A friend recently asked me why I’m still a Christian. She asked because she was having trouble holding onto her faith, especially with Christian politics in the USA being what they currently are.
This is my answer to her. I don’t know if it will help other people, but it’s my story. Grab a cuppa, or bookmark this page, this post is about 3,000 words long.
First up, I think I understand this question
I would describe the last year as one of the most deeply unpleasant times in my life of faith. I have had ongoing cycles of achieving something I set out to achieve, and then being hit like a brick with feelings of failure and a sense that I’m distant from God.
I have sat down again, and again, to try and “connect” with God somehow, but the time has passed like a hollow nothingness and I have ended up in tears. I have talked to my husband ad nauseam about how I second guess my relationship with God and how I have no idea what he’s up to, what he wants from me, or what he’s going to do next.
In my communities of faith, I have felt betrayed by some people who were hugely important to me, and persistently ignored, treated with suspicion, or even scorned by others. I have seen churches fail to feed their flocks leaving me with varying degrees of hurt, anger and a sense of futility. For some time I’ve had this nagging thought in the back of my head that the church’s model of doing church is as future-proof as Blockbuster’s film rental business.
I have felt so hollowed out, it’s unreal.
And if you’ve been following me on social media and my blog and you weren’t aware of this, the reason for that is simple: I’ve not talked about it much.
Because how do you talk about this kind of thing without letting the side down? How do you find balance? How do you account for the fact that these feelings aren’t there all the time?
Why did I believe growing up?
I grew up in a Christian household, in a loving family, and Jesus was an everyday part of our lives. Of course, we were told that the world was made in seven days and no one mentioned (until years later) that the dragons in Revelation weren’t literal dragons. But hey, overall, what we were told was good.
I grew up believing I was special, that God had a future for me, and that the Bible was reliable (albeit not inerrant). I believed miracles were possible, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit weren’t about spectacle, and that whatever else happened, God had a good future in store.
The “angry God” of the Old Testament never scared me. The “unforgivable sin” never haunted me. Oh sure – I talked about hell when I was smaller and was baffled when my mum told me that wasn’t the most friendly way to tell people about Jesus. And then when I was teenager it was all about waiting to have sex until you were married.
Um, yeah. I was very zealous about that. I still regret being the person I was, and am still wracked with the knowledge that I may never be able to apologise to some of the people I hurt.
But you have to understand, I grew up with a deep conviction that I was living in something that was true, that was powerful, that would give me a future, and that cared for other people.
That doesn’t go away easily.
I always read the Bible
When I was, I dunno, six or seven years old, I promised God that I would read a chapter of the Bible every day. Then I realised that maybe I would be persecuted for my faith and put in prison later in life, and so changed my promise to “read or recite”.
Psalm 117 is very easy to memorise, by the way.
But despite keeping my promise more by its letter than its spirit for a long time, I still read the Bible a lot. And I got through it from cover to cover.
I was blown away by Ezekiel. And the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).
I got a fuller picture of the significance of some of the things that Jesus said and did, but I also felt like I was being given a blueprint for how the fabric of life worked. With these texts in hand, I could probe deep into the spiritual and heavenly realms and make much more sense of life on earth. I had a toolkit for working powerfully in the here and now.
I was pretty fearless. I was full of energy, ready to debate anything and everything, with a huge appetite for learning about the Bible. Around this time I also met my husband; he was the only person who I felt could best me at theology in fair fight.
What’s more, my prayers were answered. Even miraculously answered. God’s ways of working were still baffling at times, but it was real and I was up for as much as I could possibly get.
Plus, I was prayed for.
The abiding memory I have is of a service where people were invited to stand up if they felt that God wanted to work through their writing, so that the people around each person could pray for them. I debated for ages if I should stand up, but eventually did. Afterwards, a young woman told me that the Holy Spirit had said to her that if I didn’t stand up, then she should pray for me anyway.
I don’t know why, but I always cry when I remember that.
Also around that time, I made some mistakes that make the zeal of teenage years seem tame in comparison. Unsurprisingly, I slammed the brakes pretty hard afterwards.
The intermediate years – before we went for sex therapy
You already know that my husband and I went for sex therapy a few years into our marriage.
In the years leading up to that, I left home, got a job, got a permanent job, got a well-paid permanent job, and got married. I was generally a mellow, smiling individual with buckets of enthusiasm for all things God-related.
That said, I was also naïve at times and still coming to understand how my neurodiversity impacted on my interactions with other people. I could get very frustrated , though maybe that was just part of my growing pains.
