It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned my dark night of the soul. The news is, I’m still in it. And where I am is black. Pitch black. Moonless, starless, candle-less nothingness. I’ve never experienced a crisis of faith quite this deep, long or disconcerting. I’m not sure where the end of this thing is.
The other day, I asked myself what it would look like if I really loved myself. All of myself. The way God loves me. And in that moment, 90% of my theology fell apart. I realized that while I had experienced some of the best things in my church upbringing, I had also experienced some of the worst. There’s very little room for self-love or self-acceptance (let alone acceptance of others) in the doctrine of my denomination. I was always taught the JOY acronym: Jesus first, others second, yourself last. Except, like much of everything in evangelicalism, it’s arranged in a hierarchy. JOY is spelled vertically. Jesus is at the top, others are below that, and you are the bottom of the totem pole. It’s the trickle-down economics of love. You give most of your devotion to Jesus, then some to others, and hopefully have enough for yourself afterwards.
But just like in trickle-down economics, there’s never enough left for the person at the bottom. In other words, the moment you say, “I’m ready to love myself now,” someone dashes in to interrupt the thought. “Wait, wait!” they exclaim. “Are you abandoning Jesus?! Are you neglecting others?? Have you given enough?? Think hard! Don’t be selfish!” And then you somehow conclude that, yes, maybe you can give just a little bit more. You can ignore that quiet voice calling you to rest and self-care for a little longer. You can volunteer another hour, or read another scripture, or tolerate a few more harsh words and boundary violations from abusive people.
In short, you rarely have joy because you never get around to the Y in the equation.
Fundamentalism, in particular, hinges on self-rejection. It’s the only way it can survive. If you believe that you’re continually disappointing to God and have to follow a strict self-regulating regimen to receive his favor, you’ll always clamor for affirmation from your leaders and fellow believers. You become dependent on it. And your leaders will say, “You’re almost there! Just try a little harder!”, and you’ll surge to the task again and again hoping that, finally, someday, you’ll get the reassurance you’ve always craved.
But you won’t. It’s the proverbial carrot on a stick, always dangling just out of reach.
When you realize that God loves you unconditionally, that He made you for His pleasure and filled you with good purpose, and that His grace is given and not earned–and you decide to mirror that love to yourself–you realize you can’t endure the fundamentalist theology. The stick goes out the window because it’s suddenly raining carrots. You realize that having victory and favor is not about showing up to church on time, or wearing the right length of skirt, or praying a certain number of hours per day, but living out of the gifts He has given you–authentically and passionately, without shame. The problem comes when you’ve built your life around the old theology. When it implodes, it feels like everything else will crumble, too.
The other day, I received a beautiful and encouraging email from a young reader. She wrote:
“I was wondering maybe you could write a post on how to stay close to Jesus and trust/rely on him completely and how to know God’s will, if you ever run out of ideas on what to write?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I am in the worst crisis of faith ever, and I’m going to write about how to stay close to Jesus?? LOLOL! On second thought…
Dear reader, here is my answer:
Jesus doesn’t leave. You don’t have to go chasing him. He’s chasing you. If you pause for a moment, he will catch you…and embrace you.
If you’ve experienced great pain in your life (which you have), you will find it difficult at first to rely on him. Relying is a practice, not an achievement. Some days you’re going to get it right, and other days you’re not. That’s ok. Faith is a journey, not a destination. Relying means resting in his grace and identity. To do that, you must understand that grace is not and cannot be earned. You must also know who he is, and that takes time.
Hint: If you’re trying too hard to rely, you’re doing it wrong. Relying means having the confidence and abandon to fall into His arms.
God’s will is that you would know Him and accept His grace. It is His will that you love Him and your neighbor as yourself. Beyond that, identify the gifts He has given you and live in those–authentically and passionately, without shame.
I took my crisis of faith to my (Jewish) therapist, and he asked me what spiritual experiences I had in the past. I told him the one I rarely mention to anyone in person, because it’s so far out of the box that I don’t think people will believe me. But he told me that the experience is exactly what I should hold onto as I navigate the darkness of uncertainty. He said, “I don’t think God asked you what denomination you belonged to when He showed up, did He?”
No. No, He did not. God just said, “Here I am. Worship me.” So I’m going to do that in the way that seems right. I’m going to start by honoring His love for me. I’m going to put the Y in my JOY.
P.S. If you’ve emailed me or left comments in the past few weeks, thank you! I have plans to answer them…sometime.