Monthly Archives: October 2013
The Church. It’s the worldwide, collective Body of Christ. It’s the steepled buildings dotted all over my town. It’s the individuals who go to those steepled buildings. It’s community. It’s fellowship. It’s a lot of things.
When I think of the Church, I mostly think of organized religion. I think of sermons and Sunday school and weekly Bible study meetings. I think of what I’ve been a part of for my entire life, in one form or another. And my heart feels heavy, because if I’m honest with myself, I realize that church has always been the one place where I try really hard to prove my faith. At church, I feel the greatest need to say the right thing, instead of the honest thing, or to make sure everyone around me knows my walk with God is solid, when it reality sometimes it feels like it’s really shaky.
But it’s also the one place where people care about my faith, where people ask me questions about it. Outside of church, and outside of my close circle of friends and my family, I don’t really get that anywhere else. So even though I feel frustrated with the Church more often than I feel peace there, I can’t bring myself to abandon it. It’s my only outlet for Christian fellowship right now.
But part of me wants nothing more than to leave it all in the dust. To say a final “screw you” to the Church, and join with God in personal quiet time rather than collective worship and sermon-listening that often feels like grasping at straws. Part of me wonders if the Church is irredeemable, if there’s nothing left about Her that I can cling to and say, “This is why I drag myself out of bed and sit through sermons on Sunday mornings”.
But the other part of me wonders if I’m just not trying hard enough. If I’m not doing enough to put myself in the shoes of the churchgoers around me, if I’m doing what I accuse them of doing, which is failing to see the world through my eyes. Part of me wonders if I ought to be doing more to overcome my introverted personality and try harder to make some real, deep, authentic friendships like the ones I enjoyed in college—friendships that I believe church is supposed to exist to create.
Part of me wonders if the problem isn’t with church, but with me.
I desire Church. I resent Church. I need Church. I am bitter towards Church. I am desperate for Church.
I feel all these things for the Church, and these feelings can be so, so hard to sort out.
But I’m getting up this Sunday, and I’m trying again at the church I thought I’d left, because some of the people there are reaching out to me in the way that Christians are supposed to. And maybe that’s reason enough—for now—to stay.
So, I’m trying to figure out this whole idea of sinfulness and sanctification, because there seems to be a bit of a paradox here. As a human being, I was born inherently sinful. I am predisposed to sinfulness, and “every inclination of [my] heart is only evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). I get that—I get that the sinfulness of human nature is the whole point of the Gospel, that Jesus as the perfect Son of God came down to pay a price we could never pay because we’re just too screwed up to be righteous on our own.
What I don’t understand is whether or not this continues to be true of me after I accept Jesus. Because I have done that, which means I am in the process, every day, of being transformed into a human being who is not depraved, but rather more and more like Christ. And this is done, of course, through the Holy Spirit. You know, that whole idea of dying to the flesh and being renewed and sanctified.
But here is what I don’t understand. Paul, who encountered God personally, who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he became one of the principal leaders of the early church and penned much of the New Testament (in other words, he was super sanctified!) still calls himself an absolute wretch, and states in a tone that seems to be quite exasperated:
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
“Nothing good lives in me”?! What?! Isn’t that the whole point of the Holy Spirit—that it lives in you and transforms you from the inside out? That you become a person who sins less and loves more, who daily lets go of the things of this world and turns your gaze heavenward? Isn’t that what sanctification does? So how on earth does sanctification mesh with the above verses? I really don’t see how it does. As you draw nearer to God, you become more holy. And as you do that, the good is what you truly do in your life, and not just what you want to do. And the evil is what you shun, because the more deeply you love the Father, the greater your desire to please Him. Your desires line up more closely every day with the will of God. And that isn’t to say that temptations to sin never go away, or that you don’t ever sin, but doesn’t sanctification mean that sin plays a continually smaller role in your life, and righteousness abounds?
So I’m not sure which narrative I’m supposed to apply to my life here. The narrative that says I am broken and depraved and utterly helpless, unable to please God by what I do on my own, or the narrative that bows in deference and obedience to God when confronted with opportunities for righteousness. I know the answer is “both”, and I’m probably missing something about how the two ideas intertwine in my life, but I don’t really understand what I am missing. Am I a perpetually dirty, sinful person who ought to strive for a holiness I can never attain? Or does every right thing that I say and do purify me, make me just a little bit more clean in the eyes of the Father? Am I called, as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:48, to be perfect? (Whatever that word means!). These are two polar-opposite ideas, and I’m no longer sure which one describes according to the Gospel.
