After “getting zapped” (better known as getting filled or being baptized) by the Holy Spirit, now in my mid twenties, I acquired an insatiable desire for God. I had experienced a little miracle that brought me peace and joy, and gave me hope that those things could be experienced on a more consistent basis. I was on a quest now to ever increase the likelihood of encountering God in person. My husband’s desire had also increased and we drove and ferried about fifty miles every other Sunday to attend a church on Vashon Island that my brother was interim pastoring. That brother eventually moved to our home town to pastor a brand new church for all the disenfranchised Baptists and their newly Spirit Filled friends. We were now part of that tribe, and a lovely tribe it was. Such love and unity I have yet to experience elsewhere. Some of us described it like Camelot—almost fairytale like. The humble, gentle, love of the pastor, my brother, became the personality of the church. Attending church services, for most of us, meant experiencing God. There was such joy and freedom, and all our get-together’s were filled with music and laughter. We loved God. We loved each other. What could go wrong? I’m not sure what went wrong and it’s not my story to tell, but like Camelot, The Vineyard did not last. Sadly, it was the first of three consecutive churches we have belonged to that suffered dysfunction that caused deep pain, disillusionment, and some form of dissolving. But that is not what this chapter is about.
Back to my new found quest for God… I was intrigued by the talk in the book of Hebrews about the resting place, a kind of place of peace where striving would cease, that is available in God himself. The Israelites, wandering in the Egyptian dessert during the exodus, did not enter into it because of their unbelief. But the Bible says that this resting place in God is still available for us today and all we have to do is believe it. I wanted that kind of peace! Could simply believing that there is a resting place actually get me there? Then the book of Romans tells how Abraham believed and was declared righteous simply because he believed. I wanted to be righteous! I wanted to be rid of the guilt feelings that plagued me. Could it be this simple? Just believe? And poof! All anxiety gone and in it’s place, peace and joy? It seemed like that was what happened that day in the shower (see chapter ten) when I suddenly just believed and peace and joy miraculously appeared. I had such a strong hope that simply believing would solve my sin/guilt/anxiety problem and give me the peace I so desperately craved, but I struggled to find anyone that would agree with me fully. There always seemed to be the implication of some sort of struggle or effort required on top of the believing. Or maybe people were just trying to express that our participation is required and I couldn’t figure out how, exactly, we participate except to simply believe. Still can’t…I seem to be incapable of any kind of participation, except yielding.
I remember reading, along with some of my friends, “The Practice of the Presence of God” by 17th-century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence, and another ancient book my mom had given me by a mystic on The Song of Solomon, and thinking, “yes! It is this simple. Just believe and know God is present, right here inside me!” So, I gave it a good go, and did experience times of relief from the ongoing struggle. I’m still on that track. But back then in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s the Evangelicals/Charismatics greatly outnumbered the “mystics”. I lacked a support system and “the resting place” was hard to sustain when I felt alone in the effort. There were a few who were heading the same direction, including my dad, but I don’t know, I guess I didn’t trust my own intuition enough to be “all in” with the Brother Lawrence types. Or maybe it was fear…fear that simply believing God was not enough.
Nevertheless, being one who does not give up easily when something seems so right and true, I continued to search the scriptures for answers, and also for anybody who would give me full permission to completely abandon all the ways I tried earning or deserving God’s love. (I seem to be always looking for validation from people…hmmm) But one of the tenets undergirding the Protestant Faith is the belief in the Depravity of Man propagated by the likes of John Calvin in the 1500’s and Jonathan Edwards in the 1700’s and John Piper and John MacArthur, among others, today. (Weird, they’re all named John!) This belief assumes our inability to please God in any way and claims that humans will always be undeserving of the love of God. (See footnote) This was the church environment I grew up in (not the one I was currently in) and it had a strong grip on me. I was drawn to the simplicity of practicing the presence of God and wanted so badly to just believe, be loved, and have peace, but I could not escape the feeling that there was something inherently wrong with me at the core. Unlovable. I would never be able to fully please God.
My personal mission was just that—to do whatever I could to be pleasing to God. I recognized pride as my most prominent “sin” and therefore every prayer for myself was an effort to be humble and have a pure heart. But at the same time there was an unconscious awareness that I could not accomplish either of these things because of my inherent depravity. Besides that there is a Bible verse that says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” This is probably the worst verse in the whole Bible for me. If my heart is the most deceitful thing and desperately wicked, and I don’t know it… crap! There is no hope for me, or any of us! I basically just tried not to think about that verse because there was nothing I could do about it anyway, but it was always under the surface. My way out of that pit of despair was this train of thought; only God can give me humility and a pure heart, so can’t I just believe that and be done with it? It turns out I can, and I did often, but I wouldn’t be able to more consistently rest there until years later.
I was naturally proud and my heart was always feeling and thinking “unpleasant to God” thoughts. Almost every day I tried to claw my way out of this vicious downward cycle. How could a displeased God feel complete love for me? Wouldn’t there always be that, “yes, but I have this against you,” just like those verses in the book of John’s Revelation that were preached to warn us? This is how I heard that sermon, “stop being so lukewarm or Jesus is going to spew you out of his mouth!” And this is how I felt—I must be like vomit in God’s mouth that he can’t wait to be rid of because that’s what the Bible says and the Bible is true. I needed to be on fire, hot, not lukewarm. I would cry passionate tears over my apparent lukewarmness, feel better, and then go forth and be more zealous.
It is said that God’s love is unconditional, and it is, but even that statement has built right into it how undeserving I am of God’s love…no matter how bad you are, and all of us are totally depraved, God loves you. Can you imagine saying to your own child, or hearing from your own parent, “you are rotten at the core, and I love you…even though you don’t deserve it. No matter how hard you try, you will never be worthy of my love, but keep trying because you should be pure and holy like me.” It seemed like the Bible was proclaiming two opposite messages; a schizophrenic, two faced, Janus god, impossible to have genuine communion with. Trying to relate to God this way sadistically motivates me to improve myself in order to be loved….to perform better, to try harder, or to do enough…and it’s never enough. That is a desperate starting place and I’m sick to death of being desperate.
But let me leave you with a more positive sentiment than hopeless desperation. My current train of thought has more resonance with a theme that the apostle Paul writes about in his letters to the early church; “There is only Christ, he is everything, and he is in everything.” My joy and peace increases in direct correlation to how much I allow this mystery to become my resting place. God is all, in all. You and I are included.
Danielle Shroyer wrote a very insightful book called Original Blessing. I highly recommend it! You can find it here.
For clarification on why my interpretation of Bible verses is so messed up, read this short article by Brian Zahnd on Biblicism.
Footnote: St. Augustine was first to introduce the idea of Original Sin. John Calvin further developed that idea into a doctrine called the Depravity of Man. Jonathan Edward’s preaching embedded that doctrine into the Evangelical system of theology. Richard Muller’s book, “Calvin and the Reformed Tradition” claims that John Calvin’s use of the term “total depravity” meant that although people could outwardly display good behavior, inwardly there is a “distortion which makes all human actions displeasing to God”. American scholar and historian, William J. Bouwsma, affirms that Calvin believed that even after salvation, every human action is mixed with evil.