Article by: Anonymous
The warranted cynicism and subsequent becoming
In the second semester of my first year of university, I committed my life to God. This came after a lifetime of worrying my parents about my disdain for church and anything related – quite removed from my family’s deep allegiance to it. My mother is a born again Christian and member of the Methodist church through marriage. My brother was a theology student, and my sisters were staunch members of the Wesley guild. You can imagine that Sundays were spent going to church at an exact time and returning at a random variable hour. I, however, preferred to spend my Sundays catching up on episodes of series I had missed and hanging out with anyone who decided to stay home that Sunday. To say I did not share their keenness for church would be a grave understatement. At the height of my “rebellion”, my slightly older sister and I had reached an age where my parents thought it would be a good idea for us to become full members of the church. We would have to attend confirmation classes, read the catechism and pass a test of our knowledge of basic Methodist doctrine. One of the requirements was being a baptised member of the church. I found out then that I had not been baptised as a child. As I could not envision the possibility of standing as a fully-fledged teenager next to babies who were carried by their parents as the priest confirmed me, I promised my parents that I would do it one day when I had a better understanding. I think it was then that my parents’ greatest worry about me and church was formed.
What my parents did not know and what I struggled to find the language and unmetered bravery to articulate to them was that I knew exactly what happened in church. The hymns, the repeated requests for money from an already financially strapped congregation and mostly, the impassioned preaching from people who lived in our community and whose untransformed lives we were closely familiar with. If the gospel they preached could not transform their own lives, I saw little value in my involvement with it. So, I spent much of my formative years as a suspicious outsider to church, disconnected and watching what seemed to me to be mistruth from the sidelines.
Although I had no real alignment to church, I believed in the existence of God. I found great comfort in prayer and the practices my parents instilled in us at home, however superficial my understanding of the reasons was. When I got to university, a friend invited me to her charismatic church. After attending services for a while, I felt quite comfortable there. Quite opposite to the church of my childhood, there seemed to be a great deal of authenticity and honest zeal from the members of this church. The gospel was preached, people encouraged and there was a sense that people’s lives were sincerely transformed. The preaching of the gospel transformed mine. With all my formative church suspicion, I trusted this church and decided to stay. This would be where I would later commit my life to God, choose to get baptized with full understanding of the reasons for my declaration as well as attend small group. It would also become the catalyst of a very textured experience with church.
Around the latter part of my second year, my church began to focus on teachings about the Holy Spirit and gifts of the prophecy, dreams, prayer in tongues and “moves of the Spirit”. Later I moved into a new residence and attended the church’s small group gatherings there. Each meeting was retrospectively focused on using the “move of the Spirit” to encourage those present. Although we were all well-intentioned, we spent little to no time in Scripture, save to find a few verses that would support our right to access spiritual gifts. Words of knowledge were shared, prophetic prayers prayed, visions seen, and hands laid on attendees to share in the giftings. I would spend my time watching videos about spiritual gifts, praying earnestly for God to speak to me, attending evening services and getting prayed for to receive the gifts. Nothing happened. I heard nothing. Not a peep. I also saw and felt nothing. I was so distraught, but because I intently wanted to “hear” from God, I was determined to come back each week and try again. I did. Still nothing, to the fullest extent of my disappointment. What began as encouraging revelation about the fruits of friendship with God and the Holy Spirit became first confusing, and then outright painful because, although I tried to lean into the experience, I could not access God in this way. It was devastating to me that God would speak to everyone except me about me. This tarnished my understanding of God’s view of me and perhaps created a mental divide between me and God, because my interpretation was that at best, I was doing something wrong and at worst, God did not share the same affinity for me as He did for those at small group and anywhere else where people were falling, hearing Him speak directly to them, seeing things I did not see and united by a shared camaraderie with the Holy Spirit. I felt left behind. To be honest, in part I still do not understand what it was that was happening in our small group meetings. What I do know is that what followed was an incorrect understanding of intimacy with God being evidenced by an ability to summon His physically manifested presence at my own will. I thought being a friend of God meant that if I prayed hard enough, there was a faith in me that could summon God to do things varying from visiting me in my residence room at random hours (I cannot even imagine the fear that would follow if He really had done that) or asking the Holy Spirit to wake me up for no reason at all. If my understandings were true, it would naturally result in some of the objectively ridiculous miracles we see requested on our tv screens every day. That is, there is no end to the spectrum of possibility with a God that we create to bend to our own desire and will, a God of our own understanding and not a God that we seek to understand. Anything goes then. However innocent at face value, what I wanted were the miracles, not God.
