I grew up in the Baptist Church.
I spent most of my youth attending independent Baptist churches with my mother. Our entire lives were steeped in church culture. You would think that such an environment would turn me into a squeaky clean Baptist Choirboy, but it didn’t.
From an early age, I understood that I was a depraved person that needed to be saved from my sinful self. The Baptist Church’s response was for me to pray “the sinner’s prayer”. I was instructed that if I prayed the sinner’s prayer with “all my heart” that I’d be saved from Hellfire and become a Christian. The sinner’s prayer goes something like this, “Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner and there’s nothing I can do to get to heaven by my own works. I believe that Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for my sins, and was raised from the Dead. Please forgive me of my sins and make me a Christian. Amen.”
I prayed that prayer for the first time as a five year old. I was a happy go-lucky Christian for a few spiritually inconsequential years, but then I began to see my own sinfulness again. As puberty set in, my religious upbringing clashed with my hormones. I thought that being a Christian meant that you were supposed to steadily become more and more holy in your actions, that being sinless would become easier and easier as life progressed. I’d constantly hear church people proudly proclaim in church services that the instant they trusted God, He freed them from their vices.
As a teenager, I slowly saw more and more vices creeping into my life that weren’t going away, despite my best efforts. I became paranoid that I was still going to hell. I’d hear church people speak about “talking with God”. Their vocabulary made it sound like once you became a believer, an audible voice from God communicated to you in your head. Reading the Old Testament really made it look like God communicated to his followers in an audio/visual manner. I didn’t have an audible God-voice in my head. That freaked me out.
I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I did the same things other church-goers were doing. I’d stay up all night praying the sinner’s prayer over and over again thinking that I must not have prayed it right. I’d read books on the assurance of salvation. I made dozens of public professions of faith and spoke to numerous youth leaders about my fears. Everyone said it came down to faith, but my faith didn’t seem to be working. The more I studied the Bible, the more I felt cut off from other believers. I felt the full weight of the passages that spoke of God’s anger and wrath and saw myself excluded from the verses that talked of his love and grace.
At the apex of these thoughts, my mother and I moved to an independent Baptist church that added even more fuel to my doubtful fire. Our new pastor used the fear of Hell and God’s displeasure as the motivating factor for Christian living. He and other evangelists would say that if you didn’t accept God during a specific church service, that God would take away the offer of salvation. They made it sound like God’s salvation from hell was something dangled on a string that God lowered just into your reach once in a lifetime, and if you didn’t jump for it, he yanked it away. This teaching made me lose all hope. It made me self-destructive and angry at a vindictive God, a God who promised me salvation but who held me at arm’s length to prevent me from grasping his promises.
At the height of my spiritual frustration, I graduated high school and decided to attend a staunchly conservative liberal arts Bible College. I hoped to find answers to my spiritual questions. I hoped to find the answer to why I didn’t experience the same things that the other Christians seemed to be experiencing.
Bible College was a mixed bag. The basic undergraduate Bible classes weren’t geared towards people searching and asking questions about the Bible, they were built on the idea that you already knew about the Bible, had sound Biblical understanding, and just needed a refresher course on it’s contents. The classes I participated in didn’t answer my questions about where the Bible came from, how it was canonized, or call into question the seeming disparity between God’s love and wrath. The daily chapel services and Bible conferences fascinated me because they offered the depth of Biblical understanding that I was trying to dive into, but they didn’t answer all of my questions. I thought that being in an environment that was saturated and obsessed with the Bible would be the catalyst to transform me into the sinless Christian that everyone else seemed to be. Bible College didn’t transform me like I hoped it would. It instead pointed a magnifying glass at my sins. The harder I tried to live like a Christian, the more I realized that I was doing everything out of fear. My efforts to tell other people about the Bible were based off my fear of damnation. My “good works” were all done in the hope that they would legitimize my faith in God.
The hopelessness of my situation made me flirt with thoughts of suicide. How can you live life when you’re obsessed with the thought that you’re going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it? My spiritually-minded mother freaked out and turned me into the Dean of Men at my Bible College. She showed up at my workplace, marched me over to the Dean of Men, and presented him with an itemized list of all my problems. I was slack jawed. If kissing a girl is grounds for expulsion from Bible College, how fast would they expel me with an itemized list of all my spiritual faults headed by the title, “My son’s bat-crap crazy”?
The Dean of Men looked at the list briefly, then put it to the side and talked with me. As best I could, I tried to explain to him the depth of despair that I was in. His response was jaw-dropping. He didn’t expel me. He didn’t look down at me. He said that all believers are sinners, regardless of how their portray themselves. The shiny exteriors we try to present to the public are our attempts to hide the fact that we all fall short of God’s standard of perfection. He pushed me to study the Bible with a focus on the character of God. How does the Bible portray him? He crumpled up the list from my mother and dropped it into the wastebasket. We talked a little bit more and then he let me leave his office unexpelled.
Shortly after that, I left my mother’s church and began attending a community church of my own choosing. The ministerial staff at my new church openly acknowledged that they were sinful, flawed people. There was no pretense to perfection. They taught the congregation to read the Bible in context, which flew in the face of the “proof scripture passages”, that so many Baptist churches relied on to teach moralism. They pointed to the Christian’s need to utterly rely on Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to save us from ourselves. They didn’t point to praying a prayer, living a spotless life, or having a certain amount of faith to save ourselves. Learning to read the Bible in context and to rely on Christ as opposed to outward morals was groundbreaking for me. Learning to relate to God out of love rather than fear of punishment was massively liberating. The church I attended tried to strip away all the church traditions that had overshadowed my understanding and interpreting of scripture.
A few years later, I stumbled over YouTube videos produced by an organization called the White Horse Inn. Many of the men that contributed to the White Horse Inn had also contributed to the Bible studies that my community church had used in its services. Finding their resources online was a godsend.
In all honesty, I’m still nowhere close to being the man that I would like to be or feel that I should be. I fall so short of the standard that Christ set while on earth. The days that I set out to be the most Christ-like, often end up in moral failure. If I based my spiritual life off of my emotions or formula-based moral living, I’d be an utter basket case. What I base my spiritual life off of is the Bible’s testimony of Christ and his teachings. We in and of ourselves can’t earn God’s favor. We can’t work our way into his good graces and we will always fall short of the bench water mark of perfection. What we rely on is Christ himself. He provided the perfect life that we could never live. He provided the sinless death that we could never die. He provided the resurrection from the dead that we could never perform. When we place our trust in Christ, we are no longer evaluated off of our deeds; we are evaluated by Christ’s.
Some of my favorite Bible passages relate to how God blots out our sins because of Christ. Read Colossians chapter 2. There’s a beautiful passage which states that the record of our evil earthly deeds was nailed to Christ’s cross. When he died, his blood seeped over those pages and blotted them out completely.