Friday, July 06, 2007

Free at Last, Free at Last!

One of the most life-affirming, uplifting, joy-returning, burden-lifting things I have done in the last two years is stopping going to church. I also quit my Bible study and stepped down from a fledgling leadership position I had in a faith-based nonprofit, but the most impactful decision, by far, was no longer scheduling worship into my Sundays.

I was positively guilt-wracked the first few Sundays I deliberately slept in, even though I had been attending church out of nothing more than obligation and habit for months. I hated the evening rock band service at my congregational church, but neither did I get much out of the traditional morning service with the long-winded preacher exegeting Hosea five weeks in a row. I hated my friend’s Vineyard church, and Catholic Mass was hollow to me as well since I couldn’t partake of the Eucharist and wasn’t a total fan of their theology anyway. I was definitely a spiritual orphan, and it manifested very concretely in my extreme discomfort and sense of banality at virtually every church I attended.

Still, I felt guilty about no longer going to church. So one week early after I stopped going to church, I tuned in to the public radio broadcast of a local church service (bleah); another week I watched Joel Osteen (he has really white teeth!); yet another week, I tried to read my Bible some, but that felt flat too.

When I realized I wasn’t getting much out of these church surrogates, it hit me that I mainly felt guilty for letting down friends and family who saw me as a “Good” Christian. I realized, like a bolt of lightning one day that I didn’t actually miss God.

And I started to notice that heavy, heavy layers of obligation, legalism, expectation, and duty had settled around my shoulders. Quite physically, too: I carry stress in my shoulders and my back was positively a thicket of knots.

I came to realize that everything about my faith had devolved into being about me cultivating the right beliefs and actions; it never seemed okay to wonder “well when is God going to bend down and carry part of this? What happened to the light burden and easy yoke of Jesus?” The answer always seemed to be: do more in order to get closer to God and hear his still, small voice (which is there, you just have to somehow be in the right frame of mind to hear it). Read your Bible more. Join another Bible study – better, lead a Bible study. Do more service projects. Pray more. Confess your sins. Go to church every Sunday even if you don’t feel like it – faith isn’t about feelings, you know. Do the right thing and the feelings will follow. Jesus will meet you where you are.

I did all the right things, earnestly, sincerely, genuinely, for years. And you know what? The feelings did not follow. God did not stoop down to meet me, to lift me up, to answer my questions. Jesus did not meet me. The two-way “personal relationship” we are to cultivate with Jesus was oh-so-one-way: I was doing all the work. I didn’t hear from Jesus, cosmic hug or otherwise. It was indeed a “one-way mirror”, described so eloquently here on Memoirs of an Ex-Christian’s blog.

Well-meaning Christians make things worse by asking questions like “are you keeping up your end of the relationship?” (Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me? What else am I supposed to do here?) When you are sincerely trying to find God, this line of questioning tends to fuel ever-deepening spirals of self-recrimination, as well as increasingly frantic efforts to “do” the right things so that God will finally respond. It is in this kind of environment that grace loses all meaning.

So I walked away from church, hanging onto the thinnest hope that God’s grace would somehow be bigger than whatever sins I was committing by leaving the fold.

And I have not been so happy or burden-free in years.

I have not become an amoral hedonist; I have become someone unburdened by guilt and obligation. The knots in my back have receded. I am healthier physically and emotionally. I have become someone who is no longer afraid to ask the big questions – the really really big questions – and I am becoming less afraid of the answers.

I do not plan to go back to church on any kind of regular basis. I went on Easter Sunday and realized that I still didn’t miss it. When friends or family invite me to come to church with them, I inevitably shudder. I have come to associate church – any church, any denomination – with the legalism that had me trapped so desperately for so long. I refuse to put myself back into that environment. I have come to believe that whoever God is (if God is), he does not intend for us to live fear-based, guilt-ridden lives of perfunctory service.

I am finally learning to extend grace to myself. Now I simply hope that God does too.

24 comments:

Spiritbear said...

Sounds like freedom from religion has done you well.

What does that have to do with God? Just curious. Please dont take it wrong

Bible student said...

Slapdash,

Congratulations and well done! (Both this and dropping hell.) I remember that feeling!

Imagine, if you see something defective in your worship, God surely can.

Be careful of the rebound lover.

I just googled and stole:

A rebound relationship is selfish for the primary fact that it is self-serving as proof that:

- “I” am worthy of love and affection.
- “I” don’t want to be alone.
- “I” am needed.
- “I” wasn’t at fault in my last break up.

The problem with all these “I’s” is that the rebound relationship often ends up more destructive for both people than the original relationship was in the first place.


You have left, to some degree, God’s protection. Beware of the Enemy!

