Christianity / doubt / family / identity / morality

coming out of the christian closet

My brother Eli is eighteen, and he doesn’t believe in God anymore. Or right now. I was still at the boarding school when it came out, and he texted me as he broke the news. “They’re threatening to cut off my lunch money. And I still have to go to church.” Later: “Dad’s in hardcore denial and Mom swore.” “Please call them.” “They’re quoting Pastor Chuck against me.”

During my own periods of Jesus-wariness, Mom was also taken by unease. Christianity is an intrinsic part of her life. She begins her morning with Bible-reading. She lives according to a lot of the typical Christian standards.* In high school, I was encouraged to be friends with people who weren’t Christians (you can be a light! witness to them!**), but I could not date until I was 16, and if and only if that boy was a Christian. They kept this rule for Holly. They have since permitted Eli to date three different atheist girls (they’ve grown more lax since he’s the third kid and also has a penis). Mom believes that a life with Christianity is the best, truest, safest, most beautiful way to live. So when one of us kids strays away from this, when we doubt its relevance, when we are overly critical and skeptical, of course she loses her cookies. She feels like she’s failed as a mother, like a mother’s job is to lead her kids to Jesus, and if they like Allah (or – let’s be real here – hedonism) instead, she gets her mom-card revoked. The “supermom” badge my friend Pat claimed she wore in high school would be ripped from her little chest.

PAUSE: If you aren’t a part of the Christian community and are having a difficult time tracking with this phenomenon, try to liken it to this: You are an earth-loving pacifist who composts and always takes public transportation (when biking is totally out of the question, that is), and you choose what you want in the fridge before you open it so you can snatch it out and conserve as much energy as possible. These are the ideas you try to instill in your kids, that the earth is wonderful and good, and since it provides for us, we must take care of it. It’s alive just as we are alive. And your kids grow older, and you rest peacefully at night knowing they’ve joined clubs that pick up litter once a month, and they only buy their clothes from resale stores, and one day you hear one of them chewing out a classmate for drinking bottled water. You’ve done successful parenting, hurrah! But one day, your kid comes home driving a hummer. She says, “Mom, screw the earth. From now on, I’m wearing deodorant with anti-perspirant in it, and I’m going to run my A/C whenever the hell I want, and oh, is this a can of hairspray? Gas emissions? Ozone deterioration? Sorrynotsorry!” You look at your child, and your world is thrown to pieces. This is what it’s like for my mom when we threaten to leave Christianity. This, times maybe a hundred.

So my parents have been flipping out a little bit. They’re giving Eli books to read and forcing him to still attend church (all things, I should note, I find no problem with; after all, he’s still under their roof and eating their food). And while I’m not flipping out, I do concede that not having Christianity as an active part of Eli’s life will no doubt change him in ways my parents (and perhaps I, too) do not prefer. Without Jesus, he must create his own moral framework, and who knows what that will entail? Certainly nothing short of cocaine and unprotected sex!

I’ve been thinking about Eli lately. And his not being a Christian. And I think of my own faith. And even though I consume the body and blood when they’re offered, I do so with the awareness that most people would be like, “Uh, Rach, blaspheme much?” Because I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, and I don’t pray or read my Bible, and I don’t really think Jesus is the “only way.”**** By typical evangelical Christianity standards, I am not a Christian.

But how does mainstream evangelical Christianity really know, ultimately, what it means to be a Christian?

