There was a time I doubted God’s goodness. The flames of my love for Christ had burned out. I still maintained a Christian worldview, as I was drilled at church and Bryan College. But after too many unanswered questions and masks worn to hide my doubts and frustrations, I drifted from Christ. All my spirituality had become a set of routine practices. Go to church. Read the Bible. Pray. It’s what I was supposed to do, so I kept up the façade because I knew I should.
But I really didn’t want to.
Eventually I didn’t go to church most Sundays. I usually worked late Saturday nights, and I made excuses on Sunday morning. I stopped reading my Bible. I filled my schedule with anything to avoid it. I prayed once before going to bed, and usually I fell asleep before I could finish it.
I. just. didn’t. care.
I could relate to Jonathan Merritt when he wrote, “My heart was hardened, clogged by the traditions of religion and the cardboard God I had created. As a result, church attendance became a feast on a stale cracker: dry and unfulfilling.”1
I was angry and stressed all the time. I felt alienated from God and the church. I had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. My eyes had been opened to what the church did not see. There was no going back to Eden.
But the Good Shepherd never stops pursuing His sheep.
God brought people and circumstances in my life that softened my heart. Over a couple months before I started this blog I could slowly feel my perspective changing. I stopped worrying that my life would be a failure and I took a risk. I wrote.
Gradually my faith reignited as I found purpose for my life.
“Is it possible that the God who created me is better than the God I’ve created?
Could it be that the true God—that Jesus—is better than I imagined?”2
I honestly hadn’t heard of Jonathan Merritt before March. Christianity Today released an incredible excerpt from his new book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined that went viral, flooding my Facebook and Twitter feeds. When I read “A Thread Called Grace,” I was so moved by Jonathan’s emphasis on grace after being sexually abused as a child and after being outed by a gay blogger. Jonathan revealed a powerful gift for storytelling, for redemptively narrating the trauma and shame he had experienced while pointing to the Savior who continued to restore shalom in his life.
Merritt spoke of a Savior who takes the broken pieces of our lives and recreates us into beautiful vessels of service for His kingdom. Vessels that are even more valuable and useful because of the suffering they’ve endured.
I pre-ordered Jonathan’s book as soon as I finished the excerpt.
Jesus is Better proclaims the truth that I need to hear at this point in my journey with Christ. The book begins with Jonathan’s longing for something more. His faith languishes from a narrow view of God’s character and how the Heavenly Father interacts with His children. Chapter by chapter, Jonathan points to ways Jesus became real and alive through various life lessons. He found Jesus in silence at a monastery, while being held by bandits at gunpoint while doing relief work in Haiti, amid losing a friend to a random disease, in being outed to the world, and yes, even in church with other imperfect saints.
I’ve spent years trying to make my old theology work. But it doesn’t fit anymore. And I don’t have to feel guilty because my perspective of God and scripture has changed. I still believe the essentials; I can affirm documents like the Apostle’s Creed. And all the questions and doubts can remain unanswered as I pursue an intimate relationship with Christ. The more I know who I am, the easier it is to be around the Christian subculture I grew up in. It deepens my appreciation of the diversity within the church body.
Looking back, it’s not too surprising that my faith burned out. I carried a heavy burden. I felt like I needed answers for every question. I thought I needed to become the perfect straight Christian. I had a Messiah complex around my gay and/or liberal friends.
You can rest in my provision, Seth, God’s Spirit whispered to my heart.
I fell in love with this quote from Jesus is Better:
“Jesus is better than I imagined because He shatters my strivings for sterility with a radical invitation to live free. Free from sinful patterns, but also free from moralism, free from legalism, and free from condemnation. Free to love the unlovable, to use your gifts to serve those in need, to share the great story of redemption through Christ with others. Jesus liberates me from the ball and chain of religion and releases me from a cold life of moralistic perfectionism. This kind of God is almost too incredible to accept, and yet there He stands nonetheless.3
Christianity sometimes doesn’t feel very liberating. I love that Merritt points out what God has both freed us from and what this liberty opens us up to. This is the gospel. This is good news. This kind of perspective allows love in and creates community and intimacy with our Heavenly Father and the people around us. This freedom sustains us, frees us from shame, and allows us to rest in our Savior amid all the injustices and suffering in our fallen world.
~ ~ ~
I was initially drawn to Jesus is Better after discovering that I could relate to Jonathan’s story as a sexual minority. But interestingly, he refrained from self-labeling himself by his sexual orientation.
“When people today ask me how I identify myself, I never quite know how to answer. It doesn’t feel authentic to label the whole of my being by feelings and attractions, and my experience has been that those parts of me tend to be somewhat fluid. One day I may feel more one way than another, and the next I feel a little differently. I am far more than my feelings, so I don’t answer that question. Not because I want to evade others but because I want to stay true to myself.
The essence of who I am is far more shaped, influenced, and guided by my spirituality than by my sexuality. I am wholly wrapped up in my pursuit of Christ and His amazing grace.”4
[And if you haven’t read the excerpt, you should go back and finish that last paragraph. I tear up every time.]
While I have chosen to identify a part of my experience as a gay man, I have so much respect for Jonathan’s choice to not self-label. Either way, we both have the responsibility to place Christ first in our hearts. My sexuality doesn’t dictate my spiritually, but rather my faith informs and channels my sexual orientation. I am so thankful for all the sexual minority voices that I have discovered over the last few years who take scripture seriously. They come to different conclusions, but they also have a unifying desire to glorify Christ in all facets of their lives.
~ ~ ~
I really needed to read this book. It was encouraging, insightful, and hopeful. I felt like something fell into place as I read Jonathan’s words.
I feel a desire to do something, to devour scripture, to pursue community in church, to keep writing even when it feels discouraging. I have a reignited faith that I appreciate so much more after all I’ve seen and learned and experienced. Jesus feels more real than ever.
And Jesus is better, far better, than I ever imagined.
Jonathan Merritt writes at http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/
- Jonathan Merritt, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined (New York: FaithWords, 2014), 11.
- Ibid, 14.
- Ibid, 144.
- Ibid, 96.
photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pasukaru76