Confessions of a closet romantic

I hate romantic comedies. Like, really can’t stand them. “Blasphemy!” many of you will say. Cool. Awesome. I really don’t care. Go somewhere else if you want.

This subject kind of came up in a conversation last night, and I started thinking about why I hate them so much. There are a few reasons I don’t like romantic comedies. First off, every single one is just a variation of the same storyline. It’s always about Ryan Reynolds and anywhere between 1-3 women figuring out they’re in love. Generalization? Maybe. Fairly accurate? Yeah, I’d say so. (Seriously, Ryan Reynolds has been in a LOT of rom-coms.) But every romantic comedy has the same storyline, which I absolutely can’t stand. I like original stories. Plus all of the “comedy” in rom-coms is generally just taking advantage of obscenely awkward situations. I can’t sit through an episode of the Office without reverting to the fetal position due to the awkwardness. I don’t like it. Can’t do it. Uh-uh.

So that’s the first reason. Here’s the second reason I don’t like romantic comedies: The way things work out in those movies is absolute crap. I hate movies that are set in the “real world,” where everything works out absolutely perfect and after the guy’s car breaks down, his bicycle spontaneously combusts, and he accidentally starts World War 3, he still manages to get to the airport just before the woman he’s realized he loves gets on the plane to go pursue her dream of becoming a doctor in a third-world country. Then he says three magic words: “I love you.” Which, following the train of logic to its obvious conclusion, leads to the two of them getting married, having kids, and living happily ever after without ever having a single fight ever for the rest of their lives.

I get it, it’s for the sake of romance, and all of this guy’s efforts are to prove to the audience watching how much he cares. But here’s an interesting thought: What if the romance in these rom-coms — and romance movies, for that matter — is actually complete BS to begin with?

As I’ve kind of mentioned before, I am the physical incarnation of Charlie Brown. Like Charlie Brown became flesh and it’s me. I’m quite cynical, I’ll be perfectly honest. I’m very blunt and to the point, and my BS tolerance sits at a hot zero. Needless to say, I don’t get invited to parties much; I’m just wayyyy too much fun. But I feel like romance, as we seem to picture it today, is absolute garbage. It’s like social media: You see all of the best parts of it, with none of the bad. Everything you witness is absolutely perfect, even though shortly after the wedding at the end of the movie the newlyweds have a fight about who’s going to cut the roast chicken for dinner and never realized how difficult having to do life with another person like this was going to be. The relationships I have with my friends are more difficult than the relationships in romantic comedies. And I don’t have any sort of romantic pursuits with any of these people, which is where things start getting super difficult as you try to figure out how you operate together.

Romance has become this grand, incredibly emotional thing that only happens in movies. Young people say “I want a guy/girl like x,” and throw #relationshipgoals on couples that don’t exist in reality. These couples are more often than not just shells of human beings, with all of the good parts and none of the real ones.

Now, oddly enough, here’s where I have a confession to make: Deep down, I’m honestly a total romantic. I’m a complete sap, quite frankly. But I’m so opposed to what everyone considers romantic nowadays that it seems like I’m absolutely opposed to it completely. That’s really not the case at all. But the most romantic things that I’ve seen haven’t been in movies. In fact, they haven’t even been from newlyweds or people who are just dating.

More often than not, the most romantic things that I’ve ever seen are from people who are already married. And have been for a long time. For me, romance is the soldier overseas who surprises his wife on a trip home. Romance is the creative ways that a woman tells her husband she’s pregnant. Romance is the old couple holding hands sitting across from each other in the corner of a diner. Romance is the cup of coffee that a woman wakes up early to make for her husband every morning before he goes to work so he has one less thing to do in the morning. Romance is the husband who takes his kids out for breakfast early in the morning on a weekend so his wife can sleep in. And, from time to time, it’s the unique proposal after a dating relationship that’s been tried and true.

Am I some sort of expert on romance? Absolutely not, there’s tons of evidence to go against that. I’m clearly not one of the trolls from Frozen. I’ve never even been in a relationship before, what do I know?

Here’s what I know: Every now and then stories like this show up in my newsfeed on Facebook. Stories about real people. And I read or watch every. Single. One. These are the kinds of stories that nourish my soul, that give me hope for humanity and make me realize the lengths people are willing to go to for this crazy thing called love. These are small testimonies of people who have gone through the ringer — together — and are still willing to go the extra mile to prove to their partner that they care about them. When I see these, I smile, shed a man-tear or two, and then I go about my day a little better, a little more hopeful. Just because I’ve seen a glimpse of real, authentic love between two people.

So back to the whole #relationshipgoals thing that I mentioned earlier. Every now and then, very rarely, I feel like there are couples in fiction that really capture authentic human interaction and romance. Honestly, I have my own little Hollywood couple that I look up to as well, but I’m assuming that people wouldn’t even consider them in most cases. My #relationshipgoals couple is Rob and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show.

dick_van_dyke_petrie_family_1963

If you haven’t watched the Dick Van Dyke Show (you should), Rob and Laura Petrie, along with their son Ritchie, have a lot of interesting experiences. The show follows them through all seasons of life, some good days, some bad days. More bad days than good days, honestly. But Rob and Laura, in spite of everything, always make sure that they resolve whatever conflict they’re facing. There are multiple episodes where they fight with each other, but they always work together to make sure they’re on the same page again. There aren’t many fictional Hollywood couples that do that (or “real” Hollywood couples for that matter). They do all of this because they love each other. They couldn’t imagine life without the other after all these years. That kind of love, the kind that refuses to fall asleep without making sure that they’re okay first, is what I consider romantic.

So yeah, I hate romantic comedies. Why? Because I want to see real, genuine human interaction. I want to see the reality of what happens when two people are in love, not the social media-ready counterfeit. I want to see what happens when two people get kicked in the gut by life and decide to walk it out together. If there’s a rom-com out there that captures that sort of essence of humanity and the reality of human relationships, feel free to let me know. But it’ll probably still be horrifically awkward, so I probably still won’t watch it, just being real.

The Gray Area: A plea for a higher level of discourse

The world we live in — and especially the US — has become very polarized. I believe that this polarization has existed for a long time, but I feel that in the past couple decades the polarization has increased due to the development of an hypersensitivity, where everyone becomes easily offended by anything that they don’t agree with. This disagreement with a group or individual results in an inability to co-exist, where each side sticks solely to their views and refuses to sway from their own opinions, and, because of this dedication, refuses to come to any sort of mutual consensus to agree to disagree with opposing voices. I feel that this upcoming election is the perfect of example of this problem. There are two hyper-polarized ends of the spectrum, with very little in between, and people are taking sides, sometimes simply to make sure the person they don’t agree with doesn’t end up being elected.

But this election has also created a very interesting phenomenon. A growing number of people don’t buy into either end of the spectrum, realizing that both sides have distinct problems. A growing number of people are realizing that not everything is black and white, that there isn’t simply a right or wrong answer to everything.