Lately, I’ve been focusing a lot on doctrine. I’ve been exploring different people’s beliefs and why they hold them, and whether or not particular beliefs are harmful or constructive to one’s life.
And through all of this, I’ve come to realize something. Ready for this? There is no such thing as one, uniform Christian religion. No such thing. If you dig deeply enough in to the minds of others, you will eventually come to a point of contention where you interpret the Bible differently than they do and see the world around you through a different lens. In essence, we all have our own little religions, our own individual frameworks for how to pursue the heart of God. There truly is no such thing as uniformity within the body of Christ, or even within the relationship between two individual Christians!
We all come to a breaking point where we balk at rejecting or accepting a particular belief. We all have a list of “essentials” (consequently, mine is very, very small right now…and I’m not sure yet if that’s a good thing or a bad thing!) that we will defend to the death rather than admit we could be wrong, because to admit being wrong means seeing everything we hold spiritual beliefs about go crumbling into ash. I’ve been focusing on all this far too much lately—focusing on how hopeless it feels to know what to believe, when everyone around me is convinced that they know exactly how everyone ought to go about pursuing Christ.
But I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing. The thing that matters, the thing that does not create a uniform religion but rather a united one, is that second part. The part about pursuing Christ, digging deeper into relationship with our Almighty Father. We all have different ways of doing that, but in the end, it is that unity—that all-consuming drive to reside more deeply in the love of God—that no one who says they are a Christian will disagree about.
We are not uniform. We are diverse. But we, the body of Christ, can come together in this one thing. You love and desire to know God. I love and desire to know God. And in the end, isn’t that really the thing that matters the most?
If there is anything I need to hear right now, it’s this message. This absolutely rocked. my. world. Turned it upside down and ripped to pieces everything I thought I knew about morality and judging others. I can’t figure out whether this message is just too good to be true, too freaking liberating, or if it’s the truest thing I’ve heard in a long time. All I know is that I walked away from it absolutely humbled, and filled with the knowledge of how very little I know about how to live righteously.
As I listened, I felt so deeply convicted about the line of thinking I’ve been fostering lately. Criticizing my church for wringing the Old Testament for all it’s worth, but teaching so very little about Jesus. Criticizing my father for his iron-tight grip on fundamentalism (I love you, Dad!). Pretty much criticizing anyone who isn’t going through what I’m going through—criticizing them for feeling secure in their faith when I feel anything but secure, and assuming as a result that their security is false.
In short, hearing this pastor, Jonathan Martin, talk through the truth of original sin, the pervasive need we as human beings have to put “good” and “evil” into neat little categories and shout out loud about others’ evil and our own good, made me realize how much I’ve been doing the same thing a lot lately.
So, to anyone who is reading this: I’m sorry if in my struggles to figure out my faith, I have ridiculed yours. I’m sorry I’ve been so graceless in my criticism of the church. I’m sorry I’ve used a megaphone when it comes to pointing out all the things evangelical Christianity has screwed up, but can barely get out a whisper when speaking of my own flaws and my own sinful ways of thinking.
It’ll be hard, but I’m going to try to work on repenting of all those harmful thoughts and words, and speak to those around me with a little more grace, even though that can be so hard when my mind is bursting with confusion, and that confusion often manifests itself in careless words about Christianity.
Anyway, please have a listen to the sermon that inspired this apology for me. I know it’s long, but it is really really worth listening to! The sermon I’m talking about is “Playing God” on the date 8/11/13 (can’t link to it specifically, just to the directory of sermons).
Earlier today, I was listening to a podcast speech at a conference in Chicago about men, women, and friendship. The gist of the speech, which was given by a wonderfully talented blogger named Emily Maynard, is that the church is pretty darn lousy at promoting singleness as something worthwhile, and instead does an excellent job of reminding singles that where they are in life is just a stage, and that singles will become “whole” when they are married. Emily told stories about how she had been shamed into believing she was less than whole because she was single, and how there is an hierarchy in the church in which married couples are more privileged than singles.
But that’s a topic for another day. Today what I want to write about is the fact that as I listened to the first part of Emily’s speech, I was thinking…yeah, I sort of get that. I mean, no one’s ever explicitly told me that I’m not a whole woman unless I’m married, or that my life won’t begin until I’m married, but those messages are sort of in the undercurrent of my religious upbringing. Then Emily got to talking about subtlety, and how these messages are never spoken explicitly but are actually implied, or spoken with language that is softer and not so explicit, but in the grand scheme of things promotes the exact same message.
