God’s Unfaithfulness

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Not surprisingly, I deconstructed many of my beliefs about God through teaching children. Faith like a little child is so clarifying. It’s so devoid of the systematic, the splitting hairs. A child’s faith calls it like it is.

We were working through a reader on the time Elijah informed Ahab that his whole kingdom would experience famine until he repented of his wickedness. We spent days discussing how the body can survive only so long without food and water. We analyzed the emaciated cows on page 5. We predicted how God would use the crows to feed Elijah. “The eggs!” a couple of them shouted. “Maybe he’ll eat the birds?” another wondered.

Happily, no crows were harmed in this story, and neither was Elijah. “Did God provide for Elijah?” I asked the group of six-year-olds. “YES,” they shouted. “Was God faithful to Elijah?” “YES.”

And because I was curious, I asked, “What do you think happened to all the people in the famine?”

“Oh, they died,” the kids informed me.

“Do you think God was faithful to them?”

“No-o,” they droned.

If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t blame me — I’m not the God who starved an entire nation to rattle one wicked king and then ignored all their prayers for basic sustenance.

Because if we’re defining faithfulness by “God meeting our basic needs” (as we just did in Elijah’s case), then no, he wasn’t faithful.

I didn’t tell my kids any of this, of course. That was my own thought process as I zipped the readers back into the Ziploc bag and all hell broke loose during center time clean up.

But I thought about it again, yesterday, when I read to them a lesson on prayer. “God doesn’t answer our prayers for bad things,” I was teaching them, “but God will always give us what we ask for if we ask for good things that we need.”

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t all the time give us the things he promises. There are many times when you ask, and it won’t be given to you; you seek, and you never find; you knock, and the door remains bolted from the inside.

And of course, I’ve learned all the caveats — God’s grace is sufficient, God works all things together for good, you have to ask in faith (are you sure you didn’t believe hard enough?).

It’s an elaborate system of caveats and exceptions to the basic promises that God is faithful, he will always come through, and he will provide for our basic needs. But the promises don’t always hold true. His yes doesn’t mean yes, and his no doesn’t mean no. Contrary to Jesus, not all of his children are clothed like the lilies or eating like the sparrows.

And the caveats of spiritual improvement don’t always function, either — the sufficient grace or the peace that passeth understanding down in our hearts. We get emptiness, silence, and angst. We get the joy of wondering where God is and what he is doing and what is the point in believing all of this.

We’re left with famine while God seems busy giving out A plus grades when the student didn’t study and free Starbucks drinks “just because he loves me” and a spiritual insight “right when I needed him most.”

It is, frankly, abhorrent to me that God would prioritize getting a cappuccino to one of his princesses who woke up a little down today while his other princesses are getting slaughtered on the other side of the world. (And how convenient that those who get the most from God materially seem financially positioned to get the most, anyway.) It is abhorrent to me that people attempt to find God’s love in neglect, that God’s perfect plan involves so much hate, violence, and evil.

But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.

I’ve given up on believing in a system of how God works — particularly regarding prayer. In fact, I don’t petition God for anything anymore. There’s nothing more terrifying than being at the end of your humanity and knowing that God might choose to withhold his divinity. There’s nothing more devastating than hoping against hope for a miracle of a more earthly nature and getting the final “no — I think I’d rather work on your spiritual improvement right now.”

What happens happens. If he’s determined to ignore the pleas of innocents as a way to show them his sufficient grace, so be it. Who’s to argue with God, so why try?

And yet I believe in a God of love. And yet I believe in the possibility that God does intervene in this world in a way that doesn’t make him a capricious monster.

That’s the mystery, always — how an omnipotent and loving God can interact with or tolerate or coexist with finite humans and the evil let loose in a once-perfect world. To deny the omnipotence or the love of God or the distinction between good and evil is to leave one utterly without hope. It makes God out to be a monster.

To deny the seeming absence and capriciousness of God is equally hopeless. It makes you out to be a faithless, doubtful sinner.

I believe in God, but I don’t believe in systems about God — and what that exactly means, I’m not sure.

I think it means believing in God as he is, not in God as he does — God as goodness, light, beauty, truth, love. Because there are always some glimpses of them, somewhere, if not in your life right now, than in your past and hopefully your future and definitely in someone else’s life. And those good things are just as real (and hopefully more real) than the bad.

I think it means acknowledging when God is here and when God isn’t here, being grateful for the good and grieving for the evil. God is in the good things. God is not in the bad things, and he hates them as much as you do, so why he doesn’t stop them, I don’t know. Sometimes God answers your prayers, good or bad. Many times he doesn’t, and I’m not sure why.

I think it means that God is hidden and obvious, absent and here, faithful and unfaithful, according to human definitions and human experiences. For some reason, certain faith-filled people experience him one way, and certain faith-filled people experience him another way, and we’re missing crucial information to mesh those two experiences into one, coherent, loving, omnipotent deity.

But here’s the certain hope, often uncertain: in the end, the very end, goodness and love and God will win. Humanity has always known this. We don’t always get eagles ex machina or the free Starbucks or the basic sustenance to survive (or maybe we do), but somehow, someday, when the story ends, we’ll make good on our hope in God.

P.S. See Psalm 89 for proof I’m not a heretic, plus more thoughts on good and evil.

The True Liberal/Conservative Divide

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You heard about Princeton revoking an award to Tim Keller because of his beliefs on women and LGBTQ people in ministry? And perhaps you read Jonathan Merritt’s criticism of Princeton for “marginalizing” Keller, a conservative? And if you did, no doubt you got sucked into debates about whether Princeton did or did not marginalize Keller, and if it’s appropriate to critique a theologian based on his secondary theological beliefs concerning minorities, and whether beliefs concerning minorities are secondary.

