There are two kinds of people in this world: the kind who nicely wrap the cord to their vacuum around the two hooks provided, creating a neat, tidy oval of organized wire, and the kind who bunch up the cord in their hand long enough to make it to the closet and throw it in a heap onto the floor.
When I started to take ownership of my faith in high school, my experience can best be described as frantic. I spent a small fortune in those first couple years at our local Christian bookstore. I bought a new Bible, devotionals, studies, commentaries, and Christian cd’s. I heaped shame on myself for being the only one out of my group of friends who did not have a “testimony” and channeled a great deal of effort into playing catch up in the faith department.
The image that comes to mind of my faith formation is the image of frantically and tightly wrapping the vacuum cord around those two hooks. As soon as I thought one part was wrapped securely, my hand would quickly slide to the next measure of cord to continue the process. I was eager to understand God deeper and be able to share about his love and grace with others, and so I was constantly reaching for Christian teaching. I absorbed every bit of information I could get my hands on, most of which was written by and for conservative evangelicals. My theology was becoming neat and tidy, just like my friends’ seemed to be. I was so moved by what I was learning that I decided I wanted to become a youth pastor. I declared my religion major basically the minute I started college in the hopes of further developing an organized, teachable, and sound theology that would carry me into the next chapter of life.
After a year or two of stubborn and confusing resistance to academic religious studies, I discovered that I had a profound need when it came to my faith and understanding of God. The tight, strict teachings I had received about women, relationships, the Bible, and roughly 46,724 topics within the Christian faith were preventing me from exploring what was happening in my heart and in my life. The faith I had built offered very little room for questioning, doubting, or openness to new sources. Each time I learned something new that challenged my prior beliefs, my default reactions were shame and fear. Rather than being able to undertake faithful explorations that might lead to growth, I felt stifled by the pressure to always be correct.
If faith was going to remain an authentic and sacred part of my life, then the beliefs I had frantically gathered as a teenager needed to undergo a process of unraveling.
I surveyed what I had gathered and for the first time recognized that my faith was like a vacuum cord wrapped so tightly around its hooks that I couldn’t adjust it any further. The way it had been so meticulously wrapped prevented movement in any direction. My rigid, unquestioning faith turned out to be severely limiting when trying to take in the magnitude, mystery, goodness, and surprising nature of God. So I was left to do the hard work of unraveling my cord in the hope of getting back to the source. Thus began a profoundly difficult season of relinquishing control and wrestling with God, while undoubtedly inching towards growth and renewal. It was as if some holy, powerful thing came into my temple and flipped all of my tables upside down.
In reflecting on my neat and tidy beliefs, I realized that at the center of my Christian faith was an earnest desire to please God out of a deep fear of Him: fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of being on the outside, fear of His disapproval, fear of not being *insert any positive adjective here* enough. All of these fears coupled with my perfectionism led me straight to insecurity and shame. But in the process of working through this fear, I found what I believe to be the cornerstone of what Jesus's life revealed to us about the nature of God: that truly nothing can separate us from the unconditional love of God. Starting at this beginning, I worked to replant my faith on better soil. Faith that could carry me through my life experiences and my expanding worldview. Faith that was founded on truly good news.
The things I had come to understand about the character of God through His son Jesus were more beautiful, more risky, and more fulfilling than what I had believed before. In Jesus, I found someone who was God’s perfect and truest self, revealed. He was a powerful storyteller. He lived a nonviolent life. He sought out the people that religion excluded and that power oppressed and he gave them his time and his love. He said they were forgiven before they changed a thing about themselves. He saw people that the religious leaders couldn’t or wouldn’t, and he invited them to join him just as they were. Out of these experiences sprung earnest change, repentance, and rethinking. People were bursting to tell of this unexpected love. Jesus experienced pain, grief, and betrayal at the hands of his friends. He was killed by hate and fear because he was a threat to the existing structure. He died and was buried. He rose again. He found those who had betrayed him once before and invited them all to get a bite to eat with him. He was loving, forgiving, merciful, caring, understanding yet willing to challenge, and endlessly patient.
Ultimately, he gave us two commands on which all of the rest our beliefs ought to hang: love God and love others. As far as I’m concerned, these are my marching orders. Everything else—the convincing, persuading, and converting that I had prioritized before—those are above my pay grade. They should know me by my love, which I learn from Jesus, and which requires nothing of its recipients first. No one needs to earn that love before receiving it. There are no prerequisites.
I like to think that these two commands—to love God and love others—became my two new hooks on which to wrap a looser, sometimes messier, but more authentic and compassionate faith. One that has spent some moments in a heap on the floor, has been built slowly and thoughtfully, and has factored in space to allow the Spirit to move.
Faith is a journey, and journeys require movement. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that it is okay to not be who you once were. It is okay to learn, change, adapt, and grow. It is okay to meet God where you least expect it, and it is okay to look back on something you believed so passionately once and realize, “Welp! I wouldn’t say it quite like that now!”
Growth is important. An evolving faith is a healthy one. I asked God for years to grow my heart, faith, and understanding, but my pride and security were at risk when I actually confronted a source of new growth.
My hope in this space is to wipe out any shame and guilt about wrestling with beliefs and welcome you into a safe space to learn, grow, and share alongside each other.
Won’t you join me?