Two summers ago, I went backpacking in Europe with a program called Youth Hostel Ministry, or YHM. Wheaton sends 20-30 students each year, to work at hostels, meet travelers, and talk about God. It’s a mission trip. Kind of.***** I had done the program after my sophomore year of college, when I was stationed in Amsterdam, but this most recent time, my friend Meg and I led the trip. And I was okay for most of the summer. I did my praying, I did my Bible-reading, I even joined Meg in a fast or two. But an existential crisis was bound to happen. After all, I am Rachel Mac. Existential crises are my favorite. And that one was sparked in Gryon, Switzerland, with some Mormons who knew how to defend their faith better than I knew how to defend mine (and were ridiculously happy and kind to boot).****** But the crisis really exploded when we got to Taize, this ecumenical monastic order in rural France, where people from all over the world camp out to attend their three daily chanting services. My friend Jeff had been to Taize the summer before, and the reverent way he spoke about it made me think it might revitalize my faith. It would be like a couples retreat, but with God. However. My experience was not like Jeff’s. I did not love Taize. The services were very long, and you had to sit on the ground (which kills your posture!), and most of the chants were not in English. How was I supposed to feel the presence of God if I was continuously glancing between the German lyrics and the translation at the bottom of the page? Additionally, Taize was not the most luxurious of campgrounds. At mealtimes, people stood in huge, pushing, sweaty masses. Never lines. For breakfast, you were given a roll and a cup of tea. You had to have a ticket stamped so that you would not sneak and get seconds. I told Meg, “It is terrible of me to liken this to the Holocaust. But there must be some similarities.” The worst part of Taize, though, was that I was frustrated, feeling far from God, and given time to over-think.

It was in Taize where I finally got to the edge of honesty. I am always honest, but unless I’m thinking and processing, the honesty isn’t as full or true as it could be. And in Taize, I realized I didn’t know what it meant to be a Christian. And I realized I only called myself a Christian because it was convenient and easy and I didn’t know how to live any other way.

Of course I freaked out. Not because I felt as if God were judging me. Or because I worried about my salvation. I felt as if I was disappointing my greater Christian community. I was not a person that they would call a Christian. And for months afterwards, I lived in panic about it. Am I a Christian? Am I a Christian? Am I a Christian?

But eventually I stopped caring. Because what I’ve come to hold is that maybe the label doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did.

Calling oneself a Christian is not as great as being like Christ. If Eli goes to church every week and identifies himself as a Christian and marries a Christian woman, and they’re involved at church, and they send their kids to Christian schools…none of that would make me proud of him. I will be proud of Eli if he becomes a good man. If he is generous with his time and his money. If he cares for and values people, especially the people who society tells us are worthless. If he thinks deeply, desires refinement, chooses others over himself. I don’t really care if Eli has sex before he’s married so long as he truly cares about the girls he’s sleeping with. As long as they are whole people to him, and not just bodies. “All girls are complex, emotional creatures!” I say to him. “Never ask for or expect a blow job!”

I call myself a Christian, but I don’t put much stock in that, and I don’t want that label to give me identity. I want to be judged for what I do rather than the associations people have with the word “Christian.” Some people in my life have been incredibly Christ-like without calling themselves Christians. Kayla from high school. Friends I made at the boarding school. People at Wheaton who lost, or abandoned, or grew away from the faith. So maybe Jesus is the only way, but only insomuch as what he represents is the only way. When one is patient and compassionate and giving, is she not a Christian in that moment, whether or not she believes in Christ as her savior?

My mother would probably say no. But I am still a rebellious child, and I will say yes.

_____________________

*Ours is a no-profanity, no-rated-R-movies household, where Fireproof is considered a quality film, evolution is the devil’s propaganda, and why did anyone think it was a good idea to vote for Obama? Like most people, I do not agree with everything my parents hold to, but I try to understand and be respectful (and, when I can’t hold it in, argue with diplomacy). I love my parents, but I have grown into a person who is not them. Eli has too, which is the whole cause of the uproar.
**My mother never actually said this, PTL.***
***She does say PTL, though.
****The other day I visited my friend Sam’s church. It was big. It was hip. It’s called “realityLA,” for goodness’ sake. So I thought it was hilarious when they said you could text your prayer requests to a certain number during the service, but I also wasn’t too surprised. And that wasn’t what turned me off to the church, not really. It was the pastor who kept repeating that Jesus is “the only way.” When I talked to Sam about the service later, I told him I was a little wary. “It was pretty conservative,” I said. “With the whole Jesus-as-the-only-way-to-heaven bit.” Sam gave me a look of dismay. “You know that’s basic Christian doctrine, right?”
*****We were trained in evangelism. Even though you were advised not to follow a script, you still followed a script. It was still you being the possessor of truth, you bringing the truth to the lost, offering it up, making it presentable. I remember meeting people who exhibited rather loose theology, and in the back of my mind I wondered, “Okay, so are they really a Christian, or what?” I was actually just wondering if they were MY kind of Christian, if their lifestyle fit into the Christian subculture. Which was the right way to be saved.
******I wrote about this here: http://racheltellsitlikeitis.com/2011/08/08/it-is-the-doubt-that-never-ends/

