“When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy.” ―C. S. Lewis
When I was a child, I knew God.
I knew who he loved; I knew who he didn’t love. I knew who he was and who he wasn’t. There was nothing mysterious, nothing unknowable about God. I knew Him, and I knew what he expected of me, with a peculiar certainty.
And this certainty is what caused my faith to crumble.
I was the son of a pastor and was raised in a church that had a crush on religious absolutes: there was a long list of “don’t” and “no” at my church. My dad was a bit more open to discussing ideas and theological concepts, but I eventually took cues from my church family and fell in line with their lists. When I had a question about faith, God, or Jesus, a prompt answer was given and it was always correct. Sometimes, the answer didn’t sound right to me, or maybe it didn’t really answer my question. But it didn’t feel safe to do more asking and I thought perhaps I was wrong — perhaps I wasn’t good or holy enough to understand.
Of course, I didn’t wake up one day with God-shaped doubts. In what I’ve experienced and from what I’ve heard from others, doubts don’t set in all at once. Doubt began to creep in with little nagging questions, like the serpent to Eve in the garden: “Did God really say not to eat from this tree?” I began to feel different from my family, my church. And that differentness made me feel like I was alone.
I suppose that my story is not unusual, but as the son of a pastor, and as a person who knew and usually acted on what was right, I felt the pressure. No one expected doubts from me. No one asked about my faith or my doubts, so I didn’t tell.
I didn’t know who I could tell.
So I did what many people do: I ignored it. I figured that if I just matured more in my faith, if I just studied harder, if I knew more, then the answers to my questions would become clear. I would become good and holy enough to understand if I just worked harder.
I enrolled at the flagship university of my denomination and got to work. Obviously, my faith just needed to catch up with my work ethic. Surely I could help my faith along with some late night theology cram sessions and by learning multi-syllabic words like eschatology and hermeneutics.
I did well in school. What I lacked in faith, I made up for in knowing the right answers on the test. After graduating, I took the next logical step and became a pastor at a church in Miami, FL. Studying all the right courses at school hadn’t answered my questions, but surely some hands-on ministry would. I just needed experience. I found mentors along the way like Allan and others. I just needed an opportunity to prove to others and myself that, when properly applied, this Jesus stuff really works!
I got to work. I was enthusiastic, a team player. I worked hard to engage my audience and they were listening. You guys, I was so shiny and perfect. I could out-worship anybody — any day of the week, not just on the weekend church services. I had Jesus fairy dust sprinkled all over the words I used, the way I dressed, the way I smiled. I was a walking Jesus billboard, all-knowing and powerful. Like the church’s Wizard of Oz with an Instagram feed.
I wrote articles, I started a blog. People read and listened to what I had to say. I had earned my audience by saying all the things they expected a Jesus billboard would say: “He will bless you if you do everything right!” (And I gave follow-up sermons based on the three easy steps on how to do everything right.) But I wondered what would happen if I wrote and talked about the ideas I actually had simmering in my brain: would I be judged as a heretic, a liberal? What if I wrote that maybe there isn’t a magic formula to get God to do the things we want him to do? Or that my marriage was on the rocks? Or should I stay within the ranks in order to maintain my image and my audience?
Life as the Poster Boy Pastor went on like this for years and I was dying on the inside. I began to wonder if this is really what God desired for my life — for me to become cynical and perhaps a closet atheist?
When I couldn’t handle feeling like a fraud any longer, I walked away. I resigned.
But it wasn’t Jesus’ fault. It wasn’t his cross that I was bearing. It was a cross I had built for myself.
After leaving the church, pain, social anxiety, brokenness, and depression came to visit me and stayed awhile. I isolated myself from my faith community, my friends. And they didn’t follow me. They moved onto the next Poster Boy. They will always move on.
