When I was 16, I went to Young Life’s Castaway Club camp in Detroit Lakes, MN. It was there that I heard the retelling of what Jesus did on the cross for the millionth time in my life, but it was the first time it took on personal meaning. My heart and soul were marked that day. I felt different. I felt lighter. Brighter. I was new. I knew the days I’d been spending in depressive, anxious darkness were over.
A punk kid that I knew from school said something to me on the bus ride home that I never forgot. He said,
I know you just experienced something big. And I’m happy for you. But whatever you do, don’t close your mind. Keep it open.
I was offended and annoyed but I didn’t say anything back to him. When he said that, I heard, “You may think Jesus is your Savior. But all of this might be untrue. Keep your mind open and one day you’ll realize it’s all been a lie.”
I went back to school that year with a fire in my belly for knowing Jesus more and telling people about the change that took place in me over the summer. I led and attended Bible studies and my main friend group shifted toward people I’d met at Young Life and theater kids. I read all the Christian books I was supposed to according to Christian media/subculture, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the Jesus Freak devotional. I fell in line with the rules of Christian purity culture and feminine modesty that I learned from my friend’s mom at our weekly Bible study. I tried to manage my anxiety through prayer, rapidly reciting Bible verses under my breath, and being prayed over to be born again in the Holy Spirit. I allowed myself to be anointed with oil by two women speaking in tongues, who claimed to have special abilities to make God cleanse me of the evil I’d exposed myself to by playing with Ouija boards, casting spells from a book I got at Hot Topic, and joke-cursing a boy from school with long-term impotence via a toy Voo-Doo doll my friend had in her basement. I’ll never forget how their tongues sounded. They repeated, “Shhhhalalalala” over and over. I thought to myself,
“These women lived through the 60’s. Sha-la-la was standard song-filler for their formative years. How can they be sure this is a real ‘tongue’ experience and not just a familiar phrase buried in their psyche?”
I wasn’t exactly buying it. But I wanted to, so I tried to speak in tongues for a while after my born-again-in-the-Holy-Spirit experience because I thought it would make me closer to God. I gave up after a few days of sha-la-las in the shower.
Through all of these experiences, I was trying to figure out what following Jesus looked like. I wanted to know what I had to do to bring God’s favor on my life. How could I access all the goodness my youth leaders talked about?
Was it a regular regimen of Bible study every morning? Was it throwing away all of my secular CDs? What friends did I need to weed out of my life?
(Today, that last question makes me cringe. I heard and read it often during that time in my life. BLEGH.)
My relationship with Jesus evolved at college (thankfully). Love, abuse, and heartbreak deepened my relationship with Jesus as he showed up in my life and comforted me and loved me back to life in a way I didn’t know was possible. I dove into time with Jesus and journaled my face off for three years. One day while I was perched up in the windowsill above the entrance to the concert hall after art class, pen in hand, staring at the leafless trees outside, I started to realize that the way following Jesus was presented to me at 16 isn’t what I think it’s actually supposed to be. I couldn’t put words or action to it, yet. But it was the first time I questioned what I’d thrown my heart and soul into so many years prior.
Bubbling yourself off from society and aligning with Christian culture norms but never asking why is a quick route to confusion in your faith. And this is where I’ve found myself recently. And this–this is what I think that punk kid on the bus back from Castaway meant.
I’m glad you found The Way. But don’t assume their way of explaining The Way is THE WAY.
At 30, I’m starting to hear a remix of that original following-Jesus message. Their version of the way to follow wasn’t exactly on-point, it turns out. I’d even argue that it was a little bit misleading.
I’m not going to blame it on evangelicalism, purity culture, modesty rules, George W. Bush, or Christian radio. But there’s an inauthenticity, a hustle for worthiness to God that I’ve started seeing in myself and hearing in teachings that has been hurting my soul for about nine months now. I’ve recently put words to this dissonance:
It’s The Gospel of Good Behavior vs. The Gospel of Jesus.
