As a Christian there are certain things that I sometimes struggle to believe. There are things that I want to believe to be true and things that I'm told are true even though what seems to be the reality is contrary.
In late 2015 my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. We has just returned from a beach trip in August when she went to the doctor. I had recently decided to follow Jesus and was full of the initial excitement of 'my new found power'. Healing, in Jesus' name. Authority, in Jesus' name. Power over death, in Jesus' name.
I'm the type of person who is fully invested when I finally decide to commit to something. Especially with major decisions, I can tend to take my time because I want to make the best choice. After all, change is scary.
I decided to follow Jesus after many years of living agnostically dangling my feet over the ledge of the Christian poolside.
There was a lot of exposure to Christian culture during my formative years here in the bible-belt. It seemed like everyone was a Christian. It seemed like everyone read their bible, went to church and had a set of Church clothes to accompany their Sunday expectations. It all felt stuffy, based in performance and living the right way which often felt contrary to the way I [we all] want to live.
The thought of being a Christian made me feel subliminally obligated to a life of living mechanically and trying to convince others to do the same. There were always people proselytizing and trying to convince me that Jesus, God or whoever was real and that my life was going to suck if I didn't follow Christian beliefs. It honestly seemed like the way I felt, the desires I had, and how I was trying to learn and grow through the world around me was invalidated by the fact that the answer to the question I wasn't asking was Christianity.
As I transitioned into my 20s I found myself in a place where I had no idea what I believed but I was open to whatever was out there. I had discovered Amway and the methodology used by my team of applying Christian principles to business. I consumed books and seminars on dealing with people, overcoming anxieties, etc. For 10 years I fumbled through what it meant to love people motivated, and tainted, by my selfish desire for financial salvation. I followed the culture of 'claiming my authority' as a child of God alongside other nuances of prosperity gospel. [note: I'm not claiming they were teaching prosperity gospel rather it was my interpretation.]
I walked like a Christian. I believed like a Christian. But my heart was for myself and the actions were a means to a very specific end rooted in my own expectation.
So, what does this have to do with my mom?
As I mentioned earlier I had decided to follow Jesus months prior to discovering that my mom had breast cancer.
It was a really strange time for me. There was all of this stuff about Jesus that I had been learning - his character, how he feels about me, what our relationship actually looks like - and I was trying to understand how that related to the tangible world around me. I mean let's be real: the people, the stuff, the bills, sicknesses, jobs - it's all more believable than some invisible God that Christian belief tells us is real.
Contrary to all of that Jesus said, "I tell you, whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I am doing. He will do even greater things than these..." In my mind I thought to myself, "Ok cool. So if that's true then all I need to do is say 'cancer, in Jesus' name begone' with my eyes shut while laying hands on my mom. If that doesn't work maybe I need to worship a certain way to make it happen.
And that's exactly what I did. I prayed over my mom claiming healing, casting out demons, worshiping. I was fully invested and decided to not acknowledge the reality around me that she was sick. It's kinda like when you look at your bank account and see a negative balance but tell yourself, "Oh man, that can't be true. I know I had $30 in there yesterday."
Four months after her diagnosis my mom died in November, 2015.
Like, what??? That wasn't supposed to happen. I prayed the way the bible told me to. I went through all the right motions. The formula for her getting better was executed.
Really, what the hell?!
Magic and control
I think it's easy to feel entitled when we supposedly have a relationship with God.
A special pass, favor, authority... whatever you want to call it. It's a complex that accompanies the Christian faith as we endeavor to reconcile what's in front of us to what we think it looks like to follow Jesus. Often it's rooted in our expectation of how we think, believe or want things should turn out.
"Maybe if I say or do <whatever> in a specific way or at a specific time X will happen," followed by, "...that's not what I expected!" And then we begin to doubt the trinity and our identity as children of God. We desire control. Or rather, we desire the idea of security that comes with control. Then when something comes along and rattles that security we get shaken in our belief.
Children, during their discovery process, test boundaries in an effort to understand love, accountability, and responsibility. They learn patterns of belief based on trial and error reinforced by their parents (and sometimes lack thereof). Unfortunately, sometimes kids learn patterns of behavior where crying will elicit the response of receiving whatever they way. The child learns, "if I act a specific way I'll get what I want," even if their actions are unhealthy.
Later in life when that behavior is challenged there is often a rude awakening in terms of social acceptance and relationship dynamics.
The reason I'm bothering to make this connection is because over my life I've tried to control so many things: relationships, finances, health, etc. In my walk with Jesus I even tried to control death because I believed that I had the power to do so with my words and actions.
Greg Boyd, in his book Present Perfect, remarked that "simply believing something doesn't make it true." The belief that god is real doesn't make it true similar to believing that my bank account has $1m doesn't make it true.