I’ll show my hand: I feel like Princeton had a right to revoke the award and choose to celebrate only those theologians who affirm inclusiveness; I think it was sloppy to award Keller and then revoke the award; I do not think Keller is a misogynist and homophobe; and I think Princeton could only be considered intolerant and close-minded if it refused to allow Keller to speak on April 6, which they did not.

Here’s the thing. Christianity has always had problems with celebrated theologians who held questionable, if not outright deplorable, beliefs. Many have pointed out that Abraham Kuyper, the theologian after whom Keller’s retracted award was named, was racist and supported apartheid. If you do any sort of digging into Christianity’s past, you will find theology and theologians shaped by all kinds of pettiness, politics, personal disputes, and prejudices. Christianity does not have a perfect moral track record. Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And I don’t need to tell anybody that Christianity today is not in all issues united against every Christian’s personal or collective idea of injustice.

That’s something Christians need to own, because Christians need to deal with it. They need to deal with in-house immorality and injustice.

Many Christians try to deal with it by committing the no true Scotsman fallacy — well, no true Christian would support x, y, or z. True Christianity stands with a, b, or c. And that’s why there’s thousands of denominations and denominations within denominations and emphases within denominations within denominations. Christians split into their own true or truer communities that affirms the “true Christian social ethic.”

But Christians squarely within orthodox belief do believe questionable and/or deplorable things — including that only men should be leaders within the church and home or LGBTQ people are abominations.

Even more frustrating, said Christians do have historical precedent, tradition, and Scripture supporting their beliefs because, as mentioned above, Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

For better or for worse, Christianity has or has had oppressive views about women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, etc. that technically count as Christian — if we’re defining Christian by what Christians have traditionally believed and taught.

This is not to say those beliefs are true. This is not to say those beliefs are consistent with Christian charity, ethics, or common decency. This is not to say those beliefs are supported by correctly interpreted and applied Scripture. This is simply to say that the Christian church was not, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And this is also to simply say, that no matter how wrong-headed or bigoted those beliefs or those people are, they still fall within Christianity, and Christians have to engage with them as Christians. Christians cannot write off other Christians as not Christians. Certainly, Christians can critique other Christians and their beliefs as not being in line with Christian charity, ethics, or Scripture. But they cannot shrink the definition of Christian so small as to exclude the majority of Christians.

As hard as it is to admit, Christians, as Christians, as wonderful, decent people who love the Lord and mean well, can believe horrible things.

Such is humanity. Such is Christianity.

That’s why I support Princeton’s decision not to celebrate Tim Keller. That’s why I also support their decision to still allow him to speak. Christian institutions, churches, and individuals must find ways to critique each other’s beliefs while still acknowledging the Christianity of the other.

***

As evenhanded as this sounds, I’m chafing as I write this.

It’s so clear to me that certain social justice issues are not merely “secondary theological issues” or even “theological issues,” but rather human rights issues. It’s so clear that while privileged people (including myself) are feeling good and open-minded and ecumenical with their discussions about whether a woman should be a minister or whether gay people should marry or whether there’s racial prejudice still around, real people are suffering.

There’s a loud, clamoring part of me that wants to say that nobody who oppresses or limits others can be a true Christian or a decent human being or a good theologian or a man after God’s heart or whatever. And there’s a smaller, more fearful, but calmer part of me that says, “But Bailey, you know that’s not true.”

Because I know these good, true, decent Christians who believe oppressive things.

And I know there’s a difference between good, true, decent (and ignorant) Christians who believe oppressive things because they think the Bible says so, and false, ugly “Christians” who believe oppressive things because they hate women, gays, and minorities.

I think Christians need to start discerning when a Christian is operating out of hatred and when a Christian is operating out of a wrongheaded love for God, especially via a love and obedience to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

For sure, there are those who trash talk women as deceivers, weak, gullible, and unfit for leadership. For very sure, there are those who despise the LGBTQ community’s existence. And certainly, there are those who seek the destruction of minorities and the “other.” Those people, motivated as they are by hatred, deserve neither applause nor a platform.

But there are others who believe their oppression comes from love — love of others, love of God, love of the Bible. The logic goes like this: God is a loving God, and his commands are loving. No matter how unloving his commands seem, they are loving. In order to love others, we must introduce them to this loving God and his loving commands. That is the most loving thing to do.

And that’s where you get Christians who genuinely believe gay conversion therapy, rigid gender roles, slavery, or any other controversial measure is not only true but inherently loving — God’s best for others.

Why don’t more Christians question these “loving” beliefs, particularly when so many of those affected by those “loving beliefs” decry them as unloving? Fundamentalism is a closed system. You cannot question certain beliefs because those beliefs have been hammered home as orthodox. In this view, theology is systematic — one premise builds upon the next. If you question those “secondary theological issues,” Christianity collapses.

Confronting a Christian on his insensitive beliefs is literally asking him to reconsider his entire systematic theology — at least, that is what it feels like to him.

This complicates matters, when two different Christian sides see God clearly saying, “This is a human rights issue” or “This is a secondary theological issue attached to the sum of the Christian faith,” which amounts to one side saying, “You’re clearly a bigot” and the other, “You’re clearly a heretic.”

Neither are accurate labels. The truth is, both sides believe they are following the heart of God, Biblical mandates, and Christian ethics. Both think they are right because of either their moral or their theological superiority.

And both sides are going to get nowhere in their efforts to unite Christianity against evil until they recognize that what divides them is neither hatred and bigotry nor rebellion and heresy, but rather the ignorance, blindness, misunderstanding, and sin that has always plagued true Christianity.

PC: Religion News

Child-Like Faith and the Danger of Accepting Jesus into Your Heart

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It matters to me what a theological belief produces — fear or hope or peace or striving.

