Keep Running the Race ~ When Questions Lead Us to Fear
Questions about long-held beliefs can lead to fear. The path to the other side is to move through, and not around the questioning of your heart. My own questions came early. I came to a relationship with Jesus Christ in a wonderful church in the middle of a neat little neighborhood in a suburb of Los Angeles. For me it was a desperate time, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Attending church would have been last on my list just a few short months prior to a sunny Sunday morning in October of 1975.
At first I soaked up everything, and trusted it all. But then I began to notice little things. I remember the first time I noticed that a revered Christian woman, someone who was the pinnacle of a role model during my fledgling faith, did something that seemed a little “off.” She had sold another woman some Tupperware in a way that went against the company policy and made her a little extra change. I was shocked and disappointed. This woman wasn’t as perfect as I thought. Now though, looking back, I chuckle. She wasn’t the first, and she certainly wasn’t the last Christian who disappointed me. I have been disappointed in myself far more times than I have been disappointed in others. And her little Tupperware ploy seems far less serious than it did in the early days of my discipleship.
It’s been a journey.
When I first came to faith, I was just twenty-four years old and had lost my brother to suicide several months prior. I was primed and ready for a relationship with God. I needed and wanted Him more than I’ve needed or wanted anything in my entire life.
Oh, I had searched. I had dabbled in the occult, read Metaphysical Meditations, by Paramahansa Yogananda cover to cover, and Be Here Now, by Baba Ram Das. I had read an instructional book about astral projection (the thought of my spirit leaving my body to go explore and make it back into my body unscathed scared the you know what out of me). None of it changed my life. But still, I wanted..something more. I wanted that God shaped vacuum in my heart to be filled. I wanted life to make sense. I wanted purpose and meaning. Otherwise, for me, it was all over. There was no use sticking around to watch the chaos in my family continue to unfold and my loved ones unravel.
The congregation of people I found myself with were some of the most wonderful people I have met before and since. They nurtured me like a baby chick, and I think I know what it feels like to be a newborn in an incubator. I soaked it all in, trusting everything I was taught.
My pastor and his wife were wonderful people, and to this day, forty years later, I marvel at how they stood by me. I was an extremely thin, seriously mentally ill young woman with stringy, long brown hair who showed up half the time in tattered, embroidered overalls. I also suffered very complicated grief due to my brother’s suicide. To lose him meant I lost half of myself. At the time of his death (at which I was present) he was just one year older than me. I considered him my best friend.
At times, I was too distraught to make it to church, having launched into a full-blown panic attack before my first cup of coffee. Several time the pastor’s wife, noticing I was missing, left her own church service, got in her car and drove over to my apartment. When I opened the door in my robe and slippers, she offered to wait while I got ready to go back to the church building with her, promising to sit next to me and hold my hand. I always went…too scared to refuse and take the chance I would lose the only people who cared whether I lived or died. It was an awful and beautiful time in my life.
But eventually, there were “things” going on within the Christian community that began to bother me. At first I always assumed I was the one who had it wrong. What did I know? I was brand spanking new to this stuff. For instance, some folks believed and preached that because we were Christians, we could expect that nothing harmful would touch us. Not only that, but if we believed and verbally proclaimed what we wanted to happen, it would happen. If it didn’t, our faith just wasn’t strong enough.
The things we could “believe” for included brand new Cadillacs, pictures of which were taped to refrigerator doors. We needn’t never ever get sick, and we should always having plenty of money. The way to get more money was to give more money to television evangelists and the like, who promised a “100 fold” return. One television personality was building a water theme park with the money sent to him. That always struck me as odd. I thought we were giving our money so the poor could eat or something like that. It was confusing. My pastors did not teach any of this, but no congregation of people with various family histories, temperaments, and different needs will ever be completely homogenous in their views, including what certain scriptures in the Bible may mean.
Because of my mental illness, I was the focus of quite a bit of attention when it came to the “healing of memories” clan. Some were quick to throw Scriptures at me. They assumed that if I just knew about these words in the Bible, I could just get over the anxiety caused by years of trauma and abuse.
“God has not given us a spirit of fear,” and “Perfect love casts out all fear, they told me.” Those and other Scriptures are true, but the context was off, and the idea was that if I still experienced fear, than Satan (a very scary fella in my mind, who, the way I heard it, could be bigger and stronger than God himself if we allowed him to be) was lurking about and was trying to destroy me, and if I wasn’t strong enough to stop him, there was a possibility I wasn’t “saved” at all. It was even possible, according to some, to get killed walking across a street because the “demon of intersection” may be lurking about, ready to push me in front of a moving vehicle.