In spiritual terms, I think I grew a lot in that time, but it’s hard for me to remember. Years later my husband reminded me that I used to talk about having a negative internal ‘voice’, but I’d completely forgotten about it. It’s not that I ever heard voices in my head, just that there was this really vicious strand of thinking that would try and put me and other people down. I called it Rance after the villain from an episode of Firefly. Well, whatever that ‘voice’ was, it is long gone. And good riddance.
I also stopped singing spontaneously. I once asked God what he thought of that and was suddenly filled with such a sense of grief it made me cry on the spot. I didn’t pray for miracles any more either. The opportunity never seemed to come up.
But I did get married and I did start my career. And they are undoubtedly two of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
The blogging years
My husband and I started sex therapy a few years into our marriage and when we eventually found out about this thing called “consent” he began to wonder whether we should reach out to the sex-positive community. The Holy Spirit was on his case for two weeks straight, nagging him about it – so we did.
Suddenly we met a whole bunch of people with very varied sex lives, sexual orientations and sexual identities, who did not fit within evangelical normative expectations. We learned a lot. I wasn’t LGBTQ+ affirming at the time, but I didn’t talk about that and no one asked. Within a few years, my theology had shifted.
I keep meaning to write about that, but if you haven’t read Sarah Bessey’s account of how she became LGBTQ+ affirming, it’s really good.
In early 2015 I wondered about the merit of starting a blog about Fifty Shades of Grey, given all that I had learned about consent from the sex positive community, and given that FSOG is loaded with textbook grooming. When I asked God about it, the Holy Spirit answered very clearly, Field of Dreams style: “If you build it, they will come.”
So I started blogging.
After a few months I asked God what I should do to get my blog off the ground and the Holy Spirit replied suggesting I do a series comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. So I did.
I also picked up Esther In Ancient Jewish Thought and it blew my mind. Importantly, it gave me a new perspective on understanding the Bible, and a biblical precedent for radical inclusion.
I also began to deconstruct my theology of marriage. For the record, this was terrifying.
But concurrent with all of this, I was gaining a new understanding of resurrection. One that actually linked Paul’s New Testament writings with our bodies in the here and now. And that was phenomenal.
It’s because of that, that I wrote:
- Year of Hell, Remember Nothing, & The Wish: lessons on hope
- My “1 Corinthians 15 for beginners” series on resurrection: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4
- Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)
I began to get a grip on some of the real basics of the theology of Christian hope – like the kingdom of heaven as being a sphere of influence, not a place, and something which is both now and not yet. I began to get a feel for church as something that happens. It’s when we bring the goodness of the future into the present; when we taste heaven here on earth.
I don’t know why, but all this was strangely unmentioned in the theology I was brought up with. Though it was cryptically coded into the songs we sang.
So with all this going for me, why do I get so down so often?
When my ideas are persistently shot down or ignored, it impacts on how I see myself and the quality and efficacy of my work.
I’m also often nervous of being too much for some people, which is hard because I am a bit of a nerd. I do think about things a lot, I do have interests in really niche topics, even if other people don’t. And I’ve learned from bitter experience that when I try to stop being me, it backfires horribly.
But I also want to share my writing and it bothers me if I feel like I’m intruding into people’s spaces or shooting in to the void – or worse, brushing insensitively against people’s past hurts.
Then you add the feeling that the world’s problems are simply huge and there are plenty of people much more qualified than I am to work in the areas of gender equality and biblical criticism. I get overwhelmed with “Who am I to try and do this?”
And the other thing that really eats me is knowing that a lot of the “measures” of success that part of me wants to aspire to, do not measure success. Not in real terms. They measure popularity, and even then, only amongst a certain group of people — and I’m not even sure those are the people I really want to reach.
My heart knows that this internal stressing and obsessing is a waste of time. But it still gets to me.
My faith has taken some real knocks too
About a year ago, someone said that I was ‘irreverent’ in how I talked to God.
They probably didn’t mean very much by that; they threw it out casually enough like it wasn’t a very big deal.
It seriously cut me up.
I had long conversations with my husband afterwards and he said, “You were taught that you could talk to God honestly and openly. And in the best possible way, you never grew up.” I realised that this person had taken the most childlike part of my faith and shamed me for it.
I’m still not over it.
You have the understand, the bits of the Bible that I loved most when I got into reading it, all those years ago, were the bits about the priesthood. Given that in my heart of hearts, it’s that kind of ministry that I aspire to (in a spiritual sense), labelling me as irreverent was just… it hurt so, so much.
I’ve also had a growing sense of dissatisfaction at how the Bible is simplified and sanitised, especially for children. But on the flip side there are people who make everything so darn complicated you begin to wonder – how does anyone have a chance of understanding this? To borrow from Good Omens, sometimes it genuinely feels like we’re all playing cards in the dark and God’s the dealer and no one knows what’s happening. And I wonder – how is this an open gospel? How is this something which is for everyone?