I used to dis paedobaptism because I thought it encouraged spiritual laziness. Kids would ride on the coattails of their parents’ faith, I thought; infant baptism would trick kids into thinking they had a relationship with God when instead they had only a relationship with the church. I thought the stereotypes of Catholics and Lutherans were true, that they based their salvation solely on the fact that a priest sprinkled water on them a week after birth.

I get the concern that paedobaptism produces apathy. For a while, that convinced me that paedobaptism was patently harmful — because I, as a kid, took my faith personally and seriously. I chalked that up to making my own profession of faith at the age of 7 and being baptized soon after.

But I’ve been thinking, recently, that there are fruits of paedobaptism that I find beautiful and relieving and holy, and aspects of credobaptism that are or can be harmful.

It boils down to this: how seriously do we understand Jesus’s command to believe as little children? 

Presbyterians always argued that the children of Christians were a unique case. Of course, they need to come into their faith as their own, and Presbyterians still require an intellectual assent via confirmation. But Christian kids grow up within the church, within the redeemed community. They are surrounded by the visible, particular graces of God. They are raised as Christians, regardless of their personal confession.

I’ve always felt that Christian kids were a unique group too — exposed to all the blessings and curses of Christianity. I remember telling my mom as a young teenager that I felt God calling me to preach the gospel to Christian kids, to church kids — kids like me, who grew up with Christianity all their life, but never understood the unconditional, accepting, gracious love of God.

We were — we are — a messed up bunch of kids, more or less. Many of us struggled with depression. Many of us were frantic and fearful — fearful of God, fearful of hell, fearful of not being enough. We were weary, psychologically strained, but we were passionate, and we cared, and we took our faith seriously.

We would find each other when someone was brave enough to say, “Hey, I doubt my salvation all the time” or “Hey, I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” and we would nod along, YES, EXACTLY, in all caps.

Our doubt didn’t come from lack of trying or rebellion. It came from bone-dry exhaustion.

And when you think of it, think of the psychological damage concepts like sin nature and damnation and hell can do when handled poorly. Think of what happens when you hear, Sunday after Sunday, that you need to make a personal decision for Jesus, that, in effect, you don’t actually believe in Jesus, even though you can’t remember a time you didn’t believe in Jesus.

Think of how horrible and twisted that would make you feel: You, little child, even though you believe Jesus, are damned to an eternity of conscious torture because you haven’t “accepted him into your heart.” You, little child, need to repent and believe, because the belief you already have as a trusting little one who sings “A little talk with Jesus makes it right” and prays every night and asks mommy deep, thoughtful questions about God, isn’t enough.

That, to me, is worthy of being drowned in a proverbial sea with a proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

***

I am eternally grateful to my mom who always encouraged us to make our faith personal while respecting our childlike faith.

She told me, once, of a child who asked her mother whether God hears her prayers. And the technical response, if you really believe that your child is damned until they have a personal relationship with Jesus, if you truly accept that God does not hear or honor the prayers of unredeemed sinners, that no, God does not hear or accept that child’s prayer.

My mom could not bring herself to believe that, much less tell her child that.

That stuck with me.

My adopted mom, my college mentor, also shaped my beliefs on this issue. Once, she was explaining to her girls that only people who believe in Jesus can receive communion.

“I believe in Jesus,” one of her little girls said.

This was not a come-to-Jesus moment. This was not a “profession of faith” culminating in the sinner’s prayer. This was not a walk down the aisle. This was what she had always believed, ever since she could remember.

And so my mentor allows her daughters to take communion in a Baptist church that requires that only people who believe in Jesus can partake. She honors their child-like faith.

I think those two mothers grasp the idea of faith more than the idea of pressuring a child who already believes to believe in a particular way, to express their belief in a particular way.

In the Orthodox church, infants are baptized, and infants receive communion. There isn’t even a “coming-of-age” confirmation class, or a concept that one must intellectually comprehend faith before becoming full members of the church or “Christians.” This is how it was in the beginning of the church, too.

Child-like faith was honored, because it is faith.

***

I’ve tucked in quite a few children who believe in Jesus without having accepted Jesus into their hearts yet. My little sister has a better prayer life than I ever maintained after I accepted Jesus as my savior. My mom made her a child’s book of prayers, a folder she has tucked between the slats of the bunkbed above her. She memorizes those prayers and prays them every night, adding her own requests. She has no fear of hell, no concept of damnation, no baggage of fear or striving. God is only love to her, and she doesn’t psychoanalyze her faith.

It brought me to tears, once, tucking in three little Presbyterian girls after babysitting them. “Dear Jesus,” they all began, screwing up their eyes. And then they rambled, as if he was there and he loved them and he heard them, but without expecting him to answer or wondering why they didn’t feel anything or doubting their worthiness.

I want a faith like that.

And then just the other day, when I finally reached the point in our Bible curriculum where I had to talk about God’s view of sin, and I said to the kindergartners, “We’re now afraid of God, now that we’re sinners, just like Adam and Eve were afraid of God. Do you ever feel afraid of God?”

“No,” they all chorused.

That’s Christian kids, for you — before they make a personal decision for Jesus.

***

And what of the personal decision for Jesus, accepting him in your heart?

I think there’s a huge difference between taking one’s faith seriously and personally and teaching a child to “make a personal decision for Jesus.”

The former encourages the child to grow in the faith she already has. The latter dismisses the faith the child already has.

And that has lifelong consequences.

When I accepted Jesus as my savior, I was seven years old. I was wandering around the front yard, between the fire hydrant and the crab apple tree, thinking about Jesus dying for me. It occurred to me that put Jesus there on that cross. My sins did that. My sins caused his flogging, and the blood streaming down his broken body, and the nails in his hands, and his dead weight sagging against them.

And I realized at the same time (this according to my mom, as I didn’t recall this myself) that even if I was the only sinner in the world, Jesus would have still died for me. He loved me that much.

I burst into tears, guilty and loved and broken and euphoric.

