Rethinking Joy

A dark night of the soul is this, sans light bulb.

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. 

11 responses to “Rethinking Joy

  1. Right after my darkest crises of faith, I wrote a song about it called “Stream Of Grace”. During that time I couldn’t do anything “Christian”. I couldn’t open my Bible or sing songs. I didn’t have the emotional strength. So I mustered up the energy for one thing: I found a church, went on Sunday mornings, and stood in the service. I didn’t even sing. I just want to be somewhere, doing something where I could encounter God. It didn’t have to be that (I know many people would not be able to enter a church after being wounded), but it was what I could do. I found a stream of grace and stood in it, and God was faithful to carry me the rest of the way.

    I thought you might appreciate the song (and the one before it, “Who I Am” about struggling with identity and the message I was getting from the church): you can here it on noise trade:

  2. April, you know that I too have been walking through a very long, very dark night of the soul. So God sent me here today to witness to you that it doesn’t last forever and God is astoundingly faithful to keep his promises. There is a process at work, this darkness is here for a reason and at the end of it is great healing. There’s so much that could be said about this, but I haven’t been able to write about it much because I’m still recovering and my brain is insisting on a well deserved breather right now. But as someone who you know understands the darkness, I want you to know that you are going to be OK and you don’t have to do anything but be. God’s got it all worked out.

  3. This is just a quick message to let April and her blog followers know that I have established a new Christian blog at the following URL:

    This new blog is devoted to severe criticism of Christian fundamentalism, conservative evangelicalism, and the so-called Religious Right in the United States.

    Recent statistics indicate that a full 88 percent of the children raised in Christian fundamentalist churches leave the faith tradition of their youth and never come back to those churches or churches like them again for the rest of their lives. My new blog is aimed at flushing the remaining 12 percent out of their pews and thereby depopulating both their churches and the Religious Right. The spiritual abuse cannot continue if there are no people left in the pews to abuse. I am also encouraging these people who escape to continue their faith and worship of Jesus Christ in churches that are both nonfundie and nonabusive.

    If you would like to be a regular follower of the blog, then click on the “Follow Button” when you get there. If you are wondering why there is no button for commenting, just click on the “Blog Policy” button.

  4. Now, I don’t know just where God lives
    ain’t all that sure just exactly who God is
    I don’t know if there’s a church
    that deserves to take God’s name
    I just know that when I look around here I see
    the hand of someone or something
    that is bigger than me
    and I call that God
    and then I pray “Just, keep me God” Iris DeMent

  5. One thing God pointed out to me recently is “Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.” I think loving yourself is fundamental to loving others, and — as is frequently pointed out — even Jesus stole away for some quiet time. Keep praying and asking God to show you what’s in the way. I recently had a pretty dark time myself, but God was faithful as always, and has brought me through it to a truly beautiful, peaceful place. I pray for you! Your blog is inspirational, and sharing your dark night is helpful to many of us!

  6. Pingback: Fundamentalism and the Duggar Fantasy | Revolutionary Faith

  7. April said:

    “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.”

    This reminded me of an old movie line spoken during a life and death struggle between good and evil. Sometimes we strive too hard when they key to victory is really to relax our muscles rather then tense them—to “Bend Like a Reed” in the wind:

    It’s a bit graphic for sure, but sometime the defeat of evil is as simple as just “letting go” rather than tensing up and striving more.

  8. God doesn’t love unconditionally. Satan loves unconditionally. Satan lets you do whatever you want and promises no consequences, which is too good to be true. In reality, there are always consequences.

    But why do you need a religion to teach you that? Can’t you determine the consequences of your actions by yourself?

    The point is how far are you willing to go before you became consumed with self-indulgence? You don’t owe anyone anything, but actions do have consequences. The general idea of being a good person is to minimize the harm you do, to yourself and to others.

    If you get really bored, help someone else out. Be charitable. But if you’re only helping people in need because you feel obligated to, then you’re not doing it right. It’s supposed to come from within you, from your own heart and your own mind.

  9. I think that Jesus-Others-Yourself thing is a fallacy. There is no Jesus. There are no others. There is no you. There is only the one. When you learn to see the universe in this way, you will find peace.

    Check out the following scene from “Enter the Dragon” (starring Bruce Lee).

    Lee: “Teacher?”

    Shaolin Abbott: “I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight. I have several questions. What is the highest technique you hope to achieve?”

    Lee: “To have no technique.”

    Shaolin Abbott: “Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?”

    Lee: “There is no opponent.”

    Shaolin Abbott: “And why is that?”

    Lee: “Because the word ‘I’ does not exist.”

    Shaolin Abbott: “So, continue…”

    Lee: “A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”

    Shaolin Abbott: “Now, you must remember: the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”