I'm not sure how long ago, but at some point I started seeing Christianity as a box - a really big box, to be sure. A box big enough to hold the God of the Bible, biblical history and doctrine, and all the christians who have ever lived or with ever live...a safe enclosed environment in which we all lived, moved, and had our being. It was a universe beyond which we dare not venture. If there is one thing that we knew, and knew well, it was that the boundaries of that box were there for our good and our protection. It was all we needed to know. God created us, loved us, sent his son to redeem us from our sins, and if we accept him as our personal savior we will be saved and go to heaven. That was the essence (although there was room for plenty of disagreement within those statements to make for a colorful and diverse and rancorous population....to keep it interesting.)
And in one flash of insight I saw the Christian box, and I saw a camera's eye view as it panned out away from the box further and further, until the final picture turned out to be a little Christian box in the lower right hand corner of a REALLY big box, which I understood to be the universe and all the possibilities therein. I realized that the box I had moved and lived and believed within was only a tiny possibility among an almost infinite number of possibilities.
From my god-like point of view I could see that there were no windows, but there was something against the wall on the left side of the Christian box. I was curious so I panned in again, getting closer and closer until at last the christian box filled the screen of my imagination once again. Now I was inside the box again, and noticed for the first time that it was a door to the left. I saw myself walking over to it, and was quite surprised to find it unlocked. As near as I could tell there was nothing keeping me from opening that door. There were no tell-tale wires indicating an alarm; no deadbolt lock preventing me from turning the nob and opening the door. No blockages of any kind. It must have represented my free will. But looking at it almost made me break out in a sweat. While there were no actual, physical alarms, there were plenty of alarms in my head.
All the warnings I'd ever read in the Bible or in my devotional materials or books; all the dire warnings of pastors, teachers, mentors about the sin of doubt, the threat of falling away, the unpardonable sin, and of course, God's wrath and punishment came to me all at once. If I opened that door, I would be opening the door to the devil; giving him a foothold; allowing a mist of doom to come into the room and permeate the Christian space. Or I would find myself sucked out in a mighty vacuum into an everlasting hell of black oblivion and despair, forever separated from God.
I moved away from the door. Too scary to even think about! Instead I sunk back into the crowd and willed myself to participate in the group-think that I had been taught from my childhood, and by all the authorities in my life. It MUST be right! It HAD to be! After all, most people I knew believed it, and so many men that I respected and knew either in person or by reputation believed it and were staking their lives and their eternal destiny on it! It HAD to be true!!
So I tried - very hard - to put an end to the doubts that had come creeping into my thoughts. I knew the reason I had doubts and questions that no one seemed to be able to answer was because I wasn't trying hard enough. I didn't have enough faith. I knew that it had to be a lack of understanding on my part because God's ways are higher than our ways, and I just wasn't attuned enough; spiritual enough to fully comprehend those areas that nagged at me. I had been told that my name was written in the Book of Life. And I darn well better do my part to keep it from being erased!
So I fell to my knees and begged God's forgiveness for doubting him. I begged him to erase the doubts by revealing himself - clearly and unequivocally to me. I did not WANT to doubt! I WANTED to have the Faith of our Fathers. I asked him to reveal all my hidden, unconfessed sins to me so that I could confess and repent of them.
And he did. I was made aware of all my sins - those of commission and omission; those of deeds, thoughts and attitudes....so many that I fell asleep listing and repenting of them.
But the tiny seed had been planted. I became aware that that maybe Christianity wasn't the only possibility.
I often picture an old-fashioned scale with my beliefs/certainties/faith on one side and my doubts on the other. At first everything was weighted heavily to the belief side. But gradually, over a very long period of time, more and more doubts were added to that side of the scale and eventually, one day, the scale tipped in that direction.
Part of my frustration over the years has been the inability to get satisfactory answers to so many of my questions. I'm pretty familiar with the standard answers, and part of my frustration is that they just don't really answer the questions I'm asking. That frustration led me to take a closer look at the nature of my doubts and see if there were other answers out there that made more sense to me. After several years of exploring these things I can say that yes, that is exactly what happened.
So as for my first specific issue....
God. If everything I've read in the Bible, heard preached from the pulpit, read in books and learned in various classes, seminars, conferences over the year is true, then there are some distinct contradictions that, in my opinion, cannot be explained away.
If God is love, if he created every person who ever lived, if he loves us more than we can imagine, if he is not willing that any should perish, if he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, merciful....then how can he (seemingly without a second thought) send the MAJORITY of his created beings to ETERNITY in a place of unspeakable suffering for the sin of thinking incorrectly? Because when you get down to it "belief" is - as Eckhart Tolle says - a bundle of thoughts. Belief takes place in our own minds, and is a consequence of our environment, heredity, exposure to teachings, and even emotions. And, if you like....being 'touched by the Holy Spirit'...but even that involves thought, in knowing how to respond to what we felt just happened to us. It would appear that God doesn't really think much of a majority of his created beings if they happen to be born into a nation, culture and family that believe something other than christianity. Because it turns out that the vast majority of people who are christians were born into a christian family, or at least into a culture where christianity is readily available. And the same is true of most Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. Interesting, isn't it?
