I’d been depressed before. My mom had died the previous year and I remember sitting in my room while she lay down the hall suffering from the second bout of cancer, which would eventually kill her, thinking to myself, “I’m glad I know there’s a God, and that he actually cares about me, because if I didn’t, I might as well shoot myself in the head right here and now.”
This time, I didn’t have that luxury. From April to July of 2004 were the darkest days of my life. I no longer knew who I was, or who I wanted to be. I no longer knew what I believed, or why I had ever believed any of it. I hated myself, and realized that I had hated myself for a long time. I dove back into the pornography as a coping mechanism, and I engaged in long-running and heated debates and arguments with God.
My accountability partner thought I needed to spend more time in church. My Bible study mates seemed mystified by all of it, and promised each week to pray for me.
I, on the other hand, remember very vividly one of the few church services I attended during that time. Through most of the sermon, I sat in the third row contemplating different ways of killing myself. Eventually, I talked myself out of it because I figured it would hurt those I cared about too much if I died.
That was one of the last times I went to that church. As I began talking through all of this with the few people from that church who had demonstrated any real care for me – particularly my Bible study leader and a couple of the church elders – I realized that they didn’t have any answers. The answers they gave me seemed rehearsed, superficial, and singularly unhelpful.
Through the long, dark process, I began to come to the heart of the problem, and it was this: The self-doubt, and fear of being rejected by anyone and everyone had overwhelmed me completely. I had given away the ability to define myself. I had been freely allowing anybody and everybody around me to tell me who I was, and I had, to the best of my ability, become exactly the person they wanted to see: Pastors, parents, teachers, friends, each and every girl I’d ever attempted to have a relationship with . . . all had a hand in who I was at that point . . . everybody but me. To be sure, it wasn’t always malignant. In most cases, they simply defined me because I refused to define myself.
I had become a nobody, in the most literal sense . . . a shadow person. I had allowed everybody to define me as they wished, to the point where I had no idea who or what I was even supposed to be, much less who or what I had become.
There were a handful of people who tried to be there for me during this time, but two people in particular were able to see through all the facades and walls to speak to who I really was . . . two close friends of mine who knew about my struggles with pornography and self-esteem issues, and who had each been through the wringer themselves.
I shared everything with them – something which I’m sure the people at my church would have discouraged had they known. You see, both of these friends were girls, and this church, like ATI and the church in which I grew up, were of the belief that deep heart-to-heart conversations with members of the opposite gender lead to “unhealthy emotional bonds.”
In my case, the bonds started slipping away. I started seeing that there were people who actually cared about me, liked me for who I was, and enjoyed spending time in conversation with me. I realized that the pornography was rooted in a complete lack of self-respect and self-definition, and I started discovering the person I truly had been all along . . . the person God created me to be, but who had become so obscured by my desire to be all things to all people, that he got completely lost in it all.
I’d had confidants before . . . people I trusted with my story, but during this period, for the first time, I was able to share with someone who neither judged me and rejected me, nor tried to turn me into a project and fix me. This person, a longtime friend who was (though I had no inkling, as yet) to become my girlfriend, and later my wife, trusted God with me, and God came through. She had been through this whole mess of depression and rediscovery herself, and she kept telling me, “I know you hate hearing it, but I’m actually glad you’re going through all of this. I’ve been there, and I know what’s waiting on the other side.”
What was waiting on the other side was reality – a deeper reality than anything I have ever known. I had let other people define me for so long that I had stopped listening to God telling me who I was meant to be.
When I started listening again, I didn’t find anything remotely resembling what I expected.
Soon, the people from my church began getting concerned because I wasn’t showing up regularly at all. I didn’t want to leave, because I still loved the Bible study and getting together to talk over life’s issues with the other guys. Eventually, I started dating the girl who had been there for me through my depression . . . the one who had herself been through it all before. She was the one person who truly understood me, knew what I had been through, and knew me for who I truly was, and was meant to be, rather than the person I tried and pretended to be for so long.
The church, of course, did not approve. This girl, after all, was not going to church. She’d been hurt more than once, and had seen close friends torn to shreds by the church, in the name of “pastoral counseling.” And she wanted none of it.
Still, as I said before, she was fine with my journey being where it was . . . even if neither of us quite knew what that location might be.
I toyed with the idea of leaving the church, but wasn’t at all sure that’s what I wanted . . . or what God wanted for me. I didn’t know where else to go.
Soon, it all became much clearer. My Bible study leader informed me that the church leadership was concerned about my irregular attendance, and was considering placing me under church discipline if I did not show up more regularly. They didn’t inquire as to why I wasn’t more active or offer to help. They condemned me for failing to conform to their set of desired behaviors. When I tried to explain, they couldn’t see past my actions to engage with the deep internal struggle I was going through.
So I struggled alone. I studied and read a great deal about the church, its beliefs, and the scriptural justification for those beliefs. My study led me to an inexhorable conclusion – one I’d been fighting for a while by that point, despite my girlfriend (now my wife) having already reached that conclusion some time before.
I do not believe that Scripture mandates church attendance as a part of life in Christ’s body. I do not see any differentiation in scripture between what has become known as “the local church” and “the universal church.” I believe that distinction to be an entirely man-made construct.
To me, it seemed in my studies, and still seems now, as though scripture lays out a picture of the whole body of Christ as a single organism with Him as its head. While gathering in local synagogues and homes and hearing scripture read and taught may have been the most efficient and effective mechanism to engage in body life during the first century after Christ, it certainly isn’t anymore. I will write much more about this later. For now, let us continue on our journey . . .
(to be continued . . . )
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