Early on, I learned that if I read my Bible, prayed every day, manipulated/steered conversations in order to lead other people to Christ, avoided evil music/TV/movies, went to church at least three times per month, joined a small group/Bible study, cherry-picked my friends based on their involvement in Christianity, and didn’t date anyone I was ‘unequally-yoked’ with, I’d win God’s favor. I’d be doing it right. I’d be doing the Christian thing the way it was meant to be done. And God would reward me for it–with comfort, peace, joy, hope and direction in life.
I’ve often criticized Catholicism and my own Lutheran upbringing for years because I felt they focused too much on works vs. grace-based salvation. How could I have missed this works-based hustle I’d sunken into?
Hustling to be worthy of the things God offers to us freely is exhausting. And pointless, friends. It’s pointless.
I’ve met people who had sex before they were married, and now have strong marriages and inspiring faith in God. I’ve seen God take a broken heart that’s too worn out to look for comfort in The Word, and mend it with his bare hands in total silence. I’ve seen how one special friend can influence your faith in ways that 10 people in a room studying the Bible one night per week can’t. I’ve watched people drowning in debt STILL experience God’s blessings and love, despite their financial disarray. I’ve seen God’s extravagant love in my life when I haven’t opened a Bible in weeks. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. He’s shown up. Actually, He never leaves.
Most importantly, I’ve recently seen how stepping back from the traditional Christian-culture rules of Jesus-following I started wtih and sitting in confusion and questioning can bring me closer to God. It’s been in the remix that I’ve started to reopen my mind and actually work out my salvation and what that means.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. -Philippians 2:12
Deciding to follow Jesus is one thing. Diving into a lifestyle of hustling for worthiness is a completely other thing that I’ve come to believe isn’t what God intended for this life with him. Bubbling off from friends or family because they’re not on the same level you are doesn’t make your faith strong. Making sure you’re accomplishing all of the faith-strengthening behaviors on a Christian culture checklist won’t necessarily make your faith stronger. (It certainly can…but it can’t stop there.) It’s not a Jesus-fish bumper decal. It’s not exclusively listening to worship music. It’s not about what we DO. It’s about what He already DID. And continues to do in us, despite our sinful leanings, despite our inability to fall in line sometimes, despite our confusion and wandering.
I think it’s more about being authentically you and seeing if he still loves you. Spoiler alert: He does. His ‘favor’ will still be on your life no matter where you go, where you’ve been, what you’ve said, what you’ve done, what choices you’ve made, what choices you’re going to make in the future.
He. Freaking. Loves. Us.
He fills us up with that love so that we can in turn, love others. Not so that we can judge them as less-than and bubble ourselves off from them because they’re different from us. He fills us up with His love so that we can love people in our lives in ways they don’t deserve. So that we can reflect Jesus to the masses. That’s the kind of hustling I think we should be doing. Loving so big and so major that people would come to know Jesus by our love. Not by how deeply connected to a church we are, how well we fall in line with getting our lives ‘right’, or how skilled we are at steering a conversation toward salvation, or how good we look on the outside. LOVE. It’s all about LOVE.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13
I don’t have it all figured out. And I’m definitely not trying to make some kind of case for humans being without sin or implied consequences. I’m just realizing that the prescription for ‘good faith’ doesn’t look the same for everyone. It’s impossible to create an A. B. C. step-by-step plan for a proper Christian life. Instead of spending our lives striving to be better Christians so we can look like we’re ‘doing it right’, I want to spend my life experiencing God’s love, peace, and guidance without stressing over whether I’m, ‘doing it right,’ or not. And I want Him to keep teaching me and helping me work out my salvation.
This is new territory, faith-wise. The more this remix gets written in my heart, the more I’m feeling freedom and closeness with God in a way I haven’t before. Who would’ve thought? Thank God for the remix.