Religion. Yes, we’re going to discuss religion. A taboo subject, for sure, but the taboo subjects are always the best. It’s also not really a discussion as this is a blog and I’m writing and you’re reading. However, you can always add your two cents in the comment section.
So, what is it with religion? Questions, man, just questions. I have many questions that may or may not deserve an answer and sometimes, they get stock answers heard for eons. I’ve heard them all, some that only raise more questions, but most that cause my eyes to roll. Some questions are big picture and some are small picture. But before I get into it, allow me to give you a snapshot of my background, first, to qualify some things I’m going to say.
Growing up, my mother drag my sister and me to church every Sunday in great, enthusiastic, guilt driven moments in time. We were faithful church sprinters, but never really marathon runners. My father, however, never liked to run. We ran through the major denominations like Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist. We even hit non-denominational churches, but it wasn’t until my high school years that I settled on a Pentecostal church. It’s where I met my future wife, made some great, life-long friends, and cut my teeth on evangelical theology.
After serving in the Navy, I attended a Bible college for a year until I realized it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to study. However, I continued my own personal studies. I was a faithful follower, attending church two times a week, partaking in group studies and independent studies, going on mission trips, and determined to make church a meaningful and real experience not only for my family, but also for everyone else. Then that real experience I was so determined to usher in began to punch holes into everything I believed.
The questions started small. They were always whys. I was playing, for lack of a better term, devil’s advocate, not only for those I was with, but for myself, as well. I truly just wanted to think through everything we hung our hopes on and understand without a doubt. It wasn’t enough not to doubt, because, well, we must believe with all our heart because the Bible says so. The Bible also says that even if we have the faith of a mustard seed, that’s enough to do great things. The problem was, I had spent years with mustard seed faith and mountain faith and the results were the same, and it was starting to gnaw at my spirit. But it wasn’t sudden. As I desperately watered the seed of faith, a seed of doubt was also planted and I remember the moment well.
In 2002, I took the Word of God and did precisely what it said and I tested it. In Malachi 3:9-11 it says:
You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.
“Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the LORD of hosts.
Now, any good evangelical theologian would tell you that this was God promising blessings from heaven if you were faithful in your tithes. For those that do not know, a tithe is ten percent of your income. In the days of Malachi, Hebrews paid their tithes in the form of food, a major source of income. This was how the temple priests ate. Otherwise, they would starve since all they did was pray and offer sacrifices, not really producing anything of worldly value. Using this Bible verse as a modern reference to tithing is popular in today’s church. Whether it’s sound theology may be argued by others much smarter than I am.
In any case, I had been faithful with my tithes, but started to feel as if I wasn’t being true to this word. The reason I was tithing, if I were to be honest, was that I received a tax benefit. Ten percent of my income and then some to a charitable organization did me well during tax season. So, in 2002, I decided I was going to depend on God alone. I paid my tithe in cash, anonymously, for the entire year. If I were to receive a blessing for my faithfulness, then it would be from God and not the government. Unfortunately, the result was less than desirable. I lost my job of eight years the following year and my house the year after that and eventually moved to Florida where my wife and I worked for minimum wage and lived with my parents while trying to raise two small children. I was despondent, to say the least. I thought it was a cruel joke, but I was determined to see it through. Then one Sunday while living in Florida, at the end of my emotional and mental rope, my wife and I sat in church, desperately pleading with God to help us. We were flat broke, with barely enough gas to get to and from church, and with zero prospects, but all the faith in the world, because the Bible says so. After church, we walked out to our quickly diminishing van with our two small children and I saw what looked like a wad of cash stuffed under the windshield wiper. My heart skipped a beat. Was this it? Was this the moment that would send us soaring on eagle’s wings? I nudged my wife and said, “Look.” Tears welled in our eyes. Then I pulled the cash out and a terrible wave of dread washed over me. It wasn’t cash. It was a Bible track made to look like cash, declaring the joy of God and salvation, stuck on a car in a church parking lot. I was sure I was going to jump off a tall building any day.
