My more astute readers might have noticed that whereas I used to have to apologize for the sheer density of my posts on faith, I've only done two in the past month in a half. The first, early in the morning of December 1st, was a brief and rather enigmatic parable contrasting outward appearances to inner natures--the differences between the two and the masks we put on. The second, a few days later, unpacked the concept of justification as the undeserved imputation of God's perfect righteousness as explained by Tim Keller. And then--nothing, except politics, Christmas-related stuff, and games I've been playing.
The truth is that for the whole month of December 2011 (and two days into this year), I've been fighting for my faith with unanswered questions of need, meaning, and practice. I've gone through existential depression and deeply questioned God, the church, and myself. Having come out of the worst of that and more secure in my faith than ever before, I think I might finally be ready to bring my testimony to a workable state. It's far more introspective and philosophical than the previous drafts, which assures me that it's really mine. Dave, my discipler and great buddy from Milwaukee, once said that I'm more of an internal processor; it's how God has made me, and it's how He is drawing me to Himself. Here it goes.
I was raised by loving Christian parents who prayed with me often and brought me to church. Looking back on my childhood I can recognize some times when I really experienced God, but these had no lasting impact on me; I preferred to pursue books, video games, and increasingly in middle school, academic success. I was very secure in all of these things and never feared losing my ability to find endless contentment in them, so I felt I had little need for something deeper in my life. I don't miss those days because I had no idea how much more there was to life. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "We are far too easily pleased."
As I got older and relationships became increasingly important to me, I began seeking God as a means to success in them, to get the love and acceptance I wanted or for comfort when the unstable things I poured my life into failed me. Through all of this and into my sophomore year of college I somehow maintained the absurdity of believing in God as the "Lord of my life" but living self-centeredly and reducing Him to the role of assistant.
At a fall retreat with Cru (then Campus Crusade for Christ) I made the conscious decision to trust God to lead me rather than leading my own life selfishly, which had led to despair and disaster from pursuing the impossibility of perfecting my own life. Looking back, this was the start of the positive trajectory my life has been on since. I admitted to God that I couldn't run my life on my own. As I began living this decision out, in 2010 I went on a summer mission trip where I saw God use me to do amazing inner-city ministry and had some of the best community of my life with my "project friends", who became like a second family to me.
Starting on summer project and continuing through 2011, I wrote about seven or eight drafts of my testimony, but it always felt incomplete--as if God still had chapters of it left to write. Obviously it won't be completely done until the day I die, but it didn't seem to have the mark of transformation to it like the others I heard on project. This didn't worry me nearly as much as it should have. I continued optimistically in my growing faith, continuing to be taught and getting more involved with my church in 2011.
But as fall of my senior year of college went by, I seemed to be stagnating. Rather than boldly living out my faith as I was called to, I was increasingly focusing on not getting dragged back by distractions, reminiscing on how great the past was, and my increasingly intellectual posts on this blog. Until one night at my small group when God started wrecking my life. (As it was then)
It started when I realized the circularity of having the main "point" of living as a Christian be to introduce others to Jesus--the Great Commission (as I'd come to believe on one level or another from Cru). This made it seem like some kind of benign virus that spreads and spreads, but doesn't do anything. The truth was I'd been overly focused on the external results of Christianity--when I felt like I was having a successful ministry I had peace of mind, and when I wasn't doing as much, I felt bad, like I needed to shape up, pray more, have more faith. I was trusting God to help me live a "Christian" life, but that life, the result, was my ultimate goal, not what God Himself had to offer.
I felt a hollowness inside me, a disconnect between my inner man and my exterior lifestyle. I'd been meeting my fundamental, then-unidentified needs with the same kinds of things I had been years ago when I treated God as an assistant, and trusting Him with surface-level things related to living as a Christian (which would certainly be considered "good" things) because those were what I thought mattered to me. I hadn't made the internal connection between who I knew I was in Christ and how I lived. I realized how I lived was motivated a great deal by pressure I felt to "fit in" with my believer friends and a desire not to feel guilty for not producing the same kinds of ministry results they did--after all, couldn't I do anything through Him who gives me strength?