**he does not intend for us to live fear-based, guilt-ridden lives of perfunctory service** Amen!

The other day when you asked if I was a **"faith alone" Eph. 2:8-9 kind of Christian** and you stumped me. It’s a label I’ve never come across, so I did a little research about faith and works, and found: Paul is referring here, to the efforts of the Jews to keep the Mosaic Law. James, however, insists on the importance of works. He writes: “As the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) A person who claims to have faith in Jesus should prove it by what he does. An inactive faith is a dead faith and will not lead to salvation.”

Mostly out of appreciation, I am happy to work in union with God and Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:58) De-Conversion doesn’t have to mean leaving, hopefully you may gain a better view from there. Peace.

shelly said...

I have come to believe that whoever God is (if God is), he does not intend for us to live fear-based, guilt-ridden lives of perfunctory service.

Ding! :)

If you get a chance, I recommend reading So You Don't Want To Go to Church Anymore (www.jakecolsen.com). IMO, it's an amazing read.

heidi said...

i can't tell you how jealous i am. i still go to church (it is part of not outing my pastor husband - see my other blog) but find it empty. it makes me melancholy because i used to get so much comfort from believing. i would so rather be at home drinking coffee, reading the paper, and eating a bagel.

your blog is really making me think. thanks.

Roopster said...

slapdash,

Welcome to the journey of a lifetime :)

Freedom from a "fear-based, guilt-ridden" life is a great and wonderful thing.

Paul

Traveller said...

Slapdash,

I love your writing, and your honesty! I heard about you from the SCP blog. I don't have anything deep or meaningful to say to engage the conversation, but I just wanted to say I appreciate your thoughts, and your sharing them here.

I'm a Christian who still goes to church, and would miss God if I walked away. But I'm not offended by your comments. I agree with a lot of them--like the way, at the end of your post,that God "does not intend for us to live fear-based, guilt-ridden lives of perfunctory service." Yeah! Thanks for your honesty. Hope you don't mind if I stop by to take a read sometimes.

jennypo said...

Slapdash,
The main reason for going to church is to worship. If it's not worship, then it's insulting. You may be doing God a favor.

You said before in response to a comment that you used to be a real Christian who loved God. Now you don't miss him.
My parents are Christians. I knew about God long before I knew him. I might not have missed him, and I certainly wouldn't have missed church, before I knew God, but now, having known him, I'd miss him. I'd miss him more than anything or anyone in the whole world.
I'm not here to tell you that you weren't a "real" Christian before. I know that our experience has been different, and I know that it has been a long road for you in between, but I'm curious what it was before that drew love and worship from your heart and now warrants nary a pang? What about God did you love? Did you realize, as we do with people, that he wasn't what you thought he was? What did you think he was?
Sorry if this is none of my beeswax. Please don't think I'm trying to challenge you, I am trying to understand. I know that yours can be a painful, guilt-ridden process and I don't mean to rub salt in the wound.

heidi said...

Jennypo - I just have to register a disagreement. Listen to yourself!We don't go to church to do God a favor. Who are we to ever think that we can do God (if he or she exists) a favor?

Zecryphon said...

Heidi: "Listen to yourself!We don't go to church to do God a favor."

I don't understand the disagreement. Jenny said: *The main reason for going to church is to worship. If it's not worship, then it's insulting.* So the two of you are in agreement. You're saying you don't go to church to do God a favor and neither is she.

heidi said...

I don't want to belabor this disagreement. But I do disagree.

"If it is not worship then it is insulting. You may be doing God a favor" I disagree with this.

We can't do favors for God (if he/she exists).
Who says the main point of church is worship? I believe that it is God coming to us - not us doing backflips for God.

Zecryphon said...

"Who says the main point of church is worship?"

People who go there.

"I believe that it is God coming to us - not us doing backflips for God."

We don't do backflips at my church. Perhaps you're thinking of the charismatic crowd.

heidi said...

forgive me for using a metaphor.

all i am trying to say is that if you think that you can do god a favor then you don't "get" him at all.

i grew up in a church that focused on what we were supposed to be doing for god rather than what god has done for us, so i know where you are coming from.

i am now in a church with a liturgical tradition, which doesn't mean the style of the music as much as the focus of the service. what has jesus done? vs. what would jesus do?

so if i do still believe in god, that is the god that i believe in.

a wise rabbi once said to an atheist, "that's okay - i don't believe in the god that you don't believe in either" (in yearnings by irwin kula.

maybe that is where i am

i don't know if i believe in god, but i know that i don't believe in your god. my god is not "insulted" by people with doubts and questions.

Spiritbear said...

I have a happy place on a hill in overlooking a lake in North Idaho. Its not really mine in that I dont own it but whenever I go there I feel close to God. I tend to worship when I am there. Just me and God. Nobody else. So if Church is about worship, my little spot could very well be a Church.,

I have other places I like to go and contemplate God, etc. I love mountains and woods for that. Oregon is a great place to be.

