Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Consequences of Fear

As a mother, it has been my great privilege to witness many of Sophie's "firsts": first steps, first words, the first time she saw the moon, her first time to recognize her own shadow.  But as she becomes more aware of the world around her, she has also begun to show some new fears, like fearing water on her face, or fear of the THX test sound before a movie, or fear of the noise made by our bathroom space heater.

Realistically, I know that the development of these fears are normal and necessary and healthy.  But it also makes me sad to see the little losses of her innocence, to see her realizing, in whatever small ways, that the world can be a scary place.  And watching this has made me examine the presence and effects of fear in my own life, and in the world around me.

How does fear affect your life?  Your community?  Our national consciousness?

The question that has occupied my mind the most, however, is this one: How does fear affect my faith?
And perhaps another: Is it possible to fully love someone of whom you are afraid?

I come from a conservative evangelical background, and that tradition has a particular view of the gospel. (Disclaimer: This post is not meant to disparage the conservative evangelical world; it has much value.  But my particular background, personality and ways of thinking do not fit well in that context, and so it was a good place for me to begin, but not a good place for me to remain.  I don't mean to insult anyone with this post; I am just trying to be as honest as I can.  Sometimes I am too blunt.)  The basics: God is perfect and sinless, and he is therefore angry at humanity because of sin.  God, being just, had to pour out his wrath on someone, so Jesus bore our punishment on the cross.  We can escape God's wrath (an eternity of suffering and torment in hell) by believing the correct things about Jesus' life, death and resurrection.  The point of the gospel, essentially, is to avoid hell and go to heaven when we die.

I did not spend my childhood in a religious home, but in my teens I was taken in by a wonderful, devout family who, out of their generosity, gave me a second chance at a "normal" life.  With them, I experienced true unconditional love and acceptance, but assimilation into the wider conservative evangelical culture was not easy for me.  I was active in our church and went to a conservative Christian college.  I adopted the attitudes and worldviews of the people around me.  I thought that being a Christian meant adapting my thoughts to the prevailing ideology of my religious subculture, so I learned to recite the appropriate responses to certain questions, but privately I had reservations about many issues.  Throughout college, I discovered that my political and social positions were often at odds with those of my conservative classmates.

I tried for years to make myself fit in, to change my mind to think in the prescribed patterns, but I never could.  Because of my tradition's emphasis on correct beliefs, I was left wondering whether I was really "saved," or if I was perhaps not a Christian at all.  I spent years paralyzed by fear of God, feeling that his basic posture toward me was one of disapproval, that I had to earn his approval by believing the correct things... and I couldn't, so I feared that I was bound for hell, no matter how I desired to please God.

I see those years now as a dark time, but not a waste of time.  I see them as years spent crossing a desert, dry and wearying, but necessary.  I found it difficult to participate within my church and with other Christians.  It was certainly lonely, and I was not only fearful of God's condemnation, but I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn't really even talk to anyone about what was going on in my mind.  I see now that I was being held prisoner by my self-imposed rigid lines of doctrine, as though they had built a cage around me and fenced me in.

Then somehow, wonderfully, it all fell apart.  I have now spent the last few years deconstructing the pieces of that cage, studying, exploring and conversing with others who have had similar experiences.  And I am not in a hurry to rebuild.  The life of faith, I have learned, is a long journey, not a singular experience.

My faith is now in Jesus, not in my belief about Jesus.
And now I see the importance of seeking him always, rather than being certain about... anything.

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