What’s more terrifying than an invisible force, possessing unlimited power, that is completely invincible, and fancies itself the judge of all? Well, not much really. I think this is generally a reason why many people find themselves slightly afraid of God.
I know I’ve felt that fear. I remember being a little kid in Sunday school, singing a song that goes something like this:
“Be careful little eyes what you see,
For the Father up above,
is looking down with love,
so be careful little eyes what you see.”
Yes, the lyrics mention God being loving, but I had never met anyone that was so set on finding my mistakes who gave me the impression of love. Instead, I mostly felt terror. As I entered my early adolescent years, I was pretty confident that I had pretty much given up any chance of avoiding hell.
Over the following decade I learned many lessons and made many bad decisions. My fear of God was biblical in its intensity. But it had grown into something that wasn’t actually described in the Bible. I was a big fan of Jesus, though. He was fun and cool. He’d hang out with me even when I made bone headed decisions. Jesus didn’t expect me to be perfect and he didn’t hold punishment over my head. I did what I could to avoid God and stick close to Jesus.
Here’s what I didn’t know. Jesus was actually on God’s side the whole time. In time, my spiritual pursuit of Jesus taught me lessons about God that I didn’t want to learn. As I entered my mid 20’s my perception of God began to change radically. This is when my fear of God reached a fever pitch.
See, I don’t do relationships well. I’m fine with acquaintances. I don’t particularly get energized by small talk, but you can be sure I’d rather talk about the weather than my inner thoughts and feelings. To let a person enter into my life with any sort of depth requires deliberate and focused action on my part. The lesson I eventually learned about God from my pursuit of Jesus is that God is not actually who I had given him credit for being. It began to dawn on me that he didn’t want to destroy me. He liked me. He wanted to know me and wanted me to know him.
I read a book once that was helpful in wrapping my mind around this. The book regularly made my skin crawl because it kept referring to God’s desire for “intimacy.” I may be a full grown adult, but this word transports me back to how I felt in Middle School Human Reproduction classes. In the end, the most terrifying truth about God is that he wanted me to be near him. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is far more fear inducing for me than a God that is just angry all the time.
I wasn’t prepared for this at the time. I really don’t think I’m any more prepared for it now. For me, the angry God myth offered a valuable cover. It allowed me to embrace my buddy Jesus, to limp along the path of spiritual growth, and to avoid any real pursuit of God himself. If I’m honest, I knew all along that if God would sign off on the whole Jesus’ death on the cross thing, then he couldn’t actually be as vindictive as I made him out to be. But as long as my view of him was one of wrath and fury, then I could avoid getting too close.
I’m at a point now where I know, intellectually, that God is not bothered by me. He doesn’t hate me. He doesn’t want my downfall. He doesn’t want to hold a grudge. This thought is planted firmly in my head and I refer to it often. However, this truth has not made the journey from my head to my heart. I don’t feel fear at the thought of God’s judgement. I feel fear at the thought of God’s love. I can’t, for the life of me, get a grasp on how that could be his response.
I don’t think I’ve walked far enough to know what it takes to change how I feel about God’s view of me. I think the only way to start is to claim where I am. That would be the case for you, too. I’m also practicing re-reading the two greatest commands on a regular basis. This is actually what ultimately convinced me of the truthfulness of my conclusion. See, the second command is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It eventually dawned on me that if I had that last bit out of wack, it might just throw the whole thing off balance. I know that’s not new information, but it was one of those things that I had selectively ignored for years.
I hope I’m able to feel the truth of what I know sooner rather than later. I also hope you are able to grasp it for yourself. That’s not altruistic. If you figure it out, I’d really like to steal your answer and see if it works for me, too!
I am a minister. For the past 9 years I’ve not gone to church as someone attending service, but as someone hosting service. I’ve spent these 9 years serving in “behind the scenes” roles. My real passion is not the production of worship experiences. I’m all about seeing people who don’t intuitively find the connection between what they believe and the life they live being granted permission to make that connection.
Most days I wish that my passion was not this. I’ve basically made my life’s work about helping people gain something that is impossible for me to actually help them gain. I guess if we’re really laying our cards on the table, I hope if I see faith blossom in other people’s live often enough, I’ll figure out how to make it do the same in my own. Most days I just want to make it to my couch, forget about having the energy to engage in a deep and personal relationship with God. My most common prayer for myself is something along the lines of “God, I hope you’re enough because I’m sure not.”
In my heart I desire a spiritual experience and connection with the divine that changes the way I live out every aspect of my life. But it seems like the best I can muster is a mildly enthusiastic religious experience. It hasn’t always been like this. I’ve had seasons of my life where the spiritual felt very near and intertwined with my day to day experience.
This is not the first time I’ve found myself in a season in which my spiritual energy and connection waned. What is new about this experience is my self-understanding. In times past I wondered what was wrong with me, or I tried to pretend that everything was fine. I thought that if I just worked harder at some discipline or spiritual practice then I’d get back to where I once was.
If I’ve gained any wisdom in my spiritual awareness, it is that going back to where things felt “good” or “right” in one’s faith is the equivalent of wishing to re-live the glory days. Sure, re-living college would be fun, but that would require going backwards and life doesn’t go backwards.