In other words, there’s a growing number of people who believe that there is a gray area on many issues.

And I feel this group of people is growing.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, about a year ago I left a spiritually abusive church environment. This church approached everything — every issue — as black and white. When I left this church, I ended up swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that they believed, as some sort of revolt or rebellion against them. This only lasted a short while before I realized that the end of the spectrum opposite theirs also had its fundamental flaws. So then I was caught in an interesting dilemma: Which was correct? The conservative, white evangelicalism that I was basically raised with and had become further indoctrinated with through spiritual abuse? Or the more progressive Christianity that is opposed to “organized religion”?

Before long, I realized that my conscience wouldn’t let me commit fully to either camp. Each end had its merits, but they also had certain things that I didn’t agree with; things that Jesus isn’t about. Things that exclude people from the kingdom of heaven and completely demonize certain people or behaviors.

It was then that I realized there had to be an in between. Or, in other words, a gray area.

Now, there are some things that I believe are black and white. I’m a Christian, and I believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There are certain fundamental, foundational biblical principles that I do not and will not sway on. True conviction on select issues is life-giving. When you have something at the end of the day that you can plant your feet on know that nothing will move it, it makes it easier to sleep at night. There’s a reason Jesus is called the “cornerstone of our faith.”

There are some other not necessarily biblical issues that are black and white for me, as well. Art is important. Racism is wrong. Life is valuable. And everything is better with bacon.

But there are some issues that I’ve lived in the gray area on for a long time. For example, creation. I believe that God created the universe. But within that reality, there are a lot of variables. There are people who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, that God creating the universe and everything in it in seven literal days. There’s also a growing number of people who are in essence “Christian evolutionists,” who believe that God used evolution as a means to create life and — ultimately — man. People are very polarized and divided on this issue. Denominations of Christianity have divided because of the debate of creation, families have been torn apart by it.

Here’s my stance: I don’t really care.

At the end of the day, whether the earth was made in seven days or over the course of billions of years does not change the fact that I believe God made it. And it also doesn’t change the fact that, before the beginning of time, God planned a great work in advance to send his own Son to live a perfect life as a human being and be executed by his own people so that we could be reconciled with him. So I don’t really care about the details of how the earth was made. It could be billions of years old, it could be thousands of years old. Besides, I won’t know for sure how it all happened until I get to ask God face-to-face, anyway. So why bother worrying so much about it now? (I have an interesting quirk in that I don’t really need an answer for everything. There are a lot of things that I’m willing to take at face value. It has its negative aspects, but it also has its benefits. Some people need an answer for everything, and will pursue an answer until the find one. I don’t need an answer for everything. So I end up being content a lot sooner. But then I don’t always have proof or evidence for what I’ve come to accept, which is where the occasional negative part comes into play. But I digress.)

I know that not everyone will settle with remaining in the gray area on most issues. In fact, I’m sure most people will still believe that things are pretty black and white. They will continue to have strong opinions and beliefs and they will continue to hold to them. And let me make this clear: That’s not a bad thing. Again, having strong opinions on things can be a good thing. When having strong opinions becomes dangerous is when people refuse to engage in conflict with opposing voices. The hypersensitivity that has developed in recent years, along with the development of social media, has caused people to simply react to things. When something or someone offends an individual, that individual will often just go off on whatever or whoever offended them. This causes a huge problem, because it results in hyper polarization, as all parties involved disengage from the other, and start throwing insults and slander around about the other group. Groups demonize any and all opposing groups, and opposing groups respond in turn. So everyone ends up just being angry and no one listens to anything any more.

I’m not asking for people to let go of their convictions and beliefs. What I’m asking for is conversation. There is something to be said for listening to both sides of the story. Rather than sticking to your guns and shooting down every word of an opposing argument, there’s a lot of merit to approaching the situation at hand with empathy, and trying to look at it from the other person’s perspective. At the very least, you will be able to gain an insight into how this person is approaching the argument, rather than just sticking to your own argument and refusing to allow anyone else to have an opinion or a voice.

I’m not asking people to give up their convictions. This is a plea for a higher level of discourse.

Everything has become a shouting match rather than an actual debate. Discussion will at least enable people to approach opposition with empathy rather than anger. And, once the dust has settled, it’s entirely possible an agreement hasn’t been reached. And that’s okay. Part of being human is realizing people are different than you and that they won’t always agree with you. That doesn’t mean you can’t associate with that person. In fact, I’d highly recommend having friends with opinions different from your own. If you only interact with people who agree with you on everything, you won’t grow as a person. Conflict fosters growth.

As Mike McHargue has said, human beings are a social species, and refusing to interact with people simply based on different beliefs is not the way we should approach life. It’s only through discussion and engaging in conflict that we’ll be able to grow and progress.

I believe that letting go of issues as being purely black and white can be very beneficial. Nowadays, I sit in the gray area on most controversial issues. I do my best to listen to both sides of most arguments so that I can come to an informed decision. But oftentimes I can’t side completely with either side. Because oftentimes each side has important points that, contrary to popular belief, don’t conflict with each other, but can actually exist together. And each side also generally has points that don’t make sense. Or are just ridiculous. And so I choose to sit in the gray area. And if I disagree with people on these issues, that’s absolutely fine. I’ll still love them anyway.
We need to stop causing division and just accept the fact that people won’t always agree with us. It’s not our responsibility to change their minds. And it isn’t their responsibility to change ours. If anything, it’s our responsibility to engage with conflict, have intelligent, logical conversation and debate, and not cause division because of petty disagreement. If people were more accepting of the reality that not everything is black and white, and that disagreement doesn’t shouldn’t result in shattered community, I do honestly believe that the world would be a better place. Rather than focusing on the areas where you disagree with people, find the things you agree on. And come together with creative ways to focus on the good things and bring about peace and change.

PSA:

**With that, I would like to mention something. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had multiple conversations with some friends of mine about this very reality. In these past few weeks, we’ve been planning on starting a podcast discussing certain controversial issues and the gray area within them, focusing on the reality that not everything is black and white. Things are still in development, but things are shaping up very quickly. I’m really excited for this project that we’ve been working on and can’t wait to have some of these conversations with my friends and share them with everyone. Stay tuned in the near future to hear about what we’re up to and what we’re working on.**

Write Something Good: A plea for quality art

In the past month or so, I’ve had two separate and drastically different movie-going experiences. The first, I went to see Suicide Squad the second week it was out. The second, I went and saw Kubo and the Two Strings with some friends of mine.

Now, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I am a DC fanboy through and through. I grew up watching Batman and Superman and I’ve read DC comics for as long as I can remember. I can go on and on about how much I love Batman, and the reasons why Nightwing is my favorite superhero, and why I have a polarizing love/hate relationship with Superman. I love the DC universe and everything about it, and I’m super stoked that DC Rebirth has been doing so well.

But the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is a trash fire. I won’t go into everything, because I could literally talk for hours about the travesty that Zack Snyder has created (I’m very opinionated if you haven’t noticed), but let’s just say that I’ve been burned by two DC movies this year: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. The two movies suffer from different problems (BvS has too many to count), but one of the biggest things Suicide Squad suffered from was poor writing.