So when I talk about feeling like I’ve been “brainwashed” by my religious upbringing, and had ideas ingrained in me that are destructive, it’s ideas like these that I’m talking about. It’s ideas like these that I’m trying so hard to separate from the good things I’ve learned growing up going to a conservative church my entire life. It’s ideas like these that have made this article resonate with me so very deeply.
And now to get a little more concrete—here are a few of the ideas I’m talking about, starting with the one I mentioned above:
- If you’re a single adult, you aren’t truly a complete person until you’ve found your “other half” and gotten married.
- The Bible is an instruction manual that has the answers for every possible situation you might deal with in your life.
- There is nothing but meaninglessness in other world religions, and they cannot teach you anything of value. They are to be feared and rejected outright.
- Reading my Bible and praying daily are a measure of how close my relationship with God is.
- Trite, oversimplified answers are always preferable to the honesty of saying “I don’t know” or “you might be right about that.”
- Our society is degenerating into unabashed sinfulness, and getting worse every generation. America is well on its way to being cursed by God.
There are so many more, but if I keep going I think I’ll start to lose hope in the church altogether.
Keep in mind that all of these statements are very black-and-white. They are statements that no Christian has ever told me explicitly that they believe. Yet they are still ideas that have saturated my experiences with church culture, ideas that surface in the form of casual remarks, emphasis on certain Bible passages while others are ignored, and a general attitude of close-mindedness whenever I question any of the above statements.
Writing out these statements is, I think, a good thing for me to do as I continue to navigate this new, unfamiliar way of approaching my faith, because now that I have written them out I can learn to recognize them for what they are when they rear their subtle but ugly heads in my church, and I can react to them tentatively, considering different angles instead of jumping on board with a whole-hearted embrace of the traditional approach. And I think, having a different perspective on all these statements has been so good for me, and I’m so glad that I have learned that none of these are black and white, that each of these statements has so many different nuances, and so many different ways they could be answered that are no less wrong than the traditional answer. Because the reality is, there is a little bit of truth to each statement. But there are also a multitude of falsehoods, and recognizing those falsehoods, and bringing them into the light, is something I am determined to do.
God, I’m tired of looking for you in all the wrong places. I used to wrap you up in doctrine, but now I’m wrapping you up in doubt about doctrine. I’m wrapping you up in this impossible quest to know what is true about you and what isn’t. I’m tired of expending so much energy into trying to figure out what I’m supposed to believe, how those beliefs are supposed to saturate the way I live my life for you.
I’m tired of questions, tired of fear, tired of pressing down a rag to muffle that voice deep in my heart that whispers so many doubts and fears and desperation into my soul. And I’m tired of the fact that no matter how much I try to silence it, that voice doesn’t ever really go away.
I’m tired of my church telling me what my beliefs ought to be. I’m tired, so very tired, of pushing back. I’m tired of resisting everyone’s attempts to explain things to me, to make sense of things for me and tell me how things are supposed to be. Because the thing is, no one can explain the world to me, but they can support me as I wander through this giant mess of a religion that has unraveled around me.
Because that’s the thing. I don’t need answers—from others or from myself—even though answers are what I desperately want and what I am desperately searching for. Answers will just lead me back into that box I used to live in, that box with four walls and a roof and a floor that tells me, “God’s not outside of this. God can’t exist if these walls break apart”. I’ve got to stop trying to reconstruct a new box out of the ashes of the old one, I really do.
Instead, what I’ve got to do is let go. It’s so hard, because I’ve been searching so hard for so long and with so much desperation. I’ve been so sure that in my rejection of fundamentalism I would finally be able to find God, and he would finally begin his work in me. I’ve been reading lots of books and lots of blogs and listening to lots of sermon podcasts that have really challenged the doctrines I grew up with and have expanded the way I view God drastically, and that has been a very good thing (have a look here for some examples). I have found that what I’m doing is looking at the world in a new way, and perhaps even God in a new way. But I’m still depending on my own searching instead of letting God lead me. And that is probably why I’m so tired: because I’m still going at this Christianity thing on my own strength, listening to my own half-formed ideas about the voices of men, instead of listening for God’s voice.
So I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not sure if this means I need to put away the books, remove all the blogs and podcasts from my favorites, and get down on my knees and pray. Maybe it does. But even that still feels like going at my relationship with God on my own. God never feels very near when I try to pray, and more often than not I end up letting my mind wander instead, and prayer time turns into “Tiff thinking about her life” time. Or “Tiff thinking about her beliefs” time. But maybe, as a dear friend of mine reminded me, true prayer time takes practice. Maybe the less I focus on me and the more I keep my focus on God when I pray, the easier it will be to cast my cares upon him, and let him wash away my tiredness.
