Sunday, May 4, 2014

Churchology Mega Post

I’ve attended Christian churches for most of my life and heard many people talk about “the Christian life”. The life of a Christian has been described to me in various ways; the description that has always stuck in my mind has been that of life being a wrestling match. Believers in the Bible will find themselves wrestling with many things in their lives, most specifically with themselves and secular culture.  

I’ve struggled with many of the Bible’s teachings about how a believer in Jesus Christ should live his life. Most of my struggles I’ve kept to myself, but I feel that there is a need for transparency in the church. I feel that too many church-going people keep quiet about their frustrations about being a believer. We don’t want to admit that we have difficulty following the Bible’s teachings, so we hide our shortcomings, our fears, and our doing so, we alienate ourselves from others who may be experiencing similar difficulties. In the spirit of honesty, I thought that I would share some of aspects of the Christian life that I have silently wrestled with throughout my lifetime.

Self Denial. I’ve wrestled with biblical self-denial. The New Testament speaks of “dying to oneself”. Jesus said in the gospels that the two greatest commands in the Old Testament were that man should love God with all his heart and that man should love his neighbor as himself. Both commands cannot be carried out without first dying to self. I clash with self-denial on a daily basis. I’m a natural born hedonist.
I want.
I lust.
I desire.
I want to overindulge myself in every area of life. It’s a daily battle to stop my overindulgence. What I find most frustrating, is that I can spent the entire day thinking pious thoughts and reading the Bible, but in an instant I can turn around and over indulge myself in an overtly non-biblical manner. Afterwards, I’ll sit there wondering how I could so zealously want to follow the Bible and God’s commands, but then be so self-centered and ego-centric.

Biblical Sexuality. I’ve wrestled with the Bible’s narrow viewpoint about sex. Naked people are pretty and the human race is hardwired for reproduction…I have wanted to reproduce like a madman my entire life. My earliest memories are of being sexually curious. My teenage years were overshadowed by the thought that sex must be the most amazing thing in the entire world. My college years were spent trying to ignore my sex drive so that I could actually be a productive human being.  Culture’s viewpoint of sex is expansive, but God’s viewpoint on sex is narrow. Culture says sex belongs everywhere, but God says sex belongs within the commitment of marriage. Biblically, sex is meant to be a symbol of our relationship with God and an outward expression of love for another human being. I can see logical reasons for sex being restrained to the boundary of marriage; it cuts out a lot of emotional turmoil, unwanted pregnancies, pregnancy scares, and debilitating sexual diseases.  
I understand the reasoning behind sexual monogamy…but that doesn’t make sticking to the Bible’s teachings any easier. I dabbed my toes in sexual expressions as a child. I masturbated like an orangutan as a teenager.  
I made out with a girl once or twice in college. I managed to meet my wife and elope with her while still a virgin, but retaining my virginity for 25 years was a difficult, uphill battle.

Evangelism. I’ve wrestled with God’s command to tell the world about his plan to save humanity from self-immolation. I’ve struggled with this command because of my emotional and mental predisposition. Emotionally, I’m a raging introvert with socially inept tendencies. I’m also a very depressed person. From birth, I’ve had my own personal cloud of doom hovering over my head. Such qualities don’t make for a good Bible-believing poster child. Many people that I’ve seen witness to unbelievers pepper their words with emotional terminology. I can’t do that sort of thing.

First, I’ve been told that my facial expressions range from inscrutable blankness to an apparently homicidal expression of “I want to kill you”.  Neither expression is recommended for evangelism.

Second, I don’t trust emotional responses because I can’t trust my own.

Third, I have a fundamental issue with the manner in which a number of people evangelize.

Churches try to teach people a “formula” for witnessing. I can’t use those formulas, because they eat away at the heart of evangelism. Evangelism isn’t a numbers game. It isn’t manipulating someone’s emotions to produce a “sinner’s prayer”. It’s a personal conversation between two people where information is exchanged about the Bible’s teachings about Jesus. It’s a legitimate conversation where both parties hear each other out.