This poor writing manifested itself in a few ways. Namely confusing or non-existent character motivation and development, sloppy, awkward dialogue, and mischaracterization of characters who have very rich backgrounds that have been developed over 30+ years. The movie also suffers from producers getting too involved in the director’s vision, but that’s a different issue. I think that the actors (Margot Robbie in particular) did a pretty good job considering what they were given. But the plot was really convoluted and ultimately really didn’t make sense. I did enjoy the movie at certain points, but it was ultimately really disappointing due to garbage writing.

Kubo, however, was a different story. Kubo was made by the same studio that made Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Kubo is one of the best movies I’ve seen in theaters in the past few years. Kubo is beautifully animated, and has one of the most archetypal “hero’s journey” stories that I have ever seen. It follows the hero’s journey beat-for-beat, while creating compelling examples of the meaning of family, the importance of storytelling, and the pain of loss. The story, while fairly predictable, is beautifully written, the characters are authentic and well-developed within the short run time of the film, and I was still pondering the movie’s thought-provoking themes hours after I’d left the theater.

Now. Here are some numbers for you.

Suicide Squad released on August 6 in the US, and was made with a budget of $175 million. As of today, it’s made $640 million in the box office. It has a 27% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 67% user rating.

Kubo and the Two Strings released on August 19 in the US, and was made with a budget of $60 million. As of today, it’s made $30.5 million in the box office. It has a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88% user rating.

There are definitely some things that factor into this. Kubo appeals primarily to families with children, while Suicide Squad appeals to a significantly wider audience, especially millennials, who are currently the largest living generation in the US.* Suicide Squad is also the third movie within the DCEU, and was preceded by Man of Steel and BvS, so the anticipation was high (and much of the advertising for this movie was driven by the Joker, who ended up being in the movie for about 10 minutes). Many people thought this could be DC’s chance to get back in the game for movies after Marvel’s success…And they suuuuuper blew it.

All this to say, I have problems with this reality. And questions.

Why do bad movies make so much money?

Why do good movies, even if they’re children’s movies, sometimes hardly make any money?

Why do people keep pumping money into movies that are bad? And do the people making these movies seriously not know the movie’s bad before they release it?

Why do people spend so much time and energy perpetuating bad storytelling, while good storytelling gets left by the wayside?

As always, I’m not an expert in this area. I don’t claim to be. I might end up making claims and saying things that don’t make sense in the “real world.” And this is kind of a rant that I’m just word vomiting onto a page and then posting. I’m completely open to comments and discussion. But this is incredibly frustrating.

Much of this is based around advertising. Suicide Squad had a pretty good advertising campaign, and many early trailers got me excited for the movie. Our culture is also really into the interconnected movie universe thing right now. Which, as much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’ve created something unique that has cursed much of the rest of modern cinema. Everyone tries to create movies that connect to something else, and it all ends up being ridiculously complicated. Oftentimes they don’t even tell a full story within a single movie, as the movie is basically being used to set up a sequel. When people are focused on the property they’re setting up, the writing of the current story suffers. People also are really focused on trying to write these intricate, complex stories with some sort of twist ending, and then they end up not recognizing the numerous gaping plotholes and faulty character motivations they’ve created. So many movies are created to make money, rather than to create art that can be appreciated for its intrinsic value. Nowadays many movies don’t have much intrinsic value. Superhero movies, as much as I love them, are starting to become a disease.

And here’s my point here.

Write. Something. Good.

Please.

So much of modern cinema is about pandering to the culture in order to make the money that they put into the movie back and set up the next movie they have planned. But I would venture to say that many of these movies that have come out in recent years will be completely forgotten in around twenty years. The most well-remembered, culturally relevant and impactful movies that end up having a lasting impact are often the most well-written. They have authentic, realistic characters and an interesting story that doesn’t obviously contradict itself. And, and this is one of the most important elements to me, they say something. And they say something compelling. That’s why I love Kubo so much. It’s a beautiful movie with interesting characters, a simple, easy-to-follow story, and it conveyed several important, compelling messages.

Let me make something else clear: I’m not opposed to complex stories. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever encountered is the Zero Escape series of video games, which (in my opinion) is one of the most convoluted, confusing stories ever written. Over the course of three games, it takes the time to explain to you all of the different confusing aspects and how they all interconnect to make one story. But what I love about it is that it also has interesting, well-developed characters, and has a fascinating commentary on the importance of decision making, questions reality, plays off probability and chance, and asks questions about the Many-Worlds Theory. I’ve spent hours playing these games, and many more hours thinking about all of the different questions and arguments it poses.

Please stop making art that panders to the culture and then fails to say anything at all. Or just stop writing garbage. There’s something to be said for a simple hero’s journey that doesn’t confuse your audience and has a clear message. Not everything has to be a big spectacle. In this culture we live in, it’s unfortunately possible that your art may not be successful if it’s not a big spectacle. But if it’s inherently bad, it definitely won’t be. Please, just write something good.

 

*http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

Spiritual Abuse: My experience and recovery

On October 30th of last year, I attended a social event with my church on campus at CU. It was an incredibly fun evening, as it was our Halloween celebration, so everyone from the church was there and everyone was dressed up in their costumes. That evening, I spent time with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my lifetime, people that I’ve done life with and who I’ve had countless fun experiences and incredible conversations with. And as I left the party that night, I left knowing that I would most likely never see most of the people in that room ever again.

Simply because I was leaving the church.

Let’s rewind two years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college.

In August of 2013, I was setting foot on CU’s campus for the first time as a student, attending band camp for marching band as all first-year instrumental Music Education majors are required to do. At the time, I was interning at my then-current church, an internship that would end shortly after the start of the next year. I was looking for a new community of Christians, specifically people my age, to get connected and grow in community with. It was in these first few weeks during band camp and the early weeks of school that I met Sarah. I still firmly believe that Sarah is the closest and dearest friend that I have ever had. In my first few weeks on campus, Sarah and I spent a considerable amount of time together, discussing our interests, our lives and histories, and some of the finer points of faith. She invited me to come visit her church sometime, which wasn’t really possible at the time because of my internship.

During my first semester, I visited a few different campus ministries and got connected with one of the campus evangelists from Sarah’s church after hanging out with people at the events they hosted on Friday nights. He and I would meet and discuss the Bible and different Bible studies that his church made once a week. I didn’t always understand or agree with some of the things in these Bible studies when I first read them, but he was usually able to reference certain scriptures that would make me accept them. Once the second semester started, my internship ended and I was able to visit Sarah’s church. This church was filled with young people, people my age who were passionate about Jesus and sold out for Him.

And that was exactly what I was looking for.

Early on, I had my hesitations with this church because I had concerns with some of their odd exclusivity; There were certain things that made them seem like some sort of weird club, namely their special Saturday meetings that only members of the church were allowed to go to. But, as they continually referenced different scriptures to justify their reasonings for what they do, my defenses were gradually broken down and I eventually decided to become a member of their church.