In psychology, the dark side of human nature is often described as the alter ego, the id, or the lower self. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the "shadow." By shadow, he meant the negative side of the personality, the sum total of all those unpleasant qualities that we would prefer to hide — let’s just called it our jerk side. It’s the part of us that feels justified cutting people off in traffic because our schedule is more important. I felt like all I was seeing in myself was my shadow — I couldn’t see anything good in myself. All the unfavorable parts of me felt on display for all to see. I felt like I was being seen, judged, and condemned by my audience and by God.
I had left the church because my soul needed to breathe. It needed fresh air. I was sinking.
I wondered if anyone was seeing my soul. I thought I would find that fresh air once I left, but I felt thousands of miles away from God. I felt my prayers were in vain and that nobody was listening. I had lost my audience and God didn’t seem to be listening either.
That’s the thing about suffering: the more we wallow in it, it the more it alters how we see reality. If left unchecked, suffering usually produces one of two outcomes: we see people and God as against us, and we see ourselves either as worthless scum (who totally had it coming), or we see ourselves as a martyr who fell victim to cruel people and a cruel God.
Henri Nouwen worked 20 years in Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame as a theologian and academic. Although his peers believed he was doing very well, Nouwen began to sense within himself a “deep inner threat.” He sensed something inside telling him that his success was putting his soul in danger. He sensed deep loneliness and darkness in himself and asked God for direction. God told him “go and live among the poor in spirit and they will heal you.” Nouwen befriended the founder of L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with intellectual disabilities, and eventually chose to move from the Ivy League into a community of people who had few or no words. Nouwen left his public, intellectual life for a small, hidden one and served as a pastor of L’Arche for the last ten years of his life. Yet it was there that Nouwen found the purpose he had been lacking.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It occurred to me that perhaps God wanted to heal me from the deep inner threat I sensed. Maybe God was offering an invitation — not to know more information about him, or his human genealogy, or the right exegesis of a Hebrew word — but him. His character, what is close to his heart.
But how? I had done everything right — I had followed the lists, studied the right things, I’d followed all the steps — and I was miserable because of it. I had tried to shut down my questions and doubts and depression; I had tried to ignore all those glimpses, those whispers in my ear, the ideas in my mind that sparked my curiosity. I shut them down because I thought that they were wrong. But what if God was trying to speak to me through these echoes?
Well, that changes things.
In The Message Bible, Jesus asks: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Go away with me and you will recover your life. I’ll show you how to take real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” —Matthew 11:28-30
Yes, that’s what my soul needs. I want that to be true of me.
I wish I could tell you that because I am so amazing/mature/brilliant/humble, this realization led me to experience an epic life change and my life got on the right track with seven easy steps. But instead, I’ll tell you the truth: I had to do some serious inner work. I had thirty years of learning what seemed to be all the wrong things about God. And now God was inviting me into a new journey, much different than the one I had been on. It sounds cliché, but I was no longer trying to know about him, but instead was being invited to know him. I wanted to learn how to be with him, be loved by him, and then be with and love others.
Then it finally happened, the light came in, like wild waves into the deepest corners of my soul and heart, no longer did I see my shadows but his love, no longer my fear and doubt but his beauty and wonder. I had surrendered to the cloud of his Spirit. The voice of heaven came in, inviting me to a new path, a new journey and a new framework in which to experience the hidden beauty of the Jesus my soul desperately needed.
Justice, compassion, beauty, joy, and love were the echoes I heard as I had this encounter.
Now my lips sang a new song, and walked a new walk. Now, finally, perhaps for the first time in my life I had seen and tasted that God was good, and once I saw I couldn’t un-see, and once I tasted I couldn’t un-taste.
When I was a child I thought I knew God.
Now, I am in God.
Sammy Reyes is an artist, storyteller, and a creative force that connects imagination and inspiration to create art and beauty. He’s best known for his integration of creativity and spirituality. Currently he is the co-founder and creative director of Innovative Minds, a Miami-based community of creatives, designers, poets, and film makers.
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