It’s the middle of the week at the National Youth Conference and I am so excited because my favorite speaker is up that night. He’s hysterical; a fantastic storyteller. I know that he’ll have us all rolling in the aisles and I am thrilled because frankly, some of the other speakers have been a little bit boring. But I know that tonight won’t be boring.
I settle into my seat with my youth group. The band leads us through some songs and then it’s time for the talk. And I am not disappointed. He launches into an hysterical story and I am loving it.
But then the talk turns. And I remember that this is part of it, too. Get you laughing so hard your sides are splitting and then go serious. I sit and I listen to the words I’ve heard a thousand times before:
You are sick and sinful. You are wrong. God is so perfect He can’t even look at you. He hates pretty much everything you do.
It all boils down to this: You are a terrible, awful, no good person. You cannot ever do anything right. You were born sick and wrong and sinful and only the blood of Jesus gives you any worth at all.
So you better believe in Jesus or God is going to torture you forever. And you know what? You deserve it.
What am I supposed to do with that? I let it sink into me. I let it eat away at me. I struggle and try to be better (while continuing to be taught that no matter how hard I try I will never be good enough). And I start to get more and more disenchanted with the church and with God and with Jesus.
I feel afraid all of the time. I am worried that God is going to strike me dead. Or cause me to suffer. Or punish me. I worry over the slightest infractions: I forgot to pray today, I didn’t read my Bible, I had a bad attitude about going to church. I still don’t do any of the “really bad” sins like drinking or drugs or whispers have sex, but I am still scared all of the time.
Let’s hit pause here:
If I were dating someone, someone I said that I loved, and I told them that I wanted to get married but only if they changed a massive giant list of things about themselves you would tell them to run away from me. If I followed up by saying that the only way I could really love them was if they changed those things because otherwise they were so disgusting that I couldn’t even look at them, you would say I was abusive. And you would be absolutely right.
And yet, this is what is preached in churches all over, every single Sunday.
These were the words that were pounded into me week after week, year after year. No wonder I (and so many other people who grew up in that environment) struggled with our self-esteem. No wonder we didn’t trust ourselves. No wonder we got into situations where people controlled us and where we didn’t know how to stand up for ourselves. No wonder we kept beating ourselves up over and over and over again. No wonder we were depressed. We suffered under years of toxic and abusive theology. That takes its toll.
It didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t happen over night, but one day I was finally able to say: I am not a terrible person. I am not broken or sick. I am not inherently awful.
Suddenly, when I was able to say that, my entire posture toward God shifted.
I wasn’t afraid anymore that God was going to smite me. I began to trust in the goodness of God; that God wanted what was best for me. That God wanted me to thrive and have that abundant life that Jesus promised. And not just in Heaven someday, but right here, right now.
I started to believe that the gifts that God had given me; the things that I loved to do, weren’t tests that I needed to reject but were instead things that I needed to embrace because doing them and doing them well and with joy made God smile.
I started to read my Bible and pray not simply to check things off of a list so God wouldn’t hate me, but instead I read my Bible and prayed because I wanted to know the heart of God better.
My faith became a joy once I was able to believe that God really, truly loved me.
Am I perfect? No. Do I have things that need to change in my life so that I am following in the way of Jesus better? Absolutely. I can always learn to love better, to be less afraid of scarcity, to give with generosity, to speak words of healing and life.
But I do those things because I know how deeply loved I am not because I am trying to get a bully God to stop hating me and wanting to kill me.
Say it with me now: I am not a terrible person. I am NOT a terrible person. I am not terrible.
See how that opens you up? How it frees you up? How you can respond in love and joy instead of cowering in fear?
This is abundant life. This is love. This is Gospel.