During my 15-or-so month stint at this church, I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I felt for one of the first times in my life that I truly belonged. I also was gradually enlightened to all of the things that I was doing horribly wrong in my life and needed to change, was taught how to submit to and obey authority, was encouraged to practically sever all ties with my family, was taught legalism as some sort of misunderstood grace, and gradually lost who I was; My personality, my humanity, my calling, my agency.

What I endured during that time was a year and a half of spiritual abuse.

There were multiple instances during this time that my mom approached me and asked me to consider leaving; Each time I said no. Until, through miraculous circumstances, people who I’ve never met who live in Arizona got in contact with my mother and knew about my situation and certain situations happening behind the scenes at the church I had come to call home. I had had multiple instances of doubt and considered leaving the church multiple times during my time there, but the people on staff always convinced me otherwise, that Satan or demons or the fear of man or whatever were trying to make me leave. But this intervention from people several states away whom I’ve never met before was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I determined that October 30th, 2015 was the last event I would attend with this church, and that I’d never go to that church on Sunday ever again.

I left campus that night and haven’t seen or heard from most those people since.

Unfortunately, I knew it was coming.

On November 2nd (or perhaps a day or two after, I’m not entirely sure when anymore), I sat down with Sarah to break the news to her, that I was leaving. She knew what this meant as well. She was my closest friend, even in spite of the church intervening in our friendship, telling her on more than one occasion that she basically couldn’t be friends with me any more because we were getting too close (in one instance, we literally didn’t speak for two or three months because of this). But the fact that I was leaving meant that, most likely, we would never see each other again. Though at the time we both reached a conclusion that neither of us wanted that, I believe that deep down we both knew that would be the case. I reached out to my other close circle of friends as well and notified them that I’d be leaving. At the time, they were very accepting, and said that they still wanted to keep in contact with me, that I was still welcome to come over and hang out with them, that they didn’t want me to be completely cut out of their lives. Less than a week later, they changed their minds, deciding to cut all ties. The worst part was that I still had stuff at their house that I needed to get back. When I went to their house to retrieve it, they simply sat in the other room, continuing their conversation, denying my presence and existence for about half an hour as I separated out two sets of a card game that we had mixed together. Those were the most painful thirty minutes of my life.

I left their house that night and haven’t seen any of them since.

Sarah and I still had classes together for the rest of the semester and things were still civil and, honestly, completely normal, as if nothing had happened, until the end of finals. The last day I saw Sarah that year, I didn’t say good-bye. I knew it would be too difficult. The only time I’ve seen Sarah since that day was when I helped one of her roommates, one of my fellow excommunicatees who left shortly before I did, move out. There were few words exchanged and you could feel the tension in the room.

I left her house that day and haven’t seen or heard from her since.

Though I did recently send her a message just giving an update on how I’m doing since I left. Which I don’t believe she’s read and hasn’t responded to. Not that I expect her to.

This church I became a member of thrives off exclusivity. They don’t associate with other churches besides their sister churches, and when people leave on terms they don’t agree with, they cut all ties, leaving the person isolated and alone. I, along with so many other people, made friends at school within that church and nowhere else. So when people want to leave, they have no one and nowhere else to go. This can cause people not to leave in the first place, though if they do they often don’t know what to do after that.

This is what spiritual abuse looks like.

Spiritual abuse isn’t talked about much in most circles, though it’s a common thread through many different churches and denominations. It’s also a main reason people decide to leave their faith and hate the church. There are actually several books and articles on the subject if you know what to look for. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse, saying that

Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

Spiritual abuse involves taking people and turning them into obedient, subservient shells of human beings in the name of Christ. This involves different levels of severity of leaders using these people for personal gain. In some situations, the pastor, or whoever may be in charge, may even use church finances for their own luxury, spending it on cars, houses, vacations, among many other things. In my own experience, there didn’t seem to be as much abuse for personal gain as in other scenarios, but there was a very clear hierarchical pyramid scheme in my environment. A pyramid scheme that was based entirely around submission to authority, the main authority being held by a single person.

Mary Demuth, a Christian writer and blogger who also does speaking tours around the world, identified ten main aspects of spiritually abusive ministries that I’ve abridged:

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ.
  3. Use exclusive language.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
  7. Demand servanthood from their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.
  8. Buffer [themselves] from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance.*

These ten aspects of spiritually abusive environments are a good measure and indicator when trying to recognize these environments. My church exhibited all ten of these to some degree. The control exhibited over followers or members can also delve into the realms of financial, emotional, relational, and, obviously, spiritual control. They will tell you what to feel, who to be friends with, what to believe, when and how much to give financially to the church. They will gradually break you down piece by piece, picking apart your personality until you’re whittled down to fit the mold they believe to be Christ-like living. In my situation specifically, control was forced onto children within the church. In this church, all children are literally beaten into submission, justifying physical abuse with scriptures like Proverbs 22:15, which says “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” So the rod of discipline is used as the solution to all instances of a child acting out at whatever age. More spankings are encouraged for children who have mental handicaps. I didn’t really know about any of this until after I left, unfortunately.

This control has an incredibly powerful detrimental effect on people, and it can even be multiplied when people leave or attempt to leave these environments. Mike McHargue, commonly known as Science Mike, was asked how he would define spiritual abuse, and what happens to the brain when one experiences it. This was his response:

“I think when we hold our ideas and agreement on ideas as a test for fellowship in our life, that borders on spiritual abuse: ‘What you believe is more important than what you do.’ If people are doing harmful behaviors, confront them in love. But if people just believe things and we start to ostracize them and push them out of communities, it creates this state in the brain of escalated stress hormones, of reduced pre-frontal activity, because we’re a social species…Our only hope as a species is to stick together. And so we have an existential angst about rejection when we kick people out of churches or use the connection people feel, the good sense of connection religious communities offer, as a way to marshall people, and control them. Spiritual abuse and religious PTSD are inevitable results.”**

My own personal friendship and fellowship was based on agreement with the ideas of the church. When I decided I didn’t agree any more, they decided that they could not, and would not, associate with me any more. Their reasoning is that I would be a detriment to them; That I would corrupt their way of thinking and the unity (or mindless subservience) that they had established. When I left this church, I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my closest friends over night. I didn’t quite spiral into depression, but I was about two steps away from the edge of that cliff. I’m fortunate enough to have friends and family who live here and love and care for me dearly, but some of my friends who left that church and some people who are still there, having moved to Colorado from out of state, don’t have those faith communities to fall back on.

When I left this church, I had to re-learn so many things: Who I was, what I believed, what grace was and how it operated in my life. I also had to rewire my brain to block out the exclusive judgmentalism that the church had developed deep inside me. I’m still working through some of these things. All this to say, leaving wasn’t easy. It hurt. And I’m still recovering from the after-effects. Science Mike described his experience leaving his church when defining spiritual abuse:

“…When I left my Southern Baptist church, I went to pieces and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go to therapy for weeks. And weeks, and weeks. And that leaving the church where my oldest daughter was baptized, and that I got married at the altar, hurt a lot more than when my parents got divorced. That leaving that church was a death in my life.”