I’ve been told I’m depraved. Broken. Less than whole. Filled with a sinful nature. I’ve been told I’ll never be good enough, my good acts will never wash away the stain of sin that separated me from God. On my own, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at attaining holiness. I’ve got original sin seeping through every pore of my spirituality, and I’m never going to be cured of it.
That is all true.
That’s not who I am, that’s not the identity that I claim, and it’s not the identity that is true of me. My identity is a beloved child of God. My identity is someone who has worth and value in the eyes of the Lord, and my identity is someone who is accepted, already accepted, for exactly who I am.
These two ideas describe a strange and confusing paradox to live out. On the one hand, I must remind myself that as a human being, I’m very much so predisposed to sin. Even as a believer in Christ, righteousness done on my own strength is still “filthy rags”. That truth is still the reality.
But it is also true that God sanctifies me. The Holy Spirit has a place in me, and righteous acts done in obedience to God are good, no matter how small or large they are or how deeply they impact the world around me. And these acts are a result of surrender. And I think, more deeply than that, they are a result of me claiming my identity as God’s child.
So I don’t think either view of myself ought to be discarded. I must remember that my nature is broken and predisposed to sinfulness, because that keeps me humble, keeps me from trying to live right on my own. And remembering my identity is not brokenness—my identity is wrapped up in God’s love for me—gives me the will to surrender to him, and be his vessel, and let him work through me to accomplish his will.
So I’m going to live in the tension of these two opposite extremes, and embrace them both, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Because both are true, and I think both are necessary to growth in Christ.
I’ve had a day to process the turbulence of emotion that accompanied my reading of the Rebellion of Korah story in Numbers 16. Having done so, I think I realize a couple of important things I can learn from this story, and from my reaction to it. Before yesterday, I had never in my life shed a tear over the Bible. I have read it, and I have prayed for wisdom over it. And during my whole life I have tried my darndest to live by the principles it teaches. But yesterday, the Bible jarred me. In reading it, I pushed past the facade of seeing it as a text that can teach me things about God and about how to live “biblically” (as if there is any one way to do that!). I also pushed passed the religion-influenced need I’ve always felt to search it for meaningfulness, and figure out what on earth it has to do with my life. Instead I read the Scripture with a deep desire to KNOW God. Not in the intellectual way that is safe and easy and seems “Christian”, but rather in the spiritual way, in the way that leaves my heart open and frighteningly vulnerable. So when I read this passage with that approach, with the walls that I have built around spirituality lowered tentatively to the ground, Numbers 16 seared me and penetrated my heart more deeply than any passage of the Bible ever has before.
I know God is good. I still don’t know what on earth to do with Numbers 16, or how it ought to fit within the larger narrative of God’s love for me, but I know God is good. So, now that I’ve had a chance to settle down and quit freaking out over that story, I’m going to go back to the Bible. And I’m going to read about all the reasons I know in the depths of my heart why Yahweh, Jehovah, Abba, God, whichever beautiful name you choose to give him, is and always will be the Lord of my life, Numbers 16 notwithstanding.
That doesn’t mean I’m done asking questions and letting passages like Numbers 16 create dissonance in me. It just means I can accept how small I am, how little I know, how much more there could be to the rebellion of Korah than I could possibly understand. It means that I can trust that God is Love, and that any way that He moves among us human beings is a reflection of that love, even if it doesn’t seem that way in the Bible (which, again, could be for a multitude of reasons).
I think this passage from Job is quite relevant:
Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:
Get ready for a difficult task like a man.
I will question you and you will inform me!
Would you indeed annul my justice?
Would you declare me guilty so that you might be right?
Do you have an arm as powerful as God’s,
and can you thunder with a voice like his?
Adorn yourself, then, with majesty and excellency,
and clothe yourself with glory and honor!
Scatter abroad the abundance of your anger.
Look at every proud man and bring him low;
Look at every proud man and abase him;
crush the wicked on the spot!
Hide them in the dust together,
imprison them in the grave.
Then I myself will acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can save you. Job 40:6-14
Today, I’m going to freak out all over this page. I’m going to write from the deepest, most honest, most vulnerable parts of me. I’m going to write about the Bible today, and I’m going write about that terrifying, deep, vulnerable, honest part of me that whispers relentlessly, what if the most straightforward reading of the Old Testament stories is also the right one?