Anyway, I am off the rocker but I guess what I was trying to say is I feel more like I am close to God out in the woods than in most churchies.

Heather said...

Slapdash,

**Go to church every Sunday even if you don’t feel like it – faith isn’t about feelings, you know. Do the right thing and the feelings will follow. Jesus will meet you where you are.**

Wait. Jesus will meet you where you are, but only if you do a Bible study, lead a BIble study, go to church and do the right thing? How does that then turn into Jesus meeting you where you are? (I know this isn't you personally saying this, but what's been repeated at you over and over again. I'm just wondering if those who say it see the contradiction).

Heidi,

Jenny wasn't saying that we'd do God a favor as in he'd ever need something from us. Rather, if the heart isn't in the worship, going to church is hypocritical, and portraying God in a poor light. Jenny follows the style that church is about maintaing a relationship with God, and worshiping God. In some cases, people serve God, and show who God is, better without a church.

Slapdash said...

***Be careful of the rebound lover.*** (Bible Student)

Thanks for the warning, though you are assuming that I am replacing one relationship with another, when I am viewing it more as leaving a bad relationship and striking out on my own. :)

Traveller, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment.

***but I'm curious what it was before that drew love and worship from your heart and now warrants nary a pang? What about God did you love? Did you realize, as we do with people, that he wasn't what you thought he was? What did you think he was?*** (jennypo)

I've written about the various threads of the faith that have come apart in other blog entries. There is no single event that causes love to die in any relationship, JP. But years of neglect and lack of response from God himself tend to take their toll. It caused me to look back and re-evaluate whether all the warm-fuzzy highs I assumed to be God's presence were actually his presence, or manipulated-slash-manufactured emotions that I simply attributed to a divine presence. Emotional experiences do not necessarily signify truth, nor do they necessarily signify God.

There are a lot of ideas about God that I loved...fruits of the spirit, care for others, etc. But these are ideas and ideals that I can still carry with me and try to live even if I don't believe in God.

Slapdash said...

Heidi, thanks for sharing your other blog. I will read and comment on it over there.

Bible student said...

Slapdash,

I am sorry for the misunderstanding. When I read **stopping going to church. I also quit my Bible study and stepped down from a fledgling leadership position,** I associated those actions with leaving your religion. Leaving God is another matter.

Heather commented that Bible study was not meeting Jesus (and I’ll add God) half way. Unfortunately, this is the only communication They will have with us. The words recorded at Revelation 22:18-19 let us know that this complete message is all the words we will get.

When I de-converted it not from God, but from his representatives. I felt that they did a poor job of getting God’s message to the flock. Believing that God was fine but my understanding came up short, kept me groping for the truth. Thank God.

I’m reminded of how folks perceived their social strata as children. A loving family and a little food in the belly, led so many to believe that they were not poor. Happiness came from appreciating what they did have.

Expecting instant gratification, in today’s information rich society, has left us wanting; everything from the latest “toy” to a personal answer from the Sovereign of the Universe. Comparatively, you have a better chance of getting G. W. Bush on the phone, to satisfy your most dear social concern.

If you don’t know how God cares for us, (even the dead and near dead of Darfur) find out! When you feel that God is impotent or has lost His way, think again!(Luke 13:24) His complete explanation has been graciously spelled out in his word, the Bible. If your guide has been blind, (Matthew 15:14) look elsewhere.

Neighbor, I hope that you don’t take this in anything but the spirit of love.

Spiritbear said...

I went to Church today. That doesnt mean I buy all they say but there was a very interesting point made. A poll of some kind was taken in 2005 of people who claim to be born again Christians with two choices about why Church exists.

1) The Church exists to meet the needs of me and my family

2) The Church exists to spread the gospel of Christ.

Interesting that worship wasnt a choice. Here is the results

87% Church exists to meet the needs of me and my family

11% Church exists to spread the gospel

OK why is this bad? It shows the "me me me" culture of the US.

I brought it up here because you all were talking about the point of Church. I guess many think the point of Church is to make them and their family happy

Bible student said...

Spiritbear,

This morning we visited the folks in a nearby neighborhood. (It’s no fun unless you let someone else know.) Our “Public Meeting” was Saturday at 10:00 AM. Today I had the pleasure of working with PJ, a 10 year old gentleman, while my wife worked with his mom.

The subject that we had prepared for those who would give ear: Does God care? More importantly, do we care enough to learn about Him and His purposes? Free home Bible studies are offered, and arrangements are made to visit again, at a convenient time, for further discussion.

I have found that the ministry draws me closer to those I’ve shared it with. Since we try to team up with every other member, over the years, the congregation is made stronger. It’s also a great time to converse with family members.

