Guest Blog Post: How I Became a Christian Again, Part 1

Thanks again to my wonderful wife for telling more of her story!

I didn’t go to church for 14 months – not a single Sunday, not even Easter or Christmas Eve. I was living in South Korea at the time, so it was easy to let the barrier of a foreign language justify my perpetual absence. But the truth was that I liked the convenience of that excuse; it could not explain the fact that I  never read the Bible or earnestly prayed to God in those 14 months. I had stopped doing all those Christian things two years before I moved to Korea, when I graduated college.
If I had to pinpoint a single thing that sparked my path away from faith, it would be my grandpa’s sudden death at the end of my sophomore year of college. But to that tragic experience was quickly added my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, and a rich and challenging semester abroad. Upon my return to the idyllic, meticulously-landscaped, brick-building filled campus of my Christian college, I felt as if everything about me had changed, other than the shared faith of my roommates, classmates, and professors.
I had tough, complex questions about God and faith that I wanted to ask, to see if others shared my doubts. Had they faced similar challenges to their beliefs, could they relate with my spiritual pain? But I felt I never got real answers back. Instead, I quickly grew frustrated at the cliched, nicely packaged, quip-py Christian answers to the tough, complex questions I had about God and faith. A few years later, when I watched the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie, I found I identified with Harry. There is a scene where he returns to Hogwarts and is now able to see thestrals, magical creatures only visible to those who have witnessed death. Harry is surprised to see the thestrals, especially after learning that the creatures had always been a part of Hogwarts. He was also saddened to realize that his friends were blind to them because they have not seen death yet. I too had felt that same sense of isolation; that the ugliness of life was still unknown to many of my friends in college, and therefore they couldn’t grasp the damage it was doing to my faith.
And so I started to distance myself from other Christians. I stopped asking questions because I was never satisfied with the answers I received. I began noticing other things as well – how Christians treated each other in ways they were supposed to as Christians, not because they were motivated out of love. The safety of a Christian environment led to a complacency of faith. I wanted to slap my fellow students in the face and scream, “This isn’t real. Just because you believe in God does not mean everything is okay.” The charm of my Christian college and its inviting, warm, and holy Christian atmosphere was quickly disappearing, and the strength of my faith with it.
Despite my disillusionment with the Christians and the churches around me, I never stopped believing in God. I became somewhat proud of this development of my faith. Sure, there was a God, but He wasn’t active in my life and that was alright. This kind of faith was more rational and less emotional, and I liked it that way. Besides, it was the emotional people, the ones who would cry while singing in church or the ones who would gush about all the wonderful things God was doing in their lives that irritated me the most. Why did I never hear God calling to me? Why did God not answer my prayers? Clearly, God did call to other people and did answer the prayers of other people. It must be me, I concluded. Those people have a different kind of faith than me. That’s okay, I thought. I tried to have that kind of faith, but it just didn’t work out for me.
And so I lived with that faith – the bare bones, fully stripped down to almost nothing kind of faith – for over three years. I’ll be honest, for good chunks of that time, life was good. My world didn’t come crashing down on me when I stopped going to church. I didn’t start taking drugs or drinking all day when I stopped reading the Bible and praying. The non-Christians I worked with and became friends with after college were great people. I felt accepted by them in ways I hadn’t by my Christian peers. Even more importantly, these people acted real, without the pretense of “I should/should not do this just because I’m a Christian.”
Yet there were times when I’d find myself thinking about my Christian friends, especially the one’s whose faith I had once admired. How could they believe in God so strongly? Why couldn’t I? Was there something different about them or something special they did? And I would wonder about God and His involvement in my life and if He still personally cared about me or not. Because there had been times in my life when I had reveled in my intimacy with God and I had wanted to keep singing praises long past the last guitar chord had faded into the walls. Why were things so different now? Had I been playing a game with my faith way back then? Had I been fooled by God into naively believing in Him or had I fooled myself into believing that what I had experienced was really God?
But life wasn’t always perfect and occasionally during the more vexing moments, I would try to pray, but quickly halt in the confusion of whether God was listening or concerned about my desperate pleas. And I would debate whether I could ever have a strong faith again because, if my previous faith had been true, what did I do to lose it? And if I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, then how could I ever try to build a true and strong faith again?
See, I was confident of one thing – if I was going to turn back to God and faith, I needed to have a faith that would last the rest of my life. There was a tumultuous unsettling in my soul that knew my sliver of faith wasn’t sustainable, especially when I returned to the US. The decision was looming as I crossed off the days on my desktop calendar – either abandon all belief and faith in God or commit to a new faith, no matter what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future.
Looking back, it was probably a decision I should have prayed about. Instead as I packed my suitcases and cleaned my square box of an apartment, I listened to my gut. My gut was urging me towards God, one small step at a time, no matter how many steps or how slow my heart moved.

