I don’t remember a time when my parents didn’t take us to church of one kind or another. I distinctly recall when I was 11 years old and we started going to a non-denominational church in Newcastle. They were a charismatic community. They were “on fire for the Lord,” people raised their hands, spoke in tongues, and shouted a lot of “Yes, Jesus!” exclamations throughout the congregation. I thought it was a little weird at first. It was totally unlike anything I had ever experienced before. That soon became our church home and we were there nearly every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I even started volunteering in the children’s church because I loved working with kids.
Growing up in the Christian faith, I believed in God, quite frankly, because I always had. That’s the way I was raised. I’m thankful that my parents raised me in church. I was baptized, was involved with the youth group and never questioned anything I had learned. As I got older and started working, I went to church a lot less but I never stopped believing in God. I was raised in the Bible Belt, after all. I didn’t know anyone that didn’t believe in the same God I did.
In college at Oklahoma City University, I took a fantastic class called the History of Religion. We studied Christianity. But we also studied Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. You could definitely say that my naïve little bubble was cracked open when I realized that Christianity wasn’t the only religion in the world. Millions of people believe something else. As I studied the other religions, I heard similar parables such as the Prodigal Son that I had bean taught in church except these were from the Buddhist faith, not just Christian. I was surprised to learn that even though many of the details are different, many of the major religions have a lot in common.
As I grew older and made new friends from all walks of life, I learned that there are plenty of people in my world that don’t follow the same faith I did. I have friends who are Buddhist, Muslim, Deist, Wiccan, and Atheist. They are some really wonderful, moral, kind, loving people. When I started to explore the world I realized that there are millions of children who grew up, just like I did, being taught religious beliefs from their parents, fostering a deep faith and belief system for their life that isn’t Christianity. Does that mean that I have the responsibility to proclaim that everything they have been raised to believe is wrong and that they should believe the way I do? I am not comfortable with that. How would I feel if they did that to me? I have an unwavering belief that others have a right to their opinion and beliefs even if they are different than mine. I’m not going to push my beliefs on anyone to bring them over to the “right” side. To me, faith is a private decision. I’m happy to share mine if people ask but you won’t find me on any street corner screaming bible verses.
As I learned more about the great big world and gained information, I started to look at my Christian faith and examine the things I had been taught, beginning all the way back when I was coloring Noah’s Ark on construction paper in bible school. Do I really believe all of that stuff? Was it true or was it just some story that some old dudes concocted way back in the day to keep me in line? Was God really watching me or did they just tell me that so I’d try to be good when no humans were watching? Did I really have to be good all of my life in order to get into heaven or was that just some way to keep me from breaking the law? Do people really think that God cares about the outcome of a football game? Did God really create everything? If so, what is the purpose of mosquitoes?
Many of my brilliant friends have very strong opinions about all things religion. I know that many of you are reading this, virtual hand raised, saying “Oooooh, ooooh, me, me!” wanting to give me all of these answers. If so, put your hand down because you are about to miss my point. It doesn’t really matter which corresponding bible story paper I may have colored in children’s church. Sorry but it doesn’t even matter what you think, even if you have done years of research, watched every documentary ever made, and for your $25 donation have been sent a prayer cross blessed by Pat Robertson himself. It doesn’t matter which conspiracy theorist you believe. It makes no difference if you think everyone who believes in God is a foolish sheep, merely regurgitating messages that have been crammed down their throats with no capacity for independent thought.
When it comes to believing in God and practicing a religion, it is my decision alone. On the flip side, I also think that it is your decision alone to decide how you want to live, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact me. I won’t push my beliefs on you unless you ask me to share them. Don’t criticize or belittle what I think either, thank you. I’m no sheep. Sure, I could blindly follow God because that’s what I was told to do when I was little. But for me to really embrace something to the point that I use it as the compass for my life, deep down in my heart, I need to look at all of the evidence, examine all that I know, review everything that I think is true and make my own decision. I don’t want to follow God because someone told me to.
After all of my questions, I have come to the conclusion that I really do believe in God. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. I am still learning and growing as a thoughtful, inquisitive Christian. I left the charismatic style of church and was drawn to the Methodist church instead. I am not going to debate that many parts of the Bible are meant to be metaphors and aren’t meant to be taken literally. I’m not going to defend all of the people over the centuries that have been killed in the name of religion. The simple fact is that I am not personally responsible for the acts of every purported Christian over the history of the world just because I believe in God. I don’t have to defend the likelihood that Noah picked up the tails of every tiger, lion, and bear to make sure he had two of each kind before he loaded them in his ark. I don’t think that because I am divorced, I am going to hell. I also don’t think that my gay friends are condemned either. To be honest, I haven’t reconciled everything that humans have taught me about God, Christianity or even everything that is in the Bible. It will probably be a long time before I do.
The good news is that I don’t think I have to understand everything about the Bible in order to have a relationship with God. My relationship with God is between Him and me. Much of the time, humans just get it wrong. Sometimes they mean well and other times they use the Bible as a weapon to validate their own agenda. Many people have been hurt in the name of religion but I don’t think we have to shun it because of those misguided, fallible, people. Humans have free will and many times we make poor choices that lead to tragic circumstances. Sometimes, bad things just happen to good people but I don’t think God causes them to happen.
As I have gone through my inner quest to decide if I really did believe in God, I have watched other people in my life who I know are Christians. One man in particular, Ray, is a retired minister. I can count on one hand the number of discussions we have had about God. I even asked him once why he didn’t talk about it more because I knew he had a strong faith. He just answered that it’s a private thing to him. I know plenty of Christians who loudly talk about God, their faith, and post daily Bible verses on Facebook. That’s fine because it’s their choice and the way they want to live. However, the Christians that helped me confirm that I wanted to be one were the quieter ones like Ray. They are truly good people, have an inner serenity about them, and help others without proclaiming their good deeds. Instead of judging, they love others even if they don’t agree 100% with the life they may be living. Instead of telling everyone how to be a good Christian and chastising them when they are not, they quietly do it every day and lead by example.
Thank God, I don’t have to know everything. But, here are a few things I do know. It helps me immensely to believe that everything happens for a reason. It has given me great peace in turbulent times. When something doesn’t turn out the way I want, I stay strong because I believe there is a bigger plan for my life. It just takes a moment to look at the miracle of the systems of the human body, the balance of nature, or watch my children laugh to feel in my heart that there is something greater than myself out there. If my belief in God makes me strive to be a better person, do the right thing, and help others, how can there be anything wrong with that?
I hope that you will search your heart and find your own peace, whatever that means for you.
Note: Jennifer Wallis is our “Cents and Sensibility” author. She penned this essay and we’re running it today in our regular Simple Sabbath section to provide her perspective on her choices and beliefs. Dallas will return next week. Thanks. ~ The Editor