11 thoughts on “coming out of the christian closet

  1. So if you don’t believe Jesus is the only way, what do you believe? I’m with Sam, that it’s kind of the most basic tenet of Christian faith. I don’t really know what that means, though. I find myself frustrated that the expectation seems to be that everyone’s relationship with Jesus will look the same. I am terrible at reading my Bible. I have still never read all of it at least once. I don’t pray regularly, and I don’t dedicate space. Every time I participate in a church fast I end up cheating at least once. And I fluctuate between feeling bad that I yell at God and being glad that I’m allowed to. It’s so complicated. And I struggle with the idea that God is good, because if He isn’t good by my definition, then what’s the point of saying He’s good? I never witness, because I look at my own mess of a life and figure who am I to say that this is the way you should live? But Christianity gives me more hope than I’ve found anywhere else. I’ve found people who care about me, and were it not for their faith they wouldn’t be who they are. I don’t know what I believe about Hell. I know that since we’re not the ones who judge people’s hearts we can’t know who goes there. Sometimes I just step back and wonder why we spend so much time fighting about the little pieces when the big important things aren’t being talked about. And we don’t make enough room to doubt and question. We both grew up where you don’t question what you’re taught. Now I have nothing but questions. I’m learning to be OK not having all the answers. Wow. This comment is out of control.

  2. I’m not sure I understand what your goals are, in general. You don’t buy the idea that Jesus is the only way, but you don’t really say the way to what. Heaven, maybe, but you also talk more about “being like Christ,” and have a list of qualities you’d like your brother to have. Those are fine things, but they’re not really the point of Christianity.
    If your goal is to be a good person and treat other people with respect and generosity, then no, Jesus is certainly not the only way. There’s a pretty high success rate for that without him if you really want to do it. But that’s really only a marginal part of the gospel. The point of Christianity is that I was dead in my sin and hopeless to do anything about it, and God decided that I was worth reconciling a relationship with, so he made a way for me to come back to him by giving up his own life and taking my punishment.
    The same as Brenda, I feel like I do a terrible job of living a Christian life and so I don’t want to witness to people because my life isn’t a shining example, but again, that’s not the point. God doesn’t ask for performance or for us to follow all the rules perfectly. He just wants to be with us, and when we do that the natural result is supposed to be the Christ-like things that you mentioned. But those aren’t the real goal.

  3. So you thank your brother for abandoning his faith? The Truth. I agree that some Christians don’t teach properly, but leaving the Truth behind leaves one with nothing. What is the point of anything anymore? Everyone is going to live forever somewhere, and I pray to God you don’t let that be hell. I truly wish the indoctrination of public schooling would also wear off, as the atheism came straight from there.

  4. Ask yourself, have you ever done something wrong? Do you believe that certain actions are wrong? Do you believe a moral standard exists and that no one can possibly keep it? Look man, God gives us rules to follow not because he wants to “ruin the fun” or anything. He gives us rules because he wants the very best for us. Premarital sex RUINS future marriages and relationships. Evolution is an unproven theory, with no evidence to back it up. R-rated movies influence your beliefs and behaviors negatively. God has and never will give up on you, Eli. Don’t give up on him. Pray that God will soften your heart and convince you of his goodness. Without him, there is no hope. I’ll be praying for you. I care about you and I don’t want you to live a meaningless life. No one is perfect. Without Christ, our good works are nothing,

