Growing up in church, I learned that God was loving but also “just” (read: angry and violent). Answers to life’s persistent questions were easy to find, in the black and white pages of the Bible. But just as I reached adulthood, sure of what I knew about God, a series of somethings occurred blasted through my assumptions about life and God.
People I’d looked up to and trusted to help me define the truth about God were leading double lives.
They enforced a moral code on those they led, only to turn around and secretly break it. What was most paradigm shifting is that it didn’t just happen in one place. Core leaders in numerous circles in my life did this. It broke several relationships for me (not because I was angry but because of what it did in their own lives) and left me feeling alone and unsure of who I could trust anymore.
I knew people weren’t perfect but this happening in numerous places in my life at once caused me to examine my own assumptions based on what I’d been taught and to clearly define what I valued. Integrity rose to the top as a driving value in my life. I might not be right about everything but I wanted to be honest. And for the first time ever, I felt the freedom to push against the authoritarian teaching that had governed my life for so long.
It became clear to me that life isn’t the black and white version I’d been taught and had always wholeheartedly embraced.
Instead of feeling angry that the people I’d trusted had failed to meet their high standards, I took another look at what grace and mercy really meant. Seeing the kindness and patience Jesus showed to those who failed spectacularly by social and religious standards not only redefined what love and mercy should mean to me, it also opened my eyes to how much judgment I’d and others within my church placed not only on outsiders but especially on those inside our community.
Where was the “bearing one another’s burdens” we were supposed to practice? Instead, I saw anger, gossip, ostracizing, and hate. Surely this couldn’t be what Jesus meant by “they shall know you by your love”.
I began to believe there was something wrong in how we were living out God’s love based on Jesus’ life because these folks who had “failed” were desperately searching for something in their lives yet the rigidity of our “grace and forgiveness” faith community left them feeling like they couldn’t ask for help without facing judgment. The choice they made instead to find what they needed blew up in their faces and hurt a lot of people in the process.
What if they’d had the freedom to admit the pain inside them before it left their lives in ruins? What if this was a core quality of faith communities who follow Jesus – freedom, grace, hope? Commitment to love people even when (not if) they failed to meet our standards or expectations?
In this experience I learned – people are complex in their reactions to life, but simple in their need to be loved and valued and heard.
If they can’t find that love and sense of value among people who say they follow Jesus, something is wrong.
This was only the beginning of a journey that would change everything I thought I knew about God