Years later, when I had healed of my anxiety but not of my stupidity, I slipped on wooden treads in my stocking feet and plummeted to the bottom of the steep stairs in my Victorian home, thereby breaking my neck, I was told by several that a demon had undoubtedly pushed me down, causing the fall. The thought made me want to go ahead and kill myself and get the whole thing over with. The thought of jumping from one hell into the next is the only thing that stopped me.
Thankfully, the Lord God was working supernaturally behind the scenes, preserving me, teaching me, growing me up. I could fill a book with the times He “showed up,” and rescued me in one way or another.
But, over the years, within various congregations, I began to see a lot I didn’t agree with, and I became anxious. I didn’t believe in myself enough to have my own thoughts about things. It was extremely uncomfortable to start to question and doubt the things I had been taught from the beginning. I feared I could lose my relationship with God. We weren’t taught we could have questions, but I did. A lot of them.
Over the years I saw things that I thought were just plain wrong. One year, a “prophet,’ invited to our large congregation, told us that if we didn’t believe what he said the Lord God himself would be angry with us. We were in danger of being “smitten,” and not in a good way. I tried to shrug it off. After all, it seemed the 1000 other people in attendance had no trouble taking this guy at face value. I eventually researched the man and found out he was going around the country telling congregations the same thing (after emptying their coffers). But it was a year before I quit being afraid that the Lord was going to squash me like a bug for thinking for myself.
In Sarah Bessey’s book, “Out of Sorts,” she writes about something French philosopher Paul Ricoeur thought. He believed that in our spiritual formation many of us go through several stages. The first one he called the “first naiveté.” In this stage, everything is new and we are taking everything at face value. It is a magical time for many. I do believe that many of us experience more of the supernatural during these early years as the Lord grounds us deep in the faith. In my case, it was a life or death matter. If Jesus wasn’t really the Son of God and if He wasn’t going to work in my life, I was going to probably going to end up dead. I had a lot of really beautiful, can’t be explained experiences during this time. I was led by vivid dreams. It kept me going through a horrendous time in my life.
Then, according to Ricoeur, we enter what he called “critical distance.” We begin to doubt, to question, to wonder why things don’t really add up. It was during this time that I began to wonder why the God of the Old Testament was so violent but Jesus, who was his representation in the New Testament, told us to turn the other cheek and bless our enemies. Why was ¾ of the world struggling and people I knew were “believing” for those Cadillacs? Why did my friend’s husband die of cancer after she prayed and believed and demanded no less, that Jesus had “already” healed him? I just didn’t get it. It didn’t take away from those experiences I was having in my own life, but I just wondered these things and didn’t talk about any of them. When, after praying for six solid months that my father would never commit suicide, he went ahead and shot himself in the head in our garage (again, I was present at this tragedy). I felt my heart shatter. Did this stuff really work or was I just not loved enough?
It was too much for me to reveal to others. I was so frightened of what they would tell me. “Well, your father is in hell now,” or “You must not be praying correctly…or enough…or with enough faith.” I ran from God while I sat in the pew, Sunday after Sunday with a broken heart, but He continued to relentlessly pursue me.
The third stage, according to Ricoeur, is the “second naiveté.” This stage is for those who continue to press on, and who come out on the other side. Bessey wrote that she [pressed] through…wilderness to deliverance, toward that place on the other side of rationality…”
For me, that means that I have become comfortable with the questions. I’m comfortable not agreeing with everything my early faith tradition taught, and I’m no longer afraid God will squash me like a bug for thinking for myself. I am no longer angry that I can’t find a church where we all believe the same exact way. I understand that we are all on a journey and that we all need each other to love and that’s enough.
I miss my very first church. I miss the beautiful people, I miss my pastor (who is now in heaven with Jesus). I miss that time in my life when I was innocent, like that newborn baby with the open mouth…undiscerning over what it’s being fed. I can’t go back. Like Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But I feel like I’m coming full circle somehow. I have found myself in a place where I know deep love, both by God and by others, and it feels good, and comfortable. And there is no more anxiety here.
In the meantime I press on, keep moving forward. I’m convinced that this is all God expects us to do, with the most important thing being to love.
As Paul said, “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 4:12-14 The Message).