Well, it’s been years since I posted anything to this blog… but some life circumstances have encouraged me to start writing again, about various things. This post has actually been in development for years already, but I began to polish it up again to post here. I hope you enjoy this and find it encouraging. I welcome your in-person questions or questions in the comments below.
I was a firstborn and grew up in a large family in this area with amish/mennonite background. When I thought about writing this in the first place, I considered my family life, and everything that came with being the oldest and trying to maintain what was, I believe now, favored status, while also trying to be peacemaker between various warring factions. But the focus of this piece will be some aspects of my spiritual journey…
My spiritual/religious training took place in a conservative, fundamentalist setting with a heavy revivalist/emotionalist tones and expectations. It was emotionally charged, bordering on charismatic, with an emphasis on holy living and being very separate from the world. All the spiritual leaders around me were very outgoing A types who shouted when they preached and pounded the pulpits and verbally rained down hellfire and brimstone.
And this is where me, a self-conscious, genetically melancholy, fearful kid who wanted to do the right thing – found himself. And it didn’t take long under those sermons and types of role models to figure out that I needed to do what other more brave kids were doing; go forward and accept Jesus into my heart so I wouldn’t go to hell…and so I wouldn’t feel so scared all the time and even more important: to be spiritually outgoing (On Fire!) and preach and argue at people – ie a great warrior for God!
Ahh but it was not to be… I remember after doing the sinner’s prayer thing with my parents and feeling a little different – that only a few days later I felt just as afraid of not being saved as before…maybe even more so, because I was thinking about it more. This was one of my earliest experiences with spiritual disillusionment – by this time in our family’s history we were listening to christian radio and on the program, “Unshackled”, when you committed your life to Christ, everything changed – usually overnight! That wasn’t happening to me at all -ever. Why was I feeling what I was feeling…there must be something wrong with me? Or maybe I should be a really bad sinner so that I could get that really dark-to-light feeling/experience…Or maybe I wasn’t doing the right spiritual experiences, in the right way… Why did I still not have peace or faith (Faith as I understood it in this environment, was a feeling you got, a confidence, a knowing for sure, a buzz of adrenaline, a special kind of emotion that could push you to do anything! Faith was certainty! Faith was loud! Faith was confident! Faith was No Fear!) ie On Fire!
And so I always felt condemned, and sometimes I used that condemnation as an excuse to dabble in sin… “I’m no good; I don’t feel any faith, I must not be saved…I might as well just give up and do whatever I feel like…” And this was the story of my pre-adolescent and teenaged and young adult years… and most of the time I bottled it up. I was one of those who could go forward at the revival meeting, confess every sin that I could possibly think of and the next night feel just as horrible at the end of the sermon as the night before, and feeling guilty for not going forward again – but definitely not wanting to go forward because then what would people think?
So for years, I sought after finding these feelings and experiencing these subjective, abstract ideas of “faith” and doing more “outgoing” christiany things. I still went forward, although less than before. I went to TBS, the youth Bible studies, retreats, the church “gifts” seminar and other things. (Not bad things btw – I learned a lot… but I didn’t get what I now know I really needed) I didn’t give much credit to the gifts that God gave me from birth. I disdained my thinker-quiet-artzy personality. I hated my hesitations and public awkwardness. My artistic abilities were mere parlor tricks, not something to pursue for life. I still thought God really only used/valued outgoing, extroverted (On Fire!), public ministry, missionary-type people the most…
This unfortunately lead me down some painful dead-ends… I got the notion that I should do teaching-english-as-a-second language as a gateway to being an overseas missionary eventually. The traveling I did before and around that goal was of immense value. The college degree I earned got me out of my churchy bubble in good ways and I met my wife! But, the “faith” I had in my determination to become a good, up-in-front-of-everyone classroom maestro of learning was a blind and lying faith. Hadn’t I done really well in school, better than expected? (Graduated with honors, in the top 10 of my class – a sign!) Despite the praying-over by others, despite the little “signs” I thought I got from God, despite the lying subjective feelings I felt in some “worship” times, I was never cut out for teaching and I failed completely… My efforts to get up on a pedestal and be a public something-for-God like I was led to believe in church and by my own misunderstandings, backfired spectacularly. I found out the hard way, that “faith” is more works than a feeling or emotion or confidence. Faith has more to do with Reality and is actually more Objective, than subjective, than most christians are led to believe. We cannot often do what we were not born to do, or what our personalities are not capable of, etc. God’s not a vending machine who doles out magic overcome-anything-regardless-of-Reality powers to you, if you will it in your mind hard enough, or gin up enough subjective “feelings” of faith. But through those painful experiences, God pushed me to start searching and digging and deconstructing all the ideas and assumptions of the Christianity of my childhood and early adulthood.