I ran into the house, told my mom, and we prayed something like the sinner’s prayer together. I was now a Christian. I was something different than I was before. I was saved.

And ironically, that’s when the fear started — the sleepless nights, the angst, the terror of God and hell and reprobation that still grips me to this day.

As I’m writing this, I can see my Orthodox priest shaking his head and repeating, “No, no, no” over and over again. “We don’t do that in Orthodoxy,” he would say. “We don’t have bloody statues of Jesus. We’re not supposed to work up our emotions or our pity or our guilt. That’s pietism, not faith. Faith is simply acknowledging the ineffable God who is.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? My Christian community taught me to label a moment of pietism, of heightened emotion, as saving faith — the moment I became a Christian, when I passed from death to life. My eternal destiny, my relationship with God, all hung on that moment of faith.

But that sort of faith isn’t sustainable. My spiritual highs only resulted in existential crashes. I was chasing after a kind of faith that was untenable, and it produced nothing but guilt and striving and disappointment. It was exhausting to work up enough emotion and certainty, day in, day out.

That kind of faith has damned me, it has damned my friends, over and over again.

That is not of God. Can I just say that again? That is not of God.

The faith of the little child saying her bedtime prayers each night — that is of God.

***

I want to baptize my babies, for these reasons. I want to honor their faith. And I will never, ever teach them that they need to have a particular experience or a certain profession of faith to know God.

There are, certainly, people skating by on their infant baptism with zero cares about their spiritual life because “they were baptized” and that’s that. But I think I misunderstood the people who valued their infant baptism as essential to their salvation and spirituality.

I think placing so much emphasis on their infant baptism might be an acknowledgment of the faith they’ve always had, the grace they’ve always experienced, without any striving or accepting required.

That, to me, is beautiful.

New Coping Mechanisms

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I have never been good with prayer.

I feel uncomfortable with it; I always felt like I wasn’t doing it right. I never found a place between expecting God to intervene (which is trust) and expecting God to intervene (which is presumption).

I knew I shouldn’t expect a sense of calm or peace from my prayerful encounters with the Divine (our relationship with God isn’t based on emotions, after all), but I was broken, and I came to him because I was broken, and lonely, and scared, and I wanted his calming presence and his peace. I loved him, I really, truly loved him, and I wanted him there for me, like he promised. He never seemed to be.

I never knew what to make of that.

In any case, prayer became a place of wrestling, not of rest.

I needed a new coping mechanism, not only for dealing with life but for dealing with faith.

When I was a teenager, I struggled with insomnia and depression. There were nights when, I knew, sleep would not happen. There were emotions that, I knew, could not be fixed — just endured.

I turned to music as a way to calm me down and reconfigure my inner dialogue. I would be up at 3 in the morning listening to the same songs on repeat — normally Britt Nicole’s “All This Time” and Kari Jobe’s “Breathe” or “Find You On My Knees.” Some nights they helped me finally fall asleep in the morning’s wee hours, some nights they just kept me company until my mom joined me in the living room for her morning devotions.

They were the manifestation of God’s presence for me. They were my prayer life, in some ways: the words were my words, the music my heartache, but they were also God’s response, too.

All this time, from the first tear cried,
‘Til today’s sunrise,
And every single moment between,
You were there, You were always there.
It was You and I.
You’ve been walking with me all this time.

Those songs that I listened to at 3 in the morning, they still get me.

I’m not sure if I believe them anymore, but I do. Something in me does. At least, as much as I cringe at K-LOVE, I will cry if “All This Time” comes on the radio.

Well, the insomnia and the overwhelming brokenness have been coming back with a vengeance. I’ve been turning to music as a coping mechanism, an alternative to throwing things and screaming into a pillow, both of which, I learned, are not apartment-friendly or effective.

I created a sad song playlist. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because not all the songs on there are sad. In fact, I’m not even sure what unifies them. They run the gamut of anthems like Vienna Tang’s “Level up and love again” to Lawless’s “Dear God, I don’t believe in you” to Audrey Assad’s “Even unto death, I will love You.”

No, I’m not contradictory. I’m conflicted.

But whatever they say about me, these songs help.

Over Christmas, I crawled into the back seat of my car (the best place to cry), turned up the music, and sat there until I sobbed myself to peace and my bum started freezing. I felt much, much better afterward.

I need to do this more often.

What things calm you down when you’re at the end of your rope?

Psst. My favorite music: love songs, prayers, and the sad song playlist itself.

When Belief Becomes a Work

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For a while, I’ve felt that fundamentalism is works-based.

I don’t mean that as the typical accusation thrown against fundamentalism — the legalistic rules about not drinking or dancing.

I mean that, to me, there’s something in their view of Scripture and belief that makes that sort of Christianity burdensome, wearying, and, well, a striving of one’s own — works-based salvation.

Essentially, they turn belief into a work.

Fundamentalist salvation is knowledge-based. It’s dependent upon knowing and believing the Bible. We didn’t learn spiritual discipline in fundamentalist Baptist Sunday school; we learned apologetics. We learned how to defend Scripture against a secular world which would undermine our faith in the Bible.

Initial salvation came, in part, from hearing the Word rightfully preached and acknowledging it in your heart as true. The rest of your Christian life was dedicated to knowing why you believe what you believe in order to convince — sorry, convert — people to the truth of God’s Word.

And everything, everything hinged on you interpreting the Bible correctly — our country’s future, the survival of the church, the salvation of your friends, and, of course, your own salvation.

The more liberal-minded fundamentalists divided Biblical truths into two categories: salvation issues and non-salvation issues. This comforted us when faced with friends and family who, oddly, refused to acknowledge that the truth as we saw it was truth. If we only disagreed on non-salvation issues, we didn’t have to worry about their salvation. And if we ourselves were confused about a minute issue of theology, no worries — there was room for error with those sorts of non-salvation issues.

