When we returned from our stint in Hawaii with Youth With A Mission, a man named George Otis Jr. came and spoke at our church, telling the harrowing adventures of Christians smuggling Bibles into Russia, illegally. It was 1980 and Russia was a closed Communist country. George said they needed more people to go. Russia had a shortage of Bibles and the people were desperate for them. He told stories of narrow escapes from danger and death and how, miraculously, the Bible’s were delivered to the tearful and grateful recipients. It sounded so exciting to me. I wanted to be that daring person and be miraculously saved out of dangerous situations for God.
Most of my book reading in those days was all about real missionaries who literally had given their whole lives over to God, leaving family and loved ones behind and traveling to far off lands. The books were inspiring and I thought maybe I had what it took. I mean, God was who I lived for anyway, why not give it all up and go to the mission field? I think there was also a weird sort of morbid pleasure I took in hearing about other people’s painful but eventually redemptive experiences that made me want to be that person, and maybe I’d go down in history as an inspiring martyr and someone would write a book about me. Ugh. I had really romanticized the whole thing in a pathological kind of way. The reality of who I am is quite different. Thankfully, through the years of my pleading to go to the mission field, my husband wisely recognized the unreasonableness of my “grass is always greener” philosophy and kept us mostly home.
Remember we had just returned from mission work. It was in Hawaii. We had lived in a house there that was literally falling apart because of an infestation of termites eating it from the inside out. You could see the ground through the floor under your feet as you sat on the toilet because of those insect’s appetites. Also, the cockroaches we could hear scurrying away every night as we passed through the kitchen on the way to the bathroom, eew! We were digging their nests out of the flour sack before we used it. There were cane spiders and scorpions that never bothered me personally, but what did bother me was, that summer Maui was having an unusual heatwave and we didn’t have air conditioning. We got used to picking the flying ants off our bare skin that were blown onto us by the ancient fan we kept running all night long. Still, it was Hawaii. Paradise, right? My husband thrived, I wilted. Although I had gained incredible and invaluable life changing experiences, I couldn’t wait to get back home. He would have stayed.
So my obsession with going again was unexplainable, even to myself. I still don’t get it. Except maybe I was enticed by stories of how the missionaries always experienced God in a life changing way. Yes, that probably was it. Because that is what I wanted more than anything; to be experiencing God all the time! Also I believed God was telling all us Christians to be missionaries because of “The Great Commission”. Spread the gospel! There were so many people in the world who had never heard of Jesus and if we didn’t tell them, who would? I confess boldly, this second motive was not primary for me. It was not even secondary. It was barely even in my conscious mind. I just knew that it was the right thing to do and I fooled myself into believing that I had that compassion inside me somewhere – well if I didn’t, Jesus did, and he lived inside of me, so it was in there somewhere. I was inspired by it, but just didn’t feel it very strongly. But I thought once I got there, once I obeyed the call, that would make my motives pure, right?
So back to George Otis Jr. and the need to smuggle Bibles into Russia. I thought God was telling me/us to do that. And then I got pregnant with our third child, accidentally. This is super embarrassing to admit, but I wept because I thought that by getting pregnant I had ruined God’s plan for my life. I thought I had somehow thwarted God and now he was really, I mean really, disappointed in me. And there was nothing I could do about it, except cry shame-filled tears of extreme regret. Oh, but that’s not all! Even though I wanted this baby in the worst or, maybe the best way, I also felt fear-filled guilt on behalf of the unborn baby. I mean, what if it knew that I had disobeyed God and gotten myself guiltily pregnant, was hence repentant and now regretted the pregnancy, and it was born with a rejection complex, and would be horribly emotionally damaged its whole life? I’d heard that was possible and it would be all my damn fault! Now, not only have I disappointed God, but I’ve ruined my unborn child’s life.
Oh. My. God. I can’t believe how messed up I was. I’m sure pregnancy hormones played a role in the intensity of emotions, but I have a hunch about how I could have had such a misguided concept of God that goes deeper than that. I am using the word “misguided” purposely because it really seems like, in my childhood, I was slightly misguided by a bunch of unconsciously slightly misguided people. People who were kind and loving and basically good. People who took comfort in a substitutionary, penal and retributive atonement theory. People who seemed to even thrive and convert others into these beliefs. But I think this way of believing is just too much for my overly sensitive conscience (and being a 4 on the enneagram) to sustain any longer.
