As a child growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my parents were part of a religious group called the Worldwide Church of God (more affectionately known as WCG). I was too, by default. Our weekly gatherings were held on Saturday, which we believed was the real Sabbath according to the Jewish calendar. We didn’t eat pork or shellfish, as it was strictly forbidden in the book of Leviticus. We didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter because they had pagan origins. We didn’t celebrate birthdays or wear makeup (I’m still not sure why), we didn’t vote in elections because electing a president was tantamount to asking God for a King, as the Israelites did. If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you know that didn’t turn out so well for them. We also didn’t believe in going to doctors, getting vaccinated, or relying too heavily on modern medicine because God could heal us just fine, thank you very much.
The main principle I took away from it all was that following rules was the quickest and surest way to God’s heart. Whether those rules made sense or not wasn’t really the point. If you followed them faithfully and obeyed every little instruction, then you might narrowly escape being turned into a pillar of salt, as Lot’s wife had been when she made the fatal mistake of looking back longingly at her hometowns of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The consequences for not listening were severe in the Old Testament, and in my real life they seemed equally harrowing, especially at the school I attended when I was 6 and 7 years old. It was a private school owned and operated by the WCG, and in the 1980s, they were allowed to practice corporal punishment. All students were warned from the start that if they stepped out of line, they would be marched in front of the classroom and given a swift spanking. A few of my peers chose to test this theory by talking back or acting disruptive and their punishment was delivered, just as promised.
The first time I witnessed this spanking ritual, I looked downward to my desk, where it was safe, but then looked up just in time to see my classmate’s eyes fill with tears as he made his red-faced walk of shame back to his seat.
My heart filled with sadness in that moment, but also with fear. If it happened to him, it could happen to any of us, it seemed. I glanced around the room at my fellow seven-year-olds and sensed that none of us were safe. But if you do everything right, a little voice inside me said, then maybe you can prevent it.
Preventing getting spanked became an obsession of mine. I vowed every day that no matter what anyone else was up to, I would be the perfect one without fault. If they wanted to play with fire they could, but I was not about to let the public shaming happen to me.
As I grew older, this trend continued, even after my family moved to another part of the state and I went to a public school where corporal punishment was against the law. Even after the Worldwide Church of God fell apart and all the rules we had been following were deemed obsolete, there I was -- still nodding my head when I was supposed to and playing along.
Inside, I hated every minute of it. I longed to be my own person -- to scream my real thoughts from every rooftop -- but with each passing year, my confidence grew weaker while my desire to please everyone else grew stronger.
In college, I started attending a mainstream Christian churchafter one of my friends in the dorms invited me to go. The first thing I looked for was a guidebook to tell me how to behave in this new community. The rules were fewer, and many were implied rather than stated outright. As a quiet observer, I was quick to notice those I perceived as “uber” Christians -- the ones who seemed to be super holy and have a direct link to God. They sang the loudest during worship and raised their hands the highest. They led Bible study groups and prayed with fervor. They had countless stories of times God spoke to them directly, and they always seemed to be denying themselves something for God’s sake. They fasted, they gave up chocolate for lent, they stopped dating when they realized it had become “an idol” in their lives.
Looking back, I can see that if I had taken the time to get to know them, the mystique would have likely disappeared and I could have seen them as the flawed, beautiful people I’m betting they were. But from a distance, all I did was watch and wonder if I could ever be like them. Did I need to be? Is that what God wanted?
Without realizing it, I had transferred the rule book from my childhood -- the measuring stick that played such a prominent role -- and made it equally important in my new faith even though it never actually belonged there.
Week after week, I would sit in church and listen to pastors reading from the New Testament about Jesus’ love and dying on the cross. I would hear them speak with conviction about a God of love -- who accepted us as we were and gave us a gift we could never possibly earn. This God was freedom. This God was trustworthy. This God, was a God I didn’t know how to recognize. He didn’t look or sound at all like the God of my childhood. More than that, he seemed too good to be true.
That was it. That was the lie I couldn’t let go of for the longest time -- that Jesus, as Christianity presented him, was simply too good to be true. So, I clung to my old version of Him with a white knuckle grip because it was the only familiar thing I had to hold on to. It also gave me enough comfort and space to continue going to church even when I wasn’t quite sure I belonged there.
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I know some people come to Christ through big, sweeping moments, but for me it has been more of a gradual progression. My pathway to Jesus came in waves and tiny glimpses. It came through talking with other Christians, finding a community, hearing their stories, and reading honest accounts written by brave authors, like Brennan Manning and Lauren Winner, who wrestled with their faith, yet emerged from the battle feeling grounded, peaceful, victorious.
In my late twenties, I made a life-changing decision to move from Southern California to New York City and the moment my feet hit the sidewalk, those small, intermittent glimpses of God began to quicken at a pace that rivaled the rest of Manhattan.
I found a non-denominational Christian church filled with people and pastors who defied all the “rules” my conservative church in Orange County had emphasized so heavily. At the Orange County church, I had been advised never to drink in public because it might tempt other believers who struggled with alcohol problems. I was told that real Christians always voted Republican.
In New York, however, my new church was filled with card-carrying Democrats and church-sponsored wine and cheese nights. When we opened another parish in the Lower East Side, I was shocked when the pastors chose to celebrate by lighting a few stogies at their favorite cigar bar. Many of the sermons were hyper-intellectual and made me feel like I was back in grad school. Our pastor would quote Foucault and relate it to both a biblical passage and an episode of Sex and the City. He taught us to view the Eucharist as an act of rebellion against money, fame, power, and materialism -- everything New York City culture asked us to crave and value every day.
Every bit of it was empowering. It was beautiful, and for the first time in my life, I sat in church and felt like I could breathe. All the energy I had spent pretending and striving was now freed up and I used it to absorb every word, devour my Bible, and pray with new found abandon. When my pastor read Ephesians and challenged us to “marinate in the love of God,” I was eager to try and to learn what that meant. I asked God to help me understand, and was delighted to realize I actually trusted that He could.
What I’ve learned about Jesus is that he meets us exactly where we are at, even if that means moving at a glacial pace. Even if decades must go by before we finally understand he’s been there all along, not forcing or manipulating or coercing, just waiting like a gentleman for us to finally recognize that he loves us unconditionally and wants to be a part of our lives.
I used to think it was all too good to be true, and now I think God’s love is the only thing I can always rely on, even when I don't deserve it.
(This blog post is a part of author Sarah Bessey‘s synchroblog based around the prompt “I used to think ______, and now I think ______”. To continue the conversation and see what other bloggers are saying, click here. Or check out my review of her latest book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith.)