Of course, not everybody was as liberal-minded as my friends and family. Not everybody agreed on what counted as a salvation issue.

When I was a teenager, obsessed with the pursuit of truth, willing to believe and fight for anything, no matter how crazy or unjust, as long as I was convinced it was true — back in those days, we debated about whether creationism was a salvation issue or not.

On the one hand, believing evolution was obviously an egregious refusal to recognize the literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, and, frankly, how can someone with a brain and the Spirit of God not see that? But, theoretically (not that we knew anybody like this, but theoretically), some real Christians might be duped by evolutionist lies. God can save anybody. You never know.

So we decided that there might be a handful of Christians out there who believed in evolution, but yeah, for the most part, it’d be impossible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.

I discussed this with my college-aged youth group leader, no doubt trying to impress him with my discernment and compassion.

“It’s obviously a huge issue,” I was rattling on, “because there’s really no way you can understand Genesis 1 and 2 as anything but a literal six day creation, but I don’t think it’s a salvation issue.”

“No,” he said flatly. “It’s impossible to be a Christian and believe in evolution.”

And then he questioned my salvation for even considering the possibility that someone could possibly be Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.

I fled, out of the church, behind the brick walls, and sobbed my heart out.

That is the time, in my memory, when the fundamentalist burden first perched on my shoulders.

This wasn’t theology, of course. Nobody said that your salvation depended upon your knowledge, upon a certain set of salvation issues, but it did. We all knew it.

Which is why, I think, I got into theology in the first place. I wanted to know the truth. That was the only way I would know God, and the only way I could escape the torment of wondering each night if I would wake up in hell the next morning.

***

There are several factors for why fundamentalists link correct knowledge (i.e., Biblical truth) to salvation. Basically, their syllogism is this: the Bible is clear and easy to understand to those who are of God. If you don’t find it clear or easy, you’re not of God.

Your relationship to the Bible determines your relationship with God

The problem with this sort of salvation is that somebody always has a more conservative, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face interpretation of the Bible — a literalism to rival mainstream fundamentalism.

My husband was the first to point this out to me.

A chemist who learned biology from the faculty who sat next to us at College Baptist or St. Anthony’s every Sunday, he never understood my insistence on a literal six day creation. To him, it was both bad science and bad theology: the means of how God created couldn’t take away from the fact that God created.

The other day, he found a PDF of all the reasons why the earth is flat, according to the Bible. It was an even more radical Answers in Genesis, with the same basic argument: the Bible guides our view of reality, period, and the Bible says x. Therefore, x is the truth, no matter what evidence contradicts it. And, by the way, science supports this too — isn’t it funny how God works? Just look at the evidence with an open mind and ask God to help you see.

P.S. Anyone who believes the earth is round isn’t saved. Good luck!

The old anxiety came. My husband found me in the bedroom, scrolling through variation after variation of “Ten Proofs the Earth Is Round.”

“What are you doing?” he asked me. “Stop. Come shopping with me.”

“I have to know if it’s true.”

“Bailey!” he laughed, nervously. “Stop. Why are you doing this? Let’s go.”

I have to know if it’s true.”

He didn’t realize that what was to him an instance of stupidity on the internet was to me the trigger to my sleeping fundamentalism.

And there I was again, as if under brainwashed compulsion, considering a conspiracy-riddled, catastrophized, ridiculous belief…because what if it’s actually true? 

It clicked for me: the fundamentalist link between knowledge of certain Biblical truths and your salvation will never bring comfort. You always have to be studying, always have to be discerning, always have to keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again, because if you get in a car crash today and die and you believe the wrong thing, it’s too late.

You can’t afford to be wrong.

***

Recently, a woman asked a group of egalitarians how to deal with this fear. She liked the idea of egalitarianism, it seemed Biblical, but she couldn’t get over this: what if she was wrong? She was terrified of that possibility.

Because, in fundamentalism, your love for others, your love for God, your good intentions, your desire to know the truth at all costs — none of that matters (because good works don’t get you saved, see) if you don’t actually know the truth.

God doesn’t factor in your frailness, your journey, your intellectual or social or even spiritual roadblocks to understanding the truth.

But by the way, don’t rely on your knowledge either, because even if you know all the right things and do all the right things, Jesus can still say to you, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”

But don’t worry! The peace of God brings certainty! Stop striving! Why do you feel the need to question your salvation?

That is the most wearying, oppressive part of this whole mindset: even though it demands the unconditional understanding, accepting, and promoting of the truth in order to be saved, it will never be enough.

They’ll get you for something — for doubting, for asking questions, for disagreeing with them, for not agreeing with them as quickly as you should, for just “seeming” to be someone who isn’t saved.

You’re never safe to stop your search. Just when you’ve accepted creationism, you get slammed for believing in a round earth, you heathen.

I heard it from my youth group leader, personally.

My family, one of three families attending the church, heard it from the pulpit: “I just get the feeling that some of you aren’t really saved.”

I heard it last summer, when someone kindly informed me that my intellectualism had blinded me from actually knowing God.

When I got that email, I screamed. I screamed for a lifetime of never knowing enough, not knowing enough, or believing enough.

“Why can’t I just love you?” I screamed at Jesus. “Why is that never enough?”

2016: What Did (and Didn’t) Work for Me

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Addie Zierman, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote this post on what did and didn’t work for her in the past year. Since I don’t make (read: keep) New Years’ resolutions, I was inspired to do the same.

What didn’t work

1. No dishwasher

The power of dishes over our lives is just ridiculous. Never again. Nobody feels like scrubbing at dishes after every meal, and then remembering to put them up once they’re dry, only to refill the dish drainer with newly washed dishes. I’d say around a third of our marital spats involve who didn’t wash the dishes — and that’s a conservative estimate. Plus, do handwashed dishes actually get clean? It feels so unsanitary to scrub your plate with the grime from the other plate still on it. Needless to say, a dishwasher is the number one priority for our next living space.