I look at evangelism from the non-believer’s perspective. I’m not going to give a Mormon door to door “salvation salesman” the time of day. A person engaging me in an explicit evangelistic conversation is going to put me on the defensive and I’m going to view him as being manipulative and dangerous. By contrast, if I have a Mormon friend who talks about his faith in a normal conversation, I’m more inclined to actually listen to his beliefs, to actually consider what is being said. That’s the way I’m wired. A person’s belief system is intensely personal. You should approach a conversation about that system in a personal manner. Because of that, I have difficulty propagating the faith in the traditional church-sponsored manner. I can’t shove people’s faces into my faith through the traditional, impersonal approaches of door to door visitation, street preaching, or alter calls.

God’s “unpredictable” reactions. I’ve wrestled with how the Bible presents God’s reactions to mankind. I, like many other people, have tried to predict God’s actions. I’ll read one passage in the Bible where he “showers someone in blessings” and then another where he kills someone for telling a lie about embezzled money. You have numerous passages in the Bible that talk about God judging people for their sins, but then also passages that talk about him forgiving people.





How do I know how God will react to my actions? Will He show me grace if I commit this sin, or will he punish me with death because of it? It’s impossible to stuff God into a box or to distill his actions into a mathematical formula. He punishes sinful actions, but the severity of the punishment varies. He forgives people of their wrongdoings, but he doesn’t save them from the consequences of their actions.

In reading the book of Psalms, I think David was thinking through the same questions that I have been asking. Job and Elijah also wrestled with the same thought processes. I’ve recently been reading the Bible with a concentration on the character and actions of God contrasted with the character and actions of mankind. I have no bullet point answers for how to predict God’s actions. My best summary so far is that mankind is evil and deserves nothing but damnation. God cannot let sin go unpunished, but he is softhearted and long suffering. The Bible shows him both when he is expressing his long suffering qualities and also when his long suffering has reached its limit. The Bible shows that God is loving and willing to forgive, but that there are limits and boundaries that if crossed, meet with punishment. I’m still conducting my study and once I’ve finished it, I’ll write up my thoughts on the totality of what I read.

Nonverbal communication with God. I’ve wrestled with God’s lack of verbal communication with his followers. I’ve always yearned for the direct communication between God and man that the Old Testament figureheads experienced. Moses spoke audibly with God. Why can’t I?

When I was younger, the way churchgoing people described being a believer made it sound like once you believed in Jesus, a red phone was wired into your head that was a hot line to the voice of God (that’s an Adam West Batman reference for you non-comic book geeks). When the phone rings, it’s God on the other end giving you instructions for each step of your life.

The New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit communicating internally with believers in some sort of manner. If you ask other believers how they perceive God communicating to them, they often describe emotional responses, an emotional sixth sense. Because my physiology is hardwired for depression, I don’t trust my emotions. I can’t trust my emotions. When I’ve attempted to let my “Christian Spider Sense tingle” I’ve made some of the biggest blunders of my life. It just doesn’t work for me. In my situation, I can only analyze my actions and decision making against the written word of the Bible. I do not trust any extra-sensory magic Christian powers, and I have a difficult time trusting other people who seem to rely on such things for their direction in life. The only sure thing that I have to depend on is what the Bible says. I still wish that I had a heavy handed voice of God communicating to me, but after years of meditation and self-evaluation, it’s become clear to me that in my case, I can’t rely on that to happen. I can only rely on what God communicates to me through his inspired words in the Bible.

Cookie Cutter Christianity. I’ve wrestled with not being a “cookie cutter” believer. I attended bible college in the hopes of becoming one. You know the kind of cookie Christian I’m talking about; he’s the clean-cut kid that appears on the marketing materials of your local Bible college. He’s an upper middle class person who is super talented, outgoing, and bubbling over with the joy of life. He’s conquered all his personal demons, disciplined his life to near perfection, and he experiences success in all of his endeavors.

