A question that seems to keep coming up for me lately is, what is faith? I was raised to believe that faith had a very specific definition. Anything outside strict devotion to a book written thousands of years ago and an esoteric, exclusionary god was not faith, or at least not faith that is valuable in any way. What if you don’t/can’t truly believe that? Do you just act like you do? Or are you just straight out of luck because God knows you have doubts? These were the questions that haunted me most of my life.
The inconsistencies and inexplicable nature of Christianity really bothered me growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical church. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else in my family or community, which still baffles me. When I was young, I often asked questions of my parents and church leaders because I felt that there must be something I was missing. It’s as if curiosity and critical thinking were a sin.
Once, a pastor was explaining the story of how Jesus was tempted by the devil. The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would worship him. I asked how Jesus could be tempted if he knew that he was the son of God and that God owned everything. He had no answer and curtly insisted you must have faith in the Bible. Looking back, I understand that the pastor probably reacted in the only way he knew how. When questioned about something that is so fundamental to his understanding and his livelihood, it was probably very threatening. Not that he was threatened by a 16-year-old girl but of uncertainty. However, that makes me question even more, how do you have faith in something that makes no sense? When I’ve asked that question, people tell me that is the definition of faith. I don’t buy that. That’s pretty weak faith, if faith at all.
So, what is true faith? I’ve come to the conclusion through my experiences that true, authentic faith is trusting in something so much that you desire to learn more and more. This type of faith is not afraid that new information may destroy it or minimize it in any way. All information gained from this searching for truth never destroys faith but it transforms and expands it. It only makes sense that if you have a deep, authentic faith you would desire to learn as much as you can about it.
Faith is the acceptance of mystery
Certainty is the denial of mystery
I still have faith in God. In fact, my faith has grown in large part due to searching out truth. This has transformed and expanded my faith immensely. That never would have happened if I’d given up searching and simply accepted everything I was told growing up. That faith did not come from a book written thousands of years ago or an esoteric, exclusionary version of god. It came from experience and a deep desire and ongoing pursuit of truth.
Speaking of inconsistencies,
Fear God… but also love God. God loves you… but may send you to burn in eternal hell of fire and brimstone if you don’t obey him. Is that how I’m supposed to love God? Conditionally? It’s taught that’s the way he loves us, so many people unknowingly begin to love God conditionally. How could it not be a conditional relationship if where you spend eternity depends on it? The evangelical Christian response to this is that Jesus must give us free will in order for us to truly love him. I get that. However, if I can think of much more humane ways to give people free will, surely God can. It’s hard for me to understand Christians who say they truly love God but also believe the heaven/hell narrative. Do you love God, or are you scared shitless and putting on a show? Growing up, I fell into the latter category.
Jesus taught us how to live, not how to go to heaven.
In middle school I read the “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It’s basically a 16-book series of literal Christian eschatological interpretation of every terrifying thing that happens when Jesus returns. It’s an understatement to say those books scared the living shit out of me. When my parents came home later than they said they would, you bet I was preparing for the apocalypse. Mom called and said she would be home from Walmart in 5 minutes, it’s been 20 minutes because she forgot the milk. Apocalypse. Home alone and can’t get ahold of mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or long lost aunt on the phone. Apocalypse. The fifth book of this series, Apollyon is based on this passage from revelation interpreted in the most literal sense:
6 And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
7 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.
8 And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
9 And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
10 And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
Who the hell lets children read these books? So, yeah I was terrified anytime I was alone for any significant amount of time as a child/adolescent… Talk about PTSD. I remember nervously joking with my church friends about being worried that the apocalypse had happened when it hadn’t on a regular basis. I only found out in adulthood that this is not normal. I can joke about it now, but it was excruciating as a child. I am so sorry if anyone reading this has had similar experiences because it was truly terrifying. I am 100% sure (and I don’t say that about anything) Jesus does not want children or anyone to be terrified of his return to earth. Jesus’s time on earth was meant to teach us not to fear and that he accepts us exactly as we are.
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! Galatians 2:21
As I got older I began to wonder, is God urging people to follow all these complicated, nonsensical rules in order to avoid eternal punishment, or are people? Not all the rules are nonsensical, like don’t murder and don’t steal, but those are pretty much agreed upon by all of society, Christians and non-Christians. But… Go to church every Sunday, don’t use God’s name in vain, get baptized in a bathtub at church, don’t fall in love with someone of the same sex, I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Those just sound more like personal preferences.
I attended a Christian college and began to learn more and more about how the bible’s interpretations have vastly changed from the original texts. For example, there wasn’t even a word for homosexual when the original texts were written. The culture and practices were remarkably different, as well. However, evangelical Christians insist on reading the texts literally and usually out of context. So, why does the church place such grave importance on obedience in such insignificant areas? I think Richard Rohr explains it better than I ever could.
Above all, individuals in positions of power who wish to control others by means of fear will always find new code names for it: “loyalty,” for example, or “obedience.” Many of us as children had the “virtue” of obedience pounded into our head… Fear was cloaked with the virtue of obedience or even with a religious vow while what took place had nothing to do with authentic obedience. [Authentic obedience] grows out of the freedom to hear, to make a conscientious decision and where appropriate to say no. False obedience is the rotten fruit of fear.
God understands the world and the cultures within it are constantly changing. Jesus consistently broke “his own” rules in the New Testament. He worked on the sabbath. He talked to women of “questionable” character. The only people he ever harshly criticized were the church leaders for being so concerned with upholding the law that they forgot about caring for the poor and treating them with kindness. Unfortunately, it seems that Jesus would probably have the same reaction to the church leaders of today that he did back then.
There is a common theme between authentic faith and authentic obedience. Neither is forced. Neither is a dualistic, black and white, all the time for every type of scenario. As much as we humans love to have a straight answer that works 100% of the time, that not how life works. That’s not how God works. There’s a reason the Bible is so contradictory. It’s not because God is trying to confuse us or lead us astray. It’s to communicate a very important message: There is not always one right answer. Sometimes there are two or three or 20. Sometimes it’s different than it was last time. Every situation is different. Jesus was telling us that he understands this, and not to worry.
This was an extremely hard post to write. It took me a long time to build up the courage to explain how harmful it was growing up around such strict fundamentalist evangelicalism. It has effects that last a lifetime. It’s hard to change your entire belief system. It’s harder to unlearn the toxic religious teachings that were indoctrinated over and over throughout childhood. I know I’m not the only person who has had this type of experience. It pains me to know that so many people have gone through this. I’m so sorry if you’ve had a similar experience.
I’m not blaming any person or church. This is a widespread systemic problem. I’m also not going to sit around and act like it didn’t happen. It is not okay. It’s okay to say it’s not okay. It is my personal choice to continue to pursue my relationship with God. However, I completely understand others who may choose not to do this because of the hurt caused by repressive religion. It took me a long time to be open to God again. The way I look at it now is, I was never hurt by God. I was hurt by toxic religion. I am hopeful that conversations about these types of issues will increase awareness of this systemic problems and inspire positive changes in religious methodology. The time to change is now. I truly have authentic faith in the future of Christianity.