2. Being a stay-at-home wife

Because we moved around a lot over the summer, I wasn’t able to secure a temporary summer job before starting my teaching job. I spent the summer home alone, in a new place, with nobody to see and nothing to do. I was miserable. I am split evenly down the middle of introvert and extrovert, so being away from people and a routine left me unmotivated to start any creative projects or even keep up with those dratted dishes.

This summer, I’m getting a job — hopefully a part-time job that allows me people time in the morning, creative introvert time in the afternoon, and Netflix-and-chill in the evening.

3. Avoiding counseling

I kept putting it off. Things didn’t get better. I need it.

What did work

1. Staying hydrated

This little hack made a huge difference in my life. A while ago, I discovered that I am more prone to anxiety, depression, and mood swings when dehydrated. This year, I made it a priority to drink the daily recommended water intake. I fill up a Cool Gear cup and keep it with me at all times. It’s hard to refill during a busy school day, and I rarely drink the recommended amount every day, but its impact on my energy and mood is noticeable. Plus, it’s the only “resolution” I actually stuck with this year, so, yay!

2. Creative outlets

I participated in two plays this fall, got cast in a third this winter, tried National Novel Writing Month, and visit the library once or twice a week. I didn’t realize how much I missed — and needed — storytelling in my life. Drama, reading and writing fiction, and music has made up a huge part of my life ever since I was young, so dabbling in those things again brings back the purpose and imagination of my carefree days. I’ve found that writing fiction, in particular, helps me pry off the perfectionist tendencies that keep me down. It’s also been more helpful, truthful, and healing to work out my existential angst in stories rather than essays. (By the way, I recently got into Goodreads and challenged myself to read 50 books this year. Join me?)

3. Teaching

I love teaching. I really do. I hate when the kids don’t listen and the Play Dough goes everywhere for the third time that day and the internet goes out right when you need it to teach this next lesson and you have to drag that one kid to the principal’s office because he choked somebody again and then threw himself on the floor and refused to move, but I love it. The hard days are really hard, but the good days are phenomenal. I’ve fallen in love with all of my kids (okay, except two — working on that) and am amazed at the progress they’ve made.

It’s the only job I’ve had that gives me purpose, uses and stretches my natural gifts, and makes me into a better person. Whatever jobs I end up doing will have to involve teaching kids in some capacity.

4. Giving myself spiritual space

As you probably guessed, I am completely burnt out with spirituality right now. I got to the point where nothing made sense anymore, and instead of fighting through it, I found peace in saying “I don’t know” and taking a break. Church, prayer, Bible reading…I stopped forcing myself to do them, because the only motivating factor I can muster is guilt and fear.

I still read and listen to primarily Christian voices — Addie Zierman, Phil Vischer, Sarah Bessey, Peter Enns, my local priest, my husband, the Orthodox liturgy, my conversations with thoughtful Christian friends, my dear commenters here. I like this place, as an observer, as someone taking things in, seeing how they play out, falling in love with the mystery and the story of redemption as an outsider, rather than frantically hammering out theology in order to protect myself from hellfire.

5. Boundaries

This year, I discovered that abuse of all kinds is more rampant in my little world than I thought. And so, this year, I had to set boundaries…cutting out manipulative voices, calling out abuse, taking stands, letting certain people go.

And oh, goodness, is it hard to do that, to be open to critique while closed to attack, all while being kind and humble. No doubt you’ve seen me get snippy with a few frustrating readers here and morph into the “tone police,” and I apologize for every time I’ve been ungracious. But as bad as I am at it and as hard as it is, I’ve found it far healthier to set boundaries and know my limits, both online and offline.

Here’s to a new year! I’m hoping for rest, healing, and creativity in this upcoming year. (A baby and a book deal wouldn’t be too shabby, either.)

What things did or didn’t work for you this past year?

The Truth Isn’t Relative, But You Are

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I’m sure there are people out there who think there is no truth, or that the truth is relative. But I don’t.

I also don’t believe that truth is as simple as the Bible said it, I believe it.

I am extremely wary of dogmatism, yes. I would never be an apologist or evangelist. I am, probably, a universalist at heart.

But I don’t believe the truth is relative. How can a truth be relative? It’s an oxymoron.

But this is my one philosophical dogma: truth isn’t relative, but our perception of the truth is. It’s extremely relative. It’s changes based on what we know or don’t know. It varies depending on where and when we were born, what we experienced, what we didn’t experience, what our parents believed, what they rejected, what our culture accepts, denies, or ridicules.

All of those things shape a person’s perception, and our perception is all we have to go on when we study and seek.

I used to do a mental exercise as a kid, asking myself that if I were a Jew, would I accept Jesus as the Messiah? I always knew I wouldn’t, for the same reason I’d never consider Judaism now. Jesus wasn’t what the Jewish culture expected. He seemed to make up, change, or break fundamental laws. He claimed crazy signs and miracles, and as a child of cessationism, I would scoff at Jesus’ claims to healings like I dismissed the Charismatic’s of today.

My beliefs, my tendencies, my upbringing would make me a scoffer, not a believer.

Sociologically, we tend to join religious communities and accept the religious beliefs of those close to us — those who befriend us, help us, and bond with us in some way. Whether we like it or not, we seek out beliefs and structures that resonate with us — it seems true, it seems good, it meets us where we’re at, it relieves us, it empowers us, it results in something tangibly good and true and beautiful.

Anyone who has changed denominations or converted knows this to be true: we felt empty, lost, or beaten down before, and after, we feel found, at home, at peace. Even those who change their mind for more intellectual reasons experience this, or at least experience that feeling of thinking you’re right and then one new idea blows your old views out of the water.