Because the gospel should be for everyone.
And then there’s persistent, nagging, background fear that God is tolerating me more than anything else.
Oh, I’ve also been reading through the Bible again and… well, I don’t know how I wasn’t creeped out by parts of the Pentateuch and Ezekiel when I grew up. There is some seriously violent and scary stuff there. I’m a little perplexed at how these were the texts that really ignited my faith a couple of decades ago. But they were. And they’re still very precious to me. But they’re also violent. Go figure.
So, why am I still a Christian?
For all my talk about how it feels God isn’t on talking terms with me, the truth is I know he does speak.
For example: I started looking for a spiritual director and got frustrated when I couldn’t find one I could work with. And then one day on my prayer walk, God suggested the name of someone I sort-of knew. As it turns out, no, she wouldn’t be a spiritual director, but she would be a coach. And once our series of 10 sessions is done, she’s going to link me up with a spiritual director. So there’s that.
When I entered the writing competition from Christians for Biblical Equality this year, that was well-timed and I knew God was in that. (It’s now live! It’s all about the hymen and Deuteronomy!) There are a couple of other posts I’ve written (including one about me not wearing my wedding ring) that the Holy Spirit specifically suggested.
I was also feeling a bit guilty for taking up singing lessons this year and whether that was a wise spend of money given all that’s happening in the world. The Holy Spirit answered, “It’s better than putting it in a hedge fund.”
When I say “the Holy Spirit answered”, it’s not that I hear an audible voice. But the words are silently and suddenly in my head, but not from my imagination (I don’t know how I know this). They’re invariably, gentle, unexpected, recognisably helpful, understandably truthful, non-shaming, in the second person, full of wonderful personality, and good.
You’re never gonna convince me that this was all just made up.
What’s more, there have even been a couple of times when I’m convinced it was Jesus rather than the Holy Spirit. But… Jesus seems to speak differently. He tends to use existing memories or stories and puts them on repeat to make a point. It’s less frequent, I’ll tell you that for free.
(Oh gosh, the number of times I’ve questioned whether I actually love Jesus or not! I often feel like I barely know him.)
But you have to appreciate, when Jesus speaks, the cross is real. It’s part of his history. You’re not going to convince me that he was just a good person and this ‘God voice’ that I experience is a different deity, who’s simply gracious enough to speak through the stories of Christianity.
I’m a Christian because I believe the cross is the door to salvation and I can’t escape that. I believe that only the death and resurrection of Jesus are enough to quash death and end all sin and suffering. And no matter where we land up on the quagmire of theological complexity, I know I would be lying if I said I thought the cross and empty tomb were made up.
So how do I stay in faith?
I was going for my lunchtime walk one day, maybe it was January or February of this year. And I saw a sign outside a coffee shop that said, “You’re probably doing OK.” I don’t know why but that struck me at the time as something that God was saying to me and I’ve never been able to shake that feeling since.
And if it’s true, then it’s also true that God sees me and knows where I’m at and wants to encourage me.
As I’ve sat and thought long and hard about where I’m at with God, I’ve gradually distilled that I have two big fears.
The first is the idea that the things I’ve been called to, aren’t really that great and no one will care. The image that comes to mind is from The Fifth Element where Ruby Rhod complains that the stone he got is broken.
The second is the idea that, at the end of the day, God can ignore me. He doesn’t have to answer my prayers, he doesn’t have to grow or inspire me, he doesn’t have to protect me, he doesn’t have to care about my life at all. And if he ignores me, it doesn’t change the fact that he is still God and I’m just little ‘ole me.
To be honest, I haven’t cracked either of these.
Then I see something that harkens me back to the little child I once was and reminds me to dream again.
Most recently, it was watching Frozen II. I find something deeply resonant in the song Show Yourself. It’s like approaching the burning bush. And then at the end, where Ana ends up – there is something so good and rich and satisfying about seeing her arc. I can’t get over it.
And I know it’s the typical “girl” thing to dream about being princesses, and we’re all supposed to grow out of that, but in my heart of hearts I haven’t. And when I look at the gospel, and the things Jesus said about us, and the things Paul wrote about the gospel… I don’t think we’re meant to grow out of it. I think being kings and queens in a world without poverty is where we’re meant to end up.
And I think that as long as the child in me still believes that, I won’t lose faith.
When I look at the things Jesus said, I don’t think we’re meant to grow out of our childhood dreams. I think being kings and queens in a world without poverty is where we’re meant to end up. Click To Tweet
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
- Music, perfection and play: shedding childhood shame
- The friend who was always there: on faithfulness, creativity and being me
- My greatest regrets are when I was trying to be someone I’m not