Usually, faith feels underwhelming when our souls have need of new expressions of spirituality. Just like when my 8 year old gets bored playing with toys he loved when he was 6, our souls don’t continue to grow when we exercise them with that which strengthened them in seasons past.
What I’m learning, and I think many need to learn, is that faith will not often feel “good.”
Faith lives at the juncture of hope and desolation. The spiritual journey of every person, specifically the Jesus follower, requires an ongoing journey through desolation toward the hope our faith speaks of. No, I’m not going to spout off a list of trendy new spiritual disciplines you can add to your repertoire- I’ve tried that and it doesn’t help. The technique of your spiritual expression is not as significant as the transparency of your spiritual expression.
When faith grows difficult, frustrating, or stale you don’t need a new product. You need to be honest before God and man. You need to ask hard questions of yourself. Things like, how much of your perception of God is your own construction? It’s also worth exploring how realistic your expectations of God are. You may find that much of your spiritual frustration and disappointment lies with perception and expectation- not with your behavior or God’s responsiveness.
Here’s the hard part for me. You have to acknowledge before other people that you’re not feeling too sure about the whole spiritual business. This is hard for me precisely because I’ve decided to set myself up as a professional Christian. How am I supposed to do this whole minister thing right if the songs we sing, lessons I teach, and programs I support just feel static and dull?
What I’ve learned is that the people who have an interest in me and not what I can do for them don’t mind that I’m not Jesus incarnate. Granted, I’ve met a few folks that really don’t give a rip about how my faith is doing- they just want their customer service experience to be world class. But on the whole, the people you meet at church will be interested in supporting you in your spiritual journey. The most likely challenge you’re likely to run into when becoming honest about your faith is that not everyone feels personally equipped to offer the necessary support.
I’m guessing that if folks don’t lose their mind at the thought of a minister not always killing the discipleship game, they’ll be understanding if you don’t have it all sorted. So talk about it. Admit it. Own it. Then start doing the things that disciples do.
Pray. Forgive. Serve. Love. Smile.
And while you do the things that disciples do, keep talking about what is happening in your faith- both the good, the bad, and the seemingly insignificant. Search for words to articulate what is happening between what you believe, what you do and how you feel.
It’s not false to act like a disciple when you don’t feel like one. It’s part of the journey. You won’t find resolution for a struggling faith by going backwards to where things felt ok. You only find resolution by moving forward, through the frustration, toward the hope that you believe lies with God.
Friendship has been a hard thing for me to nail down since I finished college. That’s not true. Friendship has always been a hard thing for me to nail down. I moved every couple years through most of my childhood and early adolescent years. This made me really good at saying goodbye. I learned early on that it’s really easy to say goodbye if you just don’t put down roots. That way you really don’t need to mess with saying goodbye, you can just kind of disappear.
This helped me grow the skill of having relationships where I am, not where I used to be. My M.O. is that I’ll build relationships where I live, and then when I move I’ll let those relationships flounder and create a whole new set of relationships. This served me well as a child, but it has been costly as an adult.
I first learned how to articulate this pattern while I was going through a season of counseling. I realized that I started doing this because I was just a sad little kid and I needed a way to cope. It served me well at the time. Then I did what all people do. I turned my coping skill into a way of life. This is when it became a problem. I started moving from place to place, leaving people behind, but I didn’t need to leave them behind. I just thought that’s what a person did because it’s what I had always done.
Probably the most costly set of relationships I left behind were those I cultivated in college. I had some of the best friends a person could ask for. Then I moved. I packed up my little Honda Accord with all my stuff, and I packed the suitcase of my heart and drove on down to Abilene, TX. I left nothing behind in York, NE.
Over the course of the last 10 years, a lot has happened. The people I was closest to while in college have gone through the wringer. These friends missed my presence in their times of trouble because I was busy with the business of self-protection. I wasn’t willing to do the work to learn how to grow roots that crossed state lines.
I never overtly left these friends behind, but if you ignore enough text messages, people quit reaching out.
I don’t like to face my demons. Neither do you. For me, I leave behind friendship so that I don’t have to face them. How do you avoid the pain of personal growth and maturity? My life’s work is to help people grow as people. I believe the best way to do this is through learning that God actually likes you and that Jesus is happy for you to tag along with him. This demands an ongoing exercise in honesty about what we do and why we do it. Christians call this confession. Like so many teachers, I’d rather give the test than take them. To grow is hard. To be in relationship is hard. To learn new ways of behaving is hard. I’d rather scroll through my newsfeed…again.
I present myself as honestly as possible as a case study for how people turn coping mechanisms into walls of isolation. We create secret compartments of our lives. We rarely share each of these compartments with everyone in our lives. We may gain the feeling of security in this, but we give up true strength. For the past year I have been working as hard as I can to grow through these things. I’ve taken several painful steps, but none of them have hurt as badly as the fear that once kept me paralyzed. I’m learning to let people back in. More specifically, I’m learning to be honest about my demons and to slowly let down my guard.
