As I mentioned before, I came to Christ in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church, just shy of my 17th birthday. The process actually began about 2 ½ years earlier when we started attending this church after growing up in a rather staid, lifeless Methodist church. My parents were Christians, but in terms of the church environment, a daily walk with God, really understanding the Bible and things of that nature weren’t emphasized. Truth be known, I don’t remember any kind of invitation to come to Christ. I went through confirmation classes or some sort but that was about it.
So when I encountered this new environment, I was at once intrigued and repelled. Intrigued because these folks spoke about a relationship with Jesus and prayed as if God were right there in the room with them and they were friends. Repelled because of some of the excesses…a lot of emotional and overwrought expressions of worship in church, use of a lot of “Christianese” that seemed bizarre to me at the time and really strict beliefs regarding sin. They seemed to have a lot more restrictions on what proper Christians could or couldn’t do. Some of the women didn’t wear makeup (though this was rare), some wouldn’t play any game that involved playing cards, drinking was a huge no-no as was listening to rock music (particularly “secular rock”), going to movies and the like. It was quite extensive. It wasn’t codified or anything where you could go read it, but it came out in discussions with the more serious believers. And at any moment, you could find out that something you thought was totally innocuous or even good was actually something bad. It changed from person to person so it was hard to nail down.
Then there were the implied or expressed marks of spirituality such as speaking in tongues, whooping, yelling and dancing in the aisles during the praise and worship music, how much you read your Bible each day, how many hours you prayed each day, how many people you “witnessed” to that week, the number of times Jesus was mentioned in the contemporary Christian music you liked, whether or not your were experiencing the “victorious Christian life”, whether you were at church on Sunday morning AND Sunday night, plus Tuesday night visitation, the Wednesday night service, the Friday night Bible Study or attended every night of the yearly “revival week.” Then there were the ones who were into Spiritual Warfare who seemed to see a demon lurking behind every problem, setback, hindrance, rock, bush, tree or corner. If you didn’t agree or see these things also, you weren’t “in tune with the Spirit” or lacked discernment.
Somewhere around age 20 or 21, I hit a wall. I held impossibly high standards and made people feel inferior when they didn’t keep them or didn’t deem certain things as important as I thought they should. But as rough as I was on others, I was just as bad toward myself if not worse. I was exhausted. I loved God and was trying so hard to please Him and live up to what I thought were His standards. But it was taking a toll because nothing I did was good enough. I could have prayed harder, worshiped more freely, sinned less, read my Bible more, been more disciplined and had purer motives. I needed to have more faith, believe in God’s promises better, have more joy, be an overcomer and expect more miracles. I was on a vicious treadmill and I was ready to give up on the Christian life altogether. The song “We All Need” from Bryan Duncan summarized my dilemma perfectly:
I was raised with the lessons and the victory speech,
And I fought for the standards that I could not reach,
And I hold my tongue when the pain is great,
And cover my tears as we celebrate,
While a private war rages with the fear and the doubt,
As I try to run faster to find a way out
I'm convinced if I stumble they'll just cast me aside,
Mock at my weakness and shatter my pride.
'Cause I've watched as we've stoned the more hesitant soul,
So, we all must remember,
It's still God's grace we all need to know.
I was beaten down by the expectations. I don’t mean to say there were never times of great joy, but there was always this underlying heaviness and doubt. I just wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. But mercifully, I had a breakthrough.
True to God’s relational nature and His desire for us to grow and learn with the help of others (rather than this lone ranger thing I was trying even in the midst of the crowd), it was a friend’s gentle challenge to me that saved me. I was arguing with her about something that I (and my denomination) regarded as sinful. After debating it for a while she issued me a challenge to take as long as I needed and to look up every verse I could find on the subject and if I could make my case from Scripture that this thing was indeed sinful, she would agree with me and stop doing it. I thought it would be easy. I poured over every passage. I worked in a Christian bookstore at the time and had access to tons of books and reference materials, multiple Bible translations and other study helps. I researched for weeks. In the end, I had to admit that the case against this thing wasn’t just weak, it was almost non-existent. I couldn’t make my case. I couldn’t even appeal to church history to support it beyond a scant few denominational strains within the last century or so. I was floored.
But beyond that, a light came on. What else had I been told that wasn’t discussed in Scripture? I became ravenous. I was reading the Bible more than at any time since I first became a believer. I was looking up this taboo and that no-no and finding that the vast majority of the things I was fretting about were either greatly exaggerated in their importance or hardly mentioned in Scripture at all. I read a really good book called The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll and a whole other picture of God began to emerge for me. God wasn’t standing over me, shaking His head and lecturing me on how disappointed He was. He loved me even in the immature, goofy, bound up mess I was in. He wasn’t standing aloof at the finish line mocking me when I fell and berating me to get up. He was running the race with me, guiding and teaching me. And he wasn’t nearly as concerned about some of these cultural taboos as I was.
Everything changed from that point. I became an absolute stickler for people being able to support a viewpoint from Scripture that took all of the Bible into account and wasn’t just built on man-made traditions or some unique interpretation of one or two verses isolated from the context in which it was written or the rest of the Bible. I had enough to worry about just trying to follow the things that God had revealed in Scripture without adding a whole host of other additions that ultimately repeated the errors of the Pharisees in creating a system of laws to earn God’s favor and prove one’s spiritual prowess (though to be fair, none of the proponents of these things would ever characterize them that way). It was so freeing. And while the pendulum probably swung too far toward Christian liberty in some cases, on the whole I found a renewed joy and enthusiasm for serving God. I was actually sharing my faith more and it came more naturally rather than being a task-oriented sort of thing. I took comfort in the idea that my sanctification wasn’t something that was instantaneous but that “he who began a good work in [me] would be faithful to complete it.” (Phil 1:6) and I’ve lived my life that way ever since. Confidence in my standing with God and His grace toward me while striving to know Him better has become my creed.
It’s this experience that provides the backdrop for my current dilemma. That will come in the next post.