Suffering from spiritual abuse is painful. But leaving the environment is just as painful, if not more so. And the fear of dealing with that pain, the fear of going through what people may have seen some of their closest friends go through, can cause people to remain in it, to continue submitting to the authorities that have worked so hard to break them and control them.

But even with the pain involved, if you happen to be in a spiritually abusive environment, my one exhortation is this: Leave. Get out as soon as possible. Staying in that environment is only toxic, and even though the church will try to convince you otherwise, you won’t grow in your faith. I firmly believe that faith grows through questioning it and God giving you the answers. When that pathway for growth is restricted by spiritual leaders, growth is practically impossible. So you need to leave. And, speaking from experience, it will hurt. A lot.

But there is hope. If you have suffered or are suffering from spiritual abuse, there is hope. When Science Mike was asked to define spiritual abuse, he was also asked how people can recover from spiritual abuse. He boils it down into a three-step process that I believe covers all of the bases. I’ll reflect on my own experiences with these steps here, too.

Step 1: Grieve.

Don’t try to be tough about it. Don’t try to avoid it. When we experience pain, oftentimes we try to turn away from it or leave it behind. My exhortation would be to face it head on. Press into it. Trying to put it in a box in the closet doesn’t change the fact that it’s there; If you don’t deal with it and allow yourself time to grieve (and honestly wallow in misery for a little bit), healing won’t come as easy, if it comes at all. If you’re not familiar with them, there are five stages of loss and grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And sometimes all of them happen at the same time. Journaling, praying, and talking with people you trust through these phases are really good options to help you get through it. The best therapy I’ve had was talking through my experiences and pain with my friend Seth, who went through experiences similar to my own not long ago. Over six months later, I’m still working through my own grief. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some people, actual therapy may be a really good option. It will still take time. But have hope that things will get better.

Step 2: Re-engage with the Church.

This step will happen at different times for different people. Some people need to jump into a new church right away, some people need to take some time away from church to sort through their own issues with the capital-C Church during their phases of grieving. But, ultimately, you need to re-engage with the Church. Not the same church you went to before, obviously, but a different one. When it comes to finding the “right church,” I thoroughly appreciate Science Mike’s approach:

“One, your faith community must affirm, accept, and celebrate exactly who you are today. In all your beauty and all your warts. Your church has to love it. But your church must also challenge you to become who God is making you…It’s really just a two-prong formula: Accepts you as you are, helps you grow to who God is making you.”

That’s really the key. Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today. You’ll have questions. You’ll likely be angry and confused. Find people who are okay with that. And, more importantly, are more than willing help you on your quest to find answers. For me, due to the fortunate situation I was in, I was able to find a church that does exactly that. It’s a church filled with people who really, authentically love Jesus (even the people on staff, which is honestly surprising in most mainstream churches today), who engage with their community, who pursue issues of social justice, and who love like Jesus. One of my church’s vision statements is that “We believe it’s okay not to be okay.” But my church also believes it’s not okay to stay that way. And that “We don’t go it alone.”*** Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today and help you grow into the person you were created to be. It may take some time, but it’s so worth it.

Step 3: Recognize the way your experience can and will transform the way that you love other people.

In our world today, it can often seem like the church does more harm than good. We live in a country full of spiritually abused people. They may not have a name for it, but so many people have been affected by spiritual abuse. Those of us who have gone through it and lived to tell the tale have an opportunity to touch the lives and hearts of those who may be in the thick of it, or who may be in the middle of their own stages of grief. We have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness they’ve found themselves in. So many people today have been hurt by the Church. So have we. The difference is that we can turn it around and speak into other peoples’ lives from it. I firmly believe in the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believe that my experience at this church will be used for good. My experience at this church awakened me to what I believe to be my own mission field in my own ministry in the future. While I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t trade where I’m at with God now because of it for anything. My heart’s been broken for people who have been hurt by the church, either by its action or its inaction. And there’s a desire in my heart to help people in those situations that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gone through my own experience with spiritual abuse.

At the end of the day, the main issue with spiritually abusive communities is that they aren’t representative of Jesus and who He is and what He stands for. Jesus is about service and surrender. Spiritually abusive churches teach service that benefits those higher up in their pyramid scheme. Jesus taught love and acceptance. Spiritually abusive churches teach judgment and exclusivity. Jesus taught that we are saved by grace through faith. Spiritually abusive churches teach that you need to fit the Christ-like mold they’ve designed, and not fitting into it means you are not aligned with Christ. Jesus pursues us even on days when we are angry with Him, when we don’t know where He is or if He even exists. Spiritually abusive churches cut ties as soon as you decide you don’t agree with them any more.

I’m still dealing with my own grief and recovery from leaving this church. I’m still harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward them in my heart. But, when it comes down to it, I still love each and every one of them. And I pray that my friends — that Sarah — will realize the lies they’re being told, and that they’ll wake up to the reality of who Jesus really is and what He truly stands for. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with them again in this lifetime. But if not, I’ll wait until I see them on the other side.

As my final thought, I figured I’d share one final anecdote from a friend of mine. My friend Seth who I mentioned before has a specific story about leaving his church that has basically become my own mission statement when it comes to spiritual abuse. When he and his wife were leaving their church, his wife was still on staff at the time and decided to go into the church’s database to remove the two of them from the church membership archives. When she went to change their status, there were three check boxes that members could be categorized in: Dead, Missing, or Heretic. Only three options. Because simply deciding this toxic environment wasn’t one you belonged in any more isn’t an option. She checked the box for “Heretic” and left.

I’m a heretic.

But at the end of day, I’d rather be a heretic who loves and pursues Jesus with everything that I have than a lifeless shell of a human being that’s been forced into the mold deemed acceptable.

So if you’re in a spiritually abusive environment, please, come join me and countless others here in the body of Christ who would love nothing more than to meet you where you’re at and help you become who you’re meant to be.

Be a heretic.

 

P.S. — If you are currently in a spiritually abusive environment, I really do believe you need to get out as soon as possible. What I would recommend is connecting with someone outside of your church; It could be your family, a local campus ministry, or the pastor of another church, and get help leaving. Find people to fall back on. And then once you’re out, don’t turn back. Move forward. When I left my church, the biggest thing for me was re-learning the reality of grace. The best thing I’ve found for that is the book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. When it comes to dealing with the pain and the grief that comes with leaving, take time to press into it. I would recommend going to therapy to work through some of the more deeper-rooted issues you may not be able to recognize right away, but talking through your pain with trusted friends can be incredibly therapeutic as well.

 

P.P.S. — If you aren’t in a spiritually abusive environment but know someone who is, please, try to help them. They will most likely be resistant, and their church will most likely try to convince them not to leave, but trying is better than leaving them to suffer without doing anything. As someone who is able to see things from the other side, please, do what you can to help them, before it’s too late.

