In my last post, I said, “Sometimes I feel like I need to walk away from the religious life I’ve always known so I can find God on my own, and then I’ll be able to come back.” I feel like I need to explain that comment more, because I received some comments (both on the blog and from personal friends) about the danger of trying to “find God” outside of the church.
I grew up steeped in Christianity. I was the youth pastor’s kid, then the pastor’s kid, then the missionaries’ kid. My life revolved around our faith. I was at church three times a week (and sometimes in between, just hanging out in my dad’s office). I knew every Old Testament Hero Bible Story and every Beatitude. I could ace every quiz in Sunday school and could sing every hymn with gusto. However, my faith went beyond those “surface Christian” tasks. From a very young age, I sought God out through reading my Bible, praying, and asking my parents questions.
Once we moved to Thailand, even though I was surrounded by Buddhists (and, at my school – Hindus and Sikhs and even a Zoroastrian or two), my faith held fast. While other teenagers were sneaking out, smoking cigarettes, and getting grounded, I was organizing See You at the Pole at my school and wholeheartedly obeying the “no movies” and “no dancing” rules of the Nazarene Church. I was as passionate about missionary work as my parents were. I was involved at our church plant in both worship and the youth group. At school I gave an anti-abortion speech in the Forensics Competition and wrote an article for the school paper on waiting until marriage to have sex. I had devotions every day and fervently sought God’s will for my life. I was the model Christian. I did everything I had been told I was supposed to do, and I did it with a (mostly) willing heart.
I went to a Nazarene university, so even in college, I was surrounded by a faith-based worldview. My best friend from college recently told me that she, along with many other friends, went through a time of searching and questioning in college, yet she never saw me go through that. “You just accepted everything,” she told me.
That comment surprised me. I feel like I DID go through some times of searching during those years. In fact, I dealt with some things my senior year that probably marked the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy. However, maybe that questioning was mostly internal. I see evidence of it in my old journals, but on the outside, I continued doing all the “right things” that I had always done, the things that made me a Christian. I was still attending church, still speaking the religious jargon, still outwardly “accepting everything.”
And why shouldn’t I accept it? It was all I had ever known.
Which is why I say that now I feel like I might need to step away from it. I can’t keep doing this because it’s a “must do” or a “have to” or a religious formula for living a godly life. (The Orthodox Church has all the “must dos” and the “have tos” too. And it says they’re all for a spiritual purpose just like the Nazarene Church does.)
I have come to see that my faith has been shaped by the religious culture I’ve always been surrounded by. I’ve been given the language and the theology and the explanations. I’ve been given the traditions and the feasts and the saints. I’ve been given every good reason to believe in God and in Christianity. And I am thankful for all these things. I am not bitter about they way my parents raised me or the church I’ve now chosen.
Yet I need to discover God away from all these influences. I don’t want to love Him just because the church tells me I should love Him. I want to catch a glimpse of Him in the world. I want to know that He exists above and beyond our human descriptions of Him. That’s what I was talking about when I said about Gentiles in my last post: “There is a purity to that kind of faith, one untouched by influence, unmotivated by years of religious culture.” As an example, here are a few lines lifted from my in-progress memoir about converting to Orthodoxy:
“One afternoon I was standing chest-deep in saltwater and suddenly I felt God rushing all around me. The sea and the sky merged into this vastness that was filled with God. As His creation moved around me, He moved into my soul. I felt like I was a part of the vastness, the beauty, of everything that God created. I felt closer to God than I’d ever felt at any revival or altar call or worship time. God was soaking into me with every breath of air and every churning wave. In that moment, I knew Him, that He was real, that He was Creator, and that He loved me.”
I asked my husband (a theologian) for feedback on my last post, and one of the things he said was, “I can look up at the stars and deduce or even feel that there is a God, but I could never know who that God is.” What he meant is that the church tells us who God is and how to know Him. I don’t disagree with that. Yes, the church has authority and truth.
Yet didn’t God exist before the church did? Wasn’t he in a relationship with humans before religion existed? My point is I want to know God, and I want to know that my faith in Him is not solely because of a list of rules or a history of traditions or a familiarity with “church speak” or years of living in religious culture.
Now am I talking about literally leaving the church for a while? Probably not. That would confuse my children, and I don’t want to do that. I want to encourage their faith. But mentally, emotionally, and spiritually I remain a pilgrim, searching for God and working out my salvation. Just as the father of the demon-possessed boy, I approach Jesus saying, “I believe! Help me in my unbelief!”