Beth said...

I've been there. It takes courage to take the final steps to walk away from something that no longer makes sense when people all around you are screaming that you're going the wrong way.

You're not.

Welcome to reality.

Slapdash said...

***Heather commented that Bible study was not meeting Jesus (and I’ll add God) half way. Unfortunately, this is the only communication They will have with us. The words recorded at Revelation 22:18-19 let us know that this complete message is all the words we will get.*** (Bible student)

And this is part of what I am questioning today. WHY is this the complete message? God deigned to speak to us directly in the OT; God deigned to interact with his people physically in the NT; why do we get a confusing book that has as many different plausible interpretations as books, chapters, and verses? A God who is a god not of chaos, but of order, I would think would do a better job of helping us understand him and his message to us. So God wrote a love letter. We're now supposed to sustain a life long love affair with him based on a love letter he wrote (or actually had someone else write for him) 2000 years ago?

***Expecting instant gratification, in today’s information rich society, has left us wanting; everything from the latest “toy” to a personal answer from the Sovereign of the Universe.***

I am not sure what wanting a personal answer from God has to do with expecting instant gratification. If God expects me to be in a relationship with him, I expect him to show up for the relationship too. Unambiguously. Directly.

***If you don’t know how God cares for us, (even the dead and near dead of Darfur) find out! When you feel that God is impotent or has lost His way, think again!(Luke 13:24) His complete explanation has been graciously spelled out in his word, the Bible. If your guide has been blind, (Matthew 15:14) look elsewhere.***

If I remember right, you started out Catholic and then became a Bible-based Christian. Is that right? You found Catholicism lacking and found truth in the Bible itself. Great for you. I am glad that you have found a way to affirm your faith.

Thing is, I started out with the Bible as my only guide and I have found it wanting. I do not see evidence of God's care in the world. A divine economy in which God will not directly intervene but only uses us as his proxies, in my view, is not terribly distinguishable from a world in which God doesn't exist. I still believe love exists; I am a fan of responsibility and care for our neighbors; but again, I am not sure belief in God is required to do the 'right things' that Jesus asks of us. As such, seeing people do 'right things' to me does not prove God's existence.

***Neighbor, I hope that you don’t take this in anything but the spirit of love. ***

Neighbor, that's how I took it. I'm glad we can have such a civil discussion, even if we disagree. :)

Zecryphon said...

"i don't know if i believe in god, but i know that i don't believe in your god. my god is not "insulted" by people with doubts and questions."

Who is this statement directed at?

Bible student said...

Neighbor,

**WHY is this the complete message?** Because the answers are all there.

Matthew 11:25 says: At that time Jesus said in response: “I publicly praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual ones and have revealed them to babes.

Humility, not **If God expects me to be in a relationship with him** turns the key. Children have the wonderful quality of being teachable. Jesus praised this and promised a reward. (Matthew 19:14)

**Bible as my only guide** I don’t buy it! Back in school, I struggled with Algebra 2. Even though I’d done well in Algebra 1, aced Geometry, it seemed I hit a wall. It was my wall though, there was nothing wrong with the math book. What helped though was a different teacher, someone who took the time and made sure I made the effort to pass.

You have had guides to your Bible since you were a baby. Parents, “Sunday school” teachers, pastors and peers, have all guided you so far. If they don’t know any better than you, they could only lead you here.

I see a picture of you on the rocks, with your profile. Before you climbed, you no doubt looked carefully for the obstacles. Did you do the same with your relationship with God? If you don’t recognize where you might stumble, it could be fatal. The Enemy lurks. (1 Peter 5:8) It took you until this century to shake “The Reality Of Hell.” Someone living when the Bible was written, would have been able to tell you that notion was only found in the religion “of the nations,” and not part of true worship. I’ve said it before, you may yet have to throw out more of the belief in what has been ingrained.

Look, it was not a short hop between Catholicism and the truth, more like 15 years. I’m sure I was inconsolable at first, and may have been in your church on the way. I promised myself that my last meeting with these folks, would be when the same nonsense I’d heard elsewhere emerge, since I’m an incurable sceptic. But happily I was with them this morning and I’ll be sleeping with one tonight.

You’re young, God waited for me, but we are that much closer to the end.

Pop quiz, What is the theme of the Bible? Hint: It has nothing to do with personal salvation.

jennypo said...

***Emotional experiences do not necessarily signify truth, nor do they necessarily signify God. (Slapdash)

100% agreed. Are you saying that perhaps what you remember is simply an emotional experience? If so, then good riddance. No wonder you are free at last.
And it's possible God hasn't deserted you at all. Maybe he's pulled the candyfloss out of your hands so that you'll be able to hold the steak...
:^)
I'm happy that you are now free, even if it means that you don't see things as I see them.