As I reviewed what I’d been doing to “follow Jesus”, I built meaningful friendships outside the very insular world that defined my youth. Many of these friends challenged my black and white beliefs about everything – life, God, the Bible, myself. In the past, I’d followed the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” philosophy. But thanks to my relationships with people both in and outside “Christian” settings, I began to realize I’d been given lenses through which I was taught to view God and the Bible and they focused my eyes on authority, fear and judgment rather than grace or hope.
I had been warned against becoming close friendships with “unbelievers” other than for the purpose of “witnessing”. But I was also taught that anyone who didn’t follow my particular brand of faith (for instance, Catholics, probably Methodists, other “liberal” sects of Protestantism) didn’t know the “true Jesus” but a false one. I thought everybody who really loved Jesus believed as I did and everyone else was lost. It’s painful to admit but it took years for me to realize that there are genuine followers of Jesus in the world who don’t ascribe to much of what I was indoctrinated to believe yet they passionately love Jesus and follow his teachings. I broke more than one friendship because of my arrogant, self-righteous view of other faith traditions.
The spiritual leaders in my young life had warned my friends and me if we built relationships with unbelievers (being “unequally yoked”), we’d naturally be tempted away from our faith into a life of depravity. I was told that people who didn’t believe in Jesus were selfish, lacked a moral code, and that if we became close friends, I would be tempted to follow their wild, evil ways. Maybe it’s because of my own personal determination to live a life that honored God and myself but I didn’t find this to be true of them or me.
As people outside my church circle had the grace to built genuine, respectful friendships with me, it became clear that the questions and challenges they expressed were not, as Christian leaders had taught me, just “excuses” for disobeying God’s authority in their lives. Instead, they resulted from the pain of personal experience, honest introspection. Not infrequently, they’d also resulted from interactions with judgmental church people who lacked a faith confident enough to field hard questions without feeling threatened or being argumentative.
In fact, many of the beliefs and assumptions my friends and colleagues contested in our discussions about God and faith deserved thoughtful responses I wouldn’t find in a book of “evidence” proving God’s existence or definitively answering ever question about faith. Contrary to what I’d been taught, these weren’t immoral, selfish people rebelliously thumbing their noses at God, though I’ve certainly met those folks too. Instead, many were disciplined, logical and compassionate thinkers who couldn’t reconcile the major disconnects between the love Jesus taught and lived and the anger, fear and hatred they’d experienced from many of the people who claimed to follow him.
I learned a lot from these friendships. First, my friends didn’t need me to match them point for point or play an intellectual game of theological chess. They needed someone to love them genuinely and faithfully, even if they never chose to follow Jesus. I wish I could say that I was always good at that but I still had a lot to learn about loving people well. Still do.
My new perspective of Jesus taught me a completely new kind of love and friendship. I shifted from hoping to put another notch in my “how many people I’ve led to Jesus” belt to learning to see and love people like Jesus did. He loved with hope, without shame, always pointing to who we were meant to be – beloved people made in God’s likeness, created to enjoy loving relationships with God and each other.
I began to realize that understanding God wasn’t going to be as simple as “looking to the Bible for answers”. When I read the Bible, I often felt dirty, nauseated, angry and powerless rather than loved or filled with hope and joy and peace at the grace found in those words. It wasn’t because the grace wasn’t there. The lenses I wore blocked it and were nearly impossible to see, let alone remove. Everything in my world was structured to require me to wear these lenses, the authority structure and social network of my Christian community enforced this specific perspective of God and the Bible.
But the questions in my heart would not go away or be silenced. If I wanted to hold on to my faith, I’d need to examine the words and life of Jesus and other parts of the Bible. So I worked to pull off those lenses and read with unshaded eyes. As the light poured out on my wide open eyes, two things became clear.
This Jesus I was meeting didn’t look much like the one I’d been following, and…
This “love focused” rather than the strict, authority driven, morality based view of him would be controversial in my Christian community.
I was about to find out how much.