4/17/2012 | Share this article:By Matthew ~
When I was young I was very inquisitive. I gravitated towards music, astronomy, and math. I always wanted to know how things worked, and I would spend hours taking apart toy trains, playing with Legos, and wondering how in the world a car worked. I wanted to be a mechanic or an astronaut. The world was ablaze with beauty and structure and I had to know how it all worked.
I was also enthralled with the idea of heaven. My first memories are learning about Jesus coming back to take us back to heaven to live with him forever. I was told I would be able to fly and play with wild animals in heaven. Sometimes I would go outside and watch for Jesus, trying to spot the cloud that was carrying him back to this earth to save us.
As I grew up and began to "understand" the whole process of salvation, I learned that one had to be saved in order to go to heaven. I realize now that I approached salvation with the same curiosity I approached astronomy and mechanics: I had to know how it all worked. I wanted to know at what point I was saved or unsaved, how the holy spirit filled me up, and how to avoid slipping into sin. Pretty deep stuff for a ten year old, really. The whole fascination was about heaven. Heaven would be a glorious place, and I was going to be there.
At some point I decided I needed to "know" that I was saved. I needed a marker of sorts, a true/false test that I could point to in order to know I was getting to heaven. It was my inquisitive side, I think, that longed for evidence, just like a scientist. At this point it became less about heaven, though, and started to be more about hell. I could imagine hell just as vivid as I could imagine heaven, and it wasn't pretty. I don't think I need to elaborate on how awful hell could be. The worst part for me wasn't the flames, it was the idea that I would be separated from my friends and family forever.
I wanted to know at what point I was saved or unsaved, how the holy spirit filled me up, and how to avoid slipping into sin.I eventually did come up with a test. With the help of a charismatic preacher, I decided I could know I was saved if I was happy. Not just happy, but joyful, ecstatic, peaceful, all the time. ALL THE TIME. And the more I grew in Christ, the more happy I would be.
It didn't take long for me to sense some negative emotions. I decided I must have gotten unsaved during the day. I would try to pray them away at night, but the uncertainty would lead to angst, which would lead to fear, and then I'd be unsaved again. It didn't take long for me to spiral into a full panic attack. The first few times my mother heard them and could re-assure me. After that I figured out how to keep them quiet.
For two years, from ages 11 to 13 I suffered panic attacks at night thinking that I wasn't saved. I would roll about, toss and turn, and claw at my chest. At 13 I decided to stop trying and just be unsaved. My high school years didn't have the panic attacks but I learned to be very ashamed of who I was. I also knew that Jesus could return at any moment and leave me to burn.
I tried to get saved in college. Sometimes I would devote an entire weekend to getting saved, spending time in nature to finally figure it out. The panic attacks continued. Eventually I did manage to convince myself that I was saved. I used the same test as a child. I had to be happy. But this time I focused less on being happy and more on avoiding negative emotions, which I interpreted as Satan and demons. By keeping out those bad feelings I was keeping out Satan. It was a real psychological feat, but my twenties were characterized with avoiding and repressing all negative emotions. Sometimes it took a lot of work, like switching careers, moving back home, or avoiding all risks. I moved across the US 3 times, gave up job opportunities and careers, avoiding anything that might make me feel unsettled. And all the while I thought God was leading me and that I was getting closer to him.
Finally at age 28 I stopped believing in God. It was like a bomb went off in my brain. Every repressed emotion came rushing in like a tidal wave, and I didn't know how to take it. I've spent the last two years even as an unbeliever trying to avoid those emotions as well. I just keep trying to get saved. The panic attacks came back with a vengeance. My first therapist suggested I find a church. My second told me atheism was arrogant. I keep looking for mental health care that is appropriate for what I now consider to be abuse, but am still looking. I went for 17 years avoiding and repressing emotions. Learning to live with them is not easy.
Imagine a child growing up without believing in heaven or hell? Imagine not having make sure you're saved all the time? This is the world I am trying to give my son. While I am not a perfect parent, I am hoping to help my son experience the joy, peace, and yes, even the pain and grief of this present world. I want him to have a fully human experience. There is so much richness and beauty (and yes, danger) in the world around us, we don't need to come up with a glorious or tortuous afterlife to inspire or scare us. There's enough joy and pain in this present world.
I guess in a weird way I finally feel like I am saved. Not from hell, but from Christianity. And although I still suffer, and am still struggling to interpret my emotions, I am growing as a human, learning to experience the beauty of everything around me, and I no longer fear a literal hell. If there is one thing I would tell a Christian it would be this: There is no such thing as being "unsaved." You are full and complete in your humanity. Learn from your mistakes and live for today. This life is the best we've got, and you don't need the promise of an afterlife to experience meaning or joy.
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