often happens for me, a book. Nathan Foster said in The Making of an Ordinary Saint:
I knew the anxiety she carried. Her eyes had a starving sort of look, a look Christians often wear. It’s the face of someone who spends a lifetime striving to be the person they think they should be, chasing the approval of God and others, but never really feeling like they measure up. It’s seen on the person who follows the rules, does everything leaders ask them to do, is seldom acknowledged for all their efforts, and feels guilty when they slack on a diligent devotional life. In the deep recesses of their heart, they can’t seem to outrun the gnawing ache that they aren’t good enough. When honest, they’ll admit the lie that drives so much of their life: God is disappointed with their performance, just like everyone else is.
This was in his chapter about self-hatred, which is very fitting. The opposite of love and grace is self-hatred. He then talked about the “disciplines of abstinence,” and my soul LEAPED within me as I realized that avoiding my Bible was possibly something very healthy.
People who feel overburdened should start with disciplines of abstinence and see where the journey takes them. Their discipline is only to quit trying and learn to be still before God, learn to bring him into the chaos of their lives. So many people just need to get through their day, and the last thing they need is more things they have to do. God invites them into a life, not a spiritual to-do list.
Because I’m still very driven by the approval of others, it felt SO GOOD to hear someone say that it was okay that I had abandoned the Bible. Not only okay, but healthy! Because that was the second dirty little secret – I felt closer to God than ever! It was intoxicating to realize that I could ignore the Good Christian Checklist and still be loved. And God still talked to me – through friends, through nature, through novels. God felt intimate, but….I didn’t want to live the rest of my life in fear of the Bible and other trappings of Christian religion.
At the conference retreat, I found myself enjoying worship songs. I listened to sermons with an ear to wisdom rather than fear that I would be confronted with legalism. I devoured a Christian book, desperate for Foster’s honesty. And when a conflict arose, I took the time to let God nudge me, gentling drawing my attention to the fact that my initial reaction was to run full-out down my natural path of control. So for the first time in months, I went to the Bible, and I read 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 about spiritual gifts, beauty in diversity, and love. I opened my Bible, and I found grace.
I don’t think this spiritual phase is over. I think I will always live in fear of legalism, because its roots (you are wrong, you are wrong, you are wrong) wind deep into my psyche. Grace is SO counter-intuitive. Self-righteousness is so much easier, and it’s very easily defensible when reading the Bible as a list of do’s and don’ts.
I slowly stopped viewing the Bible as a book I needed to understand, manage, or defend, and I started cultivating a deep appreciation for it as the personal stories of a loving Father reaching out to his children. When I moved beyond the cultural nuances, it unfolded as a divinely inspired and often tragic story of love.
I still have a hard time trusting the Bible. But this weekend, I got a taste of what it means for the actions of faith to be comforting rather than fear-inspiring. I want to trust in God’s grace enough that I am not scared to seek him in tragedy, in oppression, in doubt, and in anger. I want to jump into life recklessly, knowing that his love will remain as steady as it was when I was high-necked t-shirt wearing, bumper stick-clad, Bible-toting Christian.
I was going to say he might even love me more now that I’m not those things, but the crazy thing is….He was deeply in love with me when I was an arrogant self-obsessed do-gooder too. What a weirdo.
I like him.