I learned that our perceptions are relative from die-hard Christian apologists. I must have heard a million times that both evolutionists and creationists see the same evidence, approach it from a different worldview, and thus see the evidence differently. The evidence is there, as fact, but we all interpret it from our own lenses. Creationists pushed this idea in order to validate their own worldview and devalue opposing viewpoints.

And they’re 100% right — the evidence, the truth, the facts are out there, but we all view them differently. This levels the playing field. This should humble us. This should make us quick to listen and understand. This should be at the forefront of our minds when we talk to anyone different than us: Where are they coming from? Why? What do I have to learn from them?

It becomes not just an academic or scientific or intellectual discussion, but an exercise in empathy. We can’t truly understand what somebody is saying unless we understand from where they’re saying it. And we certainly won’t treat anybody with compassion or respect if we don’t recognize that if we were in their same shoes, we’d probably do the same.

In other words, it’s not just a battle of ideas. It’s not just a battle of worldviews. It’s an impasse between two possibly opposite experiences, observations, and upbringings. We think, study, and seek as whole persons, with our baggage and our joys, our moral and intellectual compasses already fixed.

And no matter how right you actually are, you’re still operating on the same level as anybody else — a person with five senses, a brain, a life partially lived, and all of that very, very finite.

My friend describes it as all of us standing at different points around a bright star. We’re all looking at the same thing — and we’re all looking at only a limited part of the one thing — and we’re shouting out our findings to each other. Of course, our discoveries are more or less truthful based on how accurate our senses and perceptions are, or from what angle we’re looking at the star, or how much we’ve learned and believed from the other people shouting around us.

We are all created in the image of God. We are all seeking the ultimate good. All of us know parts of the truth. All of us have huge chunks in our understanding of that truth. And that means we need to listen to each other.

I went to a school where warring factions of Christianity were forced to talk and listen to each other — and the results were amazing. Yes, people were very adamant about what they believed, about what they knew, about what they saw from their angle. No, people didn’t downplay their beliefs or give them up because “truth was relative, so why bother?” We had to talk through our beliefs because we all cared so deeply about the truth and we all so deeply disagreed. What was up with that?

We ended up saying things like, “I completely understand why you would think that. That seems like a valid interpretation of Scripture, starting from your assumptions and using your hermeneutics. I still don’t agree with it, because of this, that, or the other thing.” But we walked away with respect, and were less inclined to doom each other to hell.

We held our convictions and beliefs passionately but honestly. If this, that, or the other thing proved to be false, back we’d go to the person we disagreed with and ask them to reexplain how she saw things again. Conversations stayed open and minds were changed for the better because we understood, respected, and valued our differences.

Instead of pitting us vs. them, we found a place for everybody in the pursuit of truth. Because we understood that our perceptions were relative and finite, we felt more open to talking, seeking, and tweaking or overhauling our beliefs to better match the truth. It was a more honest, humble, respectful, and, I think, successful way of pursuing the truth, sharing our beliefs, and changing hearts.

Think of what we could understand in the church, in the world, if we all did that.

In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. … Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them… .

— Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, page 172

On Evangelical Guilt and Inadequacy

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I can’t stop thinking about David’s comment:

Guilt and inadequacy are, I think, a natural consequence of growing up evangelical. I’ve noticed that there are very few socially acceptable ways for evangelicals to say something *nice* about themselves, but dozens and dozens to talk about how bad they are. Your average evangelical could cure cancer *while* building an orphanage and still be convinced she was a terrible sinner unworthy of praise.

Isn’t that so true?

I wonder where the guilt and inadequacy started. The Protestant notion of sinfulness? Calvinism? An obsession with heaven and hell? The urgency of making a decision for Christ? The emphasis on our faith, our decision? The fear of works-based salvation? Fear in general?

Or is it not the doctrines, per se, but rather the people hearing those doctrines — i.e., Christian millennials growing up in Christian households, hearing that they’re going to hell for all their childhood disobedience and crushes and mistakes — that fall into a cycle of self-criticism? It always seems to be Christian kids with good hearts and high hopes who burn out and quit, suicidal and psychologically strained.

Is it legalism? I don’t think that is the answer. I ditched the legalistic rules a long time ago, and that doesn’t stop the guilt and inadequacy.

There’s something more self-sustaining than a legalistic community’s rules — something that keeps us coming back to communities or doctrines or lifestyles that burn us out. I don’t know where it started, but I do know it looks exactly as David described — an impossible search for virtue, where no good deed goes recognized or unquestioned to death.

I do to myself what others have done to me, a particular kind of shame tactic that always keeps you down and never allows yourself to have succeeded or accomplished anything good. When I was first coming out of the stay-at-home daughter lifestyle, I worked hard to get good PSAT scores, land a National Merit scholarship, and get accepted to Hillsdale College. It was the start of a new life for me.

But that wasn’t enough for the anti-fundies. “A National Merit scholarship doesn’t mean much, anyway.” “Hillsdale College isn’t that impressive.” “She’s still stuck in conservative world.”

Nothing, nothing was good enough for them.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

This sort of manipulation turns virtue into vice, and leaves you feeling inadequate and guilty all the stinkin’ time, even if you are building an orphanage. But with religious guilt, it’s a self-manipulation. It’s something you carry with you even if you block the manipulators from speaking into your life. It’s a mindset that poisons how you see yourself.

Poisons everything, really.

As I was driving home from holiday festivities, I realized that my problem wasn’t knowing who I was. I know very much who I am — my talents, my dreams, my beliefs, my faults. I’m a self-aware person, generally. But that self-awareness was no match for the guilt and inadequacy. I wasn’t confident being who I was, doing the things I loved to do, speaking the things I believed. Who I was wasn’t good enough, wasn’t right, wasn’t blameless, wasn’t like this or like that, wasn’t…well, there must be something horribly wrong with me.