That’s Heresy!

This last week Rachel Held Evans hosted the “Rally to Restore Unity” blog-fest  on her blog. I encourage you take a look – it is refreshing to see the dialogue between Christians that think differently.

The last post she hosted/referenced was this one by Greg Boyd. In it Boyd makes a compelling argument that the command to love trumps all other commandments in the New Testament (Note he is not suggesting the command to love removes or replaces any of the other commands; it is paramount to them). Looking at the argument in reverse, any command that is followed without love is not being followed at all.

Greg makes a very bold statement in the midst of his writing: “We can have all the right doctrine in the world, but if we fail to love as  Christ loved us, we are all “heretics.”

Following this blog post a small debate ensued. Though I believe much of the debate was based off of misunderstanding (ie that  love alone is following Christ even if it ignores truth), that ugly word was thrown around and around: heresy.

Ah…that takes me back to my college experience…

After two years of leading coed Bible Studies for freshman students, I felt God calling me to take on the pastoral role of care-taking a group of small group leaders. They honestly were my pride and joy. Every week I enjoyed catching up on their lives, giving them resources, and praying for them. You get the picture, right? Pastoral, loving, friendly, challenging, and an experience that was drawing each of us towards Christ.

Midway through the year a deep schism began in our fellowship. Some of the people who were Bible Study leaders were asking if they could resign their positions – they no longer thought that it was acceptable for women to lead Bible Studies over men. They became aware of this new position via a man who was discipling them at a local church. I was torn – here were these leaders that I loved who each had small groups of their own, and they wanted to leave. Out of my love and concern for the freshmen, I asked the leaders to wait out the end of the quarter, and then leave our fellowship if they chose to. It wouldn’t be fair to stop that from happening.

Did I mention that the church I attended was the very same one this teaching was coming out of? And that half of my friends/teachers/pastors/mentors attended that church?

So the division didn’t stop at those small group leaders leaving. It went much further. Soon everyone was asking the question – what does the Bible have to say about the role of women in the church. I had only recently studied the “passages under question,” and after talking to people on both sides decided that, for me, it was not a foundational issue… or at least not enough to stop the growing ministry I was a part of.

After a few months our fellowship brought in a guest speaker to host a discussion. That is when the fangs came out. He was a very kind and loving pastor from a church outside of town who hosted the talk on campus. It was open for all to attend, and he would present both sides as well as his own opinion.

The event turned ugly fast… a small contingent of people in the room started hurtling accusations as he spoke. And I heard it: “HERESY!” My heart cracked at that very moment.

But it got worse for me. During a leadership meeting the guy that headed up our college fellowship called the guy discipling people at my church “evil,” and then used other colorful language to describe what was happening. I was truly torn: both of these sets of people had shown me Christ, had taught me right doctrine, had prayed with me and for me. Both of these sets of people claimed that they wanted to know Christ and to make Him known. But they disagreed to the point that I could be heretical depending on the side I chose.

One day I was with a couple of friends discussing a campus-wide gathering to unify the Christians. I broke down. My feeble faith couldn’t take the division. One of them verbally slapped me – “Derek, get a hold of yourself. The important question is which of them has shown the love of Christ.”

And I thought and prayed a lot. I realized that one side was trying to love and care for people by listening more than talking, giving freedom to choose instead of applying rules, and walking alongside the confused (like me) by presenting both sides instead of just one. I realized that the only doctrine that would take me away from Christ was that of division, of selfishness, and of pride. And so I was set free.

So, like Greg, I ask – what do you consider to be heresy? Perhaps we liberally use the word on issues that are not as important as the issue of loving God and loving others. And the consequences of creating division or rejecting those we disagree with are far worse than say, allowing a woman to teach in the church.