  5. I see where you’re coming from, but I disagree with you on several points.

    You conclude that being a Christian by name doesn’t matter as long as you are a “good person” and live with some sort of moral standards. But I disagree. I think that being a “good person” and doing “nice things” and actually, any kind of moral behavior (!), is utterly empty and meaningless unless you are a Christian. And what I mean by a Christian is someone who knows that they are saved by the righteousness of Jesus Christ on their behalf. If you don’t believe that you are saved by faith in Jesus Christ (that He lived a perfect life and died on your behalf so that God not only accepts/puts up with you but sees you AS IF you had done what Jesus did…meaning he looks on you as a father would look on his son that he is very, very proud of)…then you are not really believing the true gospel. If anything other than faith in Jesus Christ is “your one way”, you don’t believe in the Christian gospel (though, I think this is rarely presented well/fully in American churches).

    This is the heart of Christianity.

    If you DO believe this, then you’ll find (as I have found!), that this gospel truly does bring abundant hope and joy.

    If you DON’T believe this, then I can’t imagine why you would ever want to be a good person. What is the point? It is utterly empty.

  6. I am grateful for the comments this post has produced. Thank you, those who shared.

    I shall try to compose an adequate response.

    The gospel is that we are dead to sin but alive in Christ, true. That we are sinners saved by grace. That we are ugly and damned but at the same time clean and beautiful and saved because of Jesus. And that’s great. And I think holding that paradox can be incredibly helpful when grappling with life. It’s been good for me, as a person, to recall the truth of each statement at different times. When I am prideful or selfish, or when I think I’m doing just fine on my own, it is necessary to remember that I am a sinner, that I fail. And when I feel like I’m the worst, that everything I do is shitty, it is good to remember that I am loved and valued by God, that I am clean in his presence.

    And on a purely rational level, I can understand saying “Jesus is the only way.” I can understand the logic that one needs to have a relationship with Jesus in order to live a hopeful or “fruitful” life. But I don’t feel that. I don’t feel as if every person needs the gospel to give them peace or to give them reason to do good.

    And Josh, if a relationship with Jesus is really the goal, then I can’t get behind that, either. Because don’t you remember my “jesus can’t be your boyfriend” post?

    I am certainly not opposed to adopting a more traditional understanding of Christianity. I would love to have a “relationship with Jesus.” And if I could find emotional and intellectual resolution with a more “theologically sound” take on Christianity, I’d probably be grateful. Because as of now, I understand that I am very much in the in-between, and it’s frustrating.

    But I’m just telling you like it is.

  7. And I have always appreciated you telling it like it is. :-)

    Christianity is going to be useless if your goal is to have peace and reasons to do good. The cost is too high if that’s all you’re looking for. But I think the thing is that this life just isn’t that important, and whatever you achieve for peace and goodness isn’t going to last after you die. Planning for what happens after is more important.

    Saying that you don’t put stock in calling yourself a Christian is like having a fridge but not putting any food in it. there’s no point and you’re just lying to yourself by telling yourself that it’s working the way it should.

    I’m sorry that you’re frustrated trying to reconcile all these ideas. I hope you find some answers. Also, I miss you. Visit sometime, huh?

  8. I think it may have been this very Rachel who said “christians don’t have the monopoly on truth.”
    But they think they do.

    I think, back before Jesus was a thing or even a person God honored the good deeds of men and women because these deeds sprung from the intentions of the heart. Deeds are very important as they denote what we believe in.

    So what if a person doesn’t believe the gospel but they believe in treating humanity as Jesus would? Where is this person’s heart coming or going towards?

    Is Jesus the only way? I’ve never come across this question. I read the bible and He said He is.
    Is this what the question means?

    Because it could be that a Muslim who believes that Allah is the Almighty is in the same plane as a christian who thinks Yahweh is the Almighty. We’re calling the same thing different names.