For starters, I came to realize that all of this seeking “faith” and spiritual confidence and good feeling, religious experiences (On Fire!) was about Me… I call it spiritual self-centeredness… ie a lot of navel gazing. Lots of self-pity. fear, depression… a lot of abstract, human subjectivity… Instead of being a friend to the picked on kid in high school; instead of praying for and listening to the hurts in my siblings lives; instead of physically, objectively reaching out to others… I was focused on being assured that I really had that get-out-of-hell card. I was completely focused on “feeling” right and finding God’s perfect will For ME… (what the church seemed to emphasize too!) The Evangelical Zeal for Zeal I had bought into the evangelical/fundamentalist/charismatic misunderstanding that being (On Fire!) for Jesus is the only way to be a Christian… (by implication, the teachings of Matt 5, the fruits of the Spirit, the ethics of Jesus and his apostle’s, the objective, concrete, in-the-flesh, kingdom lifestyle apparently isn’t enough – you had to BE sooo much more than those things…)
We, myself included, worry so much about not “working” for our salvation, but maybe we’ve replaced that with an equally damaging mindset and drive. Maybe instead of “working” for our salvation, we spend lot’s of time and effort trying to “feel-good” and “get-right-with” our way into heaven? I know I did, years in fact. What is a lot of modern “christian”, “positive” worship and entertainment, fun speakers & rallies and revivals and “healing” services than to focus on us and our “being-right-with”? Jesus and the Bible very clearly call us to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto something bigger than ourselves, the concrete, happening now, kingdom of God and it’s King, Jesus.
More recently God graciously brought me into contact with some wise speakers/writers who have helped me find some footing concerning some of the biggest questions I struggled with. I found out through them that the Christian life is actually more Objective than subjective… Doing what Jesus told us to do is a very real, concrete action that I can try, that I can practice and maybe it even becomes habit. Loving my neighbor is something I can DO, regardless of how confident, or “faithy” I feel. I can even do it (and should do it, even if I get no thought/sense flitting through my “spirit”. His Word says to DO it… why should I wait on some subjective mental prompting? Really, what is the message that Jesus and the apostles taught and that when believed and followed and concretely practiced, one begins living eternal life before they even pass from this world? And the funny thing is that as some of those lightbulbs went off, I unexpectedly received some of the feelings of assurance, even confidence in Christ, that I so longed for years earlier. I thank God for being with me all these years and being patient with me; for giving me a renewed hope and showing me that I can do faithful works for Him – I can follow Him and that He is molding me into a disciple of Him – and He’s doing with my personality, with the things I was born with, and despite my feelings or failings. I’ll finish off with some understandings/convictions I’ve learned and been taught recently that have brought a sense of salvation.
- Getting saved is not the end all and be all; it is the means to an end. It’s not about saving myself – it’s about losing myself to and in Christ and His Body in order to participate in God’s restoration of all of creation.
- I don’t have to wait till I feel good/right to do what I know God is calling me to do…
- Faith isn’t a warm fuzzy feeling – it’s Doing (See Hebrews 11/OT saints stories) I believe faith can be described… maybe only after the fact. “ie, that was a faith action…” but not beforehand.
- I believe the gospel is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and even more… the gospel is the Good News that Jesus is Lord. That’s it. Choosing to acknowledge Him as Lord is all that He asks (and He doesn’t have one specific way of doing that either!)
- The Christian life is communal more than it’s individualistic. It’s surrender to God, and to others in order to redeem the world/earth – it’s not about saving oneself or getting to a sit-at-Jesus-feet-forever state…(individualistic nirvana).
- My longing for concrete, objective things (serenity, awe, beauty, ritual, etc) outside my inner questions, doubts and up-down feelings, to mediate and connect with the presence of God, is right and it’s good. But I don’t believe it’s an either/or but a both/and in regards to the inner life of the mind, emotions, spirit etc. I do emphatically reject the notion or implication that the inner, your heart/emotions/mind etc, is the only way or the best way to connect to God… or be in His presence.