I feel like I’m sitting down at a piano I haven’t played for years (and mum would point out that I actually haven’t played my piano for years). It’s only been a few months since I last wrote some thoughts down, but things feel different right now. Over the last three years there’s been something hanging over me that’s recently lifted. There have been battles that I’ve fought in my mind that have caused ample confusion and questioning that seem to have dispersed more recently. A weight has been lifted.
Let me explain.
A few years ago I decided that the problems of the world were more complex than the simple answers of faith. I knew that I still believed in God (my brain genuinely cannot fathom that this world was created from nothing and purely by chance) but I didn’t know or understand how God fitted in with some of the things that I saw, felt and understood about life and the way it worked. I needed answers that weren’t coming and God started to feel quite separate from my reality. I was disheartened with church, confused by prayer and puzzled by other christians. None of it seemed to make sense anymore. And while I didn’t walk away, I did grow slightly cold and distant to many aspects of my faith. While many friends were privy to the different themes that came up over time, so much of what was going through my little heart and mind felt impossible to vocalise. I don’t think I could have explained it if I tried. I felt like I was re-learning who God was.
I don’t think I’d realised how much it had affected me until a friend sat me down in a pub a few months back and lovingly told me that I was a shell of the person I was three years ago and that I’d lost my sparkle. Wow. There’s honesty for you. It’s been a long and painful, but hugely beneficial three years of learning and wrestling with things, and while the journey is nowhere near over, its nice to have reached the other side of this particular mountain.
My issue was heart stuff, not head stuff. It had stemmed out of not being able to reconcile suffering with the goodness of God. I was asking unending ‘why?’ questions and not getting answers that satisfied. For a while I just felt trapped. I felt I knew – and had experienced – too much of God to be able to walk away from him, but I also couldn’t match up my expectations of God with my reality. I think I got God and the church a bit mixed up. So I sort of bumbled along trying to deal with / ignore the frustration inside.
In many ways I was trying to reduce my emotional pain into an intellectual problem so that I could reason my way out of it. I wanted the problem to be that I didn’t understand suffering and injustice, but in truth I just felt let down by God, like I didn’t know who he was anymore. I felt like I’d grown up thinking a whole bunch of stuff about God that I was finding out wasn’t true, and it was strangely painful.
Trying to respond to emotional problems with intellectual reasoning doesn’t work. I can’t imagine going through a break up and having all my friends just yell facts at me in an attempt to help mend my broken heart, but in many ways that’s what it felt like was happening. When I asked “Can I trust God?” I wasn’t looking for people to list the reasons why I should trust God – because I knew the text book answers – I needed something more.
I don’t think a person can answer the deepest questions of our heart. I think there are some things only God can respond to. It’s not that my friends and family weren’t saying some helpful and wise things, its just that I wasn’t hearing any of them. So I remained in a place of doubt and uncertainty for a long while. And from that place arose many other questions.
As I said before, in all of this I was never not convinced of the existence of God..or Jesus…or my salvation etc. My question was simply, “what kind of God?” So, I suppose I set about trying to re-learn some stuff – and that’s been the journey of the last couple of years in particular.
Unlearning years of assuming that God was like some of the Christians I’d met was difficult. I’ve grown up in several different churches, and its funny the things you pick up along the way just by observing how people treat each other. For me, one of the more damaging things that was in my head was that God was more interested in my behaviour than my heart; that ultimately we needed to do the right things and if we didn’t then something was desperately wrong. Deep down I didn’t believe it to be true, but the resounding noise I was hearing seemed to suggest it was.
I felt like I mostly did the right things…but for the wrong reason. I wasn’t doing things because they felt right, or because something inside of me desired to. I did them because I thought I should. Now I’m not naive enough to think that even the people who’ve got this sussed want to do the right thing all the time and don’t have to sometimes lead with the head and hope the heart will follow, but I was in a place where I honestly had no idea what was driving me anymore, and it worried me. So I decided (quite deliberately and assertively) to stop doing anything just because I thought I should. My mum looked quite concerned when I told her this and I think she wondered what on earth would follow. It was liberating and felt like a step in the right direction – even if it did result in a couple of “odd” decisions.
I’m a fan of the phrase “Love God and do what you want”. I think if you really focus on the first bit, then the second bit looks a lot more how God would want it to anyway.
So while dealing with my bigger questions, I was also on a journey of trying to walk away from the heavy expectations I felt I was living under. And unhelpfully at the time it felt like everywhere I looked Christians were shouting really loud messages at the rest of world about what was wrong with it…abortion, homosexuality, evolution, divorce, views on heaven and hell etc. …and while now really isn’t the time for me to explore my particular view points on any of these issues, it really distressed me that Christians were shouting louder about these things than they were about love, justice, acceptance and grace. It didn’t make sense to me. I’ve always been someone who enjoys theology and debating different view points, but at the time it all just made me angry. I felt like somehow we’d turned things upside down, mixed up our priorities and slightly missed the point. I just didn’t want to listen anymore, and bitterness started to creep in.
I found myself walking out of meetings because I couldn’t stand it any more and avoiding certain topics of conversations with people for fear of what I might say. I was genuinely quite angry with it all and it was almost the tipping point of deciding to walk away at one stage. While in the middle of dinner with good friends I remember reaching saturation point and angrily declaring that “until the church becomes most famous for loving other people I don’t want to hear anything else it has to say”. I think I still stand by that in part.
Miller writes about how Christianity seems to have been hijacked by a moral agenda – how we’ve become more concerned about upholding our moral standards and guidelines on personal conduct – and telling people how to vote and how to live – than we have about simply loving God and loving people. Really loving people. And how this concern over morality and a need to correct people has become the overriding sound the world hears from the church. In many ways I agree and I’ve seen that (and probably been a part of it). How sad. I’m not saying that I don’t believe some ways of behaving are better than others, or that God doesn’t care about how we act and live – and I’m not saying that its not sometimes the loving thing to do to speak truth and correction into people’s lives – it’s just that when that becomes the overwhelming sound of the church I think something’s gone very very wrong.
I heard someone say that unless you love someone more than you love yourself, don’t try and rebuke them. If it doesn’t come from a place of love…its just unhelpful noise. Kim says “its the Spirits job to convict, God’s job to judge, our job to love”. I like that.
Looking back over the last year or so, a few things have really helped me move from a point of being confused (and angry) to a place of peace. One was having someone – who probably unknowingly – gave me the space and time to air the thoughts that were swirling round my brain so furiously without trying to push me in any particular direction. I’m more grateful to him than he realises for that. Another was simply the grace and love of my family and the amazing bunch of people from both church and work that I get to do life with, they’re a living testimony to the goodness of God. The third was an experience at Kings Gate that I wrote about a while ago, which was a phenomenal reminder that God has his hand on my life and loves me. And the fourth was Don Miller – I really resonate with the things he writes and speaks about. I think he paints a really helpful picture of what God is like and why people do some of the things they do. I was going to try and explore some of the things he spoke about in a talk he did on Christian apologetics to a bunch of Harvard students, but figured that he actually puts it better himself. For any who want to download and listen to “Your Story and the Human Epic” here’s the link. Its well worth the $6.95.
I feel its only right to finish by pointing out that my simple and quite sweeping statements about christians and the church do fail to acknowledge some of the amazing people I know and love who have a phenomenal capacity to care for and love those around them, or the churches that I’ve been a part of that tirelessly serve their communities with grace. My hope is that while being honest about the journey I’ve been on over the last few years and the things that I’ve struggled with in the church I don’t neglect to lift up those who constantly remind me through both word and action that God is love.