    And then what about other basic tenets as how Jesus IS theeee son of God but Muslims think The Prophet is a brother of the deity yadayadayada….would salvation be lost because of this? if this was a mistake. What if we are the ones mistaken? what if our Christian tenets are the ones that are a liiiittle off?

    What if God doesn’t care?

    What if when Christ died it was once and for all and the curtain DID really tear? aren’t we sewing the curtain back up when we make all this silly requirements that salvation has to come out this specific tube to count?

    What if when Jesus died he did to reconcile the world to him and he what if God was so super smart to know that some people would never know English so it’d be a waste if they died before we sent missionaries to them to get saved….so English or no English, bible or no bible those men and women who seek the Almighty in their hearts will be saved even though they seem the Almighty in a tree, a rock, the river, etc?

    Do you see where I am going?

    I am pretty skeptical that “Jesus is the way” in the way we want him to be. Otherwise, all that immense sacrifice would be pretty short. It’d be like those awesome coupons that have all kinds of ridiculous limitations and then you find out you can’t really use unless it’s wednesday and the wind is blowing west but an elephant is crashing a party at Obama’s.

    Why would Christ die for that?

    So maybe yeah, good deeds that spring from a clean heart do count after all because they are the expression of a real change, a real heart. And didn’t the Jesus himself say that if you give a person a cup of water you do it unto him? And didn’t he say that there are other sheep that are not of this flock? and didn’t he say that if we seek God he’ll find us? but didn’t he leave blank the way to find God?

    When anyone decides to follow God’s tenets even though they may be against the way Christianity has been demonstrated it’s probably because they’ve had a spiritual encounter and they are, indeed, like Christ. They have decided to let God’s heart reign in their lives. And isn’t that to accept Christ as your Lord in your life?

    If so, why are we fighting?

    It’s so stupid.

  9. Hey Rachel,
    I’ve really appreciated your honesty throughout the last couple of years that I’ve known you. You’re wrestling, you’re uncertain of what you’ve been taught, you’re frustrated…it’s a crazy difficult place to be, I imagine. Your friend Josh has already expressed a lot of the points I was thinking as I read through your original post, and I just wanted to add a couple here:

    1. It’s OK to have questions, doubts, and to be uncertain. Sometimes as believers we think we have to be 100% certain on everything, and we feel that unless we project that image we’re not really believers. I’ve come to realize that there’s amazing and beautiful mystery in the Bible, and it’s OK if we don’t have ALL the answers or feel 100% certain on things all the time. But – I do believe that the BIble is God’s Word and that it contains what we need to love Him, love people, follow Jesus, and thrive in this life (not just survive). Don’t know if you’ve heard this story, but Billy Graham was facing enormous pressure and questions from his once-partner in ministry. Here’s a quote from the Desiring God blog about it:

    ” In August, 1949, his faith in the Bible was put to the test. It came to a climax at a student conference in the San Bernardino mountains of California. Charles Templeton had asked questions about the Bible’s truthfulness that Billy could not answer.

    Billy went out in the forest and wandered up the mountain, praying as he walked, “Lord, what shall I do? What shall be the direction of my life?”

    He had reached what he believed to be a crisis.

    He saw that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You must go beyond intellect. He thought of the faith used constantly in daily life: he did not know how a train or plane or car worked, but he rode them…. Was it only in things of the spirit that such faith was wrong?

    “So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put the Bible on the stump, and I knelt down, and I said, ‘Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.’” (Pollock, 53)”

    I heard this story about Graham years ago, and since then when I’ve had doubts/ questions/ minor crises I’ve come back to, “Lord, I accept this book by faith as the Word of God and will follow what it says.” So…these days, when I read about some of the things you’re facing I thought of Billy :)

    2. I really do believe Jesus is the only one powerful enough to save us from evil, ourselves, and eternal judgment. We could say that all religions lead to Him, but I don’t believe that’s the message God gives us in the Bible. You already know most of these points – even if you’re struggling with believing them right now – so I won’t repeat them all here, just to say that I believe Jesus is real, His call to follow Him is real, and that if we follow Him He bears long-lasting fruit in our lives.

