When I finally understood the impact of unhealthy religious beliefs and practices in my life, I don’t think I can quite put into words the joy and freedom that I experienced. It was one epiphany after another where God wasn’t as evil and monstrous as I’d been lead to believe. My beliefs weren’t as fragile as I’d been taught.
Rather than watering down the truth or picking and choosing my truth arbitrarily, I learned to begin taking in the full, mysterious witness of the Christian faith where God is just and holy, but God is also merciful, loving, and compassionate.
If only I’d expended the same effort to experience the love of God as I’d invested in fearing his judgment and holiness.
It’s as if a whole segment of Christianity has become so fearful of God’s judgment that we’ve become fixated on it. We dare not spend too much time talking about God’s love, mercy, or compassion, even if the Psalms, prophets, and writings of the apostles all but hit us over the head with these themes about God’s love and patience.
If we start to think God is soft or easy on us, we could start sinning, and then who knows what would happen next.
Actually, we’ve been told what to expect next: judgment.
Is it any wonder that people who spend so much time beholding and fearing the judgment of God feel an irresistible pull toward judgment of others as well? We become what we worship, that’s what the Psalms and prophets tell us in particular, and if we fail to see how God’s love coexists with his holiness and justice, then we end up with a God of judgment and we can’t help but follow that lead.
Seeking the full witness of scripture about the love, mercy, and compassion of God for us has completely changed how I pray and practice holiness. Rather than acting out of a fear of judgment, I’m working on accepting the loving embrace of God for prodigals who cross the line and stuffy judgmental sons who walk the line. The contemplative prayer tradition of the church tells us over and over again that it’s the present love of God that transforms us, not a constant fear of his judgment.
As much as I have enjoyed this shift toward “healthy religion,” as Richard Rohr would call it (rather than creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion), the most difficult step for me has been to respond with mercy, love, and compassion toward those who are still under the sway of an angry, judgmental God who demands holiness. As I step toward mystery and contemplation, I struggle to respond with grace and compassion toward those who are still citing chapter and verse with angry zeal, defending boundaries, and attempting to define who is in and who is out.
I’m grateful in part for this struggle. I need these reminders of how far I need to go. You’d think that I should know by now that having the right information about the love of God isn’t the same thing as living in that love daily and being transformed by it.
When someone takes a swing at my beliefs or practices, I still feel the urge to judge, excommunicate, or strike back. I still want to repay snark with snark, sarcasm with better sarcasm. And it’s killing me sometimes because I love sarcasm so much.
Most days I can only know on an intellectual level that the people who embody the judgment, boundary-defending side of Christianity are in bondage to a flawed perception of God. And the more that I want to respond in kind, the more I’m in bondage to that flawed perception as well. At the very least, if I struggle to respond with compassion and mercy, then I’m not doing a good job of experiencing God’s mercy and compassion for myself.
It’s hard to learn to shut up and to take a shot on the chin. I’ve invested so much time (and money!) in studying theology. It’s ironic that I want to put my hard-earned training into use to strike back at someone, but the truth is that I need nothing more than to shut up and return to the present love of God.
It shouldn’t be this hard to rest in the present love of God. The more I struggle with this, the more I have to question what I want out of life. Do I want to be justified? Do I want people to respect me? Do I want people to think I’m clever?
It sure doesn’t sound all that clever or unique to say that I am loved and you are loved deeply, perfectly, and constantly. That’s what Christians have been saying for centuries. It’s not flashy, snarky, or catchy for a blog headline. It won’t win a theology debate. It will actually look like a surrender.
Surrender. That’s the word that I’m learning to accept. If I am going to surrender to the love of God, it also means surrendering in every other competition, debate, and desire. I can’t win. I can’t reach what I think I want.
Jesus taught us what it means to surrender and to “win” by “losing.” He modeled this kind of surrender in the most extreme of circumstances, entrusting himself to the love of God even to the point of trusting in resurrection.
Can I let God’s love so transform me that I can even show his love, mercy, and compassion to those who have none for me?
Can I surrender to the point that I’ll let my aspirations for my reputation perish? Perhaps one day I’ll trust God to raise up my true self from the ashes, refined and secure in his love that conquers all.
Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer
On sale for $2.99