 

*For more details and information from this article, read it here: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

**I reference this several times throughout this blog. To hear Mike McHargue’s full answer, listen here, starting around 11:28. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/2016/4/10/episode-64-ask-science-mike-live-in-ventura-ca

***Taken from Northern Hills’s “Our Story” page: http://nhills.org/our-story-2/

Spiritual Privilege: The lost and the apathetic

There are a lot of debates going on in our country right now involving the issue of privilege. People are protesting in many different ways the issues of sexism and institutionalized racism in the U.S., all tied in to the issue of privilege. Whether or not you believe these issues exist in our country doesn’t really matter, since it really doesn’t have anything to do with my purpose for writing this. I’m not trying to awaken people to these issues since I don’t feel I know for sure where I stand on any of them, nor do I feel that I know enough about them to say anything relevant. What I do know is this: Privilege can be detrimental to all parties involved, both those who experience it and those who suffer from it. But the privilege I’m wanting to enlighten people to is drastically different from male privilege or white privilege. The privilege I feel the need to discuss, I feel has the potential to tear apart the American church as it stands today.

But before I get into that, a little background.

I grew up in the church. Both my parents have been in ministry for as long as I can remember. I grew up as a “pastor’s kid,” which generally comes with two potential stereotypes: Either you’re a hyper-sheltered goody-two-shoes who doesn’t do anything wrong and tattles on and/or judges the people who do “bad things,” or you just completely go off the deep end and end up doing all of the “bad things,” getting in trouble at school, possibly becoming a statistic in regards to teen pregnancy, and potentially even going to jail in some extreme cases. Fortunately for me, I feel that I don’t exactly fit into either of these categories, though I’m definitely more part of the first stereotype than the second. People always knew who I was growing up, because they knew my parents. And because they knew my parents, who were on staff, there always seemed to be some sort of unspoken rule about how I was meant to behave. But that’s a completely different topic. All this to say, I grew up in the church. I’ve known who Jesus is and what He’s done my whole life. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t. I grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Father Abraham,” and I even knew who Abraham was, along with Noah, Jonah, Joseph, Isaiah, Moses, Paul, all of the apostles, pretty much any biblical character you could come up with. I even went to a private Christian school that was run partly by my church until eighth grade. Growing up in the church absolutely has benefits. But, I believe, it can also have some detrimental effects.

Again, I feel the need to write a disclaimer: The points I am bringing up are speaking in general trends of the American church at large. I know that not all of these points apply to every church in this country, and in fact there are some churches that this post doesn’t even apply to, including the church that I’m fortunate enough to go to now. But, I would argue that the vast majority of churches in the U.S. suffer from some (or all) of the issues I plan to address. I am speaking from my own experience, having attended and volunteered at several different churches that suffered from these issues. That being said, I ask that you read with an open mind, and maybe take a moment to reflect on your own experience and see if any of these things may apply to you as well.

That said, here are some of the benefits of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. There was never a day growing up that I didn’t know that Jesus died for me. I’ve always known that He loves me, and that He is on the throne, reigning as King and that one day I’ll get to be with Him forever.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. I’ve never had experience knowing what it’s like being “on the outside,” not knowing where I’m going or what my purpose in life is. I’ve always known that, when my time here comes to an end, I’ll get to be in heaven with Jesus forever, and that that’s the most important thing.

I’ve always known to avoid “bad stuff.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, not as much rock and roll. But growing up in the church, you’re always taught about things that will stand in the way of your relationship with Christ, especially things that are addictive. I’ve never done drugs, never even been in a relationship, and I’ve always tended to avoid things that are considered “really bad.” And, in most cases, if I’ve had run-ins with any of these “really bad” things, I’ve usually gotten help to get out of them.

I’ve always had a community. When you grow up in the church, you always have like-minded people to do life with. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are the ones that I grew up in church with. They’re the people I hung out with on the weekends and, on occasion, discussed some of the finer points of religion and faith. I’m so thankful for those friendships and wouldn’t trade my experiences with those people for anything.

There are so many benefits to being raised in the church, so many things that I’m incredibly thankful for and that have led to so many great memories and experiences that I’ve had in life. I found my calling in the church, I’ve discovered who I am in the church, and I’ve come to know Jesus because of the church.

Now here are some of the detriments of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. Growing up in the church, you always know who Jesus is. In fact, He’s one of the biggest points of conversation, especially when you’re young. Your parents and Sunday school teachers always talk about Jesus and how He died for you, even though you may not fully understand what that even means yet. You always know that Jesus died for your sin, even though you don’t even really know what sin is or why it’s important, or what Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice really accomplished.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. Growing up in the church, living a life in Christ can almost become hereditary. It can become something that a child inherently receives because their parents also have it. Because I grew up in a Christian family–especially with parents in ministry–I was almost born into the body of Christ. I’m not trying to knock on my parents or anything at all, the way I was raised was incredibly beneficial and loving, more so than many kids from my generation have experienced. But at the same time, there has never been a point in my life that I felt separate from Christ, that I felt that I was part of the world, rather than among the saved. Because of this, the life I’ve always lived and experienced I’ve always assumed was what a life in Christ was like, even though deep down I never felt the true change and transition from being on the outside to being on the inside. I’m not sure that the “conversion,” that true point and feeling of change is something that I’ve ever really experienced. And I feel that the same could be said for many of my peers that I grew up with in the church.

I grew up very judgmental. One of the main things that happens when you grow up being told “don’t do this, don’t do that, this is bad for you” is you start judging people who do said things. This point doesn’t specifically apply to the church, it applies to anyone really, but the church especially. No one explicitly tells you to judge people, it just sort of happens. And that was always me. As I mentioned, I was more of a goody-two-shoes pastor’s kid, and so I didn’t really participate in all of the things that we had entire sermon series on. I was never sleeping around or engaging in any sort of substance abuse. And so whenever I encountered someone who was struggling with these things, I immediately felt disgust and contempt for that person, knowing that I would never do something like that. There were certain sins especially that had become demonized in my mind to the point where they had become “the worst thing you could do.” This judgmental view had me looking at other people in a negative light while not turning the lens on myself and observing all of my own issues. And, trust me, I have a lot of them.