The hope against hope: a thing of not
Although I was disappointed by my experience with spiritual gifts, my zeal for fellowship with God did not dim but morphed into a desire to understand, contextualize and be able to answer for my faith. It became clearer to me that my belief had no real Biblical grounding and there was no growth in my Biblical knowledge. My prayer now was that God would lead me to a Bible based church where I would develop technical rigor in my understanding of the Bible. I received a call from a childhood friend who invited me to a camp hosted by her church and aimed at my exact desires. We would spend a month delving into the scriptures about various topics. In my excitement I told this to a university friend who requested to join me at the camp. We would only be permitted to wear skirts. Our hair would always have to be covered and modesty would have to be keenly observed. We would be strictly vegan for Biblical reasons which would be explained at the camp. Although these were unfamiliar requests, I did not mind doing this for a month since the greater purpose for my attendance mattered more to me. I was also familiar with the church and was aware of their modest observations, although this was more extreme than I had been previously privy to. After raising the funds to go to the camp, we were off to begin a month of what I can only describe as the height of good intention met with bad theology.
We arrived at our first stop in the evening. The camp leader collected us and drove us to the camp site which was about an hour or so away. This was one of the longest and scariest journeys I have ever taken in my life. It was clear that our camp leader was a bad driver. I do not say that in jest. It stands out to me now that when we got to the camp site, his prayer included gratitude for protection on the road. We would later find out that he had had an accident on his way to the camp site to drop off other camp-goers. Given our experience of his driving, this made sense. However, the news was greeted with great sorrow for the work that this man was trying to do. This seemingly small event matters because it became usual to attribute the results of objectively dangerous acts of “faith” to the devil’s opposition to God’s work, and, as evidenced by his prayer of gratitude for traveling mercies, although he had put all our lives in danger, our camp leader really did believe that he was firstly commissioned to do the work he was doing how he was doing it, that his work was being tarnished by the devil and that God was protecting him.
Our routine at the camp was fixed. Morning prayer, Bible study, exercise, the sanctuary message about God’s heavenly atonement for our sins, nutrition classes taught from a Biblical perspective, lunch, Bible study and then evangelism. Here, everything was evidenced through scriptural reference. The sanctuary message could be summarised as follows: The earthly sanctuary was modelled after a heavenly sanctuary. In the heavenly sanctuary, Jesus was our high priest who went into the most holy place to make atonements on our behalf. While his dying on the cross was the greatest atonement, he is still in heaven making atonements for the saints. Therefore, we needed to be careful how we live on this side of heaven for his sake. Although we were quite literally CHRISTIANS, the presentation of scripture blinded us to the mistruth in this message. It also blinded us to the incessant request for people to accept the sabbath and follow the ten commandments. Having understood the gospel, I had a difficult time with why the sabbath seemed to be such a foundational focus in the understanding of the story of salvation. However, the scriptures were there. The only other source referenced was Ellen White who greatly encouraged a modest life away from modern society. It was clear that all those in attendance were well acquainted with Ellen White’s teaching. They could quote her and the scriptures she referenced word-for-word. In retrospect, the alarming part about this was that Ellen White’s scriptural recommendations became the departure point in every otherwise easily solvable problem. These scriptures were also not compared to any other part of the Bible. One of the girls at the camp had not passed a course. After lengthy discussion it was suggested that she stay behind for a few more months as God was perhaps leading her to a path of evangelism and modesty. Another young camp-goer was struggling financially and discussed this with the group. He too was told to join the rest of the people who would stay behind at the camp. There were many other teachings which we believed and were even convicted by which make no sense in retrospect, but because they had been backed by scripture, we relented. The acceptance of the sabbath just did not make sense to me however, so when I got home, I threw away every Ellen White book we had been given.
Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness – John Piper
The length of this entry does not permit me to describe the genuine grapple that followed my experience with shallow and bad theology. There was disappointment that God would allow me to be duped in the way that I was, despondence at discovering that something I had so firmly held on to was not true, waning faith after hearing story after story of people whose lives were turned upside-down by the doctrines we had come to believe, and even close acquaintances who had become casualties of the faith because we no longer knew what the truth was. Then, the toughest grapple of them all – trying to make sense of God’s position in all of this. After all my attempts at finding some type of understanding of my faith, when it seemed there were no answers, I returned to my formative self. I observed church from the sidelines, stopped praying and stopped reading the Bible. For about a year this continued, but thankfully, being connected to friends who were honest about their faith journey freed me to be honest about mine, and allowed us to collectively pursue a more mature, theologically sound and less receipt-obsessed relationship with God. I now understand that neither the people in church and cell, nor the people at the camp were driven by any malice. On the contrary. However, no matter how well-intentioned, damaging theology leads to damaged people. What I now know is that the slippery slopes that we can go on when we are in desperate need mean that we are all susceptible to deception. It is therefore important that we develop a vigilant thinking framework that is rooted in repeated scriptural checking. We must be prepared to do the work of reading our Bibles and asking meaningful questions about how the outcomes of what we are putting our faith behind plays out naturally, and whether that makes sense taking the scriptures into account. Being plugged in honest faith communities is important, but it is equally important that we are not merely blind recipients of teaching, but that we are active participants in making sense of them. Lastly, the hope that gives me comfort is that of being kept under God’s complete sovereignty. Nothing outside of His sovereign providence, nothing outside of His knowledge and nothing so far reaching that we cannot be returned from. God sent friends to help me up in my faith when I was completely ready to disavow it. That immutable God remains today who He was then and that for me makes all the difference.