I recently heard a sermon reminding us all that “God never promised to make us happy,” and I kept thinking if only I had a dollar for every time I heard that one, well…I’d still stay broke most of the time but let’s not go there.
This overly confident minister asserted that a common reason people leave the faith is that we were led to believe our lives would be pain-free and full of wealth, pleasure, and all-around good fortune if only we’d follow Jesus. It always irritates me when preachers say this because it insinuates we were taught an entirely different gospel than the one we actually heard and believed.
To be sure, the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world are out there preaching their prosperity gospel based on what I can only imagine must be two or three verses ripped as far away from their original contexts as possible, like the once popular “Prayer of Jabez” that someone extricated out of an obscure genealogy in the Old Testament. If you squint really hard, I suppose you can build a theology atop such a scant textual foundation, but I’ve never understood how anyone could be that mentally lazy.
IT IS INCREDIBLY INSULTING to most of us when people suggest that our reason for leaving was that God didn’t give us a pony when we asked for one (we didn’t). The preacher dutifully warns his congregation that God isn’t our “cosmic Coke machine” into which we can put a few prayers and get out whatever we want. People like him profoundly misunderstand what motivates people like me.
He has no idea how far down we lowered the bar before we finally decided the whole thing was bogus. By the time most of us left, we weren’t looking for God to do much of anything. Hell, we would have settled for the most basic communication from him—a single “Hello” or “I’m here” rather than decades of silence—but in time we were told even that was too much to ask.
Related: “Why I Broke Up with Jesus“
Over the course of our Christian lives, we learned to make a thousand excuses for God’s refusal to show up in any discernible way. Eventually it dawned on us that the “relationship” into which we had been invited bore so little resemblance to a relationship with an actual person that anyone could be excused for simply walking away from it. Under the circumstances, there’s nothing to betray.
God’s existence looks so much like NOT existing that you can scarcely tell them apart.
Eventually the thought occurred to us that, if life with Jesus looks and feels exactly like life without Jesus, then what difference would it make to give it all up?
One thing is for sure, though: I never expected to be made “happy.”
Not My Christianity
Perhaps I gravitated toward an edgier faith than most. I can’t really say, because it seems that virtually everyone I talk with now remembers things the same way I do. I interact regularly with “ex-vangelicals” like me and the overwhelming majority of us agree that we didn’t leave our faith because we didn’t care enough; on the contrary…we left because we cared too much. We refused to settle for anything less than following our faith wherever it led us, even to the end of our selves.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you that I had the opposite problem from the one this preacher describes: I never expected the Christian life to be an easy one; on the contrary, I expected it to slowly crush me because that’s what I was taught that following Jesus entailed.
The gospel I learned taught me to expect that the more God loves you, the harder your life will become. “The Lord chastens those whom he loves,” the writer of Hebrews informs us, just like my old football coaches used to yell the most at the players they liked the most. I was taught that knowing Jesus meant identifying with him in his sufferings and that following him meant eventually encountering your own metaphorical crucifixion.
The kind of Christians I ran with often confessed they struggled most of all with accepting that God would give them anything better than a miserable life. Like in the campy old song “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa” by Scott Wesley Brown, we were convinced a truly sincere follower of Jesus will soon find himself or herself “called” by God to do whatever it is that’s the worst, most difficult thing imaginable as a test of loyalty and devotion.
In retrospect, my kind of Christianity was a bit dark. It had a low-key asceticism to it…but can you blame me? I was told I was following the “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.” The last thing in the world I figured I should expect was happiness. How incredibly trite. If anything, my kind of Christianity predisposed me to an overdose of self-denial and self-loathing. I expected the suffering and pain I encountered to grow in direct proportion to how devoted to Jesus I became.
Under the circumstances, it would have been virtually impossible for God to have disappointed me. I had learned over time to reduce my expectations to almost nothing. I suspect this may be the key to a successful life of faith—learning to accept whatever happens as confirmation that God is doing whatever he pleases, and being just fine with that. Praising him for it, in fact.
Related: “Why God Cannot Forsake You“
The “Promises” of God
But then again, Bible-believing Christians like me were still supposed to expect a handful of things that had little to do with getting what we ourselves wanted out of life. These very few things were inextricably linked to our central mission in life, which was to bring glory to God by seeking to make his presence known in the world. According to the Bible, failing to approach these things with earnest expectation would have been a failure on our part:
“Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” —Hebrews 11:6
Even the expectation that the presence of the Holy Spirit is supposed to make a difference in the life and character of Christians is at once normative and also completely out of line because, come on…you can’t judge God by the actions of his people, right? In case you don’t recognize this rhetorical sleight of hand, by the way, it’s called gaslighting—telling you fundamentally contradictory things and then blaming you for the confusion it causes, as if the inconsistency owes more to a lack of character in you than it does to the system of belief itself.
But self-honesty demanded that people like me own up to what we saw with our own eyes. Sure, our mentors paid lip service to the notion of “following the evidence wherever it leads,” but if you watch what they do instead of what they say you learn that this only applies when it supports the beliefs you’ve been told to accept and never when it doesn’t. Whether they realize it or not, it’s a disingenuous platitude that few of them ever really live out.
Get Used to Disappointment
What’s more, I’ve lost count now of how many people have told me that “everybody goes through a phase like you’re going through,” assuring me that the best way to get past it is to just learn to trust that somehow it all works out whether we understand it or not. What this tells me is that virtually everyone who makes it into old age still holding on to the faith of their youth had to decide at one point or another to let go of their questions and just, well…give them up.
The irony is that they feel that I’m the one who gave up. From their point of view, I made a deliberate choice to reject God and go my own way, putting myself above God as if I know better than he does what’s right. It wasn’t until recently that I finally figured out why they keep thinking this…
It’s because they did make a choice. They chose to stuff the questions down, resolving to surrender their need to understand why things never really add up. One by one, I’ve heard each one of them say virtually the same things. They cannot understand why, from my point of view, there wasn’t any choice to be made at all. For me, I couldn’t help following wherever the evidence led, and for me it led right out the door. But that’s not how it works for everyone. Some people can just turn it off.
Related: “Maybe Belief Is a Matter of Choice for Some“
I remember being in that place myself once before. Several years before I left it all behind, I captured my state of mind in a journal entry that expressed a number of issues which later changed my mind about everything. Reading through my old struggles, what strikes me most is how long I was able to stuff them down, putting them on a shelf in order to keep together the life I had spent years creating for myself and my family.
Without anyone telling me, I knew even then that “following the evidence wherever it leads” would mean the deconstruction of my entire life. Like a house of cards, everything I knew would collapse if I breathed on it too hard, so I held my breath for years. But there came a day when I could no longer pretend to be okay with what I had finally figured out: that the things I was told from childhood were really just a social construct. A useful one, to be sure, and deeply loved by everyone around me. But really just a fiction, as far as I can make out.
I suppose they have learned to accept the disappointments that their life experience has given them. In the end, I never could do that. Stuffing it all down indefinitely would have meant living a lie, and I wanted nothing more than to live an honest life, whatever the consequences.
But I didn’t do it in pursuit of happiness. I did it, whether or not it makes sense to you, in pursuit of God.
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