My community was very exclusive. As part of the in crowd, it can be difficult to remember the people locked outside. I have distinct memories throughout student ministry (middle school and high school) that we rarely had new people visit. And when they did, they usually didn’t stick around very long. And within this community in our student ministry, there were sub-communities, cliques of people who didn’t engage with other cliques. My experience in college was drastically different. I found a church that had new people coming in all the time and many of these people ended up staying. But then, once you were in, you were in. You became part of the meetings that only members could attend, and you only hung out with people within the church (specifically your church) and didn’t hang out with people who weren’t saved. Like, ever. (Involving myself in this community also led to a year and a half of spiritual abuse, but, once again, that’s another story.) And neither of these church environments really engaged their community in the sense of going out into the surrounding area and serving the people around them: Feeding the homeless, helping local schools with fundraisers, nothing of that sort. At least, not on a macro scale (I’m sure there are individuals who engaged in these things). Sure, we would raise money for organizations or take donations of food and clothing for different non-profits, and we would even have people go on the occasional missions trip overseas, but in terms of actual, active going out and engaging the community, being the hands and feet of Jesus, there was basically nothing. It was so exclusive, and the people who we engaged with outside of the church walls on a daily basis never would have known that our lives were “changed.” That we were “different.” When I was young, we just kept seeing the same people every week. In college, we brought people in and then wouldn’t allow them to be a light in the environments where the lost felt they were in a normal, comfortable space. And ultimately, I feel the communities in our surrounding area suffered from a terminal case of the church’s inaction.

So those are some of the benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. But, clearly, I haven’t gotten to my point yet. I started this off talking about privilege and then went straight into defining benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. My reasoning is this: I believe that the pros and cons of growing up in the church all add up to what I like to call spiritual privilege. Now, thinking through this, there are two main types of spiritual privilege: a purely spiritual privilege, and a socioeconomic/sociocultural spiritual privilege. The latter is determined by race and social class and is, quite frankly, its own beast that I don’t feel fully prepared to address at this present time, though the realities of socioeconomic spiritual privilege may be fairly obvious (to hear a good discussion involving some issues of socioeconomic spiritual privilege, check out The Liturgists Podcast, episode 34: Black and White). So, for now, I’ll be addressing the purely spiritual aspect of spiritual privilege.

If I were to give a specific definition to spiritual privilege, it would be this:

Spiritual privilege is the combination of the set of both positive and negative effects that growing up within the church has on an individual and the church at large. This set of beliefs and their effects is most commonly possessed by those who have lived their entire lives as part of the church, and haven’t truly known life without faith. These effects, which include a salvation based on heritage rather than faith, lead an individual and the church to a state of judgmental apathy and inaction due to the lack of experience of a true “conversion,” in the sense of transitioning from one state of being to another.

A very academic-sounding definition, I know. But here’s what I’m getting at: Spiritual privilege can cause those who have been raised in the church to be blind to the lost, the key word here being can. People who suffer from spiritual privilege are often unable to empathize with the lost, because they’ve never known a life other than the one they’re living. The conversion experience they’ve had is often based around a baptism, rather than a true life change. When people are raised having inherited salvation in Christ, rather than being taught that they are undeserving of grace, that they are just as flawed as the people that they’re told not to hang out with, and that they are saved by grace through faith in the One who was perfect and lived a perfect life in their place, life doesn’t change when you come back up from the baptismal. It stays the same, except you got dunked in a pool in front of the whole church so that they all know that you’re a Christian now, too. Any baggage you may have had before is the same baggage you have now, and the salvation of Christ has always been not only available, but a “reality” that you live in. Oftentimes, the “saved” are just as lost as the lost, if not more so. When your life hasn’t truly been changed by the power of Christ, the desire to share the good news of Christ about this change doesn’t truly exist. When there isn’t an empathy with the lost, because you have never truly lived life in their shoes, there’s no real desire to try to bring them out of their current state. After all, your life didn’t change when you were saved. So why would theirs? If their life ends up being the same after accepting Christ as it is now, what difference is there if they don’t ever accept Christ to begin with? Based on experience, the drug addict or the prostitute who gives their life to Jesus will become a drug addict or prostitute who’s apparently going to heaven now. Their life won’t change, there will just be Jesus sprinkled on top. Why should those people have the same right into the Kingdom of God as me, someone who has tried to do the right thing my whole life even though I fail most of the time and been super judgmental and hypocritical towards the very people I’m meant to help save? Their sin will just reflect badly on the body of Christ, won’t it?

This causes the spiritually privileged to interact exclusively with the spiritually privileged. This is why there isn’t a Gospel message preached in most churches most weekends, why so many churches devolve into a weekly self-help seminar on how to find the blessing of God in your life, rather than dealing with the secret sin you’re hiding. We carry Good News meant for the lost in this world, and we often hide it on Sundays because the people sitting in those seats are the same people every week. And they’re the same people every week because when visitors come, there’s no message that applies to them. There’s no Gospel, and the message being delivered is only applicable to those who are already on the inside. Hearing about how God can increase your finances and pour out abundant blessings in your life isn’t helpful when you feel the very life you have is hopeless. And if there’s nothing in this place to give you hope, there’s no reason to come back.

This is the struggle that I and so many others who have grown up spiritually privileged have wrestled with. Many people have grown up in these environments, reached my age and come to conclusions similar to my own. But the reality now is that people are waking up. Through one means or another, God is breaking through the sheltered Christian wall we’ve built and enlightening people to the reality that the lives of those we interact with on a daily basis are no less valuable than our own, that every person should have the same equal access to Jesus that we do. Whether or not they accept it is their own decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that we carry Good News. A Gospel message that leads to salvation and true life change. A Gospel message that, if I’m being honest, sometimes needs to be preached to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So with issues like this, I suppose one question that comes up is, “How do I know if I suffer from spiritual privilege?” Well, that can be a hard question to answer. But, my guess is that if you read this and you felt something uncomfortable start stirring in your soul a little bit, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege to some degree. If you grew up in the church and you spend more time feeling lost and insecure with no direction, rather than being secure in your identity in Christ, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege. If you feel like you’re white-knuckling your walk in Christ most of the time, trying your hardest to do the right thing and feeling guilty when you don’t, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege, amongst other things (mainly the issue of depravity, a common struggle for people who have grown up spiritually privileged). If you can’t really remember a before Christ and after Christ moment in your life, I’d venture to say that you’ve definitely grown up spiritually privileged.

So then the question becomes, “How do I fix it?” This is where things get difficult, because everyone is different. In my own specific scenario, in order to truly understand the relevance and value of Christ in my life, I basically had to discover who I was apart from Him. For a few months, I kind of walked away from my faith in a sense, simply because struggling to maintain it was becoming a tiring, fruitless exercise that was wearing thin on my sanity. When I took a step back and stopped trying to be something I wasn’t for a little bit, I was able to recognize the areas of my life that I truly need Jesus to come in and drastically change, rather than me constantly trying to change them myself. I don’t exactly recommend doing that, and it probably won’t work for everyone. Another recommendation I’d have is just to simply pray that God would reveal to you areas in your life that really need true, drastic change (though, let’s be honest, you probably know a few off hand) and ask Him to really change those areas. Having an awareness of your privilege in and of itself can cause dramatic change. And most importantly, ask God to help you develop a heart for the lost. Ask Him to break your heart and give you His heart for these people in the world. Develop a desire for a true sense of empathy that relates to where real people are and looks forward to who they can become by the power of Christ. And then, once some of these things have started to flesh themselves out, pursue God. Find security in Him, and solidify your own identity and who you really are in Him.