I think it's easy to believe that living as a follower of Jesus is a series of transactions between you and God.
"With all sincerity, people often try to believe the right things to pray the right way. They try to attain a sufficient level of certainty about particular doctrines so that they can be sure that they are saved. Or they work to avoid the “deal-breaker” sins in order to get God to “save” them. But how is this significantly different from those who engage in magic by performing certain behaviors to get the spiritual realm to benefit them?
Faith is not primarily about getting our behaviors and our beliefs right—as if God is some kind of heavenly evaluator who is obsessive about whether your actions don’t cross any lines and you arrive at the right intellectual conclusions"
(Greg Boyd, https://reknew.org/2015/12/11939/)
In my early years this was the only picture of Jesus that I understood. But life with Jesus is a lot more organic than that. It's not a religion and it's not a series of codes we're expected to live by similar to how the Pharisees went about understanding God's character.
Control and relationship are mutually exclusive. You cannot be in a healthy relationship with Jesus if you try to control him [by expectaton] and if you believe that he tries to control you. Similarly healthy friendships and marriages cannot exist with control. You can't manufacture a healthy relationship simply by applying the formula you've learned by watching Disney movies and chick-flicks.
Relationships are more dynamic than that. They require surrender.
We all have a knack for trying to preserve what matters to us. This is especially true if we aren't confident in whatever relation to that thing we are.
When my mom died there was a period where I engaged God with questions that most Christians would think to themselves, "You can't say that to him!"
But why do we think that? Why do we think that God is afraid of our doubts, our tough questions, and how we feel? Why do we feel like we have to manufacture our process with God? Why do we believe that we can lose our salvation or position with God by being honest about what's on our hearts?
I had thoughts such as, "God, you suck for letting my mom die. Jesus, you're full of crap."
Luckily, God is a confident father. Regardless of how out of sorts I can be sometimes, he's always willing to listen and ask me questions. No amount of feeling, hatred, anger, doubt, time, circumstances, etc can or will knock him down. Additionally, and much like in the story of the prodigal son, no amount immaturity on our part will cause him to view us as anything but his beloved son/daughter. Our role is to simply be real and come to him with open hands being willing to ask, "Hey, can you show me why what I'm believing or feeling right now isn't true?"
And that's exactly what I did. Granted, I did so with a lot of frustration, anger, and foul language (lol). But the key is that I didn't try to control my relationship with God by walking on spiritual eggshells. I stepped toward him risking, in my mind, that he would give up on me.
But he didn't.
Living with open hands means allowing your beliefs to be tested against truth and being ok with whatever happens. The truth is static and doesn't need to be defended. Beliefs, however, do and it's a vain endeavor to build security around them. Doing so only serves to give more value to circumstances than relationships and hinders our ability to love people, God, and ourselves well.
According to Jesus, our role is to bring the kingdom. Miracles such as healing and whatever are just the residue of that. Our response should be, "Oh, that's cool" and acknowledge how God is loving us in the moment when things happen instead of, "God, if I say or do something in a specific way I expect a result to prove that you love me or that you are who you say you are!" Sometimes we even think, "Oh, I must not be in good standing with God because it didn't happen the way I expected."
But those are moment where we have to stop and be present in our relationship with Jesus asking the tough questions. Often times we're just not seeing what he's trying to show us.
We have to remember that the key to building any relationship is being present.
You don't have your relationship tomorrow because of what you did yesterday. Every relationship, every choice to love is a present, in-the-moment event. You can't schedule it and you don't get to go back to redo it.
Being a Christian, or more specifically following Jesus, is not something that's established through an altar call or conversion via proselytizing. It's a lifestyle of being honest right now. It's hanging out, working through stuff, doing life, and talking to Jesus about it in the process with no filter. It's allowing Jesus to be himself and it's about Jesus allowing you to be yourself.
Sometimes learning to be loved is more difficult than learning to love. When it comes to Jesus, we can sometimes expect him to respond the way we've experienced other relationships in the past.
But living a life following Jesus is about learning the truth about his character apart from our beliefs and risking our hearts to have faith that he loves us. The truth is that there's nothing you can do to improve or lose the grace God has for you tomorrow and there's nothing you've done in the past that's not already forgiven.
While receiving love from God also comes with conviction and accountability, it's 100% free with no hidden costs and comes with same-day delivery.
Jesus is in it [with you] for the long-haul and while there may be times where you fail to love him well, there is absolutely nothing you can do to cause him to give up on you regardless of what religion, people, culture, or churches influence you to believe.
Your belief doesn't make it true.
It's beyond your ability to change it, improve it, or screw it up.