The next step, then, was figuring out what my deepest need actually was and how God fulfilled that instead of my "need" to live as a Christian (which was largely because of what I'd been told and had told myself for years). At the same time I was confused about what the ultimate "point" or goal of my faith was. I was tired of the overly simplistic, Sunday-school answers to these questions I'd been hearing and repeating for years--answers that sounded great in the abstract but were of no use to me in this crisis. I had never sincerely asked these questions of need and essential meaning before and they burned constantly on my soul. Next to finding true answers to these questions, nothing else seemed to matter. I spent my Christmas break in a mental fog as I wrestled with them.
After some reading and thinking, I concluded that my deepest need was for my life to have meaning, or significance--I needed to matter, as I think we all do. This meaning or significance couldn't come from some arbitrary material thing or process, for as Kierkegaard argued, what's to stop me from later picking something else as my source of life? No, I was sure it was nowhere to be found in the material universe, but had to come from an eternal source--by my relationship with God. Furthermore, it couldn't depend on anything I did; the prospect of failing to make my own life meaningful couldn't be an option, because it was inevitable that I would continue to fail. I'd admitted years ago that I couldn't run my life without God, but I now truly believed it, and it was initially very discouraging.
So I began to slide into an existential depression. Even with all my previous theological study, I struggled not to believe that my life was meaningless because all of my individual actions were meaningless because "only God matters". Lost in confusion, the truths that had used to seem so clear-cut to me were now a tangled haze of paradoxes. I remember for a few days facing the clear decision of whether to keep seeking God at all. I understood how many hardened atheists are made--by coming to this question and answering it in the negative. I was tempted to reject the doctrine and the teaching as ridiculous, incomprehensible, and start over.
Ironically, my avid studies of Christian apologetics from back before I was really even earnest about my faith helped save me. Denying the existence of God has never been an option for me, even in this time of extreme doubt. I knew, undeniably, that looking for the answers to my questions anywhere except in Christianity was a waste of time. For the first time in my life, I had actually, freely decided on my own to follow God, even when doing so seemed like a ridiculous prospect. (I had faced a similar decision on summer project, but the pressure imposed by the ministry and Christian community I was engrossed in cut my struggle short and I applied a sort of "band-aid" fix)
For a few days after that decision, nothing seemed to happen; the confusion continued. It didn't matter to me; I'd made my choice. Then, within minutes, I felt the haze lift and knew it was God responding just as I'd hoped He would. Suddenly it all made sense. The ultimate question of meaning was already answered by what God did, not by me. The gospel I'd studied and told to others so many times seemed to come alive. That despite all the times I pushed God aside and disobeyed Him, He somehow still loved me, died for me--that the sin that separated me from God was gone and I was somehow declared righteous--that I was adopted as His son--it was almost too good to believe. My nagging questions were silenced by the glory of the gospel.
That was almost two weeks ago; I'm still working out the ramifications of this glorious news on how I live. But I know this: a religion, worldview, or other belief system that says you matter because of what you do or how you live is a lie; either you delude yourself into thinking you are living up to its standards and become prideful, or you realize you can never measure up to its demands and fall into despair. My life is justified because of who I am in Christ, not by anything I do. I have to remind myself of why I am a Christian every day or else I quickly fall back into trying to "keep up" with the spiritual life of those around me and feeling guilty for not doing more.
The problem with focusing on results, or "fruits of the Spirit" in Christian-speak, is that next to God's standard of perfection, no amount is ever enough, and you will inevitably be discouraged or even crushed by your failure to measure up. The joy of the gospel is that God loves you in the midst of your imperfections, loves you enough to die for you, and will walk with you until your joy in Him is complete.