It wasn’t all rainy Sundays and doom and gloom. I don’t want to just paint a bleak picture during this time. I wrote a lot then, which produced a screenplay that I sold five years later and another that I optioned. It put me on the track to work as a fulltime writer. There were good times, as well, times where God was surely speaking directly to me through some mystical, natural moment. One such moment was during an intense time of prayer for help. A gust of wind blew and minutes later, I received a phone call offering me a job in Michigan. It was what I liked to call a “holy appointment.” Of course, I ignored the fact that I was talking with this company for months about coming back to Michigan to work on a project that we could try to make into a fulltime position. No, I needed to believe that God was on my side, he was looking out for me, paving the way, and that there was a plan to all the madness. So, I rejoiced and we moved back to Michigan. However, the seed was planted and it would grow.
The Apostle Paul drives me nuts. He is a man of constant contradictions: Moody and arrogant, loving and humble, righteous and strong, sinful and weak. He is also full of shit as much as he is full of wisdom. I love him and I hate him. We would have been good friends.
I began to look at the Bible as a whole, the grand scheme, if you will. I needed to break it down in its simplest form. To put it plainly: God created man, man sinned, passing the nature of sin onto mankind, making mankind in need of a savior; Christ was born, God in flesh, died for mankind in order to pay the price for mankind’s sin, thereby, allowing mankind to once again enter into fellowship with God. And the whole world says, amen.
Here’s the problem.
Mankind was condemned by way of Adam’s original sin. Mankind was saved from Adam’s original sin by way of Christ’s sacrifice. However, mankind did not consciously choose Adam’s sinful nature, instead it was passed on by each man, inherited from Adam, a blemish on the soul for all eternity and there was nothing that a man could do to save himself. He was doomed. Yet, Christ paid the price and man was saved… only if he confessed Christ. You see the problem? Mankind was doomed by way of proxy, but not saved by way of proxy without individual verbal confessions, i.e. consciously choosing salvation.
That’s enough to drive you insane and you will not receive a satisfying answer even from the most determined and devout theologian. What you will ultimately get is, “These are the mysteries of God,” or something like that. But where does Paul come into all this?
Paul piles it on in his writings. He wrote letters to churches all over the Mediterranean. Mainly he’s settling differences, addressing problems, and answering questions. He’s trying to create some sense of community that goes beyond each individual church. At the time, the Christian church was all over the map with regards to beliefs and traditions. Paul wanted to straighten the arrow. In the process, though, Paul himself was all over the map. It would take a few hundred years to straighten out.
At one point, Paul admonished a church by saying: It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall (Romans 14:21). In another letter, Paul wrote that women should be modest and dress appropriately (1 Timothy 2:9-10). One can only surmise that this was so women were not obstacles to the men. However, Paul was quick to remind the churches that they should not live in judgment (Romans 14); that they would ultimately bear their own load (Galatians 6); and that they were free in Christ (Galatians 5).
These are a few examples of why Paul drives my batty. At one point, he was putting the responsibility of another’s sin on those who he said were now free, but then said that they would ultimately bear their own load and have to answer to God for their choices. Which is it, Paul? Either we’re responsible for our decisions or not. But, as you see in the original sin vs. salvation example, that tone was established in the beginning.
These holes are what started to punch through everything for me.
Despite the wrestling within my spirit over these questions, I pressed on, praying daily, devoting my time and resources to God and his church. I spent time during prayer asking for guidance and wisdom, as well as needs, always hoping and believing that God heard me and would answer, as we are often told, in his time, because his timing is perfect. This is part of the catch-22s that litter the Bible and church culture that I started to notice.
The Bible is full of examples of God doing things in the spirit world, unseen by us in the physical world. It tells us to be patient and to stand strong even when it appears that God isn’t answering our prayers. It tells us to believe and not to doubt, for those that doubt are tossed about like the wind and sea. The Bible tells us that our reward is in heaven, a place that no one has ever seen, but we believe really exists because the Bible says so. It tells us that we are preparing for eternity and that our life here is temporary, but that what we do here determines our lives there. It tells as that it rains on the wicked and the righteous, that death comes to all, that believers will suffer as much as non-believers, but we know that Christ is with us and that makes the difference. Devout Christians will tell you that God will answer your prayers, but that the answer isn’t always yes, or that you may not see the answer in your time, but your children may see the fruit of your prayers. These catch-22s encourage the Christian to press on while in constant worry over whether they are doubting or truly believing, and at the same time, not providing any real comfort or confidence, but guilt and anguish.