I know your path is different than mine. But our common ground is that we want to get to the end of our lives and feel good about the experience we had. You’re probably thinking about these sorts of things as we wrap up the Christmas season and plunge into the new year- although these aren’t the things we like to talk about at this time of year. Let me invite you to take the first step toward anything new- begin finding the words to talk about the dysfunction that shapes your life. Once you begin talking about it, the fear begins to shrink. It’ll shrink slowly at first, but with time you’ll find it retreating to its proper place. Then you’ll be able to really start living.
My primary developmental years took place in that weird time between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. I looked with childlike eyes on the revelry of the 80’s. I cut my adolescent teeth wallowing the angst of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. I became a legal adult just 6 days before 9/11. I grew up in the calm between storms.
I didn’t know about racism or injustice. I had no idea that the United States ran internment camps for Japanese Americans. I hadn’t heard of human trafficking and was pretty confident that slavery ended with the Civil War. I didn’t realize that Indians were actually Native Americans.
I was the picture of naive. I was a middle class white kid, growing up in middle class white towns, learning middle class white lessons. I saw the world through the lens of privilege and innocence. I never thought that people who looked at believed different than me were bad. I just didn’t know that they really existed because I never really saw them.
A vivid memory for me is learning about the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement. I was fascinated by the stories of sit-ins and marches. I wondered why the people in those pictures decided to protest. I thought there had to be a better way. I had been in situations where I felt powerless, and those situations have left deep scars that shape my life. I had no idea what it meant to be born into a situation in life that assigned you to the permanent position of powerless.
These photos are painfully recognizable to anyone who paid the least bit of attention over the last year. They have each made me sad. They have each led me to ask difficult questions. Probably the most difficult question I’ve asked is whether or not I really even care.
I know I’m not alone in this questioning. We wonder who we can trust and how we can become informed without being misinformed. The complexity of the struggle we’ve witnessed coupled with the information saturation that surrounds us has led to something that I would call “social retreatism”.
Nope, it’s not scientific, and neither is my evidence to support it.
This act of social retreatism looks like well-educated, well-resourced, well-informed people becoming aware of human suffering and brokenness by consuming copious doses of social and big media, then retreating into conversations with people who look, think, and behave similarly.
When I read about the Dakota Access Pipeline, I feel bad for what’s going on. I wonder what would have happened if they proposed a route that took the pipeline within 500 feet of a youth soccer complex, let alone a cemetery. I talk to my white, middle-class, well-educated friends about it, profess the silliness of it all, tell some politically incorrect joke to break the tension, then go back to staring at my screen.
I watch the Black Lives Matter protests. I think, “Yeah, that’s really heartbreaking that an entire race of people who call America home feel like (and have historical evidence to support) the idea that within American history, their lives haven’t mattered.” Then I scroll on to the video of the dogs trying to catch tennis balls and landing on their heads.
I don’t even have words for the little Syrian boy found lifeless on the beach.
I know about a lot of “issues,” but I don’t know a lot of the people that live behind these issues. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my Christian community (a.k.a. church) then I’d be completely disengaged from anything other than my own personal happiness…and maybe the PTA fundraisers for my kid’s school.
I, like so many of my peers, live my life disconnected from the vast array of human suffering. I have the freedom of choice. I can choose to live in a good neighborhood, send my kids to a great school, and complain about how expensive my health insurance is.
I live above the fray, retreating behind my screen to observe the carnage of the human experience. My professional life affords me the opportunity to sit and have conversations with refugees, ex-cons, incarcerated individuals, and a variety of people of color and means. My professional life also affords me the burden of knowing that the way we’ve lived is socially acceptable wrong-doing. I believe it’s wrong precisely because of what I believe about God.
Because I believe in Jesus, I believe that all people are born with an inherent worth that cannot be quantified (no, I don’t believe this because of the Constitution, but props to the Founding Fathers for getting that bit in there). Because I believe in Jesus, I know that it’s not my problem to fix – it’s God’s. Because I believe in Jesus, I know that God’s plan for fixing the problem is for the people who believe in him to challenge, confront, confound, and reject both the practices and the systems that perpetuate human suffering.
Call your congressperson, go to a protest, sponsor a hungry kid, volunteer at a refugee center, volunteer at an underprivileged school, wear a dress to raise awareness, go to your City Council meetings, partner with a non-profit organizations or missionary efforts to go visit a developing location, do something, do anything! Helping people is the most equal opportunity scenario in our world. The great irony of contemporary America is that we are better equipped to help people than so many generations that have come before us, but we have to cultivate the basic human value of loving our neighbor.
The hard part will not be finding a way to help. The hard part is finding the mental, emotional, and relational courage to engage with our world in a genuine way.
I live in a glass house of self-interest, so I’m not gonna throw stones. I’m not an altruistic person, and I’m really not even a very good person. But I found that when I started meeting the people behind the screen, I felt a rawness of emotion and demand for action that I had never known before. I don’t expect any of us to actually be responsible for fixing anything. I’m hopeful that we’ll do something better than that. I’m hopeful that we’ll get better at loving real people so they can see the world is bigger and more beautiful than whatever injustice, discrimination, heartache, or devastation they’ve experienced.