And along those lines...how can he be a "Loving Father" if he is willing to send his beloved children to hell PERMANENTLY for temporal sins? Would a REAL Father punish his child FOREVER for making a mistake? For choosing wrong - even if their intent and sincerity were real? Wow. That is brutal!
It isn't talked about too much in church(except when it can't be avoided) but God is quite vindictive in many Old Testament stories. You know, the ones about commanding his people to make sure they slaughtered everyone, including women and children and animals, etc. And that is only one of the more extreme examples.
I had probably just committed the unpardonable sin and was on my way to hell already. Taken together, one day it occurred to me....if these things ARE true....do I want to WORSHIP a God like that? I mean for any reason other than escaping hell myself? Obviously, these are really hard, scary questions when your whole life is based on Christianity. But I had to be honest. Why would I WORSHIP (praise, bless, adore, consult, want to please) a God like that? (Well the answer to the "want to please" question is obvious....to escape hell myself!). But otherwise, the answer was no. WOW! HUGE!! And SCARY!! But think about it....would you worship, praise, bless, adore, consult and want to please a human tyrant like that? Of course not! (again, except for the want-to-please part, to escape pain yourself. See Stockholm Syndrome).
This, as you can imagine was pretty darn scary to acknowledge. It meant I had probably just committed the unpardonable sin and was on my way to hell already. But to go back and beg forgiveness of this God, and go back to worshipping would really just be an attempt to escape hell. How could I unreservedly LOVE a God who was like that? (And if he really is omniscient he would know my true motivation, and since it would be to escape hell, would that really count?)
So then I started thinking....maybe what I've been TAUGHT is wrong! Maybe there IS a God and he's NOT like that. Maybe he exists and he really DOES love us with an everlasting love and won't send us to hell for thinking the wrong thoughts (or being born into a country where Christianity is not mainstream)! That was a pleasant possibility, but it led to lots of other issues....for instance, which of the things I was taught were true and which were not? Who makes the final determination? If the Bible and articles of faith are open to interpretations (of which there are hundreds, if not thousands) then how can ANYTHING be authoritative? And if nothing is really authoritative and it's up to our own interpretation or understanding, and this is okay, then how is that different from just believing whatever we want? Again, where is the 'authority'?
I'll never forget the time I was standing in the parking lot of the church where I was a secretary and chatting with a member of the staff. She informed me that not NEARLY as many people as we might suspect are going to make it into heaven. She got this on the authority of her Bible study teacher (who happened to be the former Bible Study Fellowship Teaching Leader of the class I had been in previously). I'm not exactly sure what the issue was, but she was clear that based on what she had learned from this woman, the Narrow Way was a heck of lot more narrow than even most Christians thought! And only those two, and (I'm guessing here...) maybe 143,998 others were going to make it in. We didn't spend a long time on the particulars of this, but what stuck with me was the certainty with which she stated this....She obviously truly believed it. Not unlike Harold Camping obviously truly believed the rapture was coming May 21, 2011.
Certainty is no basis for truth. After all, the men who killed themselves flying into the World Trade Center were absolutely certain they were going straight to their version of heaven (with a bunch of extra virgins, if I understand correctly). So many people are certain that what they believe is the truth....and yet they believe different things. So SOMEBODY (or actually a lot of somebodies) is/are wrong! It's almost amusing (but only ironically so) that Christians have no problem pointing to Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, etc, and saying with certainty that THEY are wrong, but are a little more hesitant to say so about their fellow christians of different denominations, and absolutely deny the possibilty of THEMSELVES being wrong. If this is true, then God is even more exclusive than I originally stated. And if it IS possible, then how can any of us know with certainty that what WE believe is the correct thing?
I've been taught the God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. And yet, in so many areas he seems impotent. I've heard Christians praise him quite literally for helping them find the perfect little black dress for a business trip, finding a parking space, allowing a trip to work or a mission trip without a car accident. And yet he can't seem to manage to really help the starving children of the world, or prevent a violent massacre, or stop a drought. If he IS all those omni's, you have to wonder about his priorities. And again....do I want to WORSHIP a God who cares more about the dress or parking space of a well-to-do Christian in comfortable America than he does about the sad, horrific, and shocking conditions around the world?
I'm aware that "the problem of pain" is not new with me and has been around for a VERY long time. Unfortunately, it is a real one and one of the issues that has left me unsatisfied.
I know that sometimes the 'answer' to the above question is that Satan is having his way in this world and in the hearts of people. But can we really say that God is omnipotent if Satan has so much power to wreak havoc on the earth? It sounds more to me like they're equals and sometimes God wins and sometimes Satan wins. And if God is letting Satan have his way on this earth, it brings me back to my original question....how much does God really love us anyway? Most earthly fathers I know want to protect their children and not let them suffer. God seems to find pleasure in the suffering of his children. Or at least he doesn't raise a finger to stop it in so many cases, when - if he's REALLY omnipotent - he could.