Of course, there was no going back to the person I once was or the beliefs I once held, but there didn’t seem to be anything going forward, either.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

That’s what I’d like to work on this year — finding the source of the guilt and the inadequacy, putting it in a little box, and smashing it to pieces so it never finds me again. I took the big leap of paying for therapy, so we’ll see if that gets me anywhere. I’ll let you know.

Did you ever find the source of the guilt and the inadequacy? How did you smash it?

On the Impossibility of Forgiveness

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Lately, and vaguely, I’ve been thinking about the impossibility of forgiveness. My own thoughts are not developed on that subject, except this: forgiveness and reconciliation seem impossible, sometimes dangerous, and psychologically unhealthy this side of heaven.

I want to tell that to Christian victims who feel guilt, shame, and confusion over their response to abusers, but I’ve never been able to frame it in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m asking them to deny a major part of their Christian faith.

Chris, on this post, left some powerful and more articulate thoughts on the seeming impossibility of forgiveness:

I think forgiveness and reconciliation of the kind seen in the New Testament are as rare as the physical healings also recorded. Not saying they don’t exist, nor am I saying they are unhelpful things to hope for (though they can be).

The point is, these are concentrated *foretastes* of our future redemption. And yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is now, but it’s also not yet. But for some reason (because it’s neater? because emotions are intangible?), Christians push for reconciliation and/or forgiveness like it’s a daily prayer discipline, when it’s something more extraordinary and rarer.

I wouldn’t want this to be used as an excuse for complacency, but we all have our own healing journeys and I think we need to be OK with God doing some works in slow time, or leaving them incomplete until he comes.

P.S. Check out Chris’s blog about hope, sexuality, and consent here.

Faith: Real or Not Real?

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Remember that idealistic thought in November about me participating in National Novel Writing Month? Well, I didn’t really. I got about a week into it, got ridiculously busy, life fell apart, baby niece and Thanksgiving happened, and then it was December. Seriously, NaNoWriMo — pick a month that doesn’t have a major holiday in it. Like June.

Despite typing only 10,000 words in the month of November itself, I haven’t stopped work on this novel. It’s helped me explain and work through my questions about faith and life.

Plot summaries always sound stupid, so to protect my pride, I’m going to give you a vague one: A girl is told she has a special, amazing gift and goes off to receive training for it –- but she finds that nobody there, including herself, possesses a “special, amazing gift” at all. Their gifts seems like ordinary human faculties that anybody could possess –- not something objectively impressive or miraculous. She must begin the hard, dangerous work of sorting fact from fiction. What’s fake? What’s real? And what’s potentially real?

A real life girl once wrote to Addie Zierman,

Sort of like Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games, I found myself thinking back to ultra-spiritual personal moments and wondering, “Real or not real?”

I wonder that every day: real, or not real? I think that I’ve encountered lots of “not real” in the Christian community and in my own faith — both flat out lies about science, others, God, and myself, and more subtle deceptions that I participated in.

As a young Christian blogger, I would share my thoughts and breakthrough moments about my relationship with God. I’d write a post about my conviction to read through the Bible, or my realization that it’s more counterproductive to bash yourself over the head for not praying at 5 AM that morning rather than just kneeling down right then and there to pray. Even then, I remember a little voice suggesting that, perhaps, it was a little dishonest to write about those things with any sort of authority, since, you know, I never actually developed a habit of reading Scripture and praying.

And I never did develop that habit. My breakthroughs and thoughts never helped me. But I’m sure it did accomplish one thing — convince other people that I had some semblance of a habit, perhaps guilt people into wondering why they weren’t as passionate about Jesus as Bailey Bergmann, maybe inspire them to have their own one week of fire for Jesus before disillusionment took over.

I would write and tell and teach about a relationship with God without really having that relationship.

I do the same thing with exercise. If I write a post about my new exercise regime, don’t be impressed. It’ll last a day or two (okay, really only one day), and then I’ll be back on the couch. Until I write a retrospective post on my months of training for a marathon, don’t attribute any sort of athletic self-control to me.

In the same vein, there’s a fad of genuineness going around the Christian world, where people are honest about their spiritual failures and shortcomings, and honest about their resolutions to change. But it’s all present tense — I am getting up at 7 AM to have morning devotions, for instance — and that could honestly be talking about one or two days, for all the reader knows. Not really impressive, not really helpful, but certainly discouraging to those of us who think they’re able to sustain a daily devotional habit.

We have a spiritual idealism. We talk about our ideals, what we should be doing, what Christ calls us to, etc., etc., but nobody — and this was my frustration with Christianity from the get-go — nobody knew what they were doing. Nobody knows what they’re doing, and everybody thinks everybody else does, so everybody feels guilty and inadequate for not doing what everybody else is doing, even though nobody is doing it.

And because idealism isn’t sustainable, the idealists get discouraged and burnt out and trash the whole project.

I get so disillusioned whenever I read a new work by a new author talking about his newfound discovery of some theological tenet or spiritual practice that’s got him all excited, because just like I don’t sustain my excitement about exercise or daily devotions, I question his ability to change just because of this one new thing.

That’s why I like reading mystics and saints and Ann Voskamp and Sarah Bessey. They write from a past tense of actual experience, not idealism. And even though I’m never going to be like them, it’s nice to think that a real relationship with God seems legitimately possible for some people.

With all of these thoughts rattling around in my head, I’m toying with the idea of starting an interview series with ordinary people about their ordinary faith. Their actual devotional life. Their actual doubts. Their actual beliefs. Their actual habits. Their actual gifts. The real, not the not real, not the idealism, not the right answers. The real.

I’m sure another major holiday and babies and life crises will  prevent me from getting on with this idea, but, as an idealist, I’m asking, would you be interested in this series? Who would you want to hear from?