I am writing this on a Sunday morning when I ought to be in church, but instead am sitting at a coffee shop table in the center of a park near my house. I am only here after an hour of mental anguish, because I knew I OUGHT to go to church, but I didn’t want to. Well, part of me wanted to. It’s the first Sunday of the month, which is when the church I (half-heartedly) attend does Communion, and Communion is the one thing about church that I find consistently satisfying.
But mostly I didn’t want to. I loathe the process of going to church on my own. Getting ready alone, walking to the metro alone, riding the metro alone, walking several blocks alone, opening the door alone, scanning the seats for a familiar face alone, seeing them sitting in a full seat and therefore finding my own place. Alone. It is hell.
So I didn’t go. But it’s a beautiful day, and I DID want Communion with God, that mysterious practice that reminds me that I cannot do life on my own but must, in some way, consistently take Jesus inside of me as the food I eat and the wine I drink. So I came to this park, and I’m drinking coffee (it felt weird to order wine at 11:00 a.m.), eating a croissant, and reading Gospel by J.D. Greear.
For the past few years, I have been trying to trust that God’s love for me is not dependent upon my actions. So it is lucky that I chose this book, because in the introduction, Greear describes his deteriorating relationship with God in very relatable terms to me, a fellow perfectionistic, legalistic Christian:
My service for God was fervent, but my passions for Him were cold. I certainly didn’t desire to know Him more.
I was tired, and while I would never admit it, I was starting to hate God.
He was the merciless taskmaster always standing over me yelling, “NOT ENOUGH! I want MORE!” He was always there, waving damnation in my face, saying, “If you want My approval, there’s something else you must do.” His constant demands were driving me insane. The more I strived to walk in His ways, the less love I felt for Him. The more closely my feet followed Him, the more my heart ran away.
The middle bit, about God being a taskmaster who demands more, more, more, is my constant fear in faith. That is the God I believed in for so many years, because that is the god that rules my head anyway – the belief that my worth is directly tied to my performance. So in an attempt to appease this taskmaster god, I took good things and made them requirements. Not only would I memorize Scripture…I would memorize the whole book of Romans (I only got through chapter 3)! Not only would I financially support one child through Compassion…I would support another with World Vision! Not only would I share my possessions, I would purposefully give away the things I loved because I feared that I loved them more than I loved God. I would “kiss dating goodbye,” I would go to a Christian college, I would constantly weigh every single action and thought in an attempt to please God.
Unsurprisingly, like Greear, I started to hate God. Well, okay, my fearful legalistic side is scared of saying “hate.” I definitely resented God. It seemed like all he did was take and take and take. For everything I did for him, he wanted more. His love for me, if it existed, was wildly inconsistent depending upon how well I was attending to my spiritual practices. And my love for him? Well.
The Bible says that we are commanded to love God with our entire heart, body, mind, and soul. But:
How can true love be commanded?
Being commanded to love someone you have no natural affection for becomes wearisome. True love grows as a response to loveliness.
It wasn’t until I studied counseling at seminary that I began to fall in love with God’s loveliness. It was there in Genesis 1, when he commanded humans to rule the earth…just as he rules us, with sacrificial love. It was there in my counseling practicum, when he made me aware of my deepest needs and failures while simultaneously assuring me that these things EQUIPPED me for service rather than hindered me. It was there in my friendships with Michal Ann and Lindsay, who assured me that being a feminist didn’t make me a bad Christian. It was there in Dr. Kreider’s class, when he passionately taught against an interpretation as Philippians 1:23 as an excuse for suicide. It was there in the way he rejected me from jobs and internships, then later brought about the perfect nannying job and the perfect counseling internship I could have ever asked for.
It was there when I didn’t read my Bible and when I didn’t attend church. It was there when I admitted I was a feminist who believed in evolution, and it was there when I embraced my anger, and it was there when I questioned his existence.
My deepest experiences of God’s love are when I DON’T do the things that ought to bring me close to him…and he comes close to me instead. God is good, and when I don’t go to church, he reveals himself to me in other ways, like books and croissants and lattes and cool breezes on a summer morning.
I look forward to the day when going to church doesn’t feel like an insurmountable social obstacle. And I long for the day when I go to church because I want to be with God’s people, not because I think it is something I “ought” to do. But until then, I’ll have a half-assed Communion in the park and write a blog post. Or even more scandalously, I’ll sleep in and do nothing, and God will still love me. And someday, that will sink in, and I will DELIGHT in God the way he delights in me.