The next doubt concerned The Holy Spirit. We read in the new testament that Christians will be spirit filled, have power, will evidence certain traits, and that 'they'll know we are christians by our love.' And yet, as often as not, it's just not true. Christians can be nice and generous and helpful and kind and considerate, and non christians can be nice, generous, helpful, kind and considerate. Non-christians can be rude, selfish, cruel, abusive, manipulative, and christians can be rude, selfish, cruel, abusive and manipulative. I remember someone once saying to me that some of the rudest people she had come across or dealt with were church secretaries! (I think it WAS a church secretary that said it to me.) It seems that behavior has more to do with personality, upbringing, etc., than with being filled with the spirit. One of my initial problems with christianity was that what the Bible said was true of christians just WASN'T so much of the time, in my observation and experience. And if it wasn't true where was that power that we are all supposed to be infused with? Where is the power to resist falling into sin? Where is the power to have faith and not be fearful? To truly trust (without having to ask everyone you know to pray for you, thereby using the power of numbers to try to pursuade God to come around to your way of thinking)? In expressing this question/frustration with my pastor I was reassured that these sad situations were exceptions and not the rule. But even as I tried to be objective I noted that it seemed the MAJORITY of christians have/had some major flaw (in addition to our regular, daily sins). And if that is so what is this about the POWER of the Holy Spirit? How exactly is it manifested again?
I also remember the building program at our church. We were advised to go home and pray about whether to proceed with a building program or not. People did. Some were led (presumably by the Holy Spirit) to say, yes! We're ready! Let's do this! And some (presumably led by the SAME Holy Spirit) said no, we shouldn't. It's financially unwise. Why couldn't the Holy Spirit say the same thing to everyone? If he is God, and is all-powerful, surely getting everyone to vote the same way in one church should have been a very simple matter.
Let me guess....the people that voted against it (or for it, depending on your point of view)were "misinterpreting" the leading of the Holy Spirit.
About God's will, reading the signs, and/or interpreting events....it seems like this is an ongoing problem and - once you stand away and look at it from a distance - it looks suspiciously like reading tea leaves, or oracles or anything else along those lines.
Some well-known preachers have stated very clearly that the AIDS epidemic, or Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11 were all punishments for sins (whose sins and which ones varied, based on the particular concern of the preacher....usually it was homosexuality and/or abortion). This was God's will. Obviously, that view has been disputed by other well-known preachers.
On a smaller scale what about people on a church search committee? If they prayed for unity, and to know the will of God, how was it that they still couldn't agree? Was someone not sincere in his or her prayer? Is that why it wasn't unanimous? Why couldn't God make it clear right from the start who the choice was, if it was clearly HIS choice?
Then there are the daily prayers of individual christians. People looking for a sign so they know what to do. I know people who turn to God looking for guidance in EVERY choice they make (okay, maybe not ALL, but pretty darn close). Then, of course, they have to interpret the signs. If the phone rings and it's a specific person, is that a sign from God? (or just someone who happened to call, unrelated to any major life decision?) If I read something in a magazine that particularly strikes my interest, is that God trying to tell me something?
Then there are those agonizing decisions and the WAITING for the signs; the "clear direction" that gets prayed for so often. Should I marry him? should I go to this college or that one? I remember how my youth group girls were so anxious about their future and making the "RIGHT" decision....the one that God wanted them to make. If he wanted them to make a particular decision a particular way....why was he so obscure and ambiguous? Was it a test? Did they pass?
There is no doubt that a certain family in my former church are true believers. And yet the long anticipated marriage of the daughter turned into a nightmare of physical and mental abuse in short order. I'm sure they were all convinced at one point that God meant the two of them to be together till death did them part. I'm sure all the signs were there.
OOPS. That turned out to be quite a mistake. (And hers isn't the only Christian marriage that has ended up more like hell than heaven for someone who believed they were following God's will at the time). Was God wrong? Or did everyone - EVERYONE - misread the signs? And why exactly would God put them through all that? So that they would have faith in him? I'll tell you what....if I went through what that young woman went through, originally believing that I was doing exactly what God wanted me to by marrying that guy, I would have the OPPOSITE of faith in God....or at least in all the interpretations of "his will." Because obviously, they - or God - were WRONG.
Then there is the interpretation of a sign itself....if I break my arm, is God trying to teach me something? Punishing me for some sin (committed or omitted)? Is it an obstacle placed in my life that I should overcome, and hence, grow spiritually?
I guess this all falls under the heading of 'discernment', which sounds great, but who the heck knows how to discern? If this family - a pillar of the church - didn't get it right for something as serious as a marriage, then who can be trusted to discern The Truth or God's Will? To me, it just appears that God's Will and 'Signs' are as
susceptible to whims, impulses, and inclinations of the people involved as anything else in life.
Once I opened that door to the doubts I had, the floodgates opened (excuse the mixed metaphors). Again and again I learned that my questions seemed a lot more reasonable than the answers I had heard my entire life. Books by Dan Barker, Valerie Tarico, William Lobdell, and Robert Price have been invaluable to me as I've gradually, slowly, at times painfully, made my way from true believer to trusting doubter.
And I've never been more at peace.
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