One of the not-so-terrible things about this year’s isolation for me has been the brainspace. Right now I have the time and space to consider if I’m living the kind of life I want to be living. I pause to note that I’m acutely aware how privileged I am; I realize very many people do not have the luxury of choice that I enjoy.
However, the thinking to which I’m referring crosses the lines of privilege. Everyone can ask themselves, “What do I like about my life? What is working? What isn’t working? What would I like to do / be / enjoy? What would have to change to see that happen?”
Every life contains challenges. Every life has the potential to know joy. While economics, systemic racism and social hierarchies dictate many challenges, only our souls can choose between bitterness and strength. It would be easy at this point to acknowledge I know little of true suffering and therefore should slink away in shame for even having the audacity to speak. Indeed, my finger remained poised above the delete key for quite a while. After all, I’ve been poor but I’ve never been black and poor. I’ve held loved ones’ lifeless bodies but never as the result of violent hatred. I’ve known the utter darkness of clinical depression, my own body’s chemical imbalances and failing health but I’ve always had options in medical care.
Comparing hardship is a battle no one wins. However, sixty years on this planet has taught me a few things. One is that every life matters. Not in the sense of the Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter controversy (BLM wins that one, hands down.) I believe God has created each soul to learn and teach, grow and nurture, to depend on one another and live together, becoming more ourselves as we share with each other.
We really do need each other. As an extreme introvert, my appreciation for the peace of solitude would’ve made me a great monk. But even monks live in community. There are many worthy things we cannot achieve alone. God invites us into the fellowship of the Trinity; it is an active, loving, ever-expanding fellowship.
And, as C.S. Lewis wrote, Aslan is not a tame lion. We cannot control God, just as we cannot control others. Despite our (badly limited) ideas of perfection, we cannot make anyone in our own image (even ourselves). God made us in the image of the Trinity. What that means exactly takes a lifetime of individual learning and communal working out.
For me, it has meant: I do not stand alone. Perfection is the enemy of good. Love is what you do. I deserve honor, as one lovingly woven by an attentive Creator. And I am always a member of a larger body. My marriage. My family. My social community. My city, state, nation.
In the United States, as in many so-called “developed” nations, the emphasis on individualism has gradually eroded our sense of community. “I, me and mine” have replaced “we, us and our.” Many people in third-world communities recognize their lives depend on each other for survival. I think we’ve lost something vital in our development. Paul (from a less “civilized” society) compared the church to a body – when one member feels pain, all suffer. Humanity is God’s body on earth; we all bear His image. We are connected. We feel one another’s pain, even if we refuse to acknowledge it. We were created to be in community. Unfortunately, in the American church, we continue to narrow our definition of “who is my neighbor?”
In the following poll results, conducted by evangelical Christians, two things strike me:
- The evangelical Christianity in which I was raised reflects American individualism more than it reflects Jesus.
- Jesus’ words in Luke 6 – 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
Compare how you believe Jesus would answer these questions to how today’s evangelicals answered them.
Still in the midst of reading Jesus and John Wayne, I can already highly recommend it. For those who have felt the flickers of cognitive dissonance between the words of Jesus and those of evangelical leaders, Kristin Kobes Du Mez does a wonderful job parsing both the history and practices of the white evangelical movement. For people who can see so clearly the fallacy of Islamic extremists who take out of context a verse in the Qu’ran to “kill the infidels,” we are loath to look at our own extremism in “Christian nationalism” (was there ever a greater oxymoron?)
When one grows up with a distortion taught as intertwined with faith, it can be disorienting to see that distortion revealed. It can feel like your very faith is being threatened. It can feel like you are tumbling in a continually-breaking surf and you can’t get a breath of air before the next wave hits. A lot of people are having that experience this year.
For me, it has been well over 15 years since that first tug began unraveling my faith. That’s how it felt – unraveling. Or perhaps threshing, with the chaff flying into the wind. Recognizing one distortion led to another…and another…until it was just me and Jesus. It has been a refiner’s fire experience – all the impurities being melted away until only pure gold remained. There were a lot of impurities, a lot of manipulation masquerading as truth, a lot of my own self-interest being revealed. The fire is still burning, especially this year as I’ve had to face my own apathy toward others’ suffering.
At this point, however, I have to say I’ve never felt more free. The burdens of guilt and shame, of feeling “never enough” are gone. The impurities that had attached themselves to my faith through teachings on purity culture, Biblical patriarchy, family values, racist practices in fundamentalism, the re-branding of patriotism with faith, the self-segregating justification for Christian marketing — all these and more God has extracted, examined with me in love and tossed into the flames. At times, I felt like there was nothing left. I despaired that I had spent my life in dross. But the things that have remained — faith, hope, love — are solid. The fear is gone. The doubt is gone. I am no longer burdened by self-doubt or self-certainty; I have God-certainty. If I get it wrong, I trust Him to set me right. He is faithful that way.
If you are beginning this journey in exploring your own cognitive dissonance, know you are not alone. There is freedom on the other side. There is a stronger faith than you’ve ever known. I think of my favorite allegory when I was a young Christian – Hind’s Feet on High Places. Much-Afraid had to take the hands of Sorrow and Suffering to reach her journey’s end. Only there did she discover them to be Joy and Peace. It is not easy to trust when it feels like everything you’ve always believed is being stripped away. But if that still small voice is whispering to you, I encourage you to keep listening. Don’t be afraid to see what’s behind the curtain. Love is waiting there; a greater love than you’ve ever experienced.