I know that sounds harsh, but as a spirit filled individual once told me when I questioned where the signs and wonders were that God said would follow our testimonies, “You cannot argue with another man’s experience. If he says he experienced a miracle from God, who are you to say he did not?” Well, I’ll see your miracle and raise you a lifetime of silence from on high. That’s my experience.
Standing Eight Count
What does all this mean? The short answer is, I don’t know. Beware the one that says he does know without question. In boxing, when a fighter is knocked down, he gets a standing eight count before the fight continues. Religion, Christianity, spirituality, whatever you want to label it has a standing eight count right now. I have gone two years without saying a single prayer, not even a blessing on the food I eat. I decided two years ago that I would not pray. I had said all that I wanted to say. At some point, you just stop calling and leaving messages when you never get a call back. I was also curious as to how different my life would be if I didn’t pray. At the time of my decision, I was in dire straits, emotionally, financially and mentally. My thinking was, it couldn’t get any worse. And without getting into it, I was positive of it. The very moment that I decided I would no longer pray, I felt instant relief, as if someone had taken the world of my shoulders. And, brother, life has been good ever since. Yes, my life greatly improved. Imagine that.
I consider myself an intelligent man who is reasonable and open to discussion. I enjoy learning very much and look forward to each day where I can learn something new. I am also aware of my ignorance. Though this will come as a shock to my wife, there have been times in my life where I was wrong. I am fully aware that I may be completely wrong about all this. And I am willing and able to accept it. But, at this moment in my life, it will take a miracle from God.
I often hear, when discussing this topic and when I come to my conclusion, that God will give me an answer and that I may not like it, or that it often takes a tragic event to bring everything to light. This is a great catch-22 and one I accept with a smile. It says that if you dare question any of this, then God is going to get you, like a nun using a ruler to smack your knuckles and setting you straight. So, who in their right mind would question or doubt? However, why does it always have to be wrath? Can’t God also be civil about all this?
I also hear that everything happens for a reason. Well, this isn’t true. We apply a reason to everything to give it meaning. It’s difficult for us to accept that shit just happens. Another example of this is the tried but true “there is no such thing as a coincidence.” That’s not true, either. Life is full of them. Many point to near misses in tragic events as examples. If I didn’t get that flat tire, I would have been on that stretch of highway during that 15 car crash. If I wasn’t running late, it could have be me at that bank when it was robbed. Everything happens for a reason! No one ever says, if I hadn’t lost my keys, I wouldn’t have gotten that promotion. Or, if I wasn’t raped, I wouldn’t have had my precious baby. Everything happens for a reason! There is the one exception, though and it’s one of my favorites: I found money on the ground and God has blessed me, one person’s bad day making another person’s good day. Point is, there certainly are such things as coincidences. To use a Christian argument, just because you don’t believe it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I love it.
Post Script Script
I have not written this with any malice in my heart. That needed to be said. I know that it will read like that for many of you, but know that I’m just airing out the laundry, so to speak. I’m not trying to disqualify the faith or discourage believers. I don’t hate the church or God. The church, like any organization, is filled with wonderful people and some goobers, but it’s the good people that make it. As for God, he’s an acquaintance that I wish came around more often when I thought we were tight and hope that someday he’ll pop in for a visit to catch up on old times and possibly talk about the future. So, there is no malice, but I do think that we, as Paul said, should work out our faith. If you are not asking questions, then you’re just a zombie with his fingers crossed. Some of you may not feel comfortable talking about your doubts or questions in public. I understand. Some of you work hard to suppress your questions and doubts. I understand that, too. But at some point, you’ll have to address it. My hope is that you find your answers. We all deserve answers to life’s questions. The moment you stop searching for those answers, you’re already dead.