Here’s the deal. How I understand what happened at the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus affects the way I relate to God himself. So if my understanding of the passion of Christ involves a father/god who needs to pour out his anger on a scapegoat, and demands payment and punishment for sin before he can forgive us and accept us into his family – if I believe in an angry father/god who can’t forgive unconditionally, I’m left always worried about doing everything right.
I had believed in a god who demands strict obedience and severely punishes (or gently corrects) those who don’t obey. So when I thought he wanted me to go to Russia and smuggle Bibles to people who had none, and my pregnancy prevented this, I was distraught. I had inadvertently disobeyed his command, and surely he was not happy about this. We used to sing this song at my Baptist Church: Trust and Obey. It continues, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”. There it is. No. Other. Way. to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey. I was failing on both counts and now I was certainly not happy.
The foundation of my faith was based on a concept of God that was not accurate. At the root was fear and shame, guilt and condemnation. My whole life has been a struggle to undo that. I’ve had years of reprieve where I could lean into the love of God. But those pregnancy hormones in 1980 amplified my underlying understanding of God based on a punitive, retributive, substitutional Atonement Theory that caused fear of displeasing a two faced, temperamental god. A god who is merciful and punitive; full of mercy and full of wrath, unforgiving unless the requirements are met. But we are called by Jesus to forgive, period, without waiting for apologies, inflicting punishment, or demanding retribution. Why would he ask us to do what his father couldn’t or wouldn’t? Jesus would not ask that of us. But this is what I had believed; God, the Father, was not like Jesus, the Son.
This is the Atonement Theory I grew up believing; Jesus took my sin upon himself and endured the wrath of God. He bore the punishment, but only partially because it wasn’t eternal. God loves me and wants to forgive me, but he can’t unless punishment occurs. Jesus substituted for me and was used as a thing that God could release all that pent up wrath upon. Now God’s not mad at me anymore, I hope, because he got it all out on Jesus. God can forgive me now because Jesus died a cruel death that pleased his own father because God loves me apparently more than he loves his own son. (Adapted from Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God)
This is what I had believed most of my life because I didn’t know there was any other option! This was the deal that was made and I either excepted it or I became an atheist and I went to Hell. I have a hard time relating to this kind of god. A god that forgives with the condition that someone must be punished. A god that forgives with the condition that someone pays for the sin. A god whose forgiveness is conditional. How can his love be unconditional but not his forgiveness? Who is this petulant god? A god that cannot look at me because I sin, and then takes pleasure in punishing his own son.
I’ve been taught that Jesus’s arms are always open wide. That he always forgives once we become a Christian. I remember a bumper sticker that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”. Think about what that implies, besides the fact that “Christians” do weird and stupid things and then expect society to forgive them. Is it saying non-Christians aren’t forgiven? That God can’t forgive you unless you are a Christian? That forgiveness depends on “accepting Christ”? But isn’t God’s nature to forgive? Jesus, who is the exact representation of God, forgave those who were doing the worst – crucifying him! They weren’t Christians. They hadn’t accepted Christ. On the contrary, they had absolutely rejected him. Jesus forgave his crucifiers while they were killing him. They didn’t ask for forgiveness and they weren’t Christians. He forgave because he is merciful.
The dictionary’s definition of forgiveness is contrary to how the Evangelical Christian defines forgiveness. One of those definitions for forgiveness is “canceling a debt.” Canceling a debt does not mean making someone else pay for it, that is not canceling, it is still being paid. True forgiveness cancels the debt absolutely and completely.
When his disciples asked Jesus if seven times was the limit for how many times must we forgive someone, he told them to forgive seven times seventy. That’s four hundred and ninety times. The implication is; forgive every time. In our Evangelical churches we teach to forgive even if the offender is not sorry because we believe that is what Jesus taught. Why would God do any less than he asks us to do? God is love. Love keeps no record of wrongs/sins. Jesus is God in human form.
End of rant.
To conclude the story about my temporary pregnancy insanity in 1980; I managed to find a kind and wise friend to whom I poured out all my woes. She held me in her arms, lovingly set me on solid ground, and somehow my guilt was absolved. She convinced me of the truth that God is more loving and more forgiving than I felt he was. I was, after her gentle encouragement, happily pregnant and kind of relieved to not being possibly martyred in Russia.