The threat of church discipline brought back the fear, in spades. I had watched the church of my childhood go through a heartrending split over church discipline issues, and the last thing I wanted to do was cause anything of the sort among another local assembly, particularly one where many of the close friends I had made during my college years attended.
I have lived so much of my life afraid – afraid of my father, of my friends, of my pastor, of my peers, of my God, of myself.
I was not going to take it anymore. I was told that if I resigned my membership without expressly giving them the name of another “local body” to which I would go, the church leadership might refuse it (depending on how I did so), keep my name on the rolls, and place me under church discipline nonetheless. I spent hours in conversation with my Bible study leader, some of the church elders, and the assistant pastor agonizing over what course I should take.
I faced the fear. I resigned. I wrote a 24-page letter to the church leadership detailing my doctrinal and theological differences with their statement of faith not as written, but as practiced. I had footnotes and an executive summary. I told them that I could very easily give them the name of some church that cared much less about membership, go there for a short time, and then leave all together – but I was tired of the hypocrisy. I was tired of hiding. I was tired of nearly everybody in my life thinking I was something and someone I’m not.
So I told them the truth. I told them I didn’t know where I would go.
They let me go, “with concern.” I think they didn’t know what to do with me. I had become a strong person. I’d started to stand up to people who thought that if I didn’t agree with them, I must not be listening. I started being OK with not feeling the same about every issue as those whose opinions I valued.
I had started to become a real person, in place of the shadow person I had once been.
That was a year and a half ago. I still don’t know where I’m headed, but at this point the likelihood that it is back into organized, institutional church seems dim. If that’s where God takes me, so be it – but the ensuing events after that point seem to make that unlikely.
I began to realize that I had been voluntarily subjecting myself to a longstanding pattern of what David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen call “Spiritual Abuse.” I’d been allowing others to determine the course of my life for me by telling me what to think, without conducting my own due diligence and searching out for myself whether or not I actually did think such things. Instead of being who God made me to be – instead of letting Him define me as his treasured child and heir, I had been letting other people define me: My father, my friends, my school administrators, my pastors, my former love interests . . . each had a role in telling me who I was – some because I allowed it out of fear, and others because they believed their position and authority gave them that right.
Nobody has that right. Nobody has the right to strip away another person’s identity and replace it with another. Only God has the right to do that – and He finally began to do it for me. I may have asked Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior twenty-three years ago . . . but the simple fact is that most of the time I didn’t rely on Him or actively engage in relationship with Him. There were times that I sought Him . . . times that I caught glimpses of who He is, and what He had for me, but it was always from that place of fear . . . I was afraid of life without the security of knowing I was eternally saved. I was afraid of what He would do to me if I didn’t conform to His whims. I was afraid of what would happen if I allowed myself to question the teachings of my youth . . .
If I had to date the time when I first began the tentative steps toward a true, personal relationship with Christ, it would be in the summer of 2004. It was then, as I was clawing my way back from the brink of despair and questioning everything I ever thought I knew, that I shouted at God that if He was truly there, and truly cared about me, he’d have to prove it.
He did, and continues to do so to this day.
In drawing me through the dark times of my life, God brought people to me who helped me see past the fear. He proved to me that I don’t have to dread Him and His place in my life . . . that the whole point of Christ’s life and death was to take away the need for the rightful dread that His chosen felt for Him – the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the Old Testament who demanded obedience at any price – and prove to them . . . to us . . . that He was a loving, generous father who wants nothing more than to give the whole world, and more, to His beloved.
I had been relating to God much of my life as the Old Testament Hebrews did – worshipping him genuinely, but out of terror, ever fearful that each misstep I took was bringing me closer and closer to a lighting-bolt from the sky. I was never taught that one could lose his or her salvation. What I was taught was more insidious . . . that after a point when one has sinned badly enough or strayed far enough, God simply can’t use them anymore. For someone with my self-esteem issues, damnation was not my worst fear . . . my worst fear was worthlessness.
It is no coincidence that my journey out of the institutional church paralleled my journey from that place of believing myself worthless, to a place of understanding just how valued I am of God.
It seems as though we, the jumbled mass of humanity, is running aimlessly around this globe we call home, living day to day in utter terror. We fear many things . . . some rational, and some irrational.
But what we fear most is ourselves.
I grew up hearing how lowly and wretched I was. I was told time and time again that any hint of self-worth smacked of pride – that I was nothing . . . and that God condescended to love me anyway.
No wonder I hated myself.
Have you ever sat through sermons solely designed to impress upon you how vile and miserable you are? How we humans are pigs rooting around in the mud, and for some strange reason God chose to offer us a way out of that miserable place.
A pig, once pulled out of the mud and washed off, is nothing but a very clean pig.
God tells us, however, that we are so very much more. In Genesis 1, He tells us that we are created in His image. We are created as a very reflection of our creator.
God does not look on us as scum, and condescend to love us anyway . . . Hosea 2 tells us that God looks on us with the eyes of a lover, and attempts to woo us to Himself. Any picture of God that leaves this out is a picture of a false god.
This was why I had to get out of the institutional church. I could not find God there. All I could find were other people’s expectations, and my own fears.
Where, then, do I find myself today . . . ?
(to be continued . . .)
Back to Part 3
Go to Part 5