    And a word about pre-marital sex – take it from an old married fuddy-duddy, but I’ve definitely seen how premarital sex causes all sorts of problems for the unmarried people themselves as well as for their subsequent marriages. Nate and I are blessed that we were virgins when we got married. We’ve still had to grow and learn how to be good sexual partners to each other, and it only has gotten better with time. However, we have PLENTY of friends who weren’t virgins when they got married, and they’ve shared with us how painful emotionally it’s been to now be married and have all that baggage to carry around. For example, one of my friends cried the night of her wedding 1) because she couldn’t believe how awesome sex was and 2) because it hurt her so badly to think that her husband had already had this amazing experience with so many other women in his wild-child days. I think we deceive ourselves when we think that sex outside of marriage can be a good thing – I’ve only ever seen bad come out of it. I could go on and on about this – if you want to discuss it more we can. But if I could give all single people out there one piece of advice, it really would be that they save themselves for marriage. It is sooo worth it, even though it may take years of practice and growing before it’s *everything* you hoped it would be (our sex has always been good, but it’s even better now, if I can be that candid). Sorry if this is preachy – I hope you can just chalk it up to wisdom from my 12+ more years of life :).

    Finally (because this is certainly long enough), Rach, you wrote above: “And if I could find emotional and intellectual resolution with a more “theologically sound” take on Christianity, I’d probably be grateful.” Have you read “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller? I’m reading that now and it’s been really good. He uses logic and reason (instead of just prooftexting and/or emotional arguments) to address some of the harder questions people have about Christianity. It may be really helpful for you during this time.

    We love you, girl! May the Lord breathe fresh, new life into your heart as you wrestle through all this stuff. And most importantly, may He give you JOY as you re-discover things about Him you love.

  10. Not to keep piling on here, but…

    I wanted to also respond to some of the things that Karelys said before, because I think it’s worth discussing, and goes hand in hand with a lot of the things that Faith said as well.

    Again, the same as I said to Rach, the premise and the goal of life and of Christianity is really important, and if we’re aiming for different things then of course we’re going to take different routes. If the goal were, like you said, “treating humanity as Jesus would,” then I think you’d totally be right and there would be a lot more leniency. However, to reiterate, that’s not the goal at all. The goal is to restore communion with God that was broken by our sin.

    Along with that, you say that in the past God honored deeds and that they’re very important. I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but I can’t agree with it based on anything in the Bible. Hebrews talks repeatedly about the things that people did, and they’re all preceded with, “By faith…” Romans 4 says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” not that he did the things God said and it was credited to him.

    God wants your good attitude and he wants your intentions to be right and he wants you to seek him, but Jesus didn’t leave the way to God blank at all. He was pretty specific in saying “NO ONE comes to the Father except through me” (emphasis is mine, not his).

    The problem mankind has isn’t that God needs to be sure we’re trying hard, it’s that we’re filled with sin, and God’s holiness doesn’t allow us to be with him when we have sin. He can’t have anything imperfect around him. But that’s the gospel: instead of cutting us loose and moving on with his life, he came up with a plan to fix it at an incredible cost to himself. For us to say, “that’s nice, but I’m going to try this other thing instead” is insulting and foolish.

    You’re right, Karelys – God’s way for us to get salvation is very specific, and there’s not any leeway. The gate is narrow, just like he says. But I don’t have to understand that, because I”m a man and God is GOD. If he has power to make the universe out of nothing and still have time to know how many hairs are on my head, and he says that something has specific rules, I’m not going to presume to know better than him.

    This all ties in with what Faith Walter said up there, I think. I certainly don’t want to put words in her mouth, but all of these things are spelled out in the Bible and I’m not trying to claim that I understand them completely, only that I believe them because I believe the Bible. If I can’t believe the whole Bible, there’s no point in believing any of it. Once I start picking parts I like and parts I don’t like, then I’m just making up my own religion and why would I think I could do that?

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