This afternoon, I opened my Bible and absorbed myself in reading Numbers. It’s been slow-going, but I’ve been trying to read through the entire Bible for the first time in my life. I’ve never encountered Numbers before, or really read any of the Old Testament too extensively. And now, I know exactly why.
Because it’s horrific.
My conscience twinged when I read about Noah and the flood. Of course, I knew the story and had read it before, but I’d never read it through the eyes of those who perished. The truth is that the story of Noah and the flood is also a story of God drowning every single man, woman, and child on earth except for Noah and his family. The reality of that hadn’t really sunk in. The death of nearly the entire human race had always been so sugarcoated by images of graceful doves and coupled animals marching into a magnificent ark and a Noah with a white flowing beard. But now that happy image was gone, and a sore heart was left in its place.
That soreness widened into a wound as I continued on. I read about Sodom and Gomorrah. I don’t care how wicked those cities were; it’s still mass slaughter. But I sucked my breath in and kept trudging through Genesis, knowing that eventually, I’d get out of this confusing violent mess of a narrative and get to the good stuff. The grace stuff.
Then I read Numbers 16 today. And every good and beautiful conception I’d ever had of God came crashing down around me. I read about Korah, who wrangled a bunch of Israelites to rebel against Moses, presumably because they were sick and tired of God’s commands and his severe punishments for breaking them (such as stoning a man for carrying sticks on the Sabbath.) So how does God respond? By ignoring the Israelites’ pleas for mercy in verse 22, opening up the earth, sending every rebel (along with their poor wives and children) screaming into the pit of hell, then burning 250 more Israelites alive.
I read that passage of scripture, and something inside my heart just broke, and I completely disintegrated into pieces. I burst out in tears and snapped my Bible shut and tossed it onto the table with all the force my frustration could manage. I couldn’t read anymore. I just couldn’t handle it. Even now as I type this I can’t stop crying from the horror, from the mental image I have in my head of men, women, and children screaming as the pit opened up and swallowed them, as hundreds of Israelites burned alive afterwards, all done directly because God chose wrath over mercy.
I just can’t take it. Either something is wrong with this story, or something is wrong with the portrait of God that is painted here in this story, or I can’t believe in the God of the Bible anymore. Because if the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, and the God I’ve claimed my entire life, literally and truly wiped out hundreds of people for rebelling against him, I want nothing to do with him. Because I deserve to be wiped out as surely as they do. I’m not so self-righteous that I can claim my heart is less rebellious than Korah’s, that my heart wouldn’t lash out at God. If I’d lived in that day, I’d be frustrated and angry and prone to revolt at the merciless edicts God dished out for his commands.
What’s the freaking deal with this passage, God? Did the writer of Numbers think he understood your nature so well that he attributed a random freak earthquake to you? What I mean to say is, is this story just a massive distortion of a historical natural calamity? Or did you really truly appear to the Israelites in all your glory, just as the text says, and demolish them? Or did you intend a deeper purpose here, a deeper message, a lesson to be learned through a story that is figurative, or at least has a figurative message, and that in reality you would never, never claim to be a monster who would send his children into the pit of hell and scorch them to death?
So who are you? A God whose love knows no bounds? Or a God who murders his rebellious children? A God who forgives and forgets our sins before we even commit them? Or a God who sends us into the pit of fire because we act out?
You. Can’t. Be. Both.
There is this idea that I’ve come across a lot lately, in this podcast, and in this blog article, and in my reading of certain passages in Scripture. It’s this idea that I’ve heard in church many times, but never really grasped the full implications of it. It’s this idea imparted so eloquently in John 1:1-5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.
You know who these verses describe. Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. He is the model for living a life that is pleasing to the Father. He IS the message of the Bible, walking around the earth and speaking the truth and proclaiming to the world, “I AM.” Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The Bible is the way, the truth, and the light. If we take this idea seriously, doesn’t it make sense that we ought to read the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels? Through Jesus’ character and Jesus’ way of relating to people, and Jesus’ statements of theology, and so forth?
I think so. I think reading the Bible this way is the key to seeing the grace and compassion of God even through all the horrific violence of the Old Testament, even when God appears to act in certain ways and command certain things that seem to be entirely contrary to what Jesus taught in the New Testament. If we read these passages and impress upon God characteristics such as arbitrary wrath and conditional love (characteristics that you can certainly find evidence for in the Old Testament), we’re probably missing something really big. God is Jesus. Jesus is God. The two are not opposite halves of the same whole, two different facets of one great Deity. They are the same. They are One. They are both holy, and they are both Love. They are both just. They are both jealous. They are both perfect. They are One.