He’s also top of his class, married to a hot wife, and flosses twice every day.
I thought that Bible college would turn me into a cookie cutter Christian. It didn’t do that. It exposed me to be a person who is introverted, depressed, and plagued with inner demons. I’m not a shining example of “awesome sauce” Christianity. I’ve struggled with that fact. It’s made me question the legitimacy of my faith in the Bible for the last 20 years. If I believe what God tells me in the Bible, aren’t I supposed to magically transform into Mr. Christian Cookie Cutter? Where are all my happy feelings? Where is my magical freedom from all my inner demons?
Recent Bible studies of my own have helped me look beyond the disappointment of not fitting the cookie mold. I look at God’s creation and I see variety. I look at the people that God used in the Bible, and I see variety. God used bastards and preaches alike. He used people who had massive talents and big bank accounts, but he also used impoverished people with meager faith. He didn’t use an Aryan super race of tie-wearing, bike-peddling clones. He used people from all races, economic backgrounds, and social classes. He doesn’t need us to be cookie cutter drones. He wants us to uniquely serve him. We are still useful and able to serve God even if we differ from other people’s standards. I wish I had realized this as a teenager. I wish I’d known this when all the church people tried to shove me into Betty Crocker’s baking pan.

Lack of Perfection. I’ve wrestled with imperfection. It’s impossible to be a perfect person. I wish that believing in the Bible instantly made a person visibly holy. The New Testament talks about believers being holy in a spiritual sense, but in the earthly day to day activities, believers are still very flawed people. Growing up in church, people would constantly testify before the congregation that God had freed them from their addictions and bad habits and I would wonder why God didn’t do that for me. I questioned the validity of my faith because God didn’t take away my depression or water down my tyrannosaur sex drive. The longer you live life with an awareness of Biblical teaching, the more you’ll grow to realize just how screwed up you are. Believers are called to be imitators of Jesus, but we’re flawed imitations. We can present a shadow of godliness in this life, but that’s the best we can do. I’m irritated by this fact. I’m irritated by my omnipresent selfishness and hedonistic tendencies. I wish we could be perfect examples to an imperfect world, but we aren’t. That’s why we’re supposed to point to Jesus and not ourselves. We don’t say “do as I do, but do as he does”.

Mundane Existence. I’ve wrestled with the Christian life being mundane. It’s difficult to be a believer in everyday life. In church, we’re always told stories about the people who “went balls to the wall” for God (maybe not in that particular verbiage, but you get my point). We are inundated with images of people who founded churches with memberships numbering in the thousands or missionaries who saw a global impact from their actions. We never hear about the missionary who only wins a handful of converts, or the pastor with a church membership of 35. Failure is rarely mentioned. Unspectacular ministerial results are not brought up. The Christian life is marketed as an exciting thrill ride where you’re slaying spiritual dragons.

How do you react to being a believer in a mundane environment? If you’re not “called” to public ministry, how do you take that fantastical existence you were told about and rectify it with a life where you work two jobs to make ends meet? I’ve found it to be frustrating…but I’m learning to deal with that frustration. I currently view such an existence through the lens of entrepreneurship.

An entrepreneur creates his own opportunities and invests in them; if he can’t find the job he wants, he makes it for himself. A spiritual entrepreneur does the same thing. If he doesn’t see a direct place for him to minister, he creates a place for himself. If the results of his efforts are unspectacular, so be it. He tried and “failed”. He learns from his failures, gets back up, and tries again. The principle to remember is that God always operates differently than how humanity operates. Men and women evaluate everything in visible quantification, but God deals in “big picture” spiritual collateral. As Jesus put it while sitting outside the temple, a widow’s mite can outweigh the significance of a wealthy man’s millions because she gave more of herself than the he did. God gives some people great opportunities and others limited ones, it’s up to us to invest in those available opportunities.

Bonus Section…

I initially began this Churchology comic as a single page comic that explained the discrepancies between how other people described the Christian life and how I experienced the Christian life. I went as far as to ink and color the comic…but then I decided to change my approach to the material. When I decided to focus on transparency, I felt that I had too much to say for the single page format to work. Anyways, I thought I'd share the initial illustrations with you so that the work didn't just end up in my wastebasket.

The visual idea was to have a car with Christian bumper stickers represent the Christian life. The car is belching plumes of exhaust that form the panels for the different points that I wanted to make. Once the smoke plumes were completed, I was going to add an interstate background…

Stay tuned for some more Churchology comics. I have four more inked. I just need to finish the lettering and coloring. You'll probably see them in the next month.

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