I grew up in the south. My grandfather was a minister for most of his life. Until my parents split up (when I was 7 years old), my dad taught Sunday School and my family was active in the church. Christianity was in our DNA. Church was inherited. It had been established in our minds and hearts as something we were to be a part of. In my teenage years and my very early 20’s, I had abandoned any belief in the Bible and in Jesus. I had certainly abandoned my belief in the church. However, there was always this nagging tug in my mind that I should be going to church. Even though I didn’t believe in it, I had learned this as an activity from early on in my childhood…and non-participation felt like a betrayal of my identity. We attended church nominally throughout those years and I would sometimes participate with my friends in a few activities…but it felt so foreign…so wrong…so fake…yet so important.
I struggled with this conflict within my heart for so many years. I would spend a week with my grandparents each summer. Their home was always a home away from home. I always dreaded the end of the week, because the discussion would come up about whether Dad was going to come and get me on Saturday or Sunday. It was pretty much up to me, but the problem was that if I stayed until Sunday, I had to go to church with my grandparents. If I left on Saturday, I had to try and make it appear as though I was leaving without trying to get out of going to church. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, but I was just so uncomfortable any time I went to a church service. I had a slight inclination to do so, but everything within me despised it…even though it felt wrong to feel that way. My grandparents were always gracious to me about it. Papaw never forced the issue. I could tell he was somewhat disappointed when I wouldn’t go with him, but his disappointment was directed at missing my presence and not at me.
When I went into the Navy, they asked me what religion I wanted to put on my “dog tags.” For the first time in my life I was at a very strange place. I wanted very much to be independent but I also didn’t want to dishonor my heritage. I finally made the decision. I was an “atheist/agnostic/new age/Buddhist/kinda-baptist/Jedi.” However, I couldn’t articulate any of that, so I simply said, “I don’t know what I believe.” They told me that I could put, “NORELPREF.” This meant, “No Religious Preference.” It was essentially a way of saying that I don’t want to have any of those discussions. It felt so strange yet so liberating to do that and I was in no danger of having to talk to my grandfather or any other family members about it because I was out on my own in another part of the country.
That Christmas, while I was home on leave, my mother gave me a gift. It was probably the most awkwardly received thing I’d ever gotten. It was a Bible. It had my name engraved on the front. It was a version that was much easier to read than any I had seen. I’ve always tried to receive gifts with great thankfulness. No matter what someone gives me, it’s just really nice to be given something. I’ll never forget opening that gift. My mother was kind of excited and nervous at the same time. I don’t remember exactly how I responded initially, but I do remember having to come out of the shock I was in to say, “Thank you!” I put that book in my luggage, went back to the base, unpacked it, and put it in the very back of my closet. I don’t think I opened it for a very long time.
As time went on, I began to ask myself something. Why did I have such a hard time with this subject? Why was this so uncomfortable to me? I began to define the word, “Christian,” as I understood it. To me, it referred to someone that adhered to a certain moral and/or political code and was heavily involved in church activities. Christians were “good people,” who never cursed, drank, had sex, or lost their tempers. They smiled all the time and called each other, “Brother/Sister.” They wore neat clothing and listened to Gospel music all the time. They were a bit prudish, but not necessarily snooty. Essentially, Christians were on good behavior and when they messed up, it was always something like they said a bad word when they hit their thumb with a hammer…but quickly repented of it.
I am not saying any of this “tongue in cheek,” or in a derogatory fashion. I really looked up to Christians. I wanted so much to be one. I wanted to have the peace inside that they seemed to have. I wanted to have deep assurance that all would turn out well. I wanted to be rid of all worry and doubt (this was my perception of them, not reality).
Fast forward many years and I find myself having made a decision to become a Christian and raise my children that way. I find myself teaching others about Christianity and leading a Christian church for more than a decade. All the while…I still struggled. My struggles weren’t about believing in Jesus. They were about “being” a Christian. In the back of my mind…I still have ingrained this ideology that Christians must keep certain rules and live certain lives and support certain things. In the back of my mind, a Christian is someone who lives a certain way.
I’ve found that I CANNOT live that way. I CANNOT “be” a Christian. I am an utter failure in this particular journey. Every time I try I mess it up and play the part of the total hypocrite. I then become totally disenfranchised with it all when I can’t live the life I see others live. “Christian” means “Christ-like,” or “little Christ,” or a “follower of Christ.” My problem with this definition is that I can’t do any of it. Inside of my mind/heart/soul, I don’t even want to. I find myself wanting the darkness so often. I find that I have a desire to have a desire to follow Him, but that I have a very strong surface desire to rebel against it all.
I was at last comforted one day while reading my Bible. The Apostle Paul had the same struggles (Romans 6-8, specifically 7). He couldn’t do it at all either. He couldn’t “be” Christian… instead He learned what this journey was all about. He wrote that it was not he who lived his life but Christ living through Him. Recently, the liberty of this reality has strongly impressed me. I can rest. I can stop trying. Perhaps that’s what all my friends had already learned. Perhaps they had come to learn to rest in the identity of Christ and to stop trying so hard to be good enough for the One that has made us good enough in His Son.
I cannot be a Christian. I can and will allow Him to be whatever He wants in and through me.
Image taken from: http://outlookmag.org/the-teachers-notes-resting-in-christ-lesson-6/