Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Does This Story Sound Like Your Own?

The day came when you believed, and your heart awoke to the presence of God. It was as if a burden fell away – the guilt, fear, despair, hollowness, and confusion. In its place landed a sense of relief, comfort, hope, and happiness. A new and richer life on earth suddenly lay before you. Beyond that, your place in heaven awaited. As the Apostle Paul said, the old has gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) Some would say you were born again. Others call it accepting Jesus or putting your faith in him for salvation. Those are mere words to describe what happens when the heart of a man or woman moves from darkness into light, to finding his home in the Lord.

This awakening propelled you through a time of eager spiritual growth that lasted months or years. Like a honeymoon, it was fresh and exciting. You went to church, made friends with Christians, read the Bible, and learned to pray. Perhaps you made tough moral decisions, such as forgiving someone who hurt you deeply, cleaning up your sex life, or spending more time with family and less on personal ambitions. Perhaps you became involved in ministry activities, such as helping the needy, teaching Sunday school, or evangelism. The presence of God felt real and active. Life was meaningful.
But at some point, spiritual problems began to arise. They were deep and personal in nature, and not at all trivial. The problems may have included:
  • An exacting focus on keeping moral rules often left you feeling guilty and fearful of doing wrong. Christian preachers and mentors taught you to glean moral rules from the Bible and follow them “religiously”. This way to follow God turned into a burden. Combing the Bible for these rules was tedious, and each one added to the load. It seemed like you were never doing enough or always violating something, even if minor, like going five miles per hour over the speed limit or not spending enough time in prayer. It became paralyzing, psychologically and spiritually. It sapped energy and shrouded your true personality beneath a blanket of anxiety. You felt like you were more fun to be around before you became a Christian!
  • You could never quite conquer a particular bad habit, which caused a sense of shame and failure. It was difficult to deal with openly because of the subtle but steady pressure to put on a happy face and keep up appearances of a good Christian at church. If you did open up to people, they became uncomfortable or offered trite advice, which made you feel more alone.
  • Certain church beliefs and ways of interpreting the Bible began to make you more, not less, confused. If you were honest with yourself, the Bible was not as clear-cut on many issues as the church suggested. Some explanations and reasoning did not add up in your mind or resonate in your soul. There were paradoxes, verses that seemed to conflict, or beliefs that did not match real-life experience. However, questioning or challenging these issues beyond a point was not welcome, even if done respectfully. It was considered disturbing the peace. Uncertainty and doubt crept in as a result.

  • The passion and warmth you originally felt toward God waned. Despite following the spiritual disciplines and activities that the church encouraged – prayer, worship, Bible study, speaking in tongues, reading religious books, participating in ministry – the sense of intimacy diminished. Trying harder did not work. You felt confused and depressed.
  • Contradictions developed between your conscience (internal sense of God’s direction) and the rules of the church or expectations of the Christian community. If you ignored this internal compass and abided by peer expectations, you felt hollow and dissatisfied inside. If you had the courage to follow your heart, you suffered rejection or pressure and manipulation by Christian brothers to change.
The problems took a toll. Emptiness, confusion, guilt, and despair materialized, though in a different form than in the pre-salvation days. It centered on your spiritual life, your vital connection to God, rather than the lack of it. Eventually you fell into a trough of disillusionment – a rut – that was never fully resolved. It was as if the Christian life was not fully working for you. But where else to turn? You sincerely believed the answers to life’s deepest questions lie in God. Was there something wrong with you? Were you failing spiritually? Something was amiss but it was difficult to pinpoint.
The weight of this matter eventually caused a coping mechanism, which took one of several forms. You may have disengaged from spiritual life. You began sitting in the last pew, so to speak. Putting it out of your mind and focusing on other aspects of life, such as friends, recreation, or career, helped minimize the pain. You may have disengaged and rebelled. After all, if following the rules did not lead to spiritual happiness, why not flout them and gratify yourself a little bit? Or, if you were particularly disciplined and skilled at compartmentalization, you may have ignored the problems and forged on with church and spiritual life, as best as possible. It felt like limping after an injury, and the problems still haunted you. Like the Whack-a-Mole game in the arcade, they continually popped up in your mind and in various situations.
Does this story sound like your own? If so, you are not alone. Many others, including myself, have gone down this road. It feels dark and lonely, so it is comforting to know that one is not alone. However, a far greater comfort would be to find a way out. After all, no one wants to stay in this trough of disillusionment. And here is the good news: I believe there is a way out. Your struggles may lie in faulty beliefs and practices common in mainstream Christian churches today. The system itself may be the root of the problems you are experiencing, not something inherent in you. What a relief that would be! These problems are also identifiable and fixable, so you can move forward and grow again in faith.
I am not promising a panacea or claiming these faulty beliefs and practices are necessarily behind your personal struggle. That ultimately is a matter between you and the Lord. However, I do believe they are the root of the problem or at least a significant contributor for many people, which is the impetus behind this writing.
This blog is a message of hope. While it points out weaknesses, it does not stop there, as if criticism alone were sufficient. Its purpose is to offer solutions and encourage Christians toward greater faith, freedom and joy in their relationship with God. I write as one who is in the same boat, who has prayed, studied, and struggled for many years to live the faith more fully. The lessons written here are firstly personal because they are the output of that struggle. I pray they may be helpful to you as they are for me.


JustDon said...

YES - this sounds exactly like me. I have floundered around, believed, rejected, walked away, come back, changed religions and basically just make my life a living hell over this very topic.

Layla said...

Thanks for writing this.