The American church is suffering from atrophied evangelism muscles due to apathetic judgmentalism towards the rest of the world. My belief is that if this issue of spiritual privilege persists in our own lives and the lives of the next generation, the American church as we know it could die out. Partly because we’ll become so exclusive that no one new will come in, and partly because people will take Christians even less seriously than they do now. So be the one to break the pattern and become a truly new creation in Christ. Take the love we’ve found, this Gospel message, and change your families, churches, communities, and the world. There’s still hope for the future of the Church in the US, but it starts with true life change.

G*d in a Box: Limitations and expectations

Imagine a line. Just a red line on the ground. You happen to be standing somewhere in the middle of it. It stretches as far as you can see in either direction on the ground. There’s nothing particularly special about this line. Except that it never ends. And it never begins either. Sure, you can try to find the end. You can follow that line as far as you want, but you will never find an end to it. No explanation, no matter how hard you try. It isn’t self-contained, wrapping itself around the planet or anything, it just never ends.

Simple enough to imagine? Try this, then.

Take a moment to just think about our universe, infinitely expanding in all directions. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t even really care to learn much about science, but just take a moment to think about the fact that if you flew out into space you would never stop flying out into space. You would keep going. Forever.

Brain hurt yet? How about this.

Imagine being immortal. Not with any sort of romanticized immortality that has been dreamed up by the human imagination. Consider the concept that you’ve always existed. That you never had a beginning. And then imagine never dying. Ever. Regardless of the circumstance. You would just continue to exist forever, seeing your loved ones, the planet, even the infinitely expanding universe die out. You could even spend the rest of your eternal lifetime exploring every inch of the entire universe; you would never run out of new things to see and you would never run out of time to see these new things.

This is about when I start to curl up into a ball and cry a little bit. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: Our understanding is limited. To us, everything has its limit. Everything has a beginning and an ending. So there are concepts that, no matter how hard we try to understand them, we will never wrap our brain around. They exceed our limited comprehension, leaving us confused and possibly frustrated at our inability to really understand it. The only response we can have is to admit defeat. There’s nothing we can do to change our understanding, so we have to give up trying to understand it. Even once we think we may understand it, there’s still an aspect of it that escapes our grasp. Then, once a new fact comes to light, it blows our minds all over again.

Infinity is something we, in our limited understanding, aren’t completely able to wrap our brains around. And we realize this. And we accept this.

So here’s my question: Why do people keep trying to wrap their brains around God? Why do people try to put some sort of definition or label on God to satisfy their need for everything to make sense? Why don’t people give up?

Again, I feel the need to take a moment here to clarify: I’m not claiming to have everything figured out. I’m human, so it’s not possible for me to have everything figured out. These are my own thoughts and my own opinions at this exact moment in time, and this organization of my own thoughts is as much preaching to myself as it is to anyone who will take the time to read it. In fact, it is preaching to myself before it is to anyone else, because that’s usually where these kinds of things start in the first place. I just sometimes feel the need to organize my thoughts in a place where other people can see them.

Anyway, there are so many verses that remind us how big God is and how we can’t completely understand Him.

These are just the beginning of all that he does, merely a whisper of his power. Who, then, can comprehend the thunder of his power? (Job 26:14, NLT)

Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. (Job 36:26, ESV)

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4, NLT)

He counts the stars and calls them all by name. How great is our Lord! His power is absolute! His understanding is beyond comprehension! (Psalm 147:4-5, NLT)

Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. (Isaiah 40:28, NLT)

Time after time we’re reminded that we’re human. That we cannot and will not understand everything. And yet, we still try to wrap our brains around God. We still try to take the Creator of the universe, with power, love, and wisdom immeasurable, and put Him in a box. We try to define what He can and can’t do and what He will and won’t do. Then, something happens that blows our understanding out of the water. But, instead of letting God out of the box, we find a bigger box to put Him in. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m guilty of this. But every person is guilty of this. But why don’t we let God out of the box? Why do we just find a bigger one to try and contain Him in?

The answer is simple: We can’t fully understand God.

The conclusion I have come to is this: Because of our limited understanding, we will always put God in a box. In our minds, everything has a limit, simply because we can’t even fully conceptualize something that truly has no limit. While the reality is that God has no limits, our brains will, rather than stop putting limits on God, expand the limits past our previous understanding, whether we know it or not. We may think that we don’t put limits on what we think God can do, but we still unconsciously place limits on Him nonetheless. Sometimes even our ways of describing what God is capable of show our limits. Saying that God is “big enough” to overcome something in our lives indicates the limits we place on Him. We say “He is powerful enough” rather than simply “He is powerful.” Even the statement that “Christ is sufficient,” as if He’s just enough for us, has started to bug me a little bit as of late. When in truth He’s far more than we could ever ask for, expect, or imagine. We will always keep God in a box. And when He exceeds our limitations and expectations, we’ll go and find a bigger box.

But there’s a certain beauty to this tension that we live in. Every time God blows our minds, we get a bigger box for Him. If we truly reached a point where we were fully able to comprehend the infinite beauty, wonder, power, and majesty that is our Creator, God would no longer be able to blow our minds. We would no longer be blown away by the incredible grace that He pours out over us every day. The blessings that are so graciously poured out over us would become normal. We would begin to know exactly what to expect when it came to God and what He would do in our lives.

But instead, He keeps Himself beyond our understanding. He’s created us in such a way that, because of our limited understanding, He is able to amaze us over and over again. He blows the lid off the box that we’ve put Him in, and will never stop blowing the lid off of it, because He loves us. And because He loves us, He loves to blow the lid off of that box. He loves to reveal more of His character and His heart to us. And so we continue to pursue Him, to further understand His character and His heart, living for the moments when He blows the lid off of the box we’ve put Him in.

While this tension does exist, and while it is frustrating that we, in our limited understanding, can never fully comprehend all that is God, I believe there is a “correct” way to approach this tension. And that is simply to place our hopes and expectations in Him and to ask Him to reveal Himself to us day by day. This involves being honest with ourselves and with God about the limits we’ve placed, whether we know them or not. It involves saying, “God, these are my hopes and dreams. These are my desires. I know all things are possible with You. And this is only possible in and through You.” Because no one in their right mind has a dream fulfilled then sits back and says, “That went exactly according to plan.” The response should be gratitude, thankfulness for the blessings poured out on us. Having dreams fulfilled is in and of itself one of the manifestations of God revealing Himself to us. Just one of the many ways He blows the lid off the box we’ve put Him in. But, since we always just find a bigger box to try and contain God in, the key to this tension is to never stop dreaming. To never stop hoping. To never stop pursuing God and His heart. Doing so is to become content with God staying in the new box you’ve found, rather than bringing your limitations before Him and asking Him to exceed them.

Never become content with keeping God in the box.

And never try to claim that you haven’t put God into a box. Instead, accept the fact that you’ve found a bigger box to try and contain Him in.

And know that He will not be contained.

And pray every day